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How faith can fight extremism

During a recent trip to Washington, Mohammed Abdul Karim Al-Issa, secretary-general of the Muslim World League, made an amazing statement to a group of US counter-extremism officials: “The answer lies in the true values of Islam, which call for coexistence, tolerance and peace.” This is absolutely true, but of all the major world religions. 
This statement in this context is a historic development that needs to be taken seriously and followed by all people who care about limiting extremism and fostering cooperation. At a time when global citizens are overwhelmed by daily news broadcasts, fake news, social media and information overload, important calls such as Al-Issa’s are overlooked, so we need to amplify his voice and message.
Political and cultural spheres are becoming increasingly fragmented locally, nationally and internationally, and discontent with moderate political parties is fostering a rise in extremism at home and abroad. So a crucial challenge is to combat extremism, violence and hatred committed in the name of religion, among other ideologies. 
The Institute for Cultural Diplomacy believes that all the major world religions can serve as a major bridge to foster cultural diplomacy. As soon as such interfaith dialogue is fostered in a sustained way, and as soon as we give youths access to a viable future, extremist organizations will become irrelevant.
A good example of religion serving as a bridge is Hajj, which every year brings together in Makkah, Saudi Arabia, millions of Muslims from around the world — and from different nations, cultures and political identities — in peace. This pilgrimage serves as a powerful reminder of Islam’s true values, and as only one example of its many peaceful traditions, and of how Saudi Arabia is successfully engaging in cultural diplomacy globally. 
The more aware and interconnected people of different cultures and identities are, the more difficult it will be for extremism to spread. So now is the time for a global series of research, advisory and governance initiatives to explore religion’s role and potential in cultural diplomacy. Such endeavors will search for ways to deepen understanding of what is meant by religion. 

There should be a greater focus on religion as a possible source of solutions to militancy and other global challenges, rather than as only a cause.

Mark C. Donfried

It is also necessary to generate new research on the role of religion in its various and complex dimensions in the 21st century’s global context. This will help eradicate the neglect and ambiguities that this subject has generated to date, and support innovative and collaborative approaches and policies for conflict prevention, management and transformation.
The exploration of religion’s role in cultural diplomacy is intended to foster deeper dialogue, understanding and trust between different cultures — often in conflict with one another — by exploring in specific nations the multifaceted and intricate global religious situations of the 21st century. As such, clarifying and interpreting religion’s function in diverse cultures, and overcoming its neglect and radical misunderstandings of it, are necessary and urgent. 
Since religion is both central and normative in human affairs, it drives the thought and behavior of people and governments in ways that are often subtle yet undeniably compelling and determinative. Religion, similar to economic and political forces, is frequently associated with social identity, ethnicity and nationality, and so can serve as a multiplier of both destructive and constructive actions and conduct. 
Religion must, therefore, be viewed as a key component for analyzing and comprehending cultures. Unless its presence and power are taken with utmost seriousness, the creation of constructive and sustainable relationships and policies that prevent misunderstandings and improve communication and cooperation — and thus help reduce sociocultural conflicts — will be gravely hindered.
In order to foster this deeper dialogue between cultures, a number of factors must be addressed: How one defines cultural diplomacy in this context; the various definitions of religion and secularization, and the impact of globalization; the necessity to distinguish between secularism as a statecraft doctrine and as an ideology; illustrating questions of definition by analyzing the religious situation in specific nation states; what is meant by religious freedom, and its relationship with violent religious extremism; and whether religious activists dismiss contemporary secular nationalism because it is fundamentally bereft of moral and transcendent values. 
There should be a greater focus today on religion as a possible source of solutions to extremism and other global challenges, rather than as only a cause of extremism. There is a need for more programs to foster cultural and religious exchanges. The more such programs are developed and promoted, the more difficult it will be for extremism to rise. 
It is the responsibility of global leaders to come together and stop extremism of all kinds by supporting and developing such programs. The underlying issue of inequality must be simultaneously addressed. As long as fundamental inequalities exist between peoples, it will be impossible to sustain global peace.
  • Mark C. Donfried is director general at the Institute for Cultural Diplomacy in Berlin.