Preventing Violent Extremism

This webpage is a collaboration between Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) and the University of Sussex. It came about after the successful conference held by the FCO on “Preventing Violent Extremism by building inclusive and plural societies: How Freedom of Religion or Belief can help” in October 2016 in response to the participants’ demand to gather in one place the materials and information related to the conference.

Preventing Violent Extremism by building inclusive and plural societies: How FoRB can help

On 19-20 October 2016 the UK government hosted the conference ‘Preventing Violent Extremism by building inclusive and plural societies: How Freedom of Religion or Belief can help’ at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London. The event was inspired by the UN Secretary General’s Plan of Action to Prevent Violent Extremism. As the international community seeks to understand how best to combat violent extremism, this conference was designed to explore the idea that a key part of the answer is to build open, equitable, inclusive and plural societies in which fundamental rights are respected, including freedom of religion or belief (FoRB), freedom of expression and freedom of association.

It took as its starting point the idea that where people are free to follow their chosen religion or belief, to share it with others and to worship in the company of others, then extremist ideologies are seen in sharp relief as dangerous, anti-social counter-currents to the public good.  Conversely, where governments and societies promote or condone discrimination on the basis of religion or belief they create fertile ground which violent extremists can exploit.  This can include the development of deep-seated prejudice within society which sets individuals and groups against each other.

The conference brought together a wide range of individuals (expert and non-expert) from different spheres (government, parliamentarians, media, lawyers, business executives, NGOs) working either on freedom of religion or belief or on countering violent extremism to share best practice ideas and identify opportunities for working together in pursuit of solutions.  It aimed to inspire and equip participants with new ideas to extend and defend the right to freedom of religion or belief and to build resilience against extremism.

Action Points & Recommendations

For All

  • While both FoRB and CVE are valuable in their own right, look for networking opportunities to bring together FoRB and CVE activities, so as to avoid stove piping and to create synergies and mutually reinforcing lines of effort.
  • Consider funding research to test the extent to which countries with a high degree of religious freedom are more resilient against extremism, and to evidence the benefits of a religiously literate society and workforce;
  • Invest more resource in marking International Religious Freedom Day each year to give a big annual push to FoRB as an issue;
  • Support the International Panel of Parliamentarians on FoRB by suggesting additional parliamentarians to join the network;
  • Design and support projects that target youth – teaching about valuing others, regardless of their religion or belief and helping them develop the critical thinking skills to reject extremist ideologies.
  • Consider how to work with diaspora communities to effect change in their countries of origin.

For Governments

  • Ensure that monitoring the implementation by their national government of the UN Secretary-General’s Plan of Action to Prevent Violent Extremism is in the business plan of every National Human Rights Institution.
  • To combat extremism and support cultures of tolerance, support programmes (textbook revisions, curricula review, teacher training) to ensure that students are taught to value and respect those from other religious backgrounds.
  • Look for ways to support parliamentary engagement on FoRB issues, such as by facilitating the engagement of elected leaders in countries of concern, as well as by resourcing the setting up of a small secretariat to support the International Panel of Parliamentarians on FoRB;
  • Support, through grants and other mechanisms, capacity-building initiatives for government leaders and parliamentarians in developing countries on ways to advance FoRB and to network internationally;
  • Explore working more closely with faith leaders in projects to deliver societal change;
  • Support countries to ensure that the provisions of their constitutions on FoRB translate into the legal framework. Consider training for judges and prosecutors.
  • Support the capacity of civil society, build the capacity of justice systems and promote the protection of human rights defenders.
  • Support media training programmes to ensure that inflammatory reporting does not exacerbate tensions between communities.
  • Advocate for legal reform to promote equal citizenship, as well as encourage the removal of discriminatory laws and policies, such as blasphemy and apostasy laws, and the requirement to declare one’s religion on ID cards.
  • Encourage countries with problematic FoRB policies to welcome a visit by the UN Special Rapporteur on FoRB, or, if a member of the OSCE, seek technical assistance from OSCE/ODHIR and its Panel of Experts on FoRB;
  • Support programmes to build the capacity of local lawyers and assist them with case selection and practical support.
  • Ensure that programmes are suitably adapted for the society they target, and fully owned by local partners.
  • Promote greater religious literacy among your own government’s employees.


  • Continue work on the link between FoRB and security and look for opportunities of sharing this perspective more widely with others;

For members of the International Contact Group on FoRB

  • Governments continue to support the International Contact Group on FoRB by attending biannual meetings with appropriate officials from capital;
  • Governments consider joint trips to countries of concern, as well as coordinated demarches to highlight violations of FoRB and coordination at international meetings;
  • Continue to work to expand the Contact Group to include additional countries who fully support Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

For Civil Society

  • Support other faith groups, and advocate on their behalf in conjunction with other organisations, when they experience difficulties. If we speak for each other, we are more powerful.
  • Consider practical programmes to build trust between communities (eg joint community projects and sharing meals).
  • Ensure work on Preventing Violent Extremism is co-ordinated with others to reduce duplication of work.
  • Consider mentoring human rights defenders in countries where civil society is still developing.

For Parliamentarians

  • If vested with budgetary powers in their system, consider providing resources for the issuance of grants to NGOs for the advocacy of FoRB abroad;
  • Look for ways to engage problematic governments about FoRB violations through letters, parliamentary statements, and country visits – alone or with parliamentarians from other countries;
  • In this vein, consider how they can add authenticity to their voices in support of FoRB issues by travelling with NGOs to visit affected countries.

Key Quotes

Key Messages

  • Promoting the need to value everyone, regardless of their religion or belief, through education has to be a key priority. It is a huge target for extremists’ attacks because they recognise its importance. We must teach children critical thinking skills and the ability to challenge.
  • Religious leaders occupy a unique position in society that can be pivotal. They set the parameters of acceptable behaviour for many. If we try to effect societal change without involving them we are excluding a key catalyst for change.
  • The path to radicalisation is enormously varied, so context-specific responses are required.
  • We could do more to raise awareness of traditions of religious freedom (such as the Charter of Medina, Cylinder of Cyrus and Edict of Milan) to dispel the idea that freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) is a modern, Western, concept.
  • Thought should be given to how to advance a “religion-friendly” form of FoRB rather than seeing it as a purely secular human right.
  • We need to communicate FoRB in such a way that people do not see it as an attack on their beliefs.
  • It helps to find ways of reducing the temperature and volume of discussions about FoRB – for example through focusing on international legal norms, or talking about the issues from the perspective of “the rule of law”.
  • To get to the roots of intolerance we need to bring people to a place where there is dissonance/friction in order to prompt conceptual change.
  • We need to adopt a more preventative approach, like that followed by the UN’s Sub-Committee on the Prevention of Torture (SPT) to create space for dialogue around FoRB and build an ongoing relationship with the relevant authorities, rather than rely on one-off interventions around specific cases.
  • The international community could devote more attention to working on the action points in UN Resolution 16/18 (on combating religious intolerance), and on implementing the Rabat Plan of Action (on the intersection between FoRB and freedom of expression).
  • To be meaningful, interfaith dialogue must tackle difficult traditions and issues. It must also be based on a clear analysis of what change will be delivered as a result. To be effective, the process must begin long before the actual meetings. It should look to involve more than just the “usual suspects” and be action-oriented.
  • Religious education should teach about “the other” – about the beliefs of other religious traditions, but also about how to respond respectfully to followers of other religions or beliefs. This means not simply “tolerating” the other, but respecting, honouring and forgiving them.
  • Young people need to be start of the solution from the start, given ownership and involved throughout in a meaningful way.
  • National Action Plans on preventing violent extremism should include work on education and the concept of “the other” as set out above. Kenya’s experience demonstrated the value of ensuring National Action Plans are launched at Head of Government or Head of State level to ensure they are embraced by social, political and cultural spheres.
  • Faith-based NGOs can be more effective than purely secular NGOs in delivering aid in deeply religious societies as both aid provider and recipient have the language of faith in common.
  • Faith-based organisations should lobby for FoRB for all, ideally in conjunction with others. This will increase their impact as it will help to avoid them from being seen merely as a lobby group for their own particular interests.
  • Likewise, lobbying on individual cases of persecution, or for visits of the UN Special Rapporteur, is more effective if done by a group of countries. The international community should consider which countries are likely to have the most influence in a given situation.
  • We should make more use of the Universal Periodic Review system – ensuring that recommendations are as precise as possible and encouraging states to have discussions with civil society groups beforehand.
  • In lobbying for the abolition of blasphemy laws we should look for arguments in Islamic texts. Charges in individual cases should not be brought by the local police, who are often under pressure from certain elements in the local community, but by an arms-length body.