Sheikh Abdallah, an old man wearing robes and a turban, spoke entirely in Arabic - but there were a few laughs when he caught his translator saying something wrong and corrected him! He made two main points. The first was that religious extremism is rooted in an ignorance of what religion truly is and a misconception about what religious texts teach. People need to be better educated in their religion so that they will not be led astray by extremist philosophies that do not reflect the true nature of religion. There is an African parable about a monkey who became sick from eating the fruit of a baobab tree. But the cure was to eat more of the same fruit! The Sheikh says that the case of religious extremism is similar - radicals have had a bit of religion and become sick on it, but if they had more religion so they really understood what Islam stands for, they would be cured. I think there is truth to this, but it is definitely counter-intuitive, and also very hard to carry out. The Sheikh also said that many radicals believe that they are superior to others and that they alone have the correct revelations about religion. They're not likely to listen to other teaching then are they?
Sheikh Abdallah's second point was that we should put out the fire before we start asking who started it and why. Meaning, yes there are underlying causes for people turning to extremism (injustice, disenfranchisement, poverty), but we cannot address them in the midst of violence. Rather, peace must be established, and then we can work on the roots of the problem. The Sheikh stressed the need to create safe spaces for people to share their ideas and for religious leaders who promote peace, like him, to spread the word and prevent more people from joining the radical religious movements. Although I agree that it would be much easier to address the underlying causes of violent extremism if there was peace, peace seems a difficult thing to attain. Are the US airstrikes in Syria right now putting out the fire? Or addressing the underlying causes of extremism? I would say neither.
Pastor Esther Ibanga actually spoke to us via video since apparently her travel plans had gone awry. Wearing a bright pink shitenge dress and sitting behind a desk, she talked about the need for a stronger voice for women in religion and in addressing extremism. She also talked about the integral role of religious leaders in communities - they are generally respected, well-known, and can be very influential. Therefore they are well placed to monitor the situation in their communities and address any problems early on rather than waiting for them to grow. Pastor Ibanga also called for a bigger role for religious leaders in policy and government decision making. Interesting thought. Hard to see how this would work in countries with long histories of separation of church and state, easy to see cases where religious influence in government can go too far (Iran).
Vinya Ariaratne spoke about the case of Sri Lanka, which is a bit different because the conflict there is primarily ethnic, although there have been religious clashes as well. The NGO he runs, Sarvodaya, involves more than 5,000 villages in Sri Lanka in development and conflict resolution activities. Ariaratne's speech was more of a description of possible solutions - initiatives like Sarvodaya can help prevent violence and promote peace whether the cause is religious or ethnic. The conflict resolution groups in villages function as early warning systems for signs of extremism, which can be addressed immediately. Ariaratne told us he was trained as a physician, maybe that's why this sounds like a prescription for the illness of violence!
All in all, it was a really interesting event! Thanks for reading!