When Faith's Journey Goes Awry . . . The Road to Destruction

In these times, many are seeking answers to the question “What motivates religious people to commit terrible acts of violence in the name of their beliefs and/or God?” A review of opinion articles and blogs provides a cornucopia of responses, especially as it relates to the terrible deeds perpetrated by the group known as ISIS, ISIL, or Daesh. They are often portrayed as doing these things because of economic, societal, vocational, political, or historical grievances. Usually the discussion also involves the religious component, in this case, a debate over whether they truly represent Islam or not.

Secular Western societies and reporters, who are majority nominally religious themselves, struggle with the concept that the primary cause for ISIS's actions are religious in nature, and do in fact represent a small but long-time existent branch of Islam. The historical lenses through which their actions are viewed are more like binoculars than telescopes. Often the lens goes back no further than the U.S. and its coalition partners’ several interventions in Iraq from 1990 to 2003. Surely, the existence of ISIS must be a reaction to those recent crusader-like events! The reality is that the history of “modern” fundamentalist groups in Islam goes back over 750 years. Also it is important to note that Islam is not the only religious group in history having done terrible things. It is clear that when any faith’s journey goes awry, bad things may happen.

ISIS as we know it today is a variant form of Salafism, a small but vocal branch of Sunni Islam dating from at least the time of the thirteenth century cleric and scholar Ibn Taymiyyah. He was born on the Turkish/Syrian border, only about sixty miles from Raqqa, the capital of ISIS. He called for a conservative reform in Islam, more in line with what he perceived to be the Islam of the Prophet and his immediate successors. Taymiyyah's fatwas (religious and legal declarations) are used today by current ISIS leadership to justify certain of their actions. While Islam is certainly monotheistic, it is not monolithic. There are many branches or types of Islamic thinking and loyalties, in much the same way that there are different branches within Judaism, Christianity, and Buddhism. Neither the existence of ISIS nor its theology is a product of current events, although it uses modern technologies and methodologies to its benefit.

Any study of religion and conflict shows that great harm has at times, been done in the name of faith. Many wars have involved certain elements of religion, along with other contributing forces. There also have been conflicts where religion was not just a contributor, but “the driving force.” Virtually every major religion has engaged in such destruction. The BBC website on religions and war (http://www.bbc.co.uk/ethics/war/religious/holywar.shtml) reminds us of the following:

  • The 20th century Sri Lankan war between Buddhists and Hindus. It cost 50,000 lives
  • The 14th century wars between Buddhists and nominally Muslim Mongols in China
  • The Crusades between Christians and Muslims from 1095 to 1291

Other wars or events that come to mind that were primarily religious in nature:

  • The 1857 Mountain Meadows Mormon Massacre of gentiles in southwest Utah
  • The Thirty Year’s War between Protestants and Catholics in the 17th century
  • The 1572 St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of French Protestants by Catholics
  • The early 19th century fighting and formation of the Sokoto Caliphate between Fulani, Yoruba, and Hausa (Muslims and animists)
  • The battles and riots in northwest Nigeria in 2010 between Christians and Muslims
  • The Cristiada Wars in Mexico in the mid-1920s and mid-1930s between lay forces of the Catholic Church and the government
  • The Münster rebellion between civil authorities and Anabaptists in 1534 in Münster, Germany

I would suggest that religion’s journey toward violence is more likely to occur when the following progression takes place:

Doctrine (A core set of beliefs is defined) ►Dogma (Beliefs are codified in a manner that demands obedience and usually endows the believer with a sense of exclusivity as the recipient and singular holder of the “truth”) ►Duty (The responsibility of the faithful to uphold and maintain the purity and homogeneity of the faith via coercion, conversion, or control of the unbeliever or apostate) ►Destruction (The ultimate from of control – violent acts ensuring the unbeliever or apostate repents, converts, or is eliminated).

This progression is neither inevitable nor normative, but it is where I believe ISIS is today. The progression is best broken before Doctrine becomes Dogma. After that, it is almost too late for a peaceful resolution between the faithful, the apostate, and the unbeliever. Thereafter, any change of progression or purpose must come either from within the broader movement and its leaders or by the application of an equal or greater and opposite force. Persuasion of the faithful that they are in error (once a Duty has been declared) is rarely effective. Add to this the power of a group or mass movement psychology, and Destruction will be even harder to dissipate by dialogue or persuasion. So it has been through the years. ISIS is likely to turn a deaf ear to the admonitions or pleas of those who we are calling “moderate Muslims” because they also have been branded with the “kafir” or infidel label. I believe that is where we are today.

Where will we be tomorrow? That is the challenge and the hope. By 1903 the British had militarily defeated the forces of the above-mentioned Sokoto Caliphate. Some years ago I lived, studied, and worked on the border between Benin and Nigeria, right on the edge of the Caliphate’s former territory. The caliphate, although no longer there in name, is an ideological reality, alive and well, perpetuated by the royal Fulanis and feared by the animists. My best friend there was Abdullahi Bello Ka’oje. He was a relative of the then-current Sultan of Sokoto and the Emir of Gwandu. I found Abdullahi and his relatives to be a scholarly, proud, capable, and still a little fierce people keenly aware of their poetry and their proud heritage. I say this because I suppose by 1906 Lord Lugard, head of British Northern Nigeria thought he had eradicated the caliphate. While certainly not comparing it to ISIS or the Salafist Boko Haram of northeastern Nigeria, something as powerfully religious like the Sokoto Caliphate is rarely eliminated. Its structure may go underground for a while, but its ideology and the people who adhere to it survive. In a similar sense the Yazidis of today will and have survived all the pain thrown at them over the centuries.

Therein lays a grain of hope. The current Sultan of Sokoto, to whom I have referred, about a year ago signed a letter, along with a number of other key Islamic leaders decrying ISIS as non-representative of classic Islamic theology and doctrine. Perhaps they will, over time break the link between ISIS doctrine and dogma in the minds of its followers. Therein lays the real hope.

Morris R Cohen, former professor of philosophy at New York City College, in 1946 left us his thoughts which seem very relevant given the intensity of current events:

"Cruel persecution and intolerance are not accidents, but grow out of the very essence of religion, namely, its absolute claims. So long as each religion claims to have absolute, supernaturally revealed truth, all other religions are sinful errors."

"In the end, there is no way in which people can live together decently unless each individual or group realizes that the whole of truth and virtue is not exclusively in its possession. This is a hard lesson to learn, but without it there can be no humane civilization."

Phil Stover is the author of Religion and Revolution in Mexico’s North: Even Unto Death . . . Tengamos Fe and a member of the National Coalition of Independent Scholars. He has served as a guest lecturer at the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict at Arizona State University.