The Wheatley Institution

Faith vs. Fear: Defusing Religious Extremism

Douglas M. Johnston, Jr.
February 23, 2016

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To the topic at hand, religious extremism. First a couple of definitions for you. Salafism means the earliest, most puritanical form of Islam. In its purest sense, it was apolitical. That is to say, it had no desire to be involved in politics. But over time a segment of that community did start to care about political ends and they did not care whether or not they used violence to achieve them. So this group, this segment became known as Jihadi Salafism and it is very much like the Wahhabism that you see currently practiced in Saudi Arabia today. Another term, which is widely bandied about in Washington, but I suspect that few of you have actually heard about it, is called CVE, which is a term for “countering violent extremism.” In many respects, it is sort of a politically correct way of saying religious extremism. When we as a country have been confronted with religious extremism, our reaction has typically been militaristic in nature. While bombs and bullets have their place, we think that what is needed is a much more farsighted response—one that gets at the ideas behind the guns. We have found that one of the most effective ways of getting at those ideas behind the guns is through a new form of engagement called faith-based diplomacy. At the macro level, that simply means incorporating religious considerations into the practice of international politics. At the micro level it means actually making religion part of the solution in some of these intractable identity-based conflicts like ethnic disputes, tribal warfare, and the like, that typically exceed the grasp of traditional diplomacy.

What does it take to practice this faith-based diplomacy? I could list any number of things for you, but there are two that stand out. One is to have a visceral understanding of how faith drives action. Oftentimes for you to really have that kind of an understanding, you need to have a pretty strong faith yourself. It does not particularly matter which religion, but to have that faith is helpful because it gives you credibility in a sense, but it also gives you a deeper understanding. The other thing I think is so important is there is a need to empathize. Empathy, in its most basic form, means identifying with the other person—not only understanding their point of view, but understanding where they are coming from. What are the things that weigh in their calculus as they make decisions? This may go back to unaddressed wounds of history, for example, that still prevail. You really need to try to get inside their skin. A great military strategist that almost all of you have heard of, Sun Tzu, once said that one needs to know thine enemy. Well, you cannot do that unless you have empathy for that person. This sort of runs up against the fact that most adversaries disregard empathy and they sort of automatically devolve into what we might call dehumanization. The more you can dehumanize the other side, the easier it is to kill them, for sure. So they run at cross purposes but, as Sun Tzu was suggesting, if you want to fight a foe more effectively then you need empathy, or if you want to prevent conflict in the first place you need empathy. I would say that if you want to resolve a conflict with minimal loss, you will engage in empathy, but you do it to the maximum extent possible. It may not always be possible. What I would like to do here is give you a quote. Speaking in the relation of the attacks of 9/11, analyst Gaetano Ilardi with the Security Intelligence Group observed that to demonstrate any degree of empathy, regardless of how slight, implied conceding some validity to the act. “To empathize was to sympathize. To sympathize was unimaginable, and unforgiveable.” This stigma, while understandable, must be broken if we are going to prevail in the long term. When former Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, was asked what the most important lesson he learned from Vietnam was, his response was, “The need to empathize with the enemy.” As he further lamented in his book titled In Retrospect, “Our misjudgment of friend or foe alike reflected our profound ignorance of the history, culture, and politics of the people in the area.” In our own center’s project work in which we try to bridge differences between adversaries based on commonly shared religious values, empathy plays quite a role.

A good illustration of this is the initiative with respect to our work in Pakistan with the religious schools, or the madrasas. We have essentially worked with the madrasa leaders to expand their curriculums, in order to enable the students to deal with contemporary issues, but also to promote greater adherence to human rights and religious tolerance, and also to transform the pedagogy to create critical thinking skills among the students. Over the eight years in which we were doing that before we passed the baton to an indigenous NGO that is now overseeing the effort, we had reached some 2,700 madrasa leaders from 1,600 madrasas at that point in time. Today it is about 5,000 madrasa leaders over 2,500 madrasas. The success that we enjoyed in that stands in marked contrast in the attempts of others to do something similar, most particularly the government of Pakistan. A large part of that success had to do with empathy. For example, one of the things we did was we conducted the effort in such a way that the madrasa leaders felt it was their reform effort and not something imposed from the outside, which means that they had a lot of ownership in the change process. Secondly, we inspired them with their own heritage. These schools were once without peer as institutions of higher learning at the time. Then sadly, over a period of time, particularly under British colonial rule where they tried to secularize them, fearful of losing their Muslim identity, most of these schools purged themselves of all disciplines that were either Western or secular in nature to the point where the vast majority today are about rote memorization of the Qur’an and the study of Islamic principles. We go even further back in their heritage to the early days of the religion when many of the pioneering breakthroughs in the arts and sciences took place under Islam, including religious tolerance at a time when Christianity was woefully intolerant. The more that these madrasa leaders hear this, we do not dwell on it, but when they hear it, they walk a little taller and start thinking, “Maybe we can do better as well.” Finally, I think perhaps most importantly, this gets to empathy as well, grounding all suggested change in Islamic principles so that they can genuinely feel that they are becoming better Muslims in the process.

For the last five years that we were involved with this effort, the embassy in Islamabad was not supportive of our efforts until finally one day they came to their senses and a contingent from the State Department came over to our offices and said, “We want to build our strategy around your work.” They finally saw that what we were doing there, dealing with the ideas behind the guns, was every bit as strategic as anything else that was taking place on or off the battlefield. With that, we were able to start getting some support, which was very helpful and that continues to this day. In this kind of work, there is any number of anecdotes that one can share and I will just give you two. I do not know if you recall when the Taliban had taken over the Swat Valley in Pakistan. Heads were rolling; it was a very bad time. We were conducting a workshop for 16 Madrasas surrounding the Swat Valley. In the course of the workshop toward the end, one gentleman stood up who was a madrasa leader, but he was also a terrorist commander, commander of Lashkar-e-Taiba, which are the friendly folks that brought you those attacks on Mumbai a few years ago and have done a lot of damage since. He got up and said, “You know, I came here for one reason and one reason only, and that is to discredit everything you have to say. But now I stand you before you full of rage. Rage because for 26 years I have studied and taught the Qur’an the way it was taught to me. For the first time in my life I have sensed the soul of the Holy Qur’an and its peaceful intent. I now see that the right way to advance Islam is through peace, not through conflict. I am going to change what I tell my students and I am going to tell them why.” We came back a month later and he had in fact done as he said he was going to do. We had a CNN team with us who had been out there about three years to document some of our work so we took them in this time and he said on CNN, for God and the whole world to hear, so I think he recognized that he was getting on thin ice because he said, “Enough, enough” after that. One of the side responses I had to that was how courageous it is for somebody to stand up and say something like that in mixed company in a context where heads are rolling lately. Maybe he got cut some slack because he was a terrorist commander, but nevertheless we have found that when you penetrate that veneer of rage and hostility and engage these folks, not only do they get it, but many of them become champions of what it is you are talking about, at great personal risk to themselves.

Another anecdote was in a workshop. One of the participants was a Taliban commander of some renown and he was rather despondent because he had lost two sons in the fighting. He told our project director, “You know, we just don’t know what America wants. You come at us with guns, we have no recourse but to respond in kind.” This led to an invitation for me to come to the mountains to tell their senior leadership what America wants, which I did two months later. In the meantime, I made the rounds at Department of Defense agencies to make sure that whatever I said was consistent with U.S. policy. I am here to tell you that it is not only the Afghans in the mountains that do not know what America wants. Anyway, I go into this room, and there are 57 Taliban commanders, several tribal leaders, and religious leaders, and most of them were Afghan commanders who had come across the border. We were in the Malakand Agency of Pakistan in the mountains. It started out, and it was clear that some of them were less pleased to be there than others by the looks on their faces. I started out by saying that we are not a government organization, nor had we received any funding from our government, which was true at that point in time. I said that while it is clear that the United States may have made some mistakes of late, I think it is important for us to see what we can do, if it is possible, to come together based on religious values that we share in common, and come up with a confidence-building measure that can point toward peace. I said, “To do that, you need to know what America wants and what the Western perspective is.” I said, “Simply put, it means laying down your arms, distancing yourself from Al Qaeda, and reconciling with the Karzai government.” Then that led into a two and a half hour period of dialogue and lots of exchanges, one of which I thought was particularly important. I will share it with you. I share it with all of the military audiences I speak to. One young man was probably in his midthirties. He was a leader of 350 Taliban fighters in Kunar province, which was just south of where we were, over on the Afghan side. He talked about how one day he had been out walking with his wife and they were confronted by U.S. military, they made them put their hands in the air to be frisked, and he made it clear that up to that point in time, he was totally against Al Qaeda, Taliban, and all the rest of it. As they went about doing this, they used a lot of profanity, and he said, “I was made to feel humiliated in front of my wife.” He says, “So I went over.” I tell people I am sure something like that could not happen anymore but I can think of any number of reasons why it might happen. It is so foolhardy, it is so shooting yourself in the foot to gratuitously treat somebody that way in a society where honor is everything. During the course of that two and a half hours, there were a number of questions that surfaced, some of which were very penetrating. First was, “What do the American people think?” I thought to myself—well, I breathed a little sigh of relief because it meant that they were still cutting us a little slack even though the administration that was causing their problems had been reelected. I said, “Well, the American people want peace in the region with democratically stable governments in Iraq and Afghanistan.” They said, “Why is America attacking Islam?” I said, “They are not attacking Islam and that should be apparent from their past interventions on behalf of Muslims in Bosnia, Kosovo, Somalia, Kuwait.” They wanted to know why we were attacking Afghanistan. I said, “Well, to put that in terms that you hold dear, hospitality, loyalty, and revenge, before we recognized certain members of Al Qaeda as a threat, we welcomed them into our country, we gave them hospitality, and then without warning on 9/11 they struck, and we wanted revenge, so we asked the Taliban government to turn over Al Qaeda leadership so we could bring them to justice; they refused, so we attacked.” I said, “But we did so with a heavy heart because most Americans have great admiration and respect for the Afghan people, stemming from our common struggle against the former Soviet Union.” Then I said, “It is important for you to recognize that some of your tribal leaders are now banding together against Al Qaeda because they have violated your hospitality.” Then they wanted to know why we supported Israel and I really finessed that one by saying we have a strategic relationship that is not going to change anytime soon, but what is changing is our understanding of and compassion for and support of the Palestinian people. I said, “Over time that is going to make a difference.” Well, we broke for prayer and then came back in a smaller group to work on a confidence-building measure, but during that larger audience at one point, a very rough-looking individual stood up and pointed his finger at me. He said, “I can’t talk to you unless you become a Muslim.” I said, “Well, I don’t see a problem. Muslim means submission to God. We all submit to God, therefore we are all Muslims.” Everybody laughed and we all went on our way and it was only a few months later that I learned that the typical scenario there is you convert or you die. So I thought to myself, “You know, the Lord really does look out for fools and incompetents.”

We did come up with a confidence-building measure, which called for establishing a secure zone in the western third of Nuristan, which was the province right across the border, a very rough area, and there was not much action going on in the western third. The idea was to try to respond to the fact that all of these Taliban commanders—by the way, I learned later that some of them were Al Qaeda and I am glad I did not know it at the time—seemed to genuinely care about their people and they were really very frustrated and felt a lot of angst about the fact that of the billions of dollars flowing to Afghanistan at that point in time, none of it ever seemed to reach the villages. There was great concern, and the idea was in the secure zone we would try to get private development in that would go directly to the villages. Well, that never got off the ground and I could not understand 16 different reasons why it would not: it could not get the traction with NATO to establish the secure zone. But one thing came out of it, it was pretty interesting, several months later I received a call from the Korean Ambassador of the United States to see if there was anything that our center could do to help free the 21 Korean missionaries who were being held hostage by the Taliban. As a result of the extensive networking that went into that earlier meeting with the Taliban, we were ultimately able to play a very instrumental role in getting them released. So you never quite know where the seeds you plant are going to bear fruit.

A white-bearded gentleman originally went to the workshop with specific purpose of assassinating our project director, Azhar Hussain. But when this man tuned in and started listening—and had we been giving any sort of an American agenda, then Azhar would have been killed—Azhar was just challenging the Muslims to become better Muslims. He was explaining how that happens and a lot of that had to do with building critical thinking skills that are naturally there in your children and being able to respond to the innumerable questions that they ask in a helpful way. So it went on and he talked about how they had visited a couple of schools here in the United States and were so bowled over by what they saw, he said that the American Muslims were the best Muslims in the world. He says, “They get to think freely and do as they wish.” So he himself is trying to raise the funds to start a school similar to the one that he saw in Virginia. An interesting aside was, about four years after I first encountered him, he is the one who owned the compound where we met, where I met with the Taliban commanders. He made his living by running construction equipment, and after that event was over, Al Qaeda came in and confiscated his construction equipment. They also tortured two of the young men who were involved in providing security for the event, which I was totally oblivious to at the time; I was not aware of any security, but I was really saddened to hear that. When I ran into him again it was four years later and it was a glad reunion, if you will, and he invited me to come visit him again in six months. I told him I would be delighted to do so. I then asked about Ozzie, “How could he possibly do that when he paid such a huge price the first time I visited? He said, “I don’t know.” So he went over and asked him and here is what he said. He said, “I would rather die than not provide hospitality to somebody I like.” This is indicative of the culture over there. I do not know if any of you saw the movie Lone Survivor, but there was an episode in there where that one survivor was taken in by a village to be cared for and the Taliban came in to get him and they stood up to the Taliban and a lot of gunfire. No one knows exactly how it ultimately ended, but the survivor made it out. This is just, it is kind of humbling when you think about different cultural emphases on different things in the world and how we view hospitality in America verses that kind of a belief system. This really gives you food for thought.

Well, besides the anecdotes, and as I say there were very many, we undertook some systemic efforts to make a difference, too. One of which was to try to develop some model curriculums for the madrasas that were based on best educational practices to be found in the entire Muslim world. Part of that involved taking the National Madrasa Oversight Board, these are the five religious leaders that sit on top of the five sects that sponsor these religious schools, took them to Egypt and Turkey to view how Islamic education was handled there. They went, frankly, with a bit of an attitude. “What can these secularists teach us religious pluralists?” Both Egypt and Turkey enjoyed a somewhat secular reputation. Well, they came back very humbled because they found that not only did Egyptian and Turkish students handle religious questions every bit as capably as any Pakistani madrasa student, but they could also handle contemporary problems because they had had the right subjects. The science, the math, the rest of it. Because of this finding, they came back, made an agreement with the government to register their madrasas in exchange for the government supporting them, changing their curriculums and the like, and they also laid down a requirement that henceforth all madrasa faculty would be certified. Up until then, there were no standards. You wanted to open a madrasa, you opened a madrasa. One of the reasons the madrasas had grown like Topsy is because the public schools are an unmitigated disaster in Pakistan, part of which (this is a little bit of a digression, but this is one of the deep challenges that we were facing there in doing the work we were doing) was the fact that despite the democratic trappings, Pakistan is fundamentally a feudal country. Those at the top are not only not interested in empowering those at the bottom, but they want them to stay on the bottom. I think it is one of the reasons when you look at the world index of percent of GDP (gross domestic product) devoted to education, Pakistan is always very near the bottom. It is almost like there is a purposeful intent to keep people as illiterate as possible so they cannot vote to upset the status quo. All that has to change and we are very mindful of the fact that no matter how many hearts and minds you win, at the end of the day, people need jobs. Otherwise, by default so many of them turn to the insurgency because they can put bread on the table. We are trying to work that side of the problem as well. That is just one indicator. Another thing that came out of that was the head of the Deobandi sect (which is far more powerful than the other sects put together—this is where the Taliban came out of) came up with the idea which we sort of planted, and that was to develop a peace textbook that could be put in all of the madrasas. Using madrasa scholars, again it is that ownership piece, such a textbook was put together, and furthermore, a teacher training institute was established in the headquarters madrasa for each of those five sects that I was making reference to. They have been teaching madrasa faculty how to teach the peace textbook to their students, and quite frankly, it is a very impressive work. I really think I would love to see every high school kid in America get exposed to it because it is really thoughtful and it gets to the nuances as well. It is not just about peacemaking with respect to other countries and other religions, but it is also sectarian. We are just starting a project in Pakistan right now to counter sectarian violence. This is going to be a piece of that.

Anyway, the end of the title that was given for this lecture says “defusing religious extremism.” What I would like to do is share with you what we have been doing on that front in Saudi Arabia. In 2011, the State Department asked us to take a hard look at the discriminatory content in the public school textbooks of Saudi Arabia and then to assess the global impact of that content. We did that, but we took a very different approach. Instead of cursing the darkness, which was the approach that others who had tried more abbreviated looks had taken, we decided to take a positive approach and we gave them credit for all of the reforms that they had already enacted. They did have some reforms underway, also the progress they were making with their de-radicalization program, so we gave them all the credit we could for that, but then were very unsparing in our detail of what yet remained to be done. I will tell you, this whole exercise was very enlightening to see the degree to which Wahhabis theology influenced the content of those textbooks, but also the behavior of students. You could find direct license in there for violent behavior toward others who did not believe in your particular brand of Islam. You could see direct license given to desecrating the tombs of the Sufi Saints in Timbuktu, which is exactly what the extremists did when they moved into Mali until the French finally kicked them out. But this is the kind of content that you could see there. Fortunately, consistent with the positive approach, we decided that we wanted to do what we could to try to help facilitate the continuation and completion of these reforms through quiet diplomacy. We asked the State Department at the end—the original intent was to beat Saudis over the head with this—but we asked them, “Please do not make this public because if you do, then the critics will seize upon the offensive passages that still remain, hit the Saudis over the head, and the hardliners will then step in and nip all further progress in the bud.” Fortunately, the State Department went along with it. We have had occasion to have to defend that because when President Obama was going over to Saudi Arabia, some scholars from a think tank became aware of the study and put on enormous public pressure to try to get the study released. We were able to deflect that and as recently as this past November, we had a team of Saudi education scholars and experts and officials come over to the United States to meet with American counterparts to discuss problems of bias and intolerance in national education systems. What you have to do when you are dealing on this basis to avoid any aura of paternalism is you have to have equals coming together to meet about a problem that they share in common. We have enough problems in our own very decentralized academic system to qualify to sit at the table, but it went exceedingly well. I might say too that almost coincidental with when I went over to brief the Saudis on the report, and this is about a year after it had made its way over through diplomatic channels, the country came up with a national plan for educational reform that calls for doing all the right things. It calls for additional purging of the textbooks, dealing with educational standards, and teaching twenty-first century skills, if you will, but also integrating religious freedom and tolerance into the message, which is quite a leap for the Saudis to do. I strongly suspect that in addition to whatever impact Western criticism might have had, including our study, I think that they probably see it in their own self-interest as the declining influence of their oil wealth takes place that they need to equip their youngsters to be able to deal in this globalized marketplace, not just for economic reasons, but to provide an alternative to the appeals of extremism because a lot of Saudi youth have been caught up in that in the past. It is going to take a while for this impact to start manifesting itself. I think the strategic implications are enormous. This is the content that has provided the inspiration for groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS and taking that away is going to have a huge impact. I want to try to end on a note of inspiration for college students and other youth. If you have an interest in religion and diplomacy, I would encourage you to pursue it. The stakes are very high and the payoff can be very huge if you just stay the course.


i Gaetano Ilardi qtd. In Thomas E. Ricks, “The Future of War (entry no. 24): The Key Tool We Will Need to Prevail Is . . . Empathy,” Foreign Policy, April 1, 2014,

iiRobert S. McNamara, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam (New York: Vintage Books, 1996), 322.

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