Group Shot Religious Actors

It has been a long time since I’ve written a new post. This is due to a number of factors. First, not long after I wrote the last post, in December 2013, I experienced a crisis in my personal life that left me distracted. My focus was directed to recovery, healing, and the logistics around some big life changes (among them: I’m now a homeowner! woah). That kept me from the rather narcissistic and, really, inconsequential, task of writing blog entries.

Secondly, it’s not been an entirely hopeful time to be a peacebuilder, and I don’t want this blog to devolve into a collection of Dear Diaries where I express angst and frustration about the world being directed against peace. I want this blog, ultimately, to lift up hope and optimism. Trayvon lives on. The story is not over yet. Truth and justice and love prevail in the end, always. And if I am in a place where I doubt that, I shouldn’t write for a public audience.

But I’m back.

Why? Well, the news has hardly taken a turn for the better. In Iraq and Syria, ISIS is beheading Europeans and Americans. They are raping Yazidi women and assassinating those of all religious backgrounds. They are recruiting more people to their cause who are frustrated by seemingly contradictory, hypocritical, oppressive, foreign (especially U.S.) and domestic policies … and by a lack of real opportunity in places where violence and oppression reign. There are real grievances that motivate them, no doubt. But it is disgusting, what they are doing and what they are saying. It will not bring just peace. Nor will the anti-Muslim sentiments and policies being advocated by growing Buddhist extremist movements in Sri Lanka or Myanmar, or the ongoing Christian extremism in Nigeria, Northern Uganda, or even here in the States, which is fueling a spike in hate crimes and hate groups targeting all sorts of ethnic, religious, and racial “others.” Everywhere, it seems, hate and violence are on the rise.

Nonetheless, I’m back.

Last week we brought folks from around the world to DC and NYC for a symposium on “religious actors countering radicalization and violent extremism.” We had representatives from Yemen, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Nigeria, Libya, Syria, Somalia, Kenya, Pakistan, and Afghanistan — places where violent extremism is ascendant, couched in Buddhist, Muslim, and Christian frames. These were all people who are religious actors engaged in CVE (countering violent extremism) work, or peacebuilders who work with religious actors in CVE. They are prophetic, insightful, fearless, faithful people, unwilling to relinquish their faith to the ideology of extremism, and courageous — willing to stand up to these movements, to stand for what is good/God, to struggle to ensure love, justice, peace prevail, as their faith tells them, even if it puts them at risk of death (and it does, believe me — we just lost one of our researchers in Libya, an 18 year old, who was assassinated because of his work for peace and justice). They laughed easy, they were circumspect, and they instilled in me a kernel of hope I have not felt in some time. I needed this week. I needed these peacebuilders who are in the thick of it, the heart of darkness, many of them, but are still digging in their heels and hands to the cracked earth, and pulling out the Kingdom against all odds. I needed us all to be together to realize we are not alone, we have strength in numbers. There are a lot of us.  More than there are extremists.


Last Friday we had a public event at USIP where we featured Vinya Ariyaratne from Sri Lanka, speaking about Sarvodaya’s efforts to counter Buddhist extremism, Pastor Esther Ibanga from Nigeria who works against Christian and Muslim extremist movements, and Sheikh Abdallah bin Bayyah, a prominent Muslim scholar who recently issued a fatwa against ISIS and spoke eloquently, along with Sheikh Hamza Yusuf, about the Muslim heritage of peaceful treatment to minorities, and the worthlessness of violence. Among the many things Sheikh bin Bayyah said was this: ‘There are some who say justice first, and no peace without justice. But from my perspective, if we say no peace without justice, then given the amount of grievances that we’re dealing with, let’s forget about peace altogether.” It’s true. I recognize there are real grievances that drive people into violent movements — very real issues of injustice. But violence and hate will not bring a solution. It will only fuel more injustice, more grievances, more hate. I see that in Myanmar and Sri Lanka, where I primarily work these days, where Buddhist extremism and violence targeted against the Muslim community has created a self-fulfilling prophecy. Communities that had previously been pacifist are now trending toward violence to protect themselves.

We have to work together. The world is dark right now, the circumstances bleak, but this is just the time when things can turn — when we can wake up, find one another in the darkness, and start struggling toward the inevitable end God promises. Thanks be for the Vinyas, the Sheikh bin Bayyahs, the Pastor Esthers.  Their stories are more powerful than the stories of beheadings and rapes and assassinations. I believe that, honestly, because that’s what my faith is about in the end: believing the promise.

To watch Sheikh bin Bayyah’s talk, which will no doubt light a fire of hope in your own bones, click here.  To read a letter signed by 126 prominent Sunni scholars against ISIS, click here. To read about monks in Myanmar who sheltered Muslims in a monastery to protect them from violent crowds, click here.  To watch a (beautifully shot) video about a monk in Myanmar who counters anti-Muslim rumors and helps build relationships between Muslims and Buddhists, click here. These stories are just as true, just as real, as the bad news stories we’re hearing in the media. Share them. Drown out those other stories.

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