The November 2015 terror attacks in Paris raise the question once again of why people, including young Westerners, are drawn to a group such as ISIS. Reports from defectors that the militants use drugs constantly (reminiscent of stories that the SS guards in the Nazi concentration camps were habitually drunk) suggest that membership in ISIS leads to participation in some dark, escapist fantasy. The people they kill have first been robbed of their humanity by a view of the world that has flattened them out into demons. But in recruiting videos, ISIS presents itself as leading a glorious campaign, the standard bearer of true Islam in an apocalyptic war against apostates and infidels. Young people, perhaps very idealistic young people, looking for identity and meaning find themselves seduced.
The search for authenticity and meaning for one’s life can be long and difficult. One must resist the attraction of powers that may glitter but are not God. For certain people, the allure of the power of death, masquerading as divine righteousness, can be irresistible. Examples from the Judeo-Christian tradition include the medieval slaughter of Muslims by Christians during the Crusades. Historian of religion Karen Armstrong argues persuasively that religious groups which perceive themselves as weak in relation to others are particularly susceptible to the ideology and practice of holy war. Wielding the power of death – sanctioned by God – is psychologically satisfying. Where there is a chink in the self-identity of young Muslims, the rhetoric of ISIS can more than fill it.
We must distance ourselves from our own cult of death.
If only the God of love and mercy were as seductive to these young people as the God of ISIS! We know they are ready to give their lives for something they perceive as holy. But a cult of brute force has eclipsed the holiness of mainstream Islam – and Christianity and Judaism – in their minds. How can the followers of the God of love reach these young people? Jesus said, “I have come to set a fire on the earth.” Yet the world of these children drawn to ISIS must seem cold. In their yearning for something more, they have mistaken an ersatz of transcendence for the real thing.
How many people coming of age today in America, Europe, and the Middle East are excited by their parents’ religion? Are their parents excited by it? If we condemn ISIS but can offer only church-going and platitudes, we should not be surprised when those who want to give their lives to something greater look elsewhere. The world religions are meant to be pathways to a greater life, not comfort zones where like-minded, well-meaning people hang out together. We all need comfort, but we also need passion and challenge and spiritual growth. We need a way to enact our belief in a God of love.
The zeal of young people attracted to ISIS reminds us that we must proclaim what we believe with our lives.
As Americans and Europeans, another thing we must do is distance ourselves from our own cult of death. We must say no to drone strikes, no to “boots on the ground” in Syria and Iraq, and no to the bombing raids, however effective they might be in supporting the opposition to ISIS. The God of love and mercy is never honored by killing. If every life is created by God, how can we think that an attack on human beings is anything less than a sacrilege? Perhaps we are guilty of an escapist fantasy of our own – one in which the United States is the conquering hero against today’s arch-villains, the terrorists. The landscape of our own imaginations is filled with demons.
So the young people attracted to ISIS can teach us something. Their zeal, however tragically misguided, reminds us that we must proclaim what we believe with our lives. When we talk about the God of love but continue to support the American war machine, it is no wonder that our children do not hear us. But if we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, and mount a peace movement as compelling as the warmongers’ sales pitch, we may get their attention. To do this we must choose Dostoyevsky’s “love in action,” which is “a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.” Real love is demanding, but it is never boring. It enables us to see the other, the enemy, as a three-dimensional human being. And isn’t that what all of us really want: not a fantasy world of heroes and demons but a greater life in which the other is as real to me as I am to myself?