The position of the moderate Muslim is unenviable. Conservative Muslims castigate you as apostates and heretics. Right-wing Americans lump you with the terrorists and fanatics. So extreme has the anti-Muslim fervor become in the United States that Donald Trump can call for temporarily banning all Muslims from entering the country—and his poll numbers go up! Governors of states such as Texas oppose the settlement of Syrian refugees in their states, adding insult to the injury suffered by these victims of terrorism. Time and again critics demand to know what you moderates are doing to oppose terrorism and extremism. Time and again you respond by speaking out against fanaticism and violence, condemning it in no uncertain terms. You emphatically distance yourselves from the jihadists, emphasizing that for you Islam is a religion of peace and brotherhood. Surely you are frustrated that you never seem to get any credit for your explicit, repeated, and emphatic rejection of terrorism. Instead, after every horrific incident, like the San Bernardino massacre, you only find more fingers pointing at you and more rhetorical bombs thrown at you. You must be asking yourself “What more can we do to show people that we are not fanatics, that we have no intention of imposing Sharia law or conducting a jihad, and that the actions of criminal degenerates like ISIS appall us as much as anyone?”
Here is the more that you can do: Condemnation of terrorism is great; it is necessary, but it is not sufficient. What is also needed is a new and compelling narrative, one that can compete with and defeat the narrative of ISIS and other hateful ideologies. Doctrines of violence and hate exert a dark and deadly appeal, especially for gullible young people. For instance, ISIS, a squalid little death cult, exploits youthful idealism by portraying itself as an army of glorious martyrs. When such a doctrine is packaged in slick media presentations by technology-savvy propagandists, its attraction is multiplied many times. Fortunately, though, genuine idealism can also have a strong appeal to the young, if they can be reached before the hate-mongers have captured their souls.
What kind of idealistic message is needed? Well, obviously it must be Islamic. Only Islam can defeat Islamist fanaticism. The message must be conveyed by charismatic young Muslim men and women whose activism is grounded in deep faith. It must be a doctrine that seeks unity with all people of good will—Sunni or Shiite, Muslim or Jew, believer or unbeliever. It must be a doctrine that supports the empowerment of women by promoting their access to education and political power. It must, in short, be a message like that of Malala Yousafzai, the young Pakistani woman who won the Nobel Peace Prize for promoting education for girls. It is highly instructive that the Taliban fanatics were so frightened by a young girl that they tried to assassinate her. A fanatic who might gladly face bullets and bombs is terrified by a woman who speaks her mind boldly and defiantly.
Whatever you do, it is something that needs to be done quickly. Humanity is facing an imminent crisis of perhaps unprecedented proportions, one that we will have to address as a species. We simply cannot afford to confront that crisis while deeply divided by ancient grudges and resentments. By 2050—just a generation from now—there will be ten billion human beings living shoulder to shoulder on this one small planet. Our oceans and forests are already seriously depleted, and even if the world acts now to begin slowing climate change, the effects could still be disastrous. Environmental deterioration could lead to widespread famine and epidemic disease. The consequence could be war, perhaps between nuclear powers, genocide, and a refugee crisis that vastly exceeds our current one. If our grandchildren are to have a livable world, Muslims and non-Muslims must—must—find a way to work together. There just is no alternative.