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Transforming the Religious Impulse Gone Bad

By Paul Chaffee


Eric Schmitt’s recent New York Times story, “In Battle to Defang ISIS, U.S. Targets Its Psychology,” was startling. You might, at first glance, call it 2014’s most hopeful story about the nightmare called the “Islamic State” and its echoes around the world. Schmitt profiles Maj. Gen. Michael Nagata, commander of American Special Operations forces in the Middle East. Nagata has organized a military/academic/private-sector think-tank to ask: “What makes the Islamic State so dangerous?”

 Or to put it in General Nagata’s words: “What makes IS so magnetic, inspirational?”

The flag of the so-called ‘Islamic State’ – Photo: Wikipedia

The flag of the so-called ‘Islamic State’ – Photo: Wikipedia

The good news is that these questions are being asked by leaders in power, reaching out collaboratively. But four months along, the think-tank has few answers. “Ideological” and “territorial” explanations compete with each other, we hear. The group is agreed that IS’s power derives from “psychological tactics such as terrorizing populations, religious and sectarian narratives, economic controls.” But who trained them?!

Unhappily, nothing in the Times story suggests a religious perspective from people like Mohammed Abu-Nimer, Karen Armstrong, Mark Juergensmeyer, Martin Marty, or Eboo Patel, respected students of religiously related violence, all with keen insights into the dynamics of religious fundamentalism. I use the word fundamentalist here to indicate theological and social extremism that condemns all outsiders, a disease most religious as well as political traditions have suffered at times.

The seeming absence of a religious voice in Nagata’s study group brings to mind the massive CIA study of everything in Iran (done before the overthrow of Shah Pahlavi in 1977), everything except religion, that is, since it was assumed that religion was fading away in the modern world and wouldn’t be an issue in Iran’s future. The story, stunning in retrospect, is told in the aptly titled Religion, the Missing Element in Statecraft, published by Oxford in 1995.

Setting Religious Violence in Context

Part of what mystifies modern sensibilities about IS today is the shear evil and horror of beheading a human being. It’s shocking, repulsive! But remember our history: Puritans hanging ‘witches,’ Protestants and Catholics in Renaissance England competing in torture, and the Spanish Inquisition. God punished Saul in ancient Israel when the king exterminated only the men they fought, and not, as instructed, the women, children, and animals. Today even Buddhists (in Myanmar and Sri Lanka) have fallen to fundamentalist temptations as priests and generals collude to oppress religious minorities.

This shadow side of religion increasingly keeps millions away from spiritual community, understandable but tragic, since the bright, vital spirit at the heart of most traditions is loving, peaceful, and constructive, a force for the good of everyone and the Earth. But protecting the baby when the bath water is thrown out is not enough. When religion goes bad, good religion needs to be invoked, which means understanding the difference and being able to do something about it.

IS has forged its worldview from two potent, militant, inhuman fundamentalisms, religious extremism and political extremism. Why is this nasty brew so compelling to some? We can start by remembering that most people in extremis, feeling threatened or bullied, will lash out if given a chance.

If life is basically dangerous for you and your family year-in, year-out; if you are treated as an outsider and if you have little or no ability to get educated or compete in the dominant world; if you bear shame and wounds from generations of being on ‘the wrong side of history,’ a two-edged sword of religious-political certainty which resets the meaning of your life may sound compelling. Everyone obeys our rules. Obey the rules and no one puts you down. Finally, life is safe. Cutting off a head, crucifying a blasphemous sinner, or warring against infidels may seem an appropriate cost for the safety, certainty, and a rooted religious passion that banishes compassion for the stranger outside our gate, or the sinner within. Everything is done for God’s sake, after all, whom we know is guiding our struggle, step by step.

Maj. Gen. Michael Nagata, commander of American Special Operations – Photo: faoa.org

Maj. Gen. Michael Nagata, commander of American Special Operations – Photo: faoa.org

Unfortunately, unwiring fundamentalists from their embedded certainties is an art-from, a rare peacemaking gift, particularly when they are in battle mode and growing. But the pioneers in this work are amongst us, General Nagata. I hope you find them and explore the personal spiritual journeys of young people tempted to solve life’s problems with the compelling spiritual armament of total certainty.

Some thoughts for the discussion. The organization that calls itself the Islamic State is an example of Muslim apostasy, so the wisdom of grounded Muslim peacemakers can help focus the issues and develop a strategic alternative to a battle-to-the-death of thousands on thousands, most of whom at heart want peace and safety. If Mr. Schmitt simply missed the interreligious element in the story, kudos to you General Nagata! If it actually is missing, though, please reach out again.

The larger issue, of course, is living with so much abundance in the West without caring about the hundreds of millions who suffer daily from poverty, oppression, and hopelessness.  That’s a bigger issue than the IS, but it’s the same discussion.