Each day we learn of the fierce fanaticism of the Islamic State. As I write this, the morning news reports that 82-year-old Khaled Asaad, who worked for about 50 years as head of antiquities in Palmyra, Syria has been beheaded by ISIS militants and his body has been hung on a column in a main square of the historic site. His crime: idolatry by managing Palmyra’s collection of “idols.” To date ISIS has carried out sweeping anti-idolatry campaigns, laying waste to vast amounts of precious artefacts in the areas of Syria and Iraq under its control.
Nevertheless, young people from England, Europe, and the United States are joining ISIS in ever increasing numbers. Efforts by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria to recruit young Americans are raising concerns with U.S. law enforcement, warning of the effectiveness of their fundamentalist social media message, which urges young people to travel to Syria and engage in jihad. According to a United Nations report, more than 25,000 foreign fighters have now travelled to join militant groups such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.
Countries around the world are being confronted by the reality of their young people eagerly trying to get to Syria and Iraq to play their part in the establishment of the “caliphate” ISIS is seeking to establish. The process has been going on for some time. Last October for instance, three teenage girls from Denver, sisters aged 15 and 17 and a 16-year-old friend, were apprehended in Germany, en route to Syria. And there are many others….
Certainly conditions of poverty and feelings of cultural alienation are strong factors in motivating some young people to join ISIS. They believe it will give them a greater sense of self-worth and a better life. Their ignorance is their bliss.
On the other hand, there are a number highly educated young people from around the world, with strong self-images, who are enthusiastically joining ISIS. A few weeks ago I read about three 15 & 16 year old girls from London England — all at the top of their class — who have traveled to Syria to become “ISIS brides.” Islamic State fighters want young “unblemished” girls for their wives. For these new brides, their ignorance, I suspect, may be a rather temporary bliss.
It is easy to label would-be recruits to ISIS as naive and misguided. The ever-increasing number and diversity of youth willing to join, however, leads one to ask deeper and more uncomfortable questions.
What is happening in OUR neighborhoods, communities, schools, and parochial outreach for young people? Islamic fundamentalism, channeled to young people via a very well organized and youth-focused propaganda network, is highly appealing and seductive. Young people are being seduced by the appeal of an all-life-encompassing fervent fundamentalism that denigrates the “decadent” West.
For young people, being recognized and validated by others is very important. And they have a strong need to belong. ISIS propaganda and propagandists enthusiastically befriend and welcome new recruits, promising instant affirmation and supportive community engagement.
Young people find assurance and security in such fundamentalism:
- For people who feel unimportant say: “you are important because you are God’s special messengers.”
- For people who are fearful, fundamentalism says: “you can’t be saved without us…join and be saved.”
- For the confused, fundamentalism says one doesn’t have to think about doctrine just believe and obey.
- Questioning is dangerous and disloyal.
- Fundamentalist membership makes a recruit feel good about himself or herself.
- It is self-stroking. If one is following the path of truth, self-doubt is silly.
- Fundamentalism justifies hatred of one group of people for another;
- It believes that God hates those who do not conform to their worldview.
- ISIS soldiers have no qualms about killing non-Muslim men and boys or raping “infidel” women.
- Fundamentalism exempts people from responsibility for situations or actions that cause guilt and shame.
- Fundamentalism says: “if you are one of us, you are OK. No questions asked.”
- Fundamentalism excuses people from honest self-examination.
- It justifies their prejudices, zealotry, intolerance and hatefulness.
Regardless whether it is Islamic, Jewish, or Christian fundamentalism, all religious fundamentalism is fundamentally flawed because it takes one element of the truth and proclaims it as the WHOLE TRUTH. Religious fundamentalists place such a high priority on doctrinal conformity and obedience to doctrinaire spokespersons that they sacrifice the very values so basic to the world’s great religious traditions: love, compassion, forgiveness, tolerance and caring. In their overwhelming seriousness about religion, fundamentalists do not hesitate to intervene in political and social process to ensure that society is forced to conform to the values and behaviors the fundamentalist worldview requires.
And so what do we do for young people who experience lives of pain, emptiness, hopelessness, violence, addiction, and self-harm?
What mission and vision can we offer them that attracts and appeals to their youthful zeal and energy?
Doesn’t Christianity have a better and far more healthy and humane answer to the mysteries of life
than ISIS fanaticism…..
Shouldn’t we be working to promote healthy religion?
In many ways, the ball is really in our court…..