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The Challenge of ISIS in America:  Perspectives of Interfaith Leaders and Peacebuilders

From Religions for Peace USA


A complex history of religious, political, and ethnically based conflict has now thrust the world into a wrenching conversation around the significance of a terrorist organization calling itself the Islamic State (known by other acronyms such as ISIL or ISIS or simply IS). Here in the U.S., this conversation has broadened to a more volatile discussion around religion, secularization, Islam, and human rights.

This is best captured in the exchange between Reza Aslan and Bill Maher documented both in the nightly news and New York Times articles. At the end of the day, Aslan claims, Maher’s conception of Islam is closer to bigotry than it is to an accurate understanding of religion in the modern age. Maher’s points suggest a closer alliance with Islamophobia than liberalism.

The impact of how various commentators understand and talk about IS has yet to be documented, but already voices are harkening back to a more reasoned conversation. Dr. Omid Safi of Duke University was recently featured on National Public Radio’s On Being program, asking readers to consider IS from the long perspective of the prophetic tradition in Judaism, Islam and Christianity. “What does it mean,” Dr. Safi asks, “to be rooted in a prophetic tradition of Amos, Jesus, and Muhammad in a world of almost overwhelming suffering?”

The national conversation around IS is not new, in fact it connects to a larger conversation around religion and terrorism, and how generalizations about religion continually do more harm than good. This summer, Dr. Jerusha Lamptey, of Union Theological Seminary, noted in an article that appeared in Time, that the mainstream media’s response to terrorist organizations like Boko Haram too often leads to stereotypes of Islam in the U.S. public consciousness.

When commentators quickly connected shariah and Boko Haram, Dr. Lamptey noted: “This explanation certainly aligns with the rhetoric of Boko Haram. It also permits a neat ‘ah-ha’ moment, allowing us to somehow make sense of these heinous atrocities by placing them in a familiar storyline.” But, Dr. Lamptey continues, “The problem is that this depiction is highly reductive and oversimplified. It obscures significant details related both to shariah and to Boko Haram. And, in doing so, it grants a sense of legitimacy to the group’s twisted ideology while muffling strategic voices of opposition.”

It is time for a more nuanced take on the conversation that arises at the intersection of the Islamic State and the interfaith community in the United States. Religions for Peace USA, on Monday, October 27th, will bring together Dr. Omid Safi and Dr. Jerusha Lamptey to discuss the intricacies of this conversation and how the U.S. general public might approach this topic in a way that avoids generalizations about religion and decries Islamophobia, while still uploading common values in human rights and deep understanding for the religious other.

Sign up here to tune in!

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Ed. February 2017: Watch the webinar here