Note to readers: I prepared this latest article earlier this week. Given events taking place in France, the topic has sadly become extremely urgent once again. May God be with the victims of the terrorist attacks, and with their families.
Many in the West have dismissed the power of religion, and the dismissal has created a huge blind spot that allows radicals to flourish
When communism collapsed more than two decades ago, the West erupted in celebration. We had won. Secular democracy and its respect for freedom — of thought, religion and commerce — had proven itself superior to other ideologies. Now peace and progress would spread throughout the world.
It was a nice thought. And naïve.
One of the West’s great achievements — the age of enlightenment — brought us scientific advancement, free economies that foster invention, and industrialization. Advancements helped much of humanity escape famine, rise above common diseases, and rise out of poverty. However, amid the victories, a blindness was growing, too. Scientific inquiry and reason were such powerful tools for good that many people began to dismiss the importance of faith.
The result is that many in the West are numb to ideas that come from place of faith rather than reason. Many secularists view religious people as anachronistic. They treat the deeply religious like children to be coddled, ignored, or educated out of their convictions.
This has created a dead spot in the secularist mind.
Many in the West have forgotten that religion is important — and powerful. Science and reason may be able to solve many of the challenges we face, but it has no tools to solve the ultimate questions: Why are we here? How should we live our lives? What meaning is there in our existence? On those questions, science and reason are silent.
How the West risks geopolitical suicide
The Middle East is in the midst of its greatest spasm of internal violence and transformation in centuries. Religious extremists are killing and dying in the name of God to establish a political system that is a complete expression of their fundamentalist beliefs.
America finds itself in a precarious position. Barack Obama is in the waning days of his presidency, and has repeatedly misjudged the situation in the Middle East. He initially steered clear of the civil wars in the Middle East, before assisting groups seeking to overthrow leaders who — however despotic— had been allies who provided stability and security in the region.
After the Syrian civil war spilled into Iraq, the U.S. was forced to turn to help from Iran to provide fighters to prevent the spread of ISIS. Meanwhile, Russia’s Vladimir Putin has proven himself as a loyal ally to Bashar Assad in Syria. Putin’s decisiveness, contrasted against our inaction, has given him leverage throughout the entire Middle East. Putin is willing Russia to a greater place on the world stage. Meanwhile, the U.S. has retreated.
Will we return to the stage before it is too late?
The West risks geopolitical suicide by attempting to stay out of the fray. We have already seen, in the case of Iran, how the rise of a fundamentalist nation can endanger the entire world. Even supporters of President Obama agree that Iran is on a path to nuclear weapons. The only question is when they get them. Will the country have moderated? Will it have stopped threatening to wipe Israel off the map, triggering a World War? Now, ISIS has taken a huge swath of land and seeks to continue to grow in the Middle East. Extremists continue to fight for control in Libya. Syria is a conflagration is a breeding ground for the Islamic State, and that has led to the greatest refugee crisis since World War II. The U.S. has kept itself on the sideline. What has the rest of the West done? It has looked on in shock.
Understanding the enemy
Is religion itself to blame for the violence in the Middle East? Many secularists think so, but Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ fascinating book, “Not in God’s Name,” argues that people who value human life and renounce violence and religious extremism must embrace religion to win this battle. We must fight bad theology with good theology.
The first step is understanding the mindset of a religious extremist.
They are not stupid. Terrorists are often highly educated and accomplished. Many of those who murdered Americans on 9/11 were engineers. Many of the generals fighting today for ISIS are brilliant tacticians.
They cannot be reasoned with; changing hearts will take time we may not have
What draws people to extremism? They feel secularism has chased God from public life, and created a world devoid of meaning. They are motivated by a twisted form of altruism — by killing, pillaging and forcing their ideology upon their captives, they can create a world in which people leave lives of meaning, honoring God.
Their desire for meaning will not be assuaged with facts, or with science, or with technology. It will be assuaged with new faith that teaches love, respect, and tolerance as guiding virtues in religious life.
Any fix will take generations. In the meantime, we must recognize the enemy. They are not rational. They mean what they say. When they express a desire to wipe Israel and the United States off the map, it is not hyperbole. That is their goal. When they state that they are willing to die to accomplish their mission, they mean it. They have repeatedly demonstrated their willingness to martyr themselves to destroy their enemies. They believe they are doing God’s will. They believe they are doing good.
They are not to be trifled with, coddled or ignored. To pretend otherwise is to invite catastrophe.