Ugochukwu Ezeh (Annenberg supported Oxford-Weidenfeld Scholar, BCL 2014-15 and Weidenfeld-Hoffmann Scholar, MPhil Law 2015016) attended the Ditchley Foundation Conference on Global Ambitions and Local Grievances: Understanding Political Islam which took place 19th to 21st March 2015.
Over 40 delegates delegates participated in the Conference, drawn from various countries ranging from Syria, Canada, and Egypt, to Nigeria, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan amongst others.
The Conference was divided into three working groups that discussed the terms of reference under the following broad thematic categories:
- The nature and origins of Islamic militancy
- The Islamic response to violent extremism
- The response of the non-Muslim World
REPORT ON THE WORKING GROUPS
Nature and Origins of Islamic Militancy
One of the working groups considered the connection between local grievances and violent extremism; the levels of support for extremist groups among aggrieved communities; and the issues arising from radical interpretations of religious doctrine. Participants also interrogated the perceived distinction between religion and politics in Islamic and other contexts, as well as the broader question of secularism and the role of religion in public life. Considering the global dimensions of the activities of militant religious movements, the question of the proper role of the State was extensively discussed. The radicalisation and indoctrination of impressionable youths was also an important topic of discussion.
Participants identified, inter alia, the collapse of state legitimacy as a major source of social grievances and violence in certain affected communities. This problem, it was reasoned, contributes to identity crises among the citizenry and fosters the emergence of extremist groups that advocate the enthronement of theocratic utopian government. Pluralistic interpretations of the tenets of religious faiths also entail the risk that perverted militant versions of religious doctrine may emerge. With respect to youths, it was suggested that political exclusion, the lack of socio-economic opportunities, the disconnection between conservative religious dogma and modernisation, inter alia, contribute to the problem of recruitment into extremist movements. Importantly, it was recognised that the open-texture of many religious texts render them susceptible to self-serving and perverse interpretations by militant movements.
The Islamic Response to Violent Extremism
Discussions in another working group aimed at identifying pertinent issues and formulating recommendations on the response of Muslim communities to violent extremism. It was suggested that religious groups should play a proactive role in delegitimizing and countering the violent extremist messages of militant groups especially on social media networks. In addition, the need to address socio-economic and political inequalities in aggrieved communities was recognised. Sustainable investments in education and development projects can also serve to promote a culture of tolerance, inter-faith dialogue, and peaceful coexistence. With respect to the role of the media and civil society, it was suggested that more efforts should be directed at empowering the youths and promoting positive role models that they can identify with. Importantly, institutional and regulatory measures should be taken to uncover the financing of extremist groups. It must be pointed out, however, that definitional questions did arise especially concerning the terminology “political Islam” and other allied terms.
The Response of the non-Muslim World
Participants recognised the transnational nature of the menace of extremist violence. As such, working groups discussed the need for collaboration in addressing and tackling the structural causes of this problem. In this regard, it was suggested that the international community should play a more prominent role in addressing corruption, ignorance, and inequality in aggrieved communities. Specifically, policymaking should be informed by a solid understanding of the structural causes of extremist violence. Furthermore, the media in multicultural societies should strive to achieve balanced and objective representations of religious and ethnic groups that fall outside the mainstream.
On the whole, the conference was a most enlightening and informative one. It was convened in timely fashion considering the recent upsurge in the militant activities of extremist movements such as ISIL and Boko Haram, inter alia. As such, the Ditchley Foundation deserves the highest commendation for convening a crucial conference on a matter of great contemporary concern, as well as for bringing together a rich array of experts, policy-makers, and analysts. There are good grounds for holding that the ideas shared and networks built at the conference will contribute significantly towards reinvigorating international collaboration against the menace of extremist violence.