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- It is commonplace to analyze the impact of religious extremism and the civil rights movement through impersonal forces like ‘the nature of religion’ or ‘the right historical moment.’ I think the lens of social entrepreneurship is more accurate and more useful.
- The purpose of connecting Osama bin Laden and Martin Luther King Jr. is to illustrate how the resources of religion can be mobilized by leaders in ways that creates great good or great harm.
- Movements whose core value is that faith is a barrier of division or a bomb of destruction have proven exceptional at growing because of their ability to advance core narratives using the language of religion, embed their programs in faith-based institutions and nurture other high-impact leaders who carry out their vision.
I want to begin with a disturbing idea: Osama bin Laden and Martin Luther King Jr. have more in common than we might think. They were both leaders who recognized how religious energies could be channeled in world-shifting ways. They were both able to create dramatic spectacles, shape public narratives, and mobilize large quantities of young people into movements that made huge social impact. Moreover, their movements outlived them.
It is commonplace to analyze the impact of religious extremism and the civil rights movement through impersonal forces like ‘the nature of religion’ or ‘the right historical moment.’ I think the lens of social entrepreneurship is more accurate and more useful. To paraphrase David Bornstein, author of two books on social entrepreneurship, the element that distinguishes the social entrepreneurship lens is the focus on the role of leaders in building organizations and movements. Let me hasten to say that Bin Laden should never be called a social entrepreneur. That term is reserved for those who make a positive impact on the world. Still, the lens of social entrepreneurship illuminates the role that he played as a leader, evil as he may be, in building Al Qaeda. The purpose of connecting Bin Laden and King is to illustrate how the resources of religion can be mobilized by leaders in ways that creates great good or great harm.
Bin Laden and King were successful not just because they happened to arrive on the scene at the right time but because they were able to operate effectively within the world of religion to shape highly impactful movements. Three parts of their leadership with respect to religion stand out.
1) The ability to advance a powerful narrative in the culture and come to embody it with their own lives (the definition of leadership used by Howard Gardener). Religious traditions are repositories of immensely moving narratives, language that can be used for either good or evil. Consider the ways in which King used this language: “EVERY GENUINE EXPRESSION OF LOVE GROWS OUT OF A CONSISTENT AND TOTAL SURRENDER TO GOD.” And the way Bin Laden used it: WE ARE SEEKING TO INCITE THE ISLAMIC NATION TO RISE UP … TO CONDUCT JIHAD FOR THE SAKE OF GOD.”
2) The ability to create patterns of activity within key institutions. King was able to do this by spreading the ideas and methodologies of active nonviolence in black churches, on college campuses and through organizations like the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Bin Laden created patterns of hatred and extremism in a segment of mosques, madrasas and other Muslin institutions. In addition to having rich language that lends itself to powerful narratives, religious traditions also include huge institutional capital – from houses of worship to large philanthropic entities – that contain human, financial and other resources.
3) Finally, King and Bin Laden were able to inspire and nurture other leaders to carry out the core ideology in their own context. The impact of Khaled Shaikh Muhammad, the mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks, and Abu Musab Al Zarqawi, the chaos-spreading terrorist in Iraq in the early 2000s, are two examples of high-impact terrorist entrepreneurs inspired by bin Laden. The Algebra Project founded by Bob Moses and the Rainbow/Push Coalition founded be Reverend Jesse Jackson are two illustrations of civil rights social entrepreneurs who carried King’s torch in their own contexts.
To illustrate further, after 9/11, some policy experts started worrying more about ‘Al Qaedism’ than Al Qaeda Central. They noted that even while the United States and other governments were destroying Al Qaeda Central’s infrastructure of training camps, cutting off their money supply and capturing and killing Al Qaeda Central ‘officials’ in Afghanistan and Pakistan, leaders inspired by Al Qaeda were building localized movements of extremism in places like Nigeria, Mali, Iraq and Somalia. While Al Qaeda Central was on the run, it was somehow still able to advance its narrative, create a pattern of activity in key institutions and nurture leaders who carried out its core idea.
The difference between King and bin Laden is even more fundamental than their similarity. Bin Laden’s cause was to use faith as a bomb of destruction, King viewed religion as a bridge of cooperation. We generally think of that bridge in terms of King’s work for civil rights and racial harmony, but King had a profound interfaith vision as well. His commitment to nonviolence came through studying the Hindu leader Mahatma Gandhi, his opposition to the Vietnam War was motivated by meetings with the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh and some of his most profound conversations about faith and civil rights took place with a Rabbi, Abraham Joshua Heschel. King frequently invoked the importance of building bridges between people who orient around religion differently. Consider this prayer he offered in the pulpit of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama on Palm Sunday 1959: “O GOD, WE THANK YOU FOR THE FACT THAT YOU HAVE INSPIRED MEN AND WOMEN IN ALL NATIONS AND IN ALL CULTUERS. WE CALL YOU DIFFERENT NAMES: SOME CALL YOU ALLAH, SOME CALL YOU ELOHIM, SOME CALL YOU JEHOVAH, SOME CALL YOU BRAHMA, SOME CALL YOU THE UNMOVED MOVER.”
Religion will continue to be a highly significant source of personal identity and social capital, and societies around the world are only becoming more religiously diverse. Movements whose core value is that faith is a barrier of division or a bomb of destruction have proven exceptional at growing because of their ability to advance core narratives using the language of religion, embed their programs in faith-based institutions and nurture other high-impact leaders who carry out their vision.
The mission of the organization I lead, Interfaith Youth Core, is to carry on Dr. King’s interfaith legacy through these three proven vectors. We dig into scriptures and religious stories (including those from secular humanism) to shape a narrative of faith as a bridge of cooperation rather than as a barrier of division or a bomb of destruction. We work with faith and secular humanist groups on America’s 2800 college campuses to embed interfaith activities – like interfaith Habitat for Humanity builds – in their environments. And we proactively nurture exceptional young interfaith leaders who start their own organizations and initiatives.
Religious extremism was a movement built by people. Civil rights was a movement built by people. If we are going to have interfaith cooperation rather than religious violence, it will be a movement built by people.
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