By Richard Panzer, President, Unification Theological Seminary
Earlier this month, like many of you, I was riveted to the news channels watching coverage of the Boston Bombing and relieved when the two brothers who perpetrated these acts were stopped.
I have been trying to understand how two brothers who came to America to better their lives could morph into murderers.
The simplest answer I can come up with is: they believed committing an act of terror was a way to serve God.
We could look for the personal and family reasons that would explain why they embraced a radical Islamist worldview that views residents of America as enemies, but the bottom line is that someone offered them a teaching that justified mass killing.
How do you defeat an ideology that leads people to believe that they are serving the Creator by committing such acts? Is this something our government can do? Doubtful.
As initially reported by the Los Angeles Times, the elder Tsarnaev brother was thrown out of a mosque after a shouting match with the imam during a Friday prayer service. The paper quoted several worshippers as saying that Tsarnaev had yelled at the imam for having pointed to Martin Luther King, Jr., as a role model for Muslims. Tsarnaev protested that King could not be a model because he was “not a Muslim.”
Will this kind of religious tribalism infect America? The publishers of Al Qaeda’s Inspire, an online English language propaganda magazine, which features articles like “Make a Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mom,” hope so. Despite the shock of this attack, I can’t believe so, but it’s worth reflecting on why some young adults might be attracted to a radical path.
Young adults who feel alienated from a materialistic culture, and who do not feel that their own family/community meets the ideal, search in a variety of ways for something less corrupt, more pure. There are an impatience and a desire for absoluteness. Just listen to rock music or rap music for a few minutes or watch an extreme sports video and you will hear and see what I mean.
Impatience and dissatisfaction can be good things. Without these there would be nothing new developed. The temptation comes when strong subjective voices proclaim that the reason the world is corrupt, materialistic and shallow is because of that group over there, and that the way to make the world more pure and ideal is to attack or eliminate the “evil group,” whether it is “unholy infidels” or the “1 percent” who gained their wealth by stealing from everyone else. In our Internet age, these loud voices, which seek purification through attacking others, have a particularly big megaphone that can reach anyone in the world within seconds.
I have watched some of the videos posted by the older brother, which offer few clues as to why he committed himself to his violent jihad against defenseless participants and observers of an annual marathon in America. One video shows footage of Islamic militant fighters in the Russian Caucasus republic of Dagestan who had been killed by Russian security forces. He also posted a video called “The Emergence of Prophecy: The Black Flags for Khorasan,” which combines religious chanting and writings from the Koran with photos of fighters marching off to war to repel foreign invaders.
While these videos are disturbing, I could imagine why people with a unique history might be motivated to resist Russian soldiers seen as imposing a foreign culture. What is puzzling is the leap from resisting Russian domination to resisting “non-Islamic” culture – on the streets of Boston. A New York Times article suggests that being barred from a national boxing tournament because he was not a U.S. citizen was a shocking blow for the avid boxer, who had dreamed of representing the U.S. in the Olympics.
If you look at photos posted by the younger brother, it would be hard to distinguish them from ones posted by millions of college students hanging out with their friends. It’s hard not to feel, especially with the younger brother, that he couldn’t have been pulled back from the abyss of becoming a cold, calculating murderer.
Whether we understand this or not, the clash of cultures has been accelerated by the Internet and relatively cheap international travel. We are being forced to expand our awareness and concern for a part of the world and an extreme version of a religion most Americans know little about, even if it’s just out of a desire for self-defense in advance of the next attack.
And then there are the attacks against Christians in many Islamic countries. In Egypt earlier this month, as reported in the Los Angeles Times, Islamists “set a Christian man on fire and no one did anything.” A video uploaded this month to YouTube, shows a mob of Muslim men yelling “God is great” while sexually assaulting two Coptic women.
I think back to the work of Rev. Dr. Sun Myung Moon, who ascended to the spirit world in September of last year, in resisting Communism during the 1970s and 1980s. While many “peace activists” were reluctant to say anything critical of the Soviets, Rev. Moon invested enormous resources to educate Americans about the falsehoods of Marxist-Leninist thought and the reality of its deadly practice. But after the fall of the Soviet Union he was quick to offer help to Russia and the former Soviet republics.
What in this example could be applied to the challenge of Radical Islam? First, I would argue that we need to avoid the “Disney” version of interfaith — the feel-good version that minimizes or ignores the reality of evil in the world. It ignores the reality that there are people committed to the use of force to impose their beliefs on others or to punish “non-believers” or co-religionists who are seen as uncommitted to the true faith. After all, the greatest victims of Radical Jihad are other Muslims.
On the other hand, we need to not only avoid demonizing the entire Islamic faith, but also support moderate Muslims like the Boston imam who was able to perceive something admirable in a non-Muslim, Martin Luther King.
Who will reach out to those searching for purpose in life? All of us have responsibilities and busy lives, but perhaps each one of us can find ways to share God’s love and truth with young adults in our communities, however those might be defined. I’ve heard that acts of kindness are welcome in almost every community.
On a societal level, how can we dialog with people from different cultures and religions? How can we encourage and support Islamic leaders who take a stand against terrorism? This “long war” should not only involve soldiers and “first-responders.” We also need religious practitioners who are capable of engaging others in dialog about the purposes and practices of spiritual life. After all, you can’t kill beliefs, however objectionable, with drones.♦
Dr. Panzer received his doctorate in the field of Educational Communication and Technology from New York University.