ISIS and the Crisis of Meaning

News of the horrific violence perpetrated by members of the group ISIS, or IS, on Muslims, Christians, and other minorities continues to shock the world. Within the past weeks, ISIS has beheaded the journalist James Foley, brutally attacked Christians and Yazidis in Northern Iraq using rape as a weapon of terror, and slaughtered occupants of a Syrian military base. In each of these instances, ISIS has used social media to post gruesome photos of its violence to increase the reach of their terror campaign.

In this context, the news that American citizens have joined ISIS and died fighting on its behalf is deeply troubling. The U.S. government has confirmed that Douglas McArthur McCain, an American originally from Minneapolis, was killed in a recent battle in Iraq and it appears that another American also died in the same battle.

Virtually every Muslim around the world has condemned ISIS as un-Islamic. This includes Egypt's most influential cleric Grand Mufti Shawqi Allam, who described ISIS as "an extremist and bloody group that poses a danger to Islam and Muslims." Yet despite wide condemnation, it is estimated that there are up to 11,000 foreign fighters in Syria, dozens of whom are Americans and clearly, some of these Americans have found their way into the ranks of ISIS and are dying there.

ISIS is a serious threat that must be stopped and part of the solution requires force. The recent air attacks by the United States in coordination with Kurdish and Iraqi forces on the ground have reversed the tide somewhat in Iraq and similar measures are now being considered in Syria as ISIS makes gains in that tragically war torn country.

However, as Ed Husain told a group of journalists on a conference call with the Council on Foreign Relations, the long-term solution will not come through the military but rather by understanding the appeal of ISIS to those who join, and working to cut off its supply of potential recruits. In other words, while military tactics can be effective in the short term, you can't bomb an ideology. You have to combat it with better ideology.

According to Husain, who is a senior fellow at CFR, there is a profile that describes many of those who join ISIS. They tend to be young people aged 18-25 who lack a strong network and are seeking a sense of belonging and identity. The allure of a group like ISIS is that it gives these seekers a sense of purpose and being a part of something larger than themselves. It also gives them an outlet for their sense of injustice in the world and the opportunity to be part of a global struggle against injustice -- with the target being "The West," capitalism, or what they see as corrupt Muslim governments.

This view of ISIS is also held by Prof. John Esposito who stressed in an excellent piece on The Huffington Post called "The Challenges of Defeating ISIS" that the "drivers of radicalization include moral outrage, disaffection, peer pressure, the search for a new identity, and for a sense of meaning, purpose and belonging."

What struck me in these expert assessments is the continued use of the word "meaning," and how a lack of a sense of meaning and purpose in life, coupled with the experience of alienation within one's society, has led to many young (mostly) men, to turn towards such deadly violence.

Much of my professional life has been spent in churches, universities and now online, trying to help people wrestle with questions of identity, meaning and purpose. The current draw of young people to radical, violent groups such as ISIS reminds me that this work is as pressing now as it has ever been.

Counterintuitively, religion offers solutions for meaning in the face of alienation. Mehdi Hasan, political director for HuffPost UK, explained that many people attracted to groups like ISIS are actually ignorant of the basics of Islam. In fact, two UK citizens' final purchases from Amazon before setting out to join a jihadist group recently were the books Islam for Dummies and The Koran for Dummies. Hasan shared a quote leaked from MI5's behavioral science unit to the Guardian explaining that: "Far from being religious zealots, a large number of those involved in terrorism do not practice their faith regularly. Many lack religious literacy and could... be regarded as religious novices."

The knowledge that potential recruits actually are ignorant of the religion they claim to be defending offers an opportunity. Prof. Omid Safi, director of the Duke Islamic Studies Center wrote to me in an email that "part of the solution is more through, deeper, and more rigorous religious education from figures that actually carry credibility in the Muslim community."

Safi went on to offer a way to explain how a more informed, deeper understanding of religion can be a force for good in the world and one that resists violence:

As far as what I say to young people, my own message is fairly simple: Religion has always been and remains today a tool. It can be used to prop up the pharaoh; it can give voice to the deepest anguish and aspiration of the slaves. It is important to re-invest in the prophetic dimension of all of our religious traditions, so that young people can come to see religion as a way of standing up to tyranny, to occupation, to poverty, to violence, to sexism, to every form of degrading human dignity. And yet we have to keep insisting that the means to get there have to be resonant with our noble ideals. In other words, it is vital that we pursue that opposition to tyranny and violence in means that are themselves not tyrannical or violent.

Religion is one important means for helping young people find meaning and belonging, but it is not the only one. Religious leaders are not the only way to reach young people, as Mr. Husain said in his call. The task also requires the family, the local community, teachers, pop culture, and people of good will online and offline.

Long term, ISIS and the lure of other violent extremism in Islam and other religions will only be stopped if we are all invested in reaching out to young people. We have to be available to listen to their concerns, empathize with their sense of alienation, and help them find constructive ways to engage societal injustice. It is all of our responsibility to empower this generation with the knowledge and support they need to find a meaningful life and a positive identity that they can embrace and be proud of.

ISIS and other radical groups are deadly serious about reaching out to young people with their skewed version of meaning that leads to death and destruction. Are we just as serious in reaching out to offer meaning that results in affirming life and creating a better world?

Give Peace A Chance