The global community has endured and survived countless conflicts over the centuries, but the cost in human lives and property lost has also been high. History has justified some of these wars as the natural consequence of competition between hostile nations, ethnic groups, or theologies. However, the outcome rarely justifies the cost in human suffering.
The advent of weapons of mass destruction makes the prospect of unbridled warfare and its dreadful consequences intolerable. Since the devastation of World War II, global and regional systems and mechanisms have been established to resolve conflicts without resorting to violent force. Adversaries can compete for recognition and position through peaceful means. Virtually all hostilities can be resolved through international institutions, the rule of law, negotiation, mediation, and reconciliation. As a result, the frequency and severity of violent conflict has declined significantly.
Yet, a few groups with extreme views and the determination to impose their will on others continue to gain followers and cause unspeakable harm. Large-scale international warfare has declined, but irregular and non-state sponsored violence has emerged as a serious threat to peace and security. Extremist elements without access to the regular weapons of warfare are using terrorist tactics to wage asymmetrical battle to advance their causes and impose their will. Civilian targets have been exploited, causing widespread death and destruction across the globe. Very small bands of devoted acolytes can bring down armored tanks, market places, and buildings with improvised devices and techniques. Should they ever gain access to weapons of mass destruction, they could cause unspeakable damage to entire political, social, and economic systems and alter the course of history.
The most obvious current example of violent extremism comes from a small segment of the Muslim community. They have resorted to terrorist tactics to gain attention and strike fear into civilian populations worldwide. However, dangerous extremism can emerge from any society and any culture. For example, the second largest terrorist attack in American history – the domestic bred attack on the Alfred P. Murrah Building in Oklahoma City – emanated from the heartland and Judeo-Christian culture. The extremists who perpetuated decades of terror in Ireland were Christians fighting other Christians. Extremism knows no boundary or theology, but it is real and it is a growing threat to civilized societies worldwide.
Governments and international institutions have mobilized forces to counter the threat, but citizen-based organizations have emerged as a vital component in this epic struggle between extremist elements and the voices and forces of moderation and non-violence. In the wake of the publication of A Clash of Civilizations and in the aftermath of the attacks of September 11, 2001, the United Nations created an Alliance of Civilizations “to improve understanding and cooperative relations among nations and peoples across cultures and religions, and to help counter the forces that fuel polarization and extremism.” The U.S. – Muslim Engagement Project brought together a group of leaders concerned about the tension and violence between the US and Muslim communities and countries. Their report and recommendations - Changing Course, A New Direction for U.S. Relations with the Muslim World - provides a rational framework for citizen-based projects to help reduce the threat from extremist and restore safety and security.
With sufficient support, civil society initiatives that promote tolerance, understanding, and peaceful coexistence can make a critical difference. Military might alone cannot deter extremist ideology, nor can it defeat terrorist tactics. This is a struggle between the vast moderate majority in all societies and the small extremist minority who use violence rather than reason. Private citizens, as well as their governments, must take a stand and respond. Find out more about how the Peace through Moderation project seeks to counter the extremism in the Executive Summary section.