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

In these times, many seek 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 related to the terrible deeds perpetrated by the groups known as ISIS, ISIS-K, ISIL, Daesh, and their sometimes enemies and friends, the Taliban. These groups are often portrayed as doing these things because of economic, societal, vocational, political, or historical grievances. Usually, the discussion also centers on the religious component, in this case, a debate over whether these groups truly represent Islam or not.

Secular Western societies and reporters struggle with the concept that the primary cause for these group’s actions is the interpretation of Islamic scriptures and practices. They represent a small but long-time existent branch of Islam. The historical lenses through which their actions are viewed are often more like binoculars than telescopes. The lens aperture goes back no further than the U.S. and its coalition partners’ several interventions in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan from 1990 to 2021. Indeed, the existence of ISIS must be a reaction to those recent crusader-like events!

The reality is that Islam’s history of “modern” fundamentalist groups goes back over 750 years. Also, it is essential to note that Islam is not the only religious group in history with an extreme fringe. It is clear that when any faith’s journey goes awry, bad things may happen.

As we know it today, these groups are a variant form of Salafism, a small but vocal branch of Sunni Islam dating from 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 conservative reform in Islam, more in line with what he perceived to be the Islam of the Prophet and his immediate successors. Today, current ISIS leadership uses Taymiyyah’s fatwas (religious and legal declarations) to justify their actions. While Islam is undoubtedly monotheistic, it is not monolithic. There are many branches or types of Islamic thinking and loyalties, as well as different sects within Judaism, Christianity, and Buddhism. Neither the existence of these groups nor their hermeneutics is a product of current events. In these days, however, they do use modern technologies and methodologies to their benefit.

Any study of religion and conflict shows that great harm has been done in the name of faith. Many wars have involved some aspects of religion and other contributing forces. There also have been conflicts where religion was not just a contributor but “the driving force.” Throughout humanity, many religious groups have engaged in such destruction. The BBC website on religions and war ( reminds us of the following:

  • The 20th-century Sri Lankan war between Buddhists and Hindus. It cost 50,000 lives.

  • The 14th-century conflicts 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 involved a strong religious component:

  • 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 current battles and riots in northwest Nigeria between Christians and Muslims.

  • The Cristiada Wars in Mexico in the mid-1920s and 1930s were fought between the Catholic Church’s lay forces and the government.

  • The Münster Rebellion was fought 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, possibly leading to ►

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,” possibly leading to

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, possibly leading to ►

Destruction - The ultimate form of control – violent acts ensuring the unbeliever or apostate, together with his culture, repents, converts, or is eliminated.

This progression is neither inevitable nor normative, but it is where some religious groups are today. This continuum 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. If such resolution fails, any change in this progression must come from within the broader movement or its leaders. 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. Destruction will be even more challenging to dissipate by dialogue or persuasion. So it has been through the years. Such groups are likely to turn a deaf ear to non-believers or “moderates'” warnings or pleas once both have been branded with the infidel, reprobate, or unbeliever label. In many cases we may be there today.

Where will we be tomorrow? That is the challenge and the hope. By 1903 the British had militarily defeated the forces of the 19th century Islamic Sokoto Caliphate mentioned above. Fifty years ago, I lived, studied, and worked on the border between Benin and Nigeria, right on the edge of the Caliphate’s former territory. Although no longer there in name, the Caliphate is an ideological reality, alive and well, perpetuated by the royal Fulani 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 scholarly, proud, capable, and still a little fierce, keenly aware of their beautiful poetry and 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, a culture as powerfully religious and sophisticated as the Sokoto Caliphate will survive in the hearts and minds of its descendants. Its structure may go underground for a while, but its ideology and the people who adhere to it survive. Similarly, the modern Yazidis of Kurdistan will and have endured and survived all the pain thrown at them over the centuries.

Therein lays a grain of hope. Some years ago, the current Sultan of Sokoto, to whom I have referred, and other key Islamic leaders signed a letter decrying ISIS as non-representative of classic Islamic theology and doctrine. Perhaps they will help break the link between ISIS doctrine, dogma, and duty in the minds of its followers over time. 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 recent 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.”

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