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Countering Religious Extremism

Ahead of the 2015 Skoll World Forum, partnered with the Financial Times' This is Africa to curate a series of articles on the pressing theme of religious extremism and its counter-narratives.


Religion, Geopolitics and Power Along the River Jordan

Religion, Geopolitics and Power Along the River Jordan

April 13, 2015 | 5312 views

I stand on the banks of the River Jordan just north of its confluence with the Yarmouk. Behind me is the Sea of Galilee in Israel. On the east bank is the Kingdom of Jordan. Up the Yarmouk lies Syria; Damascus, the Syrian capital, is physically closer to me than my home town, Tel Aviv. Downriver is the West Bank, the Palestinian Territories, where the Jordan River ends at the Dead Sea.

In Hebrew the location where I am standing is called Naharyim, meaning “two rivers”. This place has a complex history. On one hand Naharyim and the River Jordan speak to a heritage of freedom and leadership reborn. Yet the area has also been a battlefield, in both ancient and modern times, where world powers have clashed to the detriment of the entire region. With extremist Islamic groups today on the edge of the Jordan River basin, can the efforts underway to rehabilitate the river bring together odd bedfellows to motivate progress and bring new hope?

According to biblical tradition, Naharyim is the gateway to the Garden of Eden. In the Hebrew Bible the Jordan is associated with miracles. Its crossing by Joshua represents the end of slavery. In Christianity its waters were made holy when John baptized Jesus, forever associating the river with purity, life and renewal.

Muslims identify with both the Jewish and Christian prophets associated with the Jordan, and Muslim pilgrims also pay homage to companions of the Prophet Mohammed, who are buried near the river’s eastern bank, by visiting the mosques erected at their burial sites.

The Prophet Mohammed’s companions were buried near the eastern bank following major battles for the Holy Land between the Crusaders and Muslim forces led by Saladin. In the middle ages it was the western Christians who behaved like barbarians, brutally killing the Muslims, Jews and Orthodox Christians of the Holy Land, all in the misused name of Christianity.

Today, the barbaric acts of extremist Islamic groups, exploiting the name of Islam, are again attracting the world’s attention to this region. Isis followers have expanded their self-proclaimed caliphate into the Jordan River Basin, and like the other extreme groups who came before them, they too would like to conquer the rest of the region in order to impose their distorted worldview.

Parallel to the rise of these extremist Islamic groups, a little-known effort to rehabilitate the River Jordan from pollution and over-extraction has also been developing. Sixty years of Arab-Israeli conflict turned the river into little more than a sewage canal. A regional rehabilitation effort has reversed this trend, cleaning up the sewage and the water that flows into the river. A master plan for the Jordan River, much like the Marshall Plan for post-war Europe, is now being finalized.

These efforts have been led by unlikely collaborators – first environmentalists, Palestinian, Jordanian and Israeli, but now joined by religious and spiritual leaders of all denominations. In November of 2013 a gathering funded by the government of Sweden and the Osprey Foundation brought together rabbis, imams and priests from the region, as well as from Europe and North America, to sign a joint commitment to rehabilitate the Holy Jordan River. Inspired by such leadership, interfaith groups in London, New York and Sydney have also united to work together for this common cause.

While military responses to Isis’ expansion will no doubt continue, this example of convergence around a common cause – in this case an environmental – can be replicated the world over. River rehabilitation at the gateway to the Garden of Eden is a powerful symbol of cooperation and coexistence between diverse groups, in a place too often associated with conflict.

Our communities are a rich mosaic of traditions – our diversity is our strength – and we must be united in opposition to the monolithic worldview of fundamentalists of any side. We must capture the hearts and minds of people the world over, in a manner that exemplifies our shared heritage. This is the way forward if we are to defeat the groups that blatantly pervert the values of the world’s religions.

Can the rehabilitation of the Jordan serve as a symbol of our unity? Or will Naharyim fall in this latest battle along the banks of the River Jordan?


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