More than half of ISIS fighters are of European descent, driven to extremism by Islamophobia and a rising tide of right-wing, nationalist movements across the continent, according to the general secretary of the Muslim World League.
In an interview with The National, Mohammed bin Abdul Karim Al Issa said a peaceful solution to the Palestinian question was also central to denying extremists a recruiting tool.
He called for a peace caravan of the world’s three Abrahamic faiths – Islam, Christianity and Judaism – to travel to Jerusalem and promote dialogue between the warring parties.
He was speaking during the organisation’s “Cultural Rapprochement Between the United States and the Muslim World” conference in New York, designed to promote dialogue between faiths and cultures.
Mr Al Issa, a former Saudi minister of justice, took over leadership of the Makkah-based Muslim World League two years ago and is seen as part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s drive to promote a more moderate Islam.
The conference coincided with a wide-ranging Bloomberg interview with the Saudi crown prince in which he laid out the scope of his government’s initiative to tackle extremism and the extent of his close working relationship with US President Donald Trump.
“We have achieved a lot in the Middle East, especially against extremism, extremist ideologies, terrorism and [ISIS] disappeared in a very short time in Iraq and Syria, and a lot of extremist narratives have been demolished in the past two years, so this is a strong initiative,” Crown Prince Mohammed said.
For his part, Mr Al Issa said his organisation was working to build and run mosques that would act as a symbol of moderation and combat extremism. Much of the problem, he said, lay with Islamophobia in Europe.
“The nationalist right wing of some European countries have actually fed into the extremist narrative of ISIS. They have fed into hatred of misguided Muslim youth and encouraged them towards extremism,” he said.
“Muslim youth are born and raised in Europe but the nationalist right tell them 'you are not welcome', therefore ISIS is very happy about this division.
“According to our statistics more than 50 per cent of those who have joined ISIS as soldiers were of European descent.”
Mr Al Issa said all religions were vulnerable to extremists exploiting conflict to corrupt their message. Today, he said, the fate of the Palestinian people was one such cause that was being used to justify hatred.
“The current situation is too bloody. The only people taking advantage of this are extremists and people with political agendas,” he said.
“The victims are innocent civilians therefore there needs to be a solution for the sake of those innocent civilians on all sides.”
In a speech before 400 religious leaders gathered in the Ziegfeld Ballroom in Manhattan, Mr Al Issa called for the conference to back his idea for a caravan to the region to promote peace.
“This convoy should represent the three religions to visit all the holy places in Jerusalem to dialogue sage people to support any project or initiative that will contribute to settling this crisis,” he said.
He also explored that same themes of tackling extremism in his speech that closed the first day of the conference.“Great religions are not extreme by nature; and at the same time, there is no religion that is free of extremists who believe that they solely are privileged with the absolute truth,” he said.
The conference also heard messages of unity from Jewish and Christian leaders.
The Rev Brian McWeeney, director of the office of ecumenical and interreligious affairs at the Roman Catholic archdiocese of New York, said he was delighted to take part in an effort to build bridges.
“The one God made us all and we have got to keep that reality ahead of us as we continue to live our lives and build up that sense of community,” he said. “We have so much more in common than we have differences.”
While the Muslim World League continues its overseas outreach, the work also continues at home.
Crown Prince Mohammed said he would continue to take tough action against extremists inside Saudi Arabia. He said Saudi authorities had arrested about 1,500 people during the past three years.
“Anyone against whom we have clear, accurate information - based on Saudi laws - that they have links with intelligence against Saudi Arabia or extremism or terrorists, they will face Saudi law,” he said. “We have do to this.
“We cannot fight extremists having 500 or 700 extremists on the streets recruiting people against the movement against them. So of course it’s against Saudi law, against the interest of Saudi Arabia, against the interest of the whole world.”