By Abe Radkin*
NEW YORK, Sep 28 2018 (IPS) – With the rise of violent extremism worldwide has come the stereotyping of an entire religion. In many countries and across many borders, Muslims have been vilified for events they are just as outraged at.
Yet instead of working together to foster a common understanding and mutual respect, we have seen otherwise liberal countries shut their borders and suppress culture. At a time of extreme intolerance, it is increasingly important that we recognize the importance of working together toward shared global interests of peace and prosperity.
As an increasing number of Muslim-majority nations take a stand against extremism practiced in the name of their faith, people around the world are working across borders to promote cross-cultural understanding and tolerance.
At a time when so much of what we hear is about the ill in the world, we have a duty to celebrate the critical work that happens every day to ensure the “battle of ideas” in the global fight against extremism is not lost to those who preach violence rather than peace.
This is the work of the Global Hope Coalition, which shines a light on both the governments and the everyday heroes standing up to violence and intolerance in their countries and around the world—and those who are joining with them in the fight. At this year’s annual dinner they recognize those who have taken a stand against extremists invoking religion for the purposes of perpetrating terror.
Take for example Niger, a majority Muslim country, which is increasingly at the center of a vast struggle for power in Africa’s Sahel region. After the retreat of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, Niger has seen a massive uptick in extremist threats as the Sahel region has become an active theater for ISIS and jihadi terrorists.
Niger’s government under the leadership of President Mahamadou Issoufou has been an outspoken critic of violent extremism in the name of Islam and has advocated a tolerant and peaceful vision of the religion. The country has worked hard to build regional alliances against terrorist groups in the Sahel region.
At a time of great challenge, when many would retrench, Niger has worked to strengthen the rule of law and the country’s constitutional institutions, while respecting the separation of powers. Perhaps most heartening was the more than $23 billion from donor countries pledged to Niger at a two-day “Niger Renaissance Conference” in Paris in December 2017.
Niger is not alone.
Muslim-majority countries are standing up to extremists and proving the actions of a select few do not define an entire religion. But the global community’s response has been inadequate. Largely fueled by stereotypes created and driven by ISIS and al-Qaeda, Muslims have been demonized, attacked, and shut out of a number of otherwise tolerant nations.
Many global efforts to lift up anti-extremism efforts have been nebulously structured at best and ineffectual at worst. And crucially, some wealthier western countries have failed to be shining beacons of tolerance and prosperity whose principles they were founded upon and have instead hid behind thinly veiled xenophobia. All that while continuing to expect fealty from Muslim allies.
This cowardice is not the answer – in any part of the world. Instead of turning a blind eye to good faith efforts to stand up to common enemies, the global community must rally around them like they did for Niger in 2017.
That’s why governments and heads of state are only one piece of the equation. Equally important, but far less public, are the thousands upon thousands of individuals in towns and cities throughout the world working every day to stand up to extremism, fight intolerance, and work towards peace in their communities.
Just as the international community must rally around natural allies in this fight, so too must it uplift and encourage the everyday heroes and on-the-ground change makers – like, for instance, this year’s Global Hope Heroes Sherin Khankan and Omer Al-Turabi. Khankan, a female imam and daughter of a Syrian refugee, has led the creation of a women-led mosque in Copenhagen to promote a tolerant, peaceful Islam true to its original precepts.
Al-Turabi is a prominent Sudanese author and academic who has become a leading voice among younger generations in the Arab world seeking peace and a liberal future for their countries.
Both Khankan and Al-Turabi have faced tremendous obstacles to their efforts – yet both have been unwavering in their efforts to win the battle for hearts and minds. There are countless more like them, and that is why Global Hope’s work is so important. By providing resources and valuable organization and networking opportunities to heroes just like these, progress can – and will – take shape.
The UN General Assembly gives us an annual opportunity to reflect on what can be accomplished by thoughtful and meaningful multilateral action. This year, under existential threats to our way of life and a global order built on cooperation, the takeaway couldn’t be clearer: We must choose peace, and we must stand with those who fight for it.
*Abe Radkin is International Coordinator of the Global Hope Coalition