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Counter religious extremism with religious compassion

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This won't be easy, because those who run our major international and national agencies are not accustomed to making such connections.

Enlightenment blinders

Trained at the best intellectual institutions of the world, most policymakers and bureaucrats are children of the Enlightenment, so religious revivalism is a shock to their worldview. They had no idea that religion could be so resilient and adaptable to the modern world. That's why many of them are unprepared to confront religious extremists.

From Iraq to western Europe to the United States, it is clear that religion is on the rise and tending toward extremism in many places. It is also clear that religious militants are among the most highly adaptable groups on the planet today.

They run circles around traditional religious schools, places of worship, and clerical organizations – be they conservative, moderate, or liberal. Militants use the Web and other media meaningful to youth, and they know how to mobilize the anger of hundreds of millions of the powerless and poor.

They are excellent at providing immediate and appealing forms of assistance in ways that most states utterly fail to do. They often have little religious authority but acquire it by the sheer force of popular appeal in a world increasingly dominated – or tyrannized – by mass appeal. More and more, religious authority is being acquired by how well extremists service the poor or how well they express their anger at injustice.

If we who believe in tolerance and coexistence want to build a better and more peaceful civilization, then we should learn adaptability from militant religious activists. We need to understand their appeal to the poor and the alienated, and beat them at their own game.

How to compete with militants

We need to know when militants are setting a trap for us, expecting us to behave in predictable ways. We must learn what annoys them and do it, and learn what pleases them and stop it. They are pleased when governments ignore the poor, or when the West engages in any activities that are perceived to be bigoted against Muslims.

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