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ISIS and the crisis of meaning

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, and their deft use of social media propels their message. Now comes news that young people from the US and UK are among their most ardent recruits. How do we make sense of this phenomenon?

Paul Brandeis Raushenbush, writing for the Huffington Post, sees this as symptomatic of a deeper crisis…a crisis of meaning.

One pointer is that the recruits who head off to Syria or Iraq to fight for ISIS are deeply ignorant of Islam itself.

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. Hussain 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.


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tobias haller

I think views such as this fail to respect the fact that there are religious differences of opinion, and these differences fuel sometimes intense debate and battle. “Religion” is not an absolute good, and it often provides the substance of conflict.

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