The recently concluded White House summit to counter violent extremism made much of root causes like poverty, illiteracy and political alienation but missed an opportunity to address a more immediate and critical issue – the culture of intolerance that has been allowed to fester in much of the Muslim world.
Muslim leaders – both political and religious – insist that Islam is a religion of peace, tolerance and respect. The relevant passages of the Koran that are repeatedly quoted by these leaders clearly bear this out. However, looking around the Muslim world today, it is equally clear that Muslim leaders have spectacularly failed to integrate these fundamentals of their faith into the fabric of their own societies – in their judicial and governance systems as well as in their educational and religious institutions.
In fact, a very narrow, exclusive and often virulent interpretation of Islam that breeds contempt, hate and suspicion of others is being preached, practiced and taught. Other cultures and religions are viewed as inferior, corrupt and evil, deserving to be shunned and annihilated rather than understood, appreciated and respected. In a worldview premised upon an existential struggle between Islam and the rest of the world, there is little room for compromise and accommodation.
To understand why thousands of young men and women from across the Muslim world are sympathetic to jihadi groups, look no further than this culture of intolerance that is shaping young, impressionable minds and rendering them susceptible to radicalism.
Groups like ISIS have simply tapped into this culture of intolerance, twisted it further, and taken it to horrifying new extremes.
Crucially, many Muslim political and religious leaders are themselves complicit in fostering this culture of intolerance. Indeed, many survive only by the politics of exclusion, by co-opting extremist agendas or by exploiting imaginary fears and insecurities. Few have exhibited the moral courage and conviction to champion the tolerance and respect for diversity that is essential in countering extremism.
Thanks to this staggering hypocrisy, many Muslim societies today are on a slow-burner of hate with immediate consequences for minority communities and, increasingly, for the rest of the world.
Even a cursory review of the Muslim world will quickly bring home the deleterious effects of this intensifying culture of intolerance. Throughout the Middle East, for example, intolerance together with official indifference is driving beleaguered minorities, some with roots in the region going back thousands of years, to the verge of extinction.