Defeating Islamist Extremists in 2016

The spread of extremist terror is not confined to the atrocities committed by the Islamic State. For that reason, the international community needs a comprehensive strategy to defeat Islamist extremism – one in which force, diplomacy, and development work together to achieve a more stable world.

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LONDON – The canon of Islamist terrorist activities in 2015 has been long and grim. In any given month, people have been killed in the name of a pernicious ideology.

In January, an estimated 2,000 were massacred in Baga, Nigeria; a car bomb killed 38 in Sana’a, Yemen; and 60 were slaughtered while praying in a mosque in Shikarpur, Pakistan. In June, more than 300 were executed or maimed in attacks in the Diffa Region in Niger, in Kuwait City, and in Sousse, Tunisia. And in November, nearly 200 died at the hands of terrorists in Sarajevo, Beirut, and Paris. Then, as December began, there was the mass shooting in San Bernardino, California.

This spreading terror is not confined to the atrocities committed by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS); it is a global problem. For that reason, the international community needs a comprehensive strategy to defeat Islamist extremism – one in which force, diplomacy, and development work together to achieve a more stable world.

The most urgent pillar of this strategy is dismantling ISIS, which must be eliminated not just in Syria and Iraq, but also in Libya and everywhere else it operates. The debate about how to do it should not center on whether to put Western “boots on the ground.” All of us must do what is necessary to defeat a group that has seized territory in five countries and declared a new state ruled by fanatical ideologues. Because ISIS cannot be negotiated out of existence, a broad group of allies – with the right political strategy – must defeat it everywhere.

But victory over ISIS will be only a first, albeit essential, step to a just outcome in Syria, which means a settlement that allows the country to progress and fully respects its minorities – but without Bashar al-Assad remaining in power. Such a result will require leverage at the negotiating table, which is why helping our allies on the ground in Syria is crucial.

Moreover, ISIS is merely the most virulent manifestation of an extremism that has afflicted the world for decades. We must construct an international force able to fight extremists wherever – and whenever – they try to gain a foothold.

For Europe, in particular, this will involve a huge calculation. The security threat from ISIS is not at our door; it is within our home, and we have an overwhelming interest in eradicating it in the short and medium terms. In the longer term, we must recognize that the problem is the ideology of extremism itself. There are relatively few jihadists following ISIS and its ilk – but many more people buy into parts of their worldview.

Islam, as practiced and understood by the great majority of believers, is a peaceful and honorable faith. It has contributed greatly to human existence and progress. But we cannot keep denying the nature of the problem we face. In many Muslim countries, large numbers of people believe that the CIA or the Jews were behind the terror attacks of September 11, 2001. Meanwhile, Muslim clerics with millions of Twitter followers around the world proclaim that non-believers and apostates must be killed, or they call for jihad against Jews.

The Centre on Religion and Geo-Politics at my foundation tracks this extremism every day, and its research makes for fascinating, if alarming, reading. It shows clearly that uprooting this ideology will require digging deep.

To this end, I have advocated an internationally agreed “Global Commitment on Education”: each and every country has a responsibility to promote cultural and religious tolerance and to eradicate cultural and religious prejudice within its education system.

We must also support those who confront extremist doctrine. Many brave and serious theologians – like those from Cairo’s al-Azhar mosque or Mauritania’s Sheikh Abdullah bin Bayyah – are showing how the true teaching of Islam leads to reconciliation with the modern world.

This alliance with Muslim leaders who are prepared to lead the fight against the perversion of their faith is crucial. We sometimes regard the Middle East as a mess to avoid. But – as if we needed another reminder – the November 13 carnage in Paris showed the futility of a hands-off approach.

Instead, we should think of the Middle East and Islam as being in a process of transition: the Middle East toward rule-based and religiously tolerant societies, and Islam toward its rightful place as a faith of progress and humanity. Seen in this way, this is not a mess to avoid, but a life-and-death struggle in which our own fundamental interests are at stake.

Accordingly, we should promote those working for an open-minded future for the Middle East and Islam. The Gulf States, Egypt, and Jordan are our allies: where they face the challenges of modernization, we should stand ready to help.

Finally, we must recognize in the coming year the crucial importance of resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict. This is not only important in its own right; it would also contribute to good international and interfaith relations – and powerfully reassert the principle of peaceful coexistence on which the international order rests.

We need to forge a foreign policy that embodies the lessons of the period from 9/11 to today. Such a policy would recognize the need for active engagement – refined, rather than incapacitated, by our experience.

The fight against extremism will require force. But it will require education, too, so that our citizens and those coming to our countries understand why our values matter and why we will defend them. And it will require cooperation – not least in the messy business of real-world diplomacy.

But it is a fight that we will win. Islamist fanatics who want to end our civilization are corrupting their religion. They will succeed at neither. The overwhelming majority of people around the world wish to coexist. With their support and determination, the spirit of peace – above ideology, politics, or religion – will prevail.