American schools don’t teach much comparative religion, so most of us can’t tell a Baptist from an Episcopalian, let alone describe the different branches of Islam. News media can hardly keep straight who is killing whom, let alone decipher their theological differences.

I won’t try to fill that knowledge gap, except to note that while some rifts between Muslims, like the split between Sunni and Shiite, date back to Islam’s 7th century origins, others are of more recent vintage.

Most Americans associate Islam with a more recent arrival. Wahhabism dates back to the 1700s, when an Arab scholar began preaching a fundamentalist message: that Muslims must follow the rules applied in Mohammad’s time, from the subjugation of women to the punishment of infidels. His doctrine got a boost when he made a deal with Muhammad bin Saud to unite forces. Saud and his descendants got possession of the land that became known as Saudi Arabia, and the Wahhabi clerics were empowered to write the religious rules. When oil was discovered under their sands, the clerics got a piece of that too. They spent billions of dollars building madrassas, mosques and movements, especially in the Middle East and South Asia, to spread their doctrines.

I’ve often wondered what would have happened if America had spent the last 25 years building schools, hospitals and libraries in Iraq and Afghanistan instead of bombing them.

Wahhabism and the other extreme fundamentalist strains of Islam aren’t especially attractive. You don’t win friends and influence people by banning music, enslaving women and beheading other Muslims. But in backward, desperate places and with misled, desperate people, it’s caught on – in some part because it has faced little competition.

Westerners watching the rise of jihadist extremism have often longed for an Islamic reformation. If only there was a branch of Islam with different ideas, one that welcomed and adjusted to modernity, that stressed peace and denounced the killing of innocents, one that accepted pluralism and the separation of church and state.

Which brings us to the most important branch of Islam you probably never heard of.

Islam Nusantara, also known as East Indies Islam, has been around for about 500 years. It was born in Indonesia, where Muslims learned to coexist with the Hindus and Buddhists who were there when Islam came to Southeast Asia. Nusantara, the New York Times reports, “stresses nonviolence, inclusiveness and acceptance of other religions.”

This is no small movement. Indonesia is the most populous Muslim majority country in the world, with 190 million Muslims. Indonesia is a pluralistic society with a secular government.

Nusantara Islam, long hidden in the shadow of Arabian Islam, is now finding its voice. At a recent conference in Jakarta, Indonesia, a new organization was introduced, with plans to confront ISIS and other Wahhabi groups on the theological battleground. It is producing a campaign against violent jihadism that will play out online, on-screen and in conference centers around the globe.

At the Jakarta conference, the organization unveiled one of its first efforts, a 90-minute film that is a religious repudiation of ISIS and its acts, offering alternative interpretations of Koranic scriptures extremists use to justify their acts. The film uses scenes of atrocities taken from ISIS propaganda videos and condemns them in terms devout Muslims can understand.

Nahdlatul Ulama or N.U. is an Indonesian Muslim organization that claims to have more than 50 million members. They will have a “prevention center” in Indonesia, where Muslims, especially young Arabic speakers, will be trained to engage with jihadi ideology. It will have an operation in Vienna, Austria, to monitor and respond to ISIS propaganda, especially through social media. And it is starting a nonprofit organization, headquartered in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, to organize international conferences and seminars to spread the word about Indonesia’s brand of peaceful, pluralistic Islam.

This is a long-term project, but a most important one. ISIS – or Daesh, as Muslims offended by the radicals’ appropriation of Islam prefer to call it – must be fought today on the battlefields of the Middle East. Terrorists inspired by its ideology must be caught and prosecuted wherever they are a threat.

But history shows that an idea cannot be defeated by military means alone. Ideologies fall from their internal contradictions (as communism and monarchies have), or because an ideology comes along that better responds to people’s needs for comfort and meaning.
Only Muslims can define their beliefs and cleanse their religion of the stain of violent extremism. We non-Muslims can help by respecting the diversity within Islam, and we can start by getting to know the tolerant, non-violent and moderate neighbors who worship in the mosque down the street. And I sure hope western governments, non-profits and private interests will make sure N.U. and other Islamic reformers are never lacking the resources needed to spread their message.

Rick Holmes, opinion editor for the MetroWest Daily News, blogs at Holmes & Co. (blogs.wickedlocal.com/holmesandco). He can be reached at rholmes@wickedlocal.com.