Violence in the Name of Religion: The Jewish Perspective on the Crisis of ISIS

(L to R) Professor Miriam F. Elman of SU’s Maxwell School;  Tanweer Haq, former Islamic Chaplain, SU Hendricks Chapel; and Fr. Linus DeSantis, Alibrandi Catholic Center, at the Abraham’s Table Discussion at Interfaith Works, Syracuse, NY on Feb. 10, 2015.
(L to R) Professor Miriam F. Elman of SU’s Maxwell School;  Fr. Linus DeSantis, Alibrandi Catholic Center; and Tanweer Haq, former Islamic Chaplain, SU Hendricks Chapel, at the Abraham’s Table Discussion at InterFaith Works, Syracuse, NY on Feb. 10, 2015.

By Miriam F. Elman

(Remarks made on Feb. 10, 2015 at an Abraham’s Table Discussion, InterFaith Works, Syracuse, NY) In preparing my remarks for tonight, I’ve thought a lot about the crisis of ISIS (also called ISIL, the Islamic State, or Daesh—as it’s known in Arabic).

But I’ve also thought a great deal about the courageous men and women who refuse to be intimidated into silence and, often at great risk to themselves and to their families, are standing up for a different Islam—one that can co-exist with the fundamental human rights of liberty, freedom, pluralism, and the rights of women, of the child, and of all religious minorities.

And so, I’m left asking myself: am I doing enough to help these brave men and women? Or am I just free-riding on their hard work? What is my responsibility—as a Jew, as an American, and as a human being? I’d like to make four general points.

First, what we are witnessing today is a global crisis of much larger proportions than just ISIS.

ISIS is currently a grave threat to the Middle East region. But my own view is that, just like Al Qaeda’s reign of terror in Iraq eventually ended, so too we will see the demise of ISIS. It too will overstep; it too will exact such a high cost on society that people will rise up against it.

ISIS will come and go, but its ideology is a mass brand that will outlast its demise. It would be a relief if we only had to worry about a handful of jihadists involved in terrorism. But it’s time that we stopped living in denial. The first step to defeating Islamic radicalism is acknowledging that there is a problem.

My second point is that we need to recognize that this crisis is not just about religion.

ISIS and other radical Islamist groups view jihad as a religious duty. But it’s important to realize that, even within the writings of the Salafists, the justification for deliberate attacks on civilians, especially those living in democracies, is quite recent.

So today’s radical Islamism represents an unprecedented re-interpretation of jihad. But the current crisis of is also about money and power, and marketing a message.

We need to do a better job of countering these powerful messages. But we shouldn’t bother trying to out-Twitter the radicals.

Instead, we should promote a counter-narrative through community-based programs that involve parents, teachers, religious, and community leaders working in groups and one-on-one to move potential killers toward non-violence.

My third point is that unless we empower moderate Muslims to address underlying grievances—the factors that gave rise to ISIS in the first place—we will soon face another permutation of ISIS.

Radical Islam in the Middle East and North Africa won’t be defeated unless the underlying drivers of conflict are confronted: non-representative governments, under-development, and the increasing negative impacts of climate change. But to do that, we’re going to have to give moderate Muslims the help that they desperately need. As Lee Smith of the Hudson Institute recently notes, rhetorical support by the White House and other Western policymakers is just cheap talk that leaves the field free to extremists.

My final point is that we have to stop blaming ourselves for radical Islam.

The notion that radical Islamist attacks are a reaction to provocations from the West is not only patently false, but also plays into the hands of extremists whose ideological underpinnings rest on the claim that Judeo-Christianity represses Islam. Instead of violent extremism being the West’s fault, terrorism is triggered by a particular framing of contemporary Muslim life as a combination of humiliations at home and militaristic policies abroad.

To conclude, I’d like to offer some remarks on violence in the name of religion from the Jewish perspective.

The Torah tells us that when Adam and Eve went against the Lord G-d’s command and ate from the Tree of Knowledge, Hashem called out to Adam and said: “Where are you?” Of course, as Rashi, the great medieval Torah commentator, tells us: G-d knows everything and knew exactly where Adam was. But He was giving Adam the chance to explain, to take responsibility, to speak up. The Rabbis of the Gemara teach a similar message: “Silence is agreement.”

Yet the world, too often during attacks on Jews, is silent. This is the Jewish perspective.

For Elman’s full remarks, click here.

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