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Counter religious extremism with religious compassion

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Zainab Al-Suwaij, an Iraqi-American Muslim woman and the president of the American Islamic Congress, empowers the poor women of Iraq by helping them express their rights and needs, such as providing for their children's education. She risks her life on every trip to Iraq.

Pastor Sam Doe, a survivor of the Liberian genocide, made a commitment in 1990 to God to work for healing and peace after watching children die – one right in his arms – from war and starvation. That religious transformation has impelled him to embrace all children, even former child soldiers, in western Africa, when no one else wanted them. He embraced them as a spiritual father to counter the work of their warlord fathers who had drugged them and indoctrinated them into a pseudoreligious militancy and genocidal fervor. Today, Mr. Doe works with dozens of people in a network of peace groups in western Africa that innovate new approaches to develop civil society.

The grand mufti of Syria, Sheikh Ahmad Hassoun, is unrivaled as a passionate orator of Islam, yet he uses his sermons to inspire a Muslim embrace of all fellow human beings, especially Christian neighbors in Syria. He's a staunch defender of their rights and their spirituality. He also doles out as much help as he can find for the poor every week. He drives extremists in his country crazy, not because he vilifies them, but because he competes with them effectively for the attention and appreciation of the impoverished masses.

This is the tip of the iceberg of a dazzling variety of vibrantly religious people who are quietly changing the course of history, one person at a time. It's time for Western institutions, traditionally oblivious to religious actors, to recognize these extraordinary people and learn how they draw on the best in their religious traditions to support a peaceful, global society.

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