Musu Clemens-Hope says she “held her breath” as she organized a recent meeting among Muslims in Niger. It was to take up questions such as “What is Islam?” and prickly issues such as religious intolerance and growing extremism.
Niger, a country of mostly Sunni Muslims, is an island of relative calm in a sea of mounting Islamist extremism across Africa’s middle belt. But it has had bouts of religious conflict in the past, and it is not immune to the sectarian upheavals afflicting its neighbors Nigeria, Mali, and Burkina Faso.
“There was a great deal of trepidation as to what would happen when we got all these people from different communities in one place and talking about such emotion-laden topics, but” – and here she pauses ever so briefly – “it came off without a hitch.” She adds: “In fact, I think people are really hungry for the ideas and the tools to help their communities prosper and avoid conflict.”
Ms. Clemens-Hope is program director of Peace Through Development II, a program funded by the United States Agency for International Development that aims to nip violent Muslim extremism in the bud. Created by International Relief and Development, a global humanitarian organization, the program seeks to stanch the spillover of sectarian discord from northern Nigeria, where earlier this year more than 270 schoolgirls were abducted by the Islamist insurgent group Boko Haram.
At the helm of the program since November, Clemens-Hope has organized forays of local Christian and Muslim leaders to refugee camps in Chad swollen with Muslims driven from the Central African Republic next door. And she’s helped youth groups in Burkina Faso develop and perform skits aimed at squelching the rumors that can feed sectarian violence.
Her pride and joy is a program that trains the region’s moderate Muslim religious leaders to provide an alternative to rising extremist religious voices.
Though her roots are in Philadelphia – she is the daughter of an American mother and a Liberian father – Clemens-Hope says she always had a global outlook. “I grew up in a multicultural environment, and I wouldn’t trade it,” she says. “It really prepared me for the world as it is today, with people from different backgrounds and cultures mixing and coming into contact.”
As a young woman living in Washington, D.C., in the late 1990s and studying public health, Clemens-Hope turned her gaze to her father’s native Liberia. In 1998 when Liberian President (and warlord and war criminal) Charles Taylor was “on his way out,” she set sail.
The idea was that Clemens-Hope would work in public health for two years and then “come home.” But she never really came back. From Liberia she joined the Peace Corps, rising to become country director in Macedonia and then Benin.
Working with communities in West Africa is a new challenge, Clemens-Hope says. Spreading intolerance and instability has captured global attention with events like the Boko Haram kidnapping and bombings, the Islamist insurgency in Mali that triggered French military intervention last year, and the attack by Al Qaeda-linked militants on an Algerian gas plant in 2012.
One rising challenge in West Africa is the increasing sophistication – and allure – of the social media efforts of Muslim extremists. “The truth unfortunately is that they are good at what they do,” she says – both on the Internet and with mass media, especially radio, a key source of information in the region. “We realized very quickly that we need an alternative discourse... to the extremist discourse,” she says.
Her project now is developing community radio programs to counter the extremist message with a voice of tolerance from moderates. A religion professor who spoke at a religious leaders’ forum she organized in Niger had told them, “You need to train your moderate imams for today’s media, because the extremists are extremely media savvy – and people, especially the young, are listening,” she says.
The professor’s message had an impact in the room – and with Clemens-Hope. Today the programs she directs in Chad, Niger, and Burkina Faso place a priority on reaching youth and religious leaders, training them to take public their message of moderation and tolerance.
“I’m convinced our work with moderate voices within Islam will be our legacy,” Clemens-Hope says. “Maybe the extremists won’t be defeated tomorrow, but at least with these kinds of programs there will be an alternative.”