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(Photo credit: Patrick McMullan)
Globalization will be the greatest force for good in the 21st century, but it will also create the century’s greatest challenges. People are pushed together as never before and the close juxtaposition of faiths can create tensions. Provocative events half way around the world are instantaneously refracted by a proliferation of media channels, on and offline.
To change the world you first need to understand it –and then act.
Recently, Tony Blair, the founder of the charity I head, wrote an article in a British newspaper which said “there is not a problem with Islam, but there is a problem within it.” Welcomed by some, disputed by others, he was characteristically clear in his view that when the perpetrators cloak their crimes in such language it is ludicrous to say that these terrorist attacks are nothing to do with religion. It is a perversion of religion, of course without legitimacy or majority support. But we can’t shrug it off as irrelevant or isolated.
In the past, Muslim leaders have fairly or not –faced calls to be swifter or louder or more categorical in their renunciation of those who commit these crimes in the name of jihad. No such charge could be made after the murder of Drummer Lee Rigby. The immediate whole-hearted and categorical response of Muslim leaders and local community members was to stand together and condemn this abhorrent act. This spoke of a Britain increasingly resilient.
But the fact that so many perpetrators continue to cloak their criminality in the language of religion does create very real problems for all of us Muslim and non-Muslim alike.
More Muslims than people of any other religion are killed by terrorists acting in the name of Islam. Great harm is done by us failing to understand and confront the distorted and despicable few who claim religious justification for their acts.
And the problem is magnified because religious extremism has other negative consequences. It feeds a sense of grievance, of “them and us,” and makes it so much harder for young Muslims the world over to relate to their non-Muslim peers in their own, and in other, countries.
This is as much true of those who define themselves by their opposition to a religion, which can have dire results as we have seen in recent days in the UK, with “revenge” attacks on a mosque and other harmful actions.
In such an environment, we need three responses: firstly to understand the scale and nature of the manipulation and its true purpose. Secondly, we need to build resilience amongst all communities so that people feel united and confident in rejecting it. Thirdly, we must develop positive alternatives, so that people of different faiths and cultures can experience deep connections and true collaborations.
Equally we need to think about different and growing populations around the world. As Tony Blair remarked last week, the median age in the Middle East is in the mid-20s. In Nigeria, it is 19. In Gaza, where Hamas holds power, a quarter of the population is under five.
So a genuine and open process of learning about the other, of education and exposure to the unfamiliar, can undercut that superficially appealing extremist line.
The Foundation’s schools program, active in more than 20 countries and connecting more than 30,000 students worldwide, is designed to be an inoculation for young people against the possibilities of future extremist influence, building their resilience and critical thinking. This is a powerful approach to learning that makes accessible the unfamiliar, serving as a substitute for an experience a student may never have and offering vital negotiation and resolution skills. We equip the next generation to be genuine global citizens, whilst remaining true to their national identity.
That’s why we have set a target of connecting 1,000 schools in the U.S. to 1,000 schools in Muslim-majority countries and beyond we will expose our young people to their peers, so that they can discuss the big global issues of our day, and seek out their common humanity as well as respect, not fear, their differences.
So I’m optimistic that we can help address the problems that Tony Blair has identified, but the task is huge. Religious extremists are small in number, well organised, highly motivated, well funded, and they have devastating and dramatic impact. By contrast, those of the majority on the other side are not organised, funded or impactful in the same way.
We need to be. It is this, which in the end, will be our most effective counter extremism policy a goal worth striving for.
Charlotte Keenan is Chief Executive of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation.