A Worldly Love Affair: Learning about Countering Extremism at BYU

By: Noreen Sajwani

March 11, 2015

At the end of February 2015, I had the opportunity to attend the Wheatley International Affairs Conference (WIAC) hosted at Brigham Young University (BYU) in Salt Lake City, Utah. The conference examined the intersectionality of religion and world affairs, with a particular focus on the Middle East this year. Throughout the course of five days, 20 BYU students along with 40 students from universities all over the nation came together to create policy recommendations on a variety of issues concerning this region of the world, ranging from the Arab-Israel conflict to Gulf security and political development. As a Health Care Management and Policy major, I didn’t have much exposure to Middle Eastern affairs within the academic setting, but I had a strong background in Islam, and I was ready to learn as much as I could in the following week.

As each group received their roundtable topic, I found that my group was titled, “Understanding the Role of Islamic Religion in the Contemporary Middle Eastern Conflicts: Exacerbating or Mitigating Factor?” This was intriguing to me, as I discovered we would be looking at how religion impacts political, social, and economic factors that affect the Middle East today. As I sat down with my group the first morning, we looked at the variety of contexts within which Islam is used: as a prescription for practices, a rulebook for adherence, or justification for radicalism. My group used the latter of these to springboard into several conversations regarding the use of jihad in Islam, a word literally meaning “struggle” but interpreted more commonly as a “holy war.” We talked about ISIS, an extremist group based primarily in Iraq and Syria, to construct several of our arguments in how religious discourse could prevent conflict instead of initiating it, and as I began to learn more and more about the rise of this group to promote an all-encompassing Muslim caliphate, I couldn’t help but recognize the power of religious dialogue to combat these issues in our present day society.

This led us to the objective of our conference: creating a policy recommendation for the problems we foresaw with our topic. With respect to ISIS, foreign fighter recruitment efforts through social media outlets presented a concern, with the extremist organization’s primary target strategy involving the use of religious jargon. As a result, my group created a two-pronged approach: the first, a social media campaign to empower moderate Muslim voices, coupled with a cyber security program that would inform youth on online recruitment methods and better prepare them from falling into the trap of radical group extremism, like ISIS. Both of these components were complemented with a social strategy we learned about called social investment, or the need to invest in personal and business relationships to encourage alienated members of society to feel like they are part of a community and valued in the group they identify with most. This was an interesting concept, and it was this very element of our proposal that strengthened our case for a future policy initiative.

By the end of the conference, I was shocked. Just five days ago, I couldn’t have told you about the five major concerns facing the Middle East today, and here I stood presenting to sixty students on anti-ISIS recruitment through social media and cyber security channels. The amount of knowledge I gained was incredible, and it was useful that I could take what I had learned to try and better something in our society that we found concerning. This showed me a level of personal growth, and moreover, a deepening passion for international affairs.

At the end of the conference, senior fellow Dr. Fred Axelgard from BYU provided us with some closing remarks, including commending us on a job well-done and explaining to us the work remaining for the future of international affairs. Despite the fact that our policies were not going to be used by anyone in the future, he ended his speech with a quote I will never forget. He said, “I hope you’ve enjoyed this conference and learned from it, from one another, and about what you do not know for the future. And my only hope is that one day, you too, like me, will use those tools to have a love affair with the world.” That quote made me realize the value of the work we had just done and how it set the stage for the future of foreign policy. Maybe I hadn’t solved a worldwide crisis in those five days, but I sure had come one step closer to having my own love affair with the world, and that was something I couldn’t complain about.
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A Worldly Love Affair: Learning about Countering Extremism at BYU