“The Assad regime made no effort to protect the al-Hasakeh province … [the Islamic State] launched a surprise attack … along the Khabor on February 23 … kidnapped 265 men, women, and children, sold 30 young women as sex slaves, and executed all captured Syriac defense forces … Upon securing control of …Tel Hormizd, [the Islamic State] informed [the elders] that all crosses must be removed … In fighting for control of Tel Tamr, they seized the Saint Circis Church and burned its Bibles and broke its cross …”
This chilling testimony, given in March of this year by Bassam Ishak of the Syriac National Council of Syria before the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission of the U.S. House of Representatives, provides a horrifying snapshot of persecuted Middle East religious minorities, including Christians. Violent religious extremist forces like the Islamic State have repeatedly assaulted these communities, some of which now face the threat of extinction. Too often, governments don’t protect religious minorities’ fundamental right to practice their faith without forfeiting their lives or their freedom; some governments even may fuel extremism through their repressive ways.
Given such testimony and the Islamic State’s depraved videos, the world sees clearly what is happening. It must act fully on that knowledge, considering the use of every potential tool on behalf of the persecuted. These tools include diplomatic, military, economic and humanitarian options.
But concerned countries also must undertake two core tasks: First they must accurately identify the malignant ideas behind the Islamic State’s evils, ideas that fuel the Islamic State by sustaining its adherents and attracting recruits and other supporters. Second, they must treat religious freedom as not just a victim of the Islamic State, but also as a vehicle that can help beat the Islamic State by defeating its ideas.
While the Islamic State and like-minded religious extremist groups look to the past to recover a supposed religious utopia or golden age, they are propelled by an inescapably modern and terrifying idea. Surfacing in the last century, it became known as totalitarianism.
Totalitarian leaders and movements seek complete control over the individual — from outward conduct to innermost conscience — by any means. They also exempt themselves from accountability to any law or custom, belief or institution, moral norm or precept.
For the better part of a century, totalitarianism has advanced by donning various costumes and hijacking key ideals and institutions.
In the 1930s and 1940s, it surfaced through Nazism or other forms of fascism, hijacking nationalism. After World War II, totalitarianism posed its greatest threat through various forms of Communism, hijacking people’s strivings for social justice.
By the close of the 20th century, it had claimed more than 100 million lives. Totalitarians also waged war against conscience, leaving behind a world in which most people, including Christians and other religious minorities in the Middle East, live in countries that do not protect freedom of religion or belief.
Today’s totalitarians often use religion as their vehicle. Displaying contempt for the rule of law and any distinction between combatants and non-combatants in the conduct of war, they commit mass torture and murder, as the Nazis and Communist groups often did.
As the Islamic State and like-minded groups embrace this totalitarian distortion of religious ideas, they must be countered and defeated by better ideas. But doing so requires a free and vibrant marketplace of ideas and beliefs. It requires strongly affirming the right of religious freedom and the efforts of its advocates to weave it into the fabric of their societies.
Is embedding religious freedom in any society ever easy? Of course not. It is hard work that requires societies to replace rule of man with rule of law.
But what is the alternative? Should we trust in strongmen to keep extremism in check? Ask Christians in Iraq or Syria who believed Saddam Hussein or Bashar Assad – both of them representing an earlier age of secular totalitarianism — would be there in full command.
It is obvious that without the Islamic State’s violence being diminished, there can be no marketplace of freedom. But without this marketplace, the Islamic State’s ideology can never truly be defeated. With it, people will have the opportunity to choose alternate beliefs and ideas, thus weakening the Islamic State at its root.
In other words, the long-term way to ensure the survival of Christians and other Middle East religious minority communities is not only to stop the Islamic State’s violence, but to dissuade people from joining it in the first place. Religious freedom can be an antidote to religious extremism.
Robert P. George is chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). Katrina Lantos Swett is a USCIRF commissioner.