I chose this photo because it represents the quality of happiness that reflects the values experienced and cherished by the Muslims that I know. I have been privileged to know many such brothers and sisters for decades, and these bonds insulate me from stereotypes.
However, at a certain point, I could no longer teach my world religions class by highlighting only the beautiful and true and good that I found in the traditions we were studying. I had to spend at least a little time addressing the other side.
How do members of a certain vulnerable demographic segment get led into IS (ISIS)? The process is described by a former bin Laden confidant. The process “begins with instilling religious guilt in a young Muslim, telling him that he is not sufficiently pious. Next, he is persuaded that the West is waging a war on Islam. The third phase is psychological: A potential recruit develops a persecution complex, withdraws from society, and comes to believe he is superior to those around him. ‘With his spiritual ascension, he starts to see everyone else as nothing but pigs and cows,’ [Aidan] Dean says. ‘That unleashes the psychopath within,’ so that he can “slaughter people without any remorse whatsoever.’” (As presented in the Christian Science Monitor, June 22, 2015, p. 17.)
Only a small minority will go as far as step four, but we do well, I believe, to reflect on the first three steps for our own health.
A large proportion of religious believers worldwide are in fact not very faithful; manipulating such a recognition into guilt feelings is another matter, but guilt is sometimes real, and some guilt feelings are legitimate.
Second, it is not difficult to understand how a case for the second point could be made out. There are bombing runs in which American non-Muslims do attack targets and kill or injure persons who are Muslims. I do not believe that most people who are responsible for these policies or carry them out or support them politically are doing so based on an antagonism to Islam. Nevertheless, motivations are easily to misinterpret, and the climate of overheated political, cultural, and religious rhetoric makes polarized positions appear normal.
Third, belief in one’s superiority to others is very easy to come by.
Now a few comments. All major religions at their best encourage believers in the direction of goodness in their relationships with fellow human beings. The way to deal with the discovery of unbeautifulness within oneself, is to find fresh motivation to follow that way of goodness.
It has not been a quiet week in Stow, Ohio. Two days ago, I clearly recognized for the first time that I had been unconsciously carrying around a stratum of unbeautiful attitude: intellectual snobbery. With that clarity, I was able to let it go. With that released from the system, I felt a new freedom. I remember my parents telling me occasionally as a child, “Just be Jeff.” I lost a certain self-sublimity and artificial height, but gained in be able to be simply a human being.
Then today during my workout, I wandered into another discovery: a new clarity about a mostly subterranean quality of competitiveness, which I allowed to blossom into consciousness in unadorned ugliness; tired from recent efforts, I wondered how I was going to deal with this most recent discovery . . . and then in a few minutes, I received a marvelous, strong, invasion of the spirit of brotherhood that filled me and totally replaced the competitiveness I needed to release.
Several months after September 11, 2001, the annual meeting of the Ohio Academy of Religion had a session on fanaticism. I presented a paper proposing that a few of Kant’s ideas could be adapted to promote interreligious peace. One key proposal was that religions not compete to be the dominant religion on the planet, but instead agree (I was speaking mainly of the Abrahamic religions) to recognize only God as sovereign.
After stating that ideas, I offered the following three paragraphs.
Is this requirement for peace logically possible? Does it mean that a believer must not regard his or her doctrine as superior to any other doctrine that directly contradicts it? This would be an intellectual impossibility. But the proposal does not require intellectual or theological uniformity. Religion is deeper than theology. The riverbed is not the river. The institutions and doctrines of religion are not the flowing stream of spiritual life itself. Religion activates living relationships with God and with all creation in the light of the primary relationship with God. The water that flows in one riverbed is not superior to the water that flows elsewhere.
Is it psychologically possible for people to experience religious peace? The proposal is based on an appeal to which all monotheistic traditions would easily agree; but it involves a requirement which is subtle and at times elusive in its psychological demands. We are all too ready to play the “Mine is better than yours” game. For example, we, who understand the need for tolerance, are better than those others. Having organized many conferences of world religions, again and again I saw the same result: without pressure to agree with one another, after a few minutes of slight awkwardness, the majority of panelists were caught up in a spiritual unity that was so evident that the audience could see the light in their eyes, could feel the dance of their sharing. People did not maintain themselves in ironclad religious identities; they enjoyed a smorgasbord of the spirit. They focused on goals, not creeds. And there was one rule: that there be no attack on other religions.
One helpful thing would be to use a more differentiated vocabulary when characterizing religious believers. The term fundamentalist should be used to indicate a conservative theological position, which does not necessarily involve fanaticism or intolerance. The term enthusiastic could be used to characterize supreme personal devotion. Let the term fanatic, as I have suggested, connote a mindset where religious ideals are exalted in isolation from the scientific mental attitude, from a critical philosophy, from beauty in nature and the arts, and from diverse types of spiritual experience. We might use the term evangelistic to describe those who proclaim, even aggressively, the message of salvation of their particular religious group. And we need a different term from each of these to name an imperialist disposition that is intolerant of other religions and seeks domination. Moreover, someone could be an active defender of his or her tradition without being aggressive. And hostility is a psychological disposition, a propensity toward violence, independent of each of these other characteristics. There are no necessary connections between these concepts, but it is common to lump them together.
One final thought. While I busy myself with thin strata of imperfection in my character and write out philosophical reflections, the world rages with conflict that calls for robust courage and the willingness to engage totally in the service of divine ideals, even at the cost of one’s life. And that is what even the worst perversion of Islam seems to offer. If we are not on the front lines—in whatever possibly peaceful way to which we may be called—we cannot compete with the appeal of those who dare and do. The call of God’s will and the adventure of establishing brotherhood, the family of God, in our world must be answered wholeheartedly and joyously by those who understand it better than violent fanatics do. We know that on the field of truth, error eventually destroys itself. No matter what our call—philosopher, evangelist, parent, company man—we can take up our daily task with a fullness of commitment that spills over into our relationships with friends and strangers, neighbors, fellow citizens, and citizens of all nations. Let us each today find some way to put that higher commitment into practice.
The article of my own that I cited may be found here: