Overcoming Violent Fundamentalism

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 plus rage plus the folly of youth equals an incendiary mix.

The roots of anti-American hostilities in the Middle East run deep. We can start with the fact that what we consider our oil lies beneath their sands. Couple that with U.S. support of repressive regimes, the 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 the unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which continues to drive the deepest emotions of mutual frustration, fear, and retaliation throughout the Middle East and around the world.

Injustices and violence caused by the oil economy have sparked a reaction from dangerous religious fundamentalists in the Muslim world. Fundamentalism—in all our faith traditions—is volatile and hard to contain once it has been unleashed, and it is hard to reverse its essentially reactive and predictably downward cycle.

Three principles may help us navigate a path out of this mess. First, religious extremism will not be defeated by a primarily military response. Ample evidence proves that such a strategy often makes things worse. Religious and political zealots prefer military responses to the threats created by Islamic extremism. Ironically, this holds true on both sides of the conflict; the fundamentalist zealots also prefer the simplistic military approach because they are often able to use it effectively. Fundamentalists actually flourish and win the most new recruits amid overly aggressive military campaigns against them.

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