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In the Mainstream: Religious Extremism in the Middle East and North Africa

Panelists discuss the rise and prominence of religious extremism in the MENA region. Although most attention and policies focus on the problem of violent religious extremism, non-violent religious extremism continues to spread in communities throughout the region. Both forms are significant in their ability to alter the social, cultural, and political landscapes of Muslim-majority countries. Speakers examine these issues and discuss how the United States and international community can address the rise of religious extremism in the MENA region.

Date & Time

Jul. 11, 2014
9:00am – 11:00am ET


6th Floor, Woodrow Wilson Center
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A panel of experts discussed the causes, effects, and prospects for dealing with the growing emergence and acceptance of extremist religious ideology in Muslim-majority countries.

On July 11, 2014, the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center and the International Civil Society Action Network co-hosted a meeting “In the Mainstream: Religious Extremism in the Middle East and North Africa” featuring Ken Ballen, President and Founder, Terror Free Tomorrow; Sanam Naraghi-Anderlini, Co-founder, International Civil Society Action Network and Senior Fellow, MIT Center for International Studies; and Mohamad Alsanousi, Director of External Relations, Network of Religious and Traditional Peacemakers. Haleh Esfandiari, Director of the Middle East Program at the Wilson Center, moderated the event and provided opening remarks.

Naraghi-Anderlini began by discussing briefly the purpose of the International Civil Society Action Network, which seeks to promote women’s rights, peace, and human security by encouraging engagement between activists and policymakers. Highlighting the need for their work, she described the scenarios of the Arab Spring where women took a highly active role only to find their demands threatened by religious extremists and ignored by the international community in places such as Libya. She emphasized the differences between extremist Wahhabi and Salafi schools of thought and Sunni Islamist practice, and noted that the expansion of Wahhabi madrassas into places like Pakistan has promoted and mainstreamed extremist thought. Naraghi-Anderlini observed that, unlike other regions where women’s rights were indirectly restricted as collateral damage, in Muslim-majority countries restricting women’s rights was a specific strategy to enforce a new social order. She criticized current Western policy, which has focused too much on addressing short-term security threats and has failed to promote a moderate, alternative ideology and vision. Rather than attempting to merely eliminate violent extremists, she called for a longer-term strategic policy that featured a diplomatic role.

Ballen talked about what would drive someone to extremism by examining it at the personal level, describing interviews he conducted with members of the Taliban and other extremist groups for his book, Terrorists in Love. Though his subjects were devout in their religious practice, one interviewee cited the Qur’an’s passages regarding respect among faiths before eventually renouncing violence (though not his extremist views). Another interviewee quoted passages calling for the killing of Jews, which Ballen said may have been an attempt to convince him to adopt extremism. Yet the same person expressed frustration with corruption and hypocrisy within the Taliban. Ballen used these examples to illustrate that a shortcoming on the part of policymakers is a failure to understand the actual motivations behind individuals becoming extremists.

Alsanousi described how moderate religious leaders were missing from efforts to combat extremism, citing examples such as Somalia where imams have more credibility among extremists than government authorities. He stated that policymakers needed to engage both religious leaders and women. Alsanousi offered an example of a teenager who was talked out of pursuing jihad through a mother’s observation and imam’s intervention. He advocated a “track 1.5” strategy, where efforts by both government and civil society worked together. Lastly, Alsanousi called for efforts to promote education, citing that many times people are drawn to extremism due to lack of education, lack of purpose, and the absence of economic opportunities.

During the question and answer portion, Esfandiari asked the panelists why other regional countries do not step in and offer aid in combating the rise of extremism and why the United States is consistently expected to provide such assistance. Ballen noted that other Middle East countries may not want to spend their money but want the protection of the United States.

By William Drumheller



Hosted By

Middle East Program

The Wilson Center’s Middle East Program serves as a crucial resource for the policymaking community and beyond, providing analyses and research that helps inform U.S. foreign policymaking, stimulates public debate, and expands knowledge about issues in the wider Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.  Read more

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