The most recent discussions of U.S. foreign policy and the Middle East, once again say more about politics during an election year, than they do about the fundamental issues we must confront if we want to see substantial change.
So let’s look at the basic issues and fundamental choices we need to make.
Today the Middle East — where about 60 percent of the population is under the age of 25 — is a region dominated by humiliation and anger.
Failure + rage + the folly of youth = an incendiary mix.
The roots of anti-American hostilities in the Middle East run deep (literally and figuratively). We can start with the fact that our oil (and its economy) lies beneath their sands. Couple that with U.S. support of repressive and backward regimes, the continual presence of foreign troops on their land and in their holy places, and the endless wars waged there, ultimately fueled by the geopolitics of energy.
Add to that incendiary cocktail the unresolved Israeli/Palestinian conflict, which continues to drive the deepest emotions of mutual frustration, fear, and retaliation throughout the Middle East and the rest of the world.
Injustices and violence caused by the oil economy have sparked a reaction from dangerous religious fundamentalists in the Islamic world. Fundamentalism — in all our faith traditions — is both volatile and hard to contain once it has been unleashed, and it becomes hard to reverse its essentially reactive and predictably downward cycle.
Here are three principles that may help us navigate a path out of this mess:
First, religious extremism will not be defeated by a primarily military response to it. Ample evidence proves such a strategy does not work and often makes things worse. Religious and political zealots prefer huge military responses to the threats created by Islamic extremism.
Ironically, this holds true on both sides of the conflict, because the fundamentalist zealots also prefer the simplistic military approach, because they are often able to use it effectively. The shock-and-awe strategy of military might simply has not worked. Fundamentalists actually flourish and win the most new recruits amidst overly aggressive military campaigns against them.
Second, religious extremism is best undermined from the inside, rather than smashed from the outside. The answer to bad religion is not secularism, as all the “new atheists” like to say; rather, it is better religion. And the best antidote to religious fundamentalism of all stripes is — in every case — the genuine faith tradition that is alive and well in most world religions.
For example, the best thing that moderate and progressive Christians can do in the struggle with fundamentalism in other faith traditions is to make powerful alliances with the moderate and progressive leaders in those other faith communities.The antidote to fundamentalist religion is prophetic religion, and a new alliance between prophetic religious leaders, across our many faith traditions, is the best way to defeat the threats of modern fundamentalism.
Third, while the use of force to protect security and bring perpetrators to justice is justifiable, defeating the mindset and motives of terrorism will come through much broader and more creative strategies. This third principle goes back to Paul’s strategy of feeding your enemies if they are hungry to “heap burning coals on their heads.” What the modern Muslim world most needs today is education (especially of its young women), the building of technology and infrastructure, and a principle focus on economic development.
It is precisely that kind of assistance the Middle East needs most from the West, not more weapons and money poured into the coffers of corrupt regimes. The West has not been on the side of democracy or development in the Middle East, and that fundamentally must change. Altering policies in the West will help alter destructive patterns in the Middle East.
But the change most needed in this volatile region must come from within — with the right kind of support from without.
Recently in Joplin, Mo., Sojourners worked with local interfaith communities to put up billboards that read “Love Your Muslim Neighbors” just blocks from where a mosque had been burned to the ground a few weeks earlier. Sojourners erected another billboard in Oak Creek, Wis., to support the Sikh community with the same message after the deadly shootings at its gurudwara in August. And a third sign went up in Murfreesboro, Tenn., to show our solidarity with our Muslim brothers and sisters there embroiled in an ongoing controversy about a local mosque.
This week, ugly anti-Islam ads — implying that Muslims are uncivilized "savages" — began appearing in New York City subways. Many people of good faith from across the nation are speaking out against the ads, which NYC transit officials labeled as hate speech and tried to block before a federal judge ruled the ads are protected by the U.S. Constitution.
Sojourners now plans to bring a message of love — a light in the darkness — to counter the hate by launching a new "Love Your Muslim Neighbor" ad campaign in the NYC subway system. If you'd like to be a part of spreading this message, you can pitch in by clicking HERE.
What we are finding is that such simple and positive peacemaking messages (especially in situations of religious conflict) strike deep and responsive chords in many people — religious and nonreligious alike.
Changing the policy. Changing the message. Both are essential if lasting change is to come to the Middle East.