By Dr. Ian Clarke
We usually think of ISIS as a murdering band of thugs engaged in the most gruesome forms of terrorism, including decapitating their victims and posting the pictures on the internet. However, do we ever stop to think what motivates our fellow human beings to engage in such acts?
We have had our own share of terrorism and brutality in Uganda with Kony and the LRA. We have also had the 2010 Al Shabab World Cup bombings, when about eighty people were killed and injured. I personally dealt with many of the victims of that particular terrorist bombing and it was not pretty; human beings are not built to withstand bombs packed with nuts and bolts.
One could ask why so many of these groups claim allegiance to some form of religion. In the case of Kony, he claimed to be motivated by the Holy Spirit, with the aim of bringing back government under the Ten Commandments. And while I believe that Kony is a paranoid schitzophrenic, he was very influenced by his background as a lay-reader in the Anglican Church, and his belief in the supernatural. Radical Islamic revolutionaries are deeply motivated by the desire to restore a pure version of Islam, and one person, who observed ISIS at close quarters, said that many of the radicals thought they were doing a great thing to change the world.
From ancient times, religion has been a deeply embedded part of our lives. We only have the pyramids today because of religion: the Egyptians of five thousand years ago believed that when they died they were separated from their soul for a period, but eventually the soul would come back to repossess their mortal remains. Therefore their bodies were mummified and buried with their favorite food and possessions in the tombs we know as the Pyramids. The Pharaohs started building their own tombs when they became king and continued for many years in preparation for their death.
Like the ancient Egyptians preparation for death is still an integral part of modern life for many, and in some respects it is death that makes life itself meaningful.
The problem is not religion per se it is religious intolerance. There are those who live in a homogeneous religious society where everyone believes the same thing. This could be Muslim, Christian, Hindu or Jewish, but in such closed societies it is easier for people to believe that theirs is the only doctrine that is right. Therefore, when they meet people of other religious persuasions they are intolerant. It is this mindset of intolerance, which leads first to a dogmatic point of view, from where it is a short step to a fundamentalist viewpoint, from whence one can be radicalized.
There are many good Christians, Muslims or Hindus in the world, who have never shown that degree of dogmatism or intolerance, but these are people whose journey of faith is between them and God. They believe in the two great commandments: Love God and love your neighbor as yourself, so how is it that others can do appalling acts in the name of religion? The first step is to divorce the dogma – the literal teachings and beliefs, from the spirit of the religion.
This is why Islamic fundamentalists trawl developing countries such as Uganda to get children who can be taught Islam in a certain way, which can then be used as the basis of radicalization. One must also recognize that the baser human instincts are fed by poverty, lack of privilege and injustice. Thus it is not so difficult to take young people from the bottom of the pile, tell them what they are doing in terms of violence can be justified, and comfort them with the teaching that if they die they will immediately go to a far better place. It is no co-incidence that most of the radical Islamists came from societies where poverty and injustice are rife, or where they were made to feel marginalized and unwanted.
Probably the most incendiary place in the world, in terms of religion and the potential for it all to go wrong, is Israel and the Middle East. Israel has painted itself into a corner since it seized the West Bank, made them the ‘Occupied Territories’, and then created Gaza as a virtual open-air prison for the dispossessed and disenfranchised. Now there is a potent mix of poverty, injustice, intolerance, and fear, being stoked by the narrow political interests of Donald Trump, and Benjamin Netanyahu. All this is a powder keg, on a platform of different religious beliefs.