From religious extremist to peacemaker. By Renee Garfinkel


World seems to have gone insane in the name of God. Violence and extremism take centre-stage in international news and much of it speaks in religious terms. Nevertheless, there are examples of leaders who, in the midst of ongoing conflict, have renounced their former violence in order to engage their enemies using non-violent means while remaining religious.
How does that happen? How do once-violent religious extremists change course and become peacemakers?
These individuals give us reason to hope for the future of the human race. In the words of one of such individual, Imam Ashafa of Nigeria,
"…Religion is more powerful than the atomic bomb. The passion of religion is more terrible than Katrina, more terrible than a tsunami. But if it is used positively, it can change the world".
In that spirit, and with the support of the United States Institute of Peace, I set out to discover what I could about the dynamics of transformation from religious extremist to proponent of peace. I began by interviewing people living in regions of conflict around the world who have rejected the violence they once advocated. Some of them had significant careers as fighters and leaders of militant groups. Some had been supporters of militant political solutions. All are now working for peaceful change.
These people are not saints. Their politics and ideologies are not necessarily those of traditional pacifists, nor are they equally positive toward all of their adversaries. They do not exhibit equal understanding toward all groups they consider "other". But they no longer advocate violence as a means of achieving their goals. Each has come a long way from his/her former belief system.
Each of our interviewees now engages, in an affirmative and non-violent manner, people he or she once would have only fought or shunned. They are spiritual people who continue to be committed to a religious path, and feel elevated and inspired by the direction they have taken and for which they have paid a price.
Given the small number of people examined for this project, it was quite remarkable to be able to detect common themes and experiences. One such common theme is the terrible force of hateful, violent propaganda. The people we spoke with, and others who have written their own stories, begin by describing their former immersion in a culture of hate. In the context of such a culture there was a "natural" progression into dreadful violence.
The implication for policy is clear: hate literature and speech/media of all kinds need to be vigorously challenged in order to facilitate the possibility of independent thinking. In addition, religious and civic leaders need to develop peaceful language and imagery, as well as heroes and mythology that are dynamic and vital in order to capture the public imagination.
We learned from our interviewees that the change from religious extremist to proponent of peace could be a spiritual transformation, much akin to religious conversion. Both of these life-altering changes tend to grow from an emotional and interpersonal basis more than an ideological one. Trauma and loss often play a central role in both transformations, as well.
Assad Shaftary of Lebanon is a case in point, and his story has many of the elements that recur in the stories of deep change. Most profoundly, trauma and near-death made him question his life and seek purpose and meaning. His flight from home as a political refugee during the civil war was important as well. Spiritual and religious heroes, in various religious traditions and mythologies, frequently need to leave home and country in order to grow. Being away exposes the individual to new realities, or old realities seen from a new perspective, without the protection of the familiar and the lulling embrace of home. Fleeing danger, the refugee can become open and vulnerable in a way that he was not before, when he was secure in his native location. Perhaps escape from danger and the humbling status of an alien make one more aware.
As Shaftary put it, "if I had stayed in place maybe I wouldn`t have heard God`s voice telling me to change."
Profound change takes place slowly, over time and is â€" as are most human phenomena â€" partial, incomplete, an ongoing work in progress. Significant relationships almost always play a role. Individual personality probably does, too. We desperately need to know more
But the fact that it happens at all is cause for hope.

-You can read the personal stories of the interviewees in a Special Report available from U.S.I.P. called Personal Transformations: Moving from Violence to Peace. It is also available online at


* Dr. Renee Garfinkel, clinical psychologist in private practice in Washington, is an author and member of the faculty of the Institute of Crisis, Disaster and Risk Management, The George Washington University. This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews)

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