Self-named IS (Islamic State) fighters partly formed out of al-Qaeda in 2013. They were responsible for a humanitarian crisis: an estimated 1.2 million terrified and homeless Iraqis, having fled from them to the mountains, were exposed to soaring heat, often without anything to eat or drink.
Most Muslims are completely blameless. But the extremists behave barbarically. One historian has pointed out that many centuries ago Islam was:
“born into a world that (already) took for granted the right of conquerors to extort tribute from the conquered; to capture and keep slaves; to maim and execute rebels.” (Historian Tom Holland)
Nevertheless many of us are bewildered that anyone would be willing in this day and age to cause such suffering. How can we understand the mind-set of Islamic militants committing atrocities?
What inspires young men to join IS?
It seems that one factor is the thrill and excitement of combat: something that will appeal more to those young men who are bored, and frustrated in their everyday lives.
Another possible factor is the chance to find an alternative identity through belonging to a new movement: possibly an appealing prospect for those, wherever they live, who are not accepting or assimilated into the Western world culture with its values of consumerism, individualism, feminism, and democracy.
However, a major factor appears to be an increase in social status. Such people correctly or incorrectly feel applauded by friends and others in the wider Islamic world as IS tries to reassert the importance of Islamic society following the end of the Ottoman Empire and to emulate the history of Islamic ascendancy.
Many centuries ago, the Prophet Mohammed led military campaigns in present-day Saudi Arabia to unite disparate Arabian tribes under Islamic rule. Since then Islam had made very successful and rapid military expansions into the Middle East, northern Africa, Central Asia and even into parts of Europe.
There seems to be a yearning for a regained dominance among some of the young Muslims who are disaffected by the current prevalence everywhere of Western influence. They believe all Muslims should be joined together in one glorious political state, ruled by Islamic law rather than by a secular democratic system, and stronger than the Western powers that have long invaded it.
So is religion to blame for this mess?
There is consensus amongst Islamic scholars, reported by for example Javed Ghamidid, that the concept of jihad includes armed struggle against persecution and oppression. Whether the Koran sanctions defensive warfare only or commands an all out war against non-Muslims is said to depend on the interpretation of the relevant passages. Today, some Muslim authors only recognize wars with the aim of territorial defence as well as the defence of religious freedom as legitimate. According to polls, in Lebanon, Kuwait, Jordan and Morocco, the majority use the term to mean “duty toward God”, a “divine duty”, or a “worship of God”, with no militaristic connotations
However, it seems that when they do pay any attention to their scripture, the IS fighters tend to take the Koran literally rather than perceive any deeper humane message within its text and wish to compel people to follow the law to the letter.
A Koranic verse grants Christians tolerance in exchange for acknowledging their submission and paying a tax, and this has been interpreted as justifying the stealing of their churches and stripping them of their belongings. The result is homelessness and risk of starvation. Because the Koran makes no mention of the faith followed by the Yazidis, the men of that religion have been condemned as pagans and targeted for slaughter and their women and children taken into slavery. And Muslims deemed to be inadequately Islamic (such as Shia Muslims) have been crucified, beheaded or shot.
Religious belief without any charitable heart
Emanuel Swedenborg has always been known for criticising what has been called a ‘faith alone’ Christian theology: the doctrine that as long as you believe in Christ as your Saviour then you are justified in what you do no matter whether or not you have a charitable heart. In other words Swedenborg maintained that religious belief without love for other people and doing what is good is of no use: such a belief amounts to hypocrisy. For him
“All religion has relation to life, and the life of religion is to do good” (Emanuel Swedenborg, theologian)
He wrote about what he termed ‘persuasive faith’ as an imitation of true faith. People are persuaded of something when it suits them; when it gives them personal position, honour or gain. Religious knowledge with them:
“goes no further than through the ears into the memory, and from the memory passes out on to the lips. It does not enter the heart and from there into a confession of it.” (Emanuel Swedenborg)
I would suggest that the IS fighters have this kind of religiosity. It sounds as though they persuade themselves of their version of Islamic teaching: and that they believe in it if they see it as colluding with their dream of absolute power rather than for the sake of truth, or for the sake of what is good in life.
In 2008, a classified briefing note on radicalisation, prepared by MI5’s behavioural science unit, was leaked to the Guardian. The analysts concluded that “a well-established religious identity actually protects against violent radicalisation”, the newspaper said.
I strongly suspect that men who take sadistic pleasure in bombings and beheadings try to justify their violence with recourse to religious rhetoric. Taking the Koran literally they believe they have a licence to maim, enslave and kill. They completely fail to understand the spiritual communication from God which is supremely compassionate and wise.
Copyright 2014 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of Heart, Head & Hands Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems