Peace in an Age of Extremes

PARIS – We live in a time of progress and folly. From bullet trains to the Mars rover, humanity has an insatiable appetite for pushing boundaries and breaking records. But, while radical ambition can drive progress, it can also fuel recklessness and large-scale devastation, as we see today in Iraq, Syria, Gaza, western China, and elsewhere. In an age of extremes, how can peace be achieved?

One thing is certain: The international community is at a loss. A staggering number of countries have simply refused to help resolve the numerous conflicts plaguing the world, particularly in the greater Middle East. Those that have intervened – whether for essential strategic reasons, as in the case of the United States, or out of a sense of obligation to protect societies, as in the case of France – have yet to find an effective approach. Some have even sought to prolong conflicts, believing that to do so serves their national interests.

Clearly, the focus on national interests is inadequate to temper religious extremism, limit human suffering, and prevent the deterioration of societies. Given the factors fueling today’s turmoil – Islam’s struggle with modernity, irrational belief in the efficacy of force in solving problems, and widespread fear, often stemming from religious differences – addressing the greater Middle East’s myriad problems begins with religious, not political, leaders.

Of course, Islam is not the only religion that has struggled with modernity. In fact, nearly all of the major faiths – from Judaism to Christianity to Confucianism – were born of a desire to preserve an established sociopolitical order. (The notable exception is Buddhism – more a philosophy than a religion – which emerged from a rejection of the unequal and violent structure of Brahman societies.)