Published:  08:55 AM, 11 June 2024

Rise of extremist outfits in 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. 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.

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.

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