Counter religious extremism with religious compassion

by Marc Gopin
Washington, D.C. - Zainab Al-Suwaij, an Iraqi-American Muslim woman and the president of the American Islamic Congress, empowers the poor women of Iraq by helping them express their rights and needs, such as providing for their children’s education. She risks her life on every trip to Iraq.

Pastor Sam Doe, a survivor of the Liberian genocide, made a commitment in 1990 to God to work for healing and peace after watching children die – one right in his arms – of war and starvation. That religious transformation has impelled him to embrace all children, even ex-child soldiers, in Western Africa, when no one else wanted them. He embraced them as a spiritual father to counter the work of their warlord fathers who had drugged them and indoctrinated them into a pseudo-religious militancy and genocidal fervour. Today, Sam works with dozens of people in a network of peace groups in Western Africa that innovate new approaches to develop civil society.

The grand mufti of Syria, Sheikh Ahmad Hassoun, is unrivalled as a passionate orator of Islam, yet he uses his sermons to inspire a Muslim embrace of all fellow human beings, especially Christian neighbours in Syria. He’s a staunch defender of their rights and their spirituality. He also doles out as much help as he can find for the poor every week. He drives extremists in his country crazy, not because he vilifies them, but because he competes with them effectively for the attention and appreciation of the impoverished masses.

This is the tip of the iceberg of a dazzling variety of vibrantly religious people who are quietly changing the course of history, one person at a time. It’s time for Western institutions, traditionally oblivious to religious actors, to recognise these extraordinary people and learn how they draw on the best in their religious traditions to support a peaceful, global society.

This won’t be easy, because those who run our major international and national agencies are not accustomed to making such connections.

Trained at the best intellectual institutions of the world, most policymakers and bureaucrats are children of the Enlightenment, so religious revivalism is a shock to their worldview. They had no idea that religion could be so resilient and adaptable to the contemporary world. That’s why many of them are unprepared to confront religious extremists.

From Iraq to Western Europe to the United States, it is clear that religion is on the rise and tending toward extremism in many places. It is also clear that religious militants are among the most highly adaptable groups on the planet today.

They run circles around traditional religious schools, places of worship, and clerical organisations – be they conservative, moderate or liberal. Militants use the Web and other media meaningful to youth, and they know how to mobilise the anger of hundreds of millions of the powerless and poor.

They are excellent at providing immediate and appealing forms of assistance in ways that most states utterly fail to do. They often have little religious authority but acquire it by the sheer force of popular appeal in a world increasingly dominated – or tyrannised – by mass appeal. Increasingly, religious authority is being acquired by how well extremists service the poor or how well they express their anger at injustice.

If we who believe in tolerance and coexistence want to build a better and more peaceful civilisation then we should learn adaptability from militant religious activists. We need to understand their appeal to the poor and the alienated and beat them at their own game.

We need to know when militants are setting a trap for us, expecting us to behave in predictable ways. We must learn what annoys them and do it, and learn what pleases them and stop it. They are pleased when governments ignore the poor, or when the West engages in any activities that are perceived to be bigoted against Muslims.

This is difficult to combat because militants go out of their way to commit crimes in the name of their faith, making it hard not to respond by holding millions of their coreligionists in suspicion.

But it is also true that militants are furious when Western society is appealing, or when moderate, non-violent religious leaders or organisations take care of the needs of the poor. With hard work, it is possible for states and traditional religious leaders to give people what the militants give them – a sense of honour, self-respect, care in the midst of trouble, and hope.

Not all terrorists are poor, of course. But the poor are definitely their target audience as they seek to build a new world order. Becoming more appealing than militants is going to take an entirely new way of thinking for world leaders, for traditional religious leaders, and for those who guide the major international agencies of development and aid.

If religious revival is part of the illness of today’s extremism, the cure needs to appeal to the same thing – religious passion – but in a way that affirms the common bonds of social contracts in civil society. The best way to do this is by studying and supporting the extraordinary women and men who are doing just that. These peacemakers are relatively unknown to the world and sometimes to each other. The West must spread the good news of their accomplishments, and use its prodigious wealth to support these heroes of the global community.


* Marc Gopin is the James Laue professor of world religions, diplomacy and conflict resolution at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. This is the first of six articles in a series on religious revivalism and Muslim-Western relations commissioned by the Common Ground News Service (

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 12 September 2006,
Copyright permission is granted for republication.
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Searching for the roots of Islamic fundamentalism
Muslims are paramount allies in fighting “jihadism”
A perilous present and uncertain future
America’s youth and holy war
Religion as a common denominator
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Other articles in this series

Searching for the roots of Islamic fundamentalism by Nader Hashemi
Muslims are paramount allies in fighting “jihadism” by Abbas Barzegar
A perilous present and uncertain future by Amina Rasul-Bernardo
America’s youth and holy war by Kathryn Joyce
Religion as a common denominator by Faiz Khan