Experts: U.S. Must Teach Religious Tolerance to Defeat Terrorism

Capitol Hill ( - America must instill ideals of religious freedom in the Middle East if it hopes to win the war against terrorism, according to a panel of policy experts, who testified Tuesday before the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

Paula Dobriansky, Under Secretary of State for Global Affairs, said terrorism "is at its core, a pure form of anti-religion," therefore the U.S. needs to make religious tolerance a major part of its current campaign in the Middle East.

"To protect freedom of religion and conscience, as well as the rule of law, is to create conditions which mitigate against terrorism," Dobriansky said. "Terrorism is a form of fanaticism born of hatred. It includes a willingness to view other human beings as objects to be destroyed.

"At its best, religion is, therefore, an antidote to fanaticism, not its cause," she said.

Dobriansky added that such a campaign could help the Bush administration offset criticism that America's war on terrorism is really a war on Islam.

"Ironically, religious freedom undermines the very religious extremism that some governments seek to squelch by forbidding religious freedom," she said. "By giving an outlet, governments are not the enemy of a faith but rather the protector of it."

Amy Hawthorne, a research fellow at the Washington Institution for Near East Policy, said the U.S. should not hesitate to promote democracy and civil liberties to leaders of countries like Afghanistan.

"The United States will need to shed its reluctance to engage local leaders on the highly sensitive issues of political reform, rule of law, and spread of democratic values," Hawthorne said. "The widening of religious freedom must be a cornerstone of this effort."

Michael Young, chairman of the commission, warned that if America does not preach these ideals, the effort is sure to fail.

"If we abandon our virtues to fight this battle, the terrorists already will have won," Young said. "The best way to assure the ultimate defeat of this evil is to continue to champion the good and not give that evil a foothold in our souls."

Tamara Sonn, a professor at the College of William and Mary, said political and humanitarian assistance are essential to combating the mistrust, poverty and social unrest in the Middle East which breed religious fanaticism, and ultimately terrorism.

"People suffering under sustained conditions of economic, social, and political marginalization become ready recruits for radicalization," Sonn said. "People in this condition, when offered rewards that will remove them from their humiliation and hopelessness, may be susceptible to manipulations by terrorist leaders."

Sonn said punishing the countries suspected of harboring terrorists will not be as productive as giving them humanitarian aid.

"Punitive efforts, such as economic sanctions and political pressure on countries like Pakistan and Afghanistan will only increase the sense of victimization that feeds sectarian hostilities-particularly if that pressure is applied selectively, rather than to all countries experiencing sectarian violence," Sonn said. "Rather than punitive measures, then, incentives will prove the most effective in combating both sectarian violence and terrorism.

"Political support and humanitarian aid will demonstrate the vacuity of the terrorists' claims that the West-Christians and Jews in particular-are determined to destroy Islam," she said.

Congress created the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom in 1998 to monitor religious freedom in other countries and advise the president, secretary of state, and Congress on the issue.