Blaming religion for the attacks in Paris, Beirut and Bagdad plays straight into the hands of ISIS.
Rather than identifying the group as the gang of thugs they are, when members of our media and politicians label ISIS attacks as religious, it misattributes to their actions a well-conceived moral frame, rooted in scriptures and anchored in tradition. If we believe they have these—which they do not—we give them more “religious” power than they deserve.
This oversimplification also masks the hard truth that this violence stems from problems much deeper and broader than any particular religion or ideology. Its myriad political and social sources must be analyzed if we seek to stem the violence.
The fact of the matter is that the vast majority of ISIS fighters are not particularly religious. Many have never read the Koran and can cite only a few verses pounded into their heads in training camps. The practices they champion and the political vision they promote looks more like an HBO apocalyptic fiction-series or a video game than it does the theology that grounds the faith of 1.6 billion peace-loving Muslims. This is absolutely intentional.
The self-declared leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, uses apocalyptic Islamic language to attract marginalized youth from around the world, including the U.S., Canada, Brittan, and France. The vast majority of Muslims recognize that his claims to religious authority are a farce. The young men and women I recently met on a trip to Iran felt the same way.
The leaders of ISIS would like nothing better than to lay claim to the authority of the Islamic tradition. When our politicians and talking heads reinforce a false perception of religious depth, we bolster the very narrative ISIS relies on. And we create easy, false enemies with far more power and coherence of vision, who look nothing like the real foes whose violence we seek to stem.
Moreover, when a movement is called “religiously extreme,” it immediately suggests that what’s at stake is a cosmic battle between cosmically vast religions, between Gods, if you will. Nothing gets fear flowing faster in our cultural veins than this, causing us to begin fighting a fantasy enemy rather than a real, threatening opponent. Again, this is absolutely intentional.
Our politicians require a catastrophic, evil enemy to rally against, and our media requires violent dramas to attract viewers. This caricatured account not only distorts reality, it gives ISIS the weight and authority it wants and needs. As such, these false depictions are not only morally deplorable, they present a substantive threat to our national security.
As president of the largest organization of religious scholars in the country, and president of Union Theological Seminary, I think about “religion” every minute of every day. It seems that when terrorist acts are done by Christian, white and domestic people, we demand deeper causes. We seek complex answers that include analysis of racial identities, gender-constructions, class dynamics, mental health conditions, the availability of guns, the political nature of the targets and the character of our family structures.
Many mosques and Muslim organizations throughout this country have released strong statements condemning ISIS and their most recent attacks throughout the world. Why are many more interested in false enemies than the truth about our neighbors and friends?
As Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, and people of all faith traditions or no faith tradition, we need to follow the lead of our Muslim brothers and sisters in not only condemning these attacks, but also reimagining what it means to be a religious community in the face of superficially “religious” terrorism.
We must choose between strengthening the bonds of trust between diverse communities and fanning the flames of hatred that will destroy us. We all have it in us to choose the former. We have it in us to create expansive, global communities where violence is unimaginable, poverty is crushed, and all humans can flourish to their greatest potentials.
In these moments of shared pain and fear, we are all called to find our connection and commonality—not to seek false and fleeting security by creating a “them” to separate from our “us.” There is not a single religious tradition that does not point us to a source of power of grace and peace far greater, wider, and deeper than any suicide bomber’s vest or any loudmouthed Islamaphobe’s bullhorn.