In a recent article in the Huffington Post Religion section, the Rev. Paul Brandeis Raushenbush writes cogently about the wave of mostly young men from a variety of countries, including the United States, who have become part of ISIS, the extremist group currently committing atrocities in Iraq and Syria and who claim an identity rooted in Islam, though pretty much the entire Islamic world has condemned them. Raushenbush notes that most of those joining this movement seem to have little knowledge of what Islam, in the mainstream, actually believes and teaches (he notes the recent purchases on Amazon by two UK citizens who joined the fight were Islam for Dummies and The Koran for Dummies). He quotes Professor Omid Safi, director of the Duke Islamic Studies Center, who wrote that “part of the solution is more thorough, deeper, and more rigorous religious education from figures that actually carry credibility in the Muslim community.” Safi went on to share what strikes me as a powerful insight into religion generally:
As far as what I say to young people, my own message is fairly simple: Religion has always been and remains today a tool. It can be used to prop up the pharaoh; it can give voice to the deepest anguish and aspiration of the slaves. It is important to re-invest in the prophetic dimension of all of our religious traditions, so that young people can come to see religion as a way of standing up to tyranny, to occupation, to poverty, to violence, to sexism, to every form of degrading human dignity. And yet we have to keep insisting that the means to get there have to be resonant with our noble ideals. In other words, it is vital that we pursue that opposition to tyranny and violence in means that are themselves not tyrannical or violent.
It seems to be the case that most of the young men who are flocking to the twisted ideology and heinous acts of ISIS are struggling with a sense of alienation from their own cultures. Professor John Esposito, quoted in Raushenbush’s article, says that the “drivers of radicalization include moral outrage, disaffection, peer pressure, the search for a new identity, and for a sense of meaning, purpose and belonging.”
Religion — all religion, not just a particular one — is all about searching for identity and finding meaning, purpose, and belonging. At one time in human cultures, religion supplied the narrative that allowed people to know who they were and how they fit into their community. It made life meaningful and purposeful, celebrating and affirming that meaning and purpose with ritual. As I have mentioned before, the word “religion” has as a root meaning “connection.” Religion is a dimension of human experience that connects things for us in a way that makes sense.
In our own time, this older sense of religion is, I think, what most people have in mind in some form when they identify as “spiritual.” For us, religion has come most often to denote a particular institutional or communal expression of spirituality. And, increasingly, people in Western culture regard religion with some suspicion if not disdain or outright hostility. That regard is very much rooted in the twisted forms of religion that ISIS represents in an extreme way, but which is also represented much less violently (but perhaps just as extremely) by certain forms of Christianity and Judaism (and other traditions), those that we tend to call fundamentalist. The extremity that seems to characterize so much of what passes for religion in our time has led more and more people to conclude that religion is not a viable path for resolving that human need for meaning, purpose, and belonging.
And, yet, those human needs still exist, and are as powerful as ever. Professor Safi suggests that an urgent task for those of us who engage religion in ways that do not embody extremism is to create opportunities and platforms where “a more thorough, deeper, and more rigorous education” about our religious traditions can be accessed. In other words, we need to counteract the twisting of our religious traditions. Part of counteracting this twistedness is not simply better education, but, as Safi names, the reinvestment in the prophetic dimension of religion: the strands within our traditions that name the longing and alienation that these young people who are flocking to twisted religion experience, and that is unafraid to acknowledge the economic and other injustices about which they are legitimately outraged.
I am convinced that healthy human beings need to see meaning and purpose in life, and to have a sense of belonging to something greater than the individual self. These are basic human needs that all of us have. I have seen extraordinarily wealthy people who struggle because they lack them, and I have know people of very modest means who do have them. However, I think it is generally true that people who have economic security are able to cover over those needs and not acknowledge them for a long time, even a life time, while those who lack that security are not as able to do that.
Religion, at its best, is able to answer these human needs by connecting people to the One who is so variably named in our traditions (and, sometimes, not named at all). And, it is able to do this without fomenting and justifying physical, psychological, or spiritual violence. We need in our world much more religion at its best.
Of course, there are those who suggest that the solution is to simply jettison religion entirely, thereby removing it as a tool in the sense that Professor Safi describes. I doubt that such a thing could be accomplished, and certainly I don’t think it is desirable. Religion, properly understood, preserves centuries of human experience and reflection on what makes life worth living, and the spiritual practices associated with religion connect people to that sense of life as worthwhile. But religion also carries with it an essential insight into human nature: that we tend to engage the world selfishly and with strong egos. However the traditions name these, the bottom line is the same: lasting change in the world must begin with lasting change within ourselves, and traditional spiritual practices and communities are designed to support that lasting change.
We need religious people who understand both the benefits of religion and its legitimate critique of human nature, and are prepared to bring that not only into their own lives, but into the lives of others who are searching and, if presented with no other option, may choose an extreme manifestation of religion that will only perpetuate the twisting of human souls and the world into which they are unleashed.