The debate: do extremists—does ISIS—represent their religion?

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I had awesome pushback from a LinkedIn colleague on my recent post there. I appreciate resistance to my ideas because it means one of two things: either I made a good point badly, which means I need to correct the way I put something, or I made a bad point well—which means I personally need correcting…and if I’m receptive to that I’ll end up smarter than I had been. It’s a win-win.

My argument was that ISIS, like all terror movements, is pursuing political power rather than actual moral authority, and one proof lies in their murdering a humanitarian who was in the region to serve their fellow Arabs in need. My friend asked me what I had meant by this phrase: “No need to keep pretending it had anything to do with religion.”

He correctly observed, “For those who want to kill and behead the infidels, it is ALL ABOUT ISLAM.”

Yes, absolutely. There are some individuals who fervently support violence against innocents for their cause. When he was alive, I often startled people in my public speaking by saying that I admired bin Laden. Then I would elaborate and explain that in general, I admire self-sacrificing devotion to a cause…and who could argue that his forsaking vast wealth, comfort and safety was anything else? Of course, admiring his courage would not have prevented my killing him.

(By the way, if you’d like to read more about violent Jewish, Christian, Hindu and Buddhist extremists, jump to those links down near the end.)

I agree that for a hard core of ISIS, maybe most of ISIS, it is all about Islam according to their interpretation. There are True Believers among them. But there are also opportunists in every movement. When a criminal group has success, it attracts criminals.

For some “terrorists” in a large organization there are other-than-idealistic motivations. I personally reviewed hundreds of detainee reports in Iraq, in which subjects insisted they’d only been fighting because it was the only paycheck available and the kids had to eat. (Card carrying Nazis and Soviets did the same, in their day. I have a couple of those actual cards.) And we KNOW there was a crisis of employment during the worst of the Iraq war; in some areas it was 70%.

Jihadi prisoners, on the other hand, fewer and farther between, were proud to say they had been killing infidels. It’s a self-proving population. When the jig is up and they’re locked up, they’re only too happy to identify themselves for what they are. It gives them loyalty points with God.

And in Afghanistan, many “Talibs” began their career facing an AK-47 and an infernal bargain at their own front door: join and serve as the one required conscript per household for God’s army, or watch a loved one be killed. What would you do?

Then there are the brutish fighters. The just-plain-criminals. Some boys just want to jump in on the winning side and shoot some guys in the head.

So when I say it’s not about religion, I realize it would be much more accurate to say that “in my opinion, it is the opinion of most Muslims around the world that violent Islamists do not practice true Islam.” Obviously the extremists say it’s about Islam, and certainly some of them believe it. Westboro believes traumatizing newly fatherless children is “about Christianity,” and the Christian movement who celebrate the killing of abortion providers feel the same.

The Jewish fighters who plot to hurry God along by destroying the Dome and its “animal Arabs” believe it is “about Judaism.”

And have you heard about the violent Hindu extremists and violent Buddhist extremists?

(Yes, violent Hindu extremists and violent Buddhist extremists.)

Ultimately, in my worldview it’s important to both acknowledge and prevent the evil deeds of murderers, and simultaneously strengthen cooperation with those who can support those efforts. I believe global security in an era of unprecedented communication demands a reassessment of ALL our biases, and some very mature conversation. I believe we’re in that conversation now.

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9 thoughts on “The debate: do extremists—does ISIS—represent their religion?

  1. Good point Rob, consider that before that, anyone who disagreed with Catholic dogma was considered a heretic. (though there were other orthodoxies in the Ethiopian, Greek and Russian traditions).

  2. Very good question. Reminds me of the shock wave that went through European society once the Bible was made popularly available in print. The priesthood no longer had a monopoly on “truth.”

  3. I have wondered what the role of illiteracy plays in the extremist movement. If you cannot read the Koran for yourself, then you would be unable to question to the interpretation of any given passage. If you cannot read, the result is an extremely narrow worldview based on the bits of information given to you by those in authority or highly respected. Even in literate countries, we see the same short-sightedness of accepting as fact some pretty outrageous things. The difference is that people in literate countries make a conscious choice to not exercise their access to the mounds of information available. Those who are illiterate do not have that luxury. I don’t know the illiteracy rates in ME countries, but I would imagine that it varies from place to place. Would be interesting to see if there is any correlation between fighters and illiteracy, though.

  4. Great point about no individual representing the whole group, Andi. And there is an epic (of biblical proportions!) amount of selective hearing and sharing among all the faiths I’ve explored. Each will preach according to the bits that best support his point.
    I suppose we have to rely on “center mass” (another hilarious faith pun, I’ll admit) as to what a group is about. For example, Question 1: Do most of us support public decapitation? No? Okay, noted. Question 2: Do most of us support giving food to hungry children? Yes. Okay, noted. Question 3: ….

  5. This is a very insightful post, Rob. You correctly point out that, in general, the religion is a secondary point or at least, not always the main driving force.
    However, you do miss the very real point that, actually, NOBODY and NO single group represents their entire religion. It is just as true to say that moderate muslims do not represent Islam as it is to say that jihadists do not. It’s also true to say that Southern Baptists are as generally unrepresentative of Christianity as Episcopalians, Lutherans or indeed, The WBC. The trap is the ‘No True Scotsman’ fallacy. Once you start to say that someone does not represent the ‘true’ religion, then you simply retreat further into factionalism, you’ll always find a way to excuse the uncomfortable parts of the religion that you personally (or your group) do not like on the basis that those who do believe those parts are ‘not true believers’. Religious belief thereby falls along a spectrum of personal comfort.
    If you’re comfortable with being a murdering asshole, or picketing the funerals of suicided veterans, then you’ll find that your religion justifies it just fine. If you’re more into bake sales and macrame circles and feeding the homeless, then, ‘God Bless Ya’ you’re a true believer too. There are African American preachers who preach against homosexuality because “the Bible tells me so” but I’m pretty sure they gloss over the parts where the Bible also justifies slavery. Religion has very little to do with God, but everything to do with justifying the practices of a given ‘in group’ – no matter whether we all consider those groups moderate or extreme. It’s the same book, it’s the same religion, and it’s all about power over the ‘tribe’.
    Consider this. What would you call someone who takes a child a few days old, and with a sharp knife (and no anesthetic) cuts away a piece of the child’s genitals. Then, while the child is bleeding, the person places the child’s penis in his mouth, sucks it and spits away the blood. In any rational sphere of thought, we would call that person a child abuser – possibly a pedophile. In orthodox Judaism, they call that a Mohel, and their religion justifies it. You can’t argue that ‘well, that’s not true Judaism’, because the reality is, the more complex a religion is, the more hoops believers will jump through to score ‘God points’. The old religions are complex as hell, therefore your belief is just a matter of how many hoops you believe there are.

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