Extremist ideology imperils all

United States President Barack Obama put the White House's Summit on Countering Violent Extremism on the right track by bringing into focus the central issue of these times: the preservation of religious freedom, national security and personal dignity for all. Extremists, draped in the stolen robes of faith, debase all of these aspirations.

Given the multi-faceted nature of the challenge, world leaders must look beyond just military action and jointly go on the ideological offensive against such extremists - in particular, fighters and supporters of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. In urging the world to not grant such terrorists the religious legitimacy that they seek, Mr Obama said it should be made clear that this is not a civilisational struggle but a "war with people who have perverted Islam". The task facing all is to challenge the religious discourse through which ISIS, Al-Qaeda and other malevolent groups seek to rationalise their acts.

Important as Mr Obama's words are for those living in the West, which terrorist networks attack periodically using home-grown insurgents, the message is even more crucial to Muslim societies where the destruction of everyday life is far more extensive and intensive. Nations that are neither Western nor Muslim but lie at the intersection of the two, such as Singapore, would benefit as well from the way in which Mr Obama embraced religion as an undeniable fact of life while denying terrorism its claim to be a legitimate fact of death.

However, American declarations will go only so far without a concurrent global consensus that ISIS represents a clear and present threat to all. Arab states, in particular, are on the front lines of a historical conflict in which dithering will lead to eventual ruin. The Sunni Muslim credentials of ISIS, and the fact that it attracts adherents marginalised by Shi'ite political intransigence in Iraq, for example, does not detract from its fundamentally insurrectionary character, which is directed against the prevailing order everywhere, even in Sunni Arab states.

Indeed, the success with which ISIS is expanding its destructive footprint should alert countries in South-east Asia, too. They are well within the ambit of the revived global caliphate that ISIS is determined to set up. Once, the international spread of communism concentrated minds on the need to fight back the advance. Now, it is ISIS that is launching an assault on the way of life of the modern world.

Countering extremism is an effort that will call for not just enlightened theology. The young, in particular, need to be also enthused by the promise of economic participation, political openness, social inclusiveness and enduring humanity.