As we head into Iraq again, we need to evaluate each side's critique of the other.
Tell me who you think the following sentence refers to, and I’ll tell you if you live in a 21st century Muslim country or a 21st century Christian-led country.
Be afraid: A violence-loving nation whose leaders all profess the same religion are convinced the whole world should believe and behave as they do, and they even tolerate the killing of children in service of their aims.
If you said “Clearly, those words are about ISIS, with its visions of establishing a harsh Sharia system all over the world,” you live in a Western nation headed by a professed Christian — maybe the United States or Germany or Brazil.
If you said “Clearly, those words are about America, whose media spreads violence and immorality and whose money spreads abortion throughout the world,” you live in a Muslim nation — maybe Pakistan or Indonesia or Sierra Leone.
Both have a point — and both are mistaken. As we head to Iraq again, with Obama sounding the charge, it is important to evaluate each side’s critique of the other.
First, ISIS. In his remarks Wednesday night President Obama said “ISIL is not ‘Islamic.’” That’s probably overstating the case — but the non-religious nature of Jihadist terrorism has been pretty clear since we first heard the unsavory ways the 9/11 hijackers spent their last days on earth.
As Mehdi Hasan pointed out in the New Statesman a few weeks ago: “In 2008, a classified briefing note on radicalization, prepared by MI5’s behavioral science unit, was leaked to the Guardian. It revealed 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 analysts concluded that ‘a well-established religious identity actually protects against violent radicalization,’ the newspaper said.”
So, if faith doesn’t motivate jihadists, what does?
Hasan listed them: “Moral outrage, disaffection, peer pressure, the search for a new identity, for a sense of belonging and purpose.” These are, eerily, the same motives often attributed to Columbine High killers Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris (who, eerily, also imagined a 9/11 style attack).
But ISIS clearly is enthusiastic about Islam, right? Andrew Salzmann, in Small Wars Journal, describes how historical narratives loom large in ISIS’ minds and becomes a frame of reference for them — not because their humility is great in the face of the mighty Allah, but because Islamic imagery feeds their mighty egos. “ISIS needs to suffer a humiliating loss,” writes Salzmann.
Meanwhile, these secularized Muslims with a historical imagination are confronted by secularized Christians with a nihilistic imagination.
St. John Paul II was prophetic in his 2001 World Day of Peace address when he said Western cultural imperialism put the world at risk of war. The “practical atheism” and “radical individualism” of the West is steamrolling cultures all over the world, he said.
“This is a phenomenon of vast proportions, sustained by powerful media campaigns … a comprehensive world-view which erodes from within other estimable cultures and civilizations. Western cultural models are enticing and alluring because of their remarkable scientific and technical cast, but regrettably there is growing evidence of their deepening human, spiritual and moral impoverishment” (No. 9).
We’re exporting a “Culture of Death,” he said — meaning everything from abortion and contraceptive aid to violent movies, games and pornography.
So, is the battle in which we are engaged a case of megalomaniac wannabe Muslims vs. megalomaniac lapsed Christians?
Should we be at loss who to root for? Certainly not.