Ending Religious Violence in the Middle East

Moha Ennaji is President of the South North Center for Intercultural Dialogue and Migration Studies in Morocco and Professor of Cultural Studies at Fez University. His most recent books include New Horizons of Muslim Diaspora in North America and Europe and Muslim Moroccan Migrants in Europe.


FEZ – The escalation of radicalism, violence, and civil wars in the Middle East since the so-called Arab Spring revolts began in 2010 has exacted a massive toll in human lives and welfare. The need to build effective states that support peace, provide greater opportunity and prosperity, and protect human rights could not be more urgent.

Already, the violence that has surged in the last few years has left more than 180,000 Iraqis and 470,000 Syrians dead. Moreover, 6.5 million Syrians have been internally displaced, and another 4.8 million driven from the country altogether. They have often been tortured in prisons and humiliated in refugee camps. An estimated 70-80% of the victims are civilians, most of them women and children.

In fact, according to the Syrian Center for Policy Research, half of the refugees and internally displaced people are under the age of 18. This has a major impact on their future prospects. UNICEF reports that 2.1 million children in Syria and 700,000 Syrian refugee children are out of school. A total of 80,000 child refugees in Jordan lack access to an education.

But all of these human costs are symptoms of a deeper problem – and, contrary to popular belief, that problem is not Islam. The fact that radical Islamists or jihadists are Muslim does not mean that their religion, not to mention their ethnicity or culture, is inherently violent.

Watching Western news, it is easy to see why so many blame Islam. From the brutality of the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria and Iraq to the terrorist attacks carried out by al-Qaeda to the stoning of adulterous women under Sharia law in Afghanistan, Middle East violence is almost always attributed to the religion. As a result, Islam is often viewed primarily as a threat.

But, as the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor explains, the real threat is not Islam itself, but “block thinking.” Islamic extremists comprise less than 0.5% of the global Muslim population, yet their worldview dominates media coverage not just of Islam, but also of political developments in the Middle East. By erasing the huge differences among Muslims, such coverage reinforces a single, simplistic perception of Islam. That is block thinking. And, as Michael Griffin documents in his book Islamic State: Rewriting History, such thinking is gaining ground in the United States and Europe.



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