WASHINGTON, February 21, 2015 – On May 10, 1977, Salt Lake City chiropractor Rulon Allred, leader of a polygamous, fundamentalist Mormon sect was shot dead in his office by two women. One of the women, Rena Chynoweth, was a wife of rival polygamist leader Ervil LeBaron.
The death of Allred put the world of fringe Mormon fundamentalist groups in the national spotlight, a location they occupied again in 2011, when Warren Jeffs, president of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (FLDS) was convicted of felony child sexual assault.
Leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) in Salt Lake City are quick to put space between the LDS church and its fundamentalist splinter churches. Membership in one of those churches or polygamous marriage will get one excommunicated from the LDS church faster than you can name Brigham Young’s wives.
And there lies the problem. Allred, LeBaron and Jeffs are not LDS. Their behavior and beliefs are light years from almost every practicing member of the LDS church today. Yet they reflect, darkly, an earlier period in LDS history.
Their practices and beliefs are rooted in the Book of Mormon and the Doctrine and Covenants – books of LDS scripture – and their religious DNA is Mormon, not Baptist, not Catholic.
The Westboro Baptist church is a hate group as much as it is a church. Very few practicing Baptists, let alone Christians in general would be willing to embrace Westboro beliefs, yet Westboro is, like the FLDS, a dark reflection of the Baptist past. Its religious DNA comes from the Bible, not from the Book of Mormon or the Koran. Its members may not be accepted as Christians by other Christians, but they don’t belong to anyone else.
President Obama’s dogged refusal to link ISIL with Islam has drawn fire from Republicans, but Democrats are also criticizing his refusal to link Islamist terror with Islam. Representative Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, sharply rebuked Obama for refusing to say that “this is a war that the Islamic extremists are posing against the United States and against the West.”
Max Fisher of Vox, in an article titled, “Obama should stop pretending Islamist terrorism has nothing to do with Islam” wrote that,
“While [Obama] has correctly identified economic and political factors that give rise to extremism, he has appeared to downplay or outright deny an awkward but important fact: religion plays an important role as well.”
Obama is both right and wrong to separate the Islamic State from Islam. Islamic State ideology is not shared by most Muslims, and it is a distortion of the Islam that those Muslims embrace. But its DNA is Islamic, and it draws its tactics – including some of its military tactics – and practices from the history and teachings of Islam.
Islamist extremism is Islamic, not Christian, not Hindu. Elements of it resonate within the broader Muslim community, and much of it would have been mainstream in an earlier age.
Obama’s refusal to admit a connection between Islamist extremism and Islam is not a matter of simple stupidity or blindness. There is a solid political reason to draw the distinction. The U.S. wants and needs the cooperation of Islamic nations to fight ISIS, or Daesh, the derisive name given it by other Muslims. Religion is a matter of deeply held, personal beliefs, bound tightly with our identity. If you are going to convince people that they should help you against people who hold beliefs that are related to their own, you should draw a stark distinction, assuring them that these people they are fighting are not members of their own religion, not their brothers and sisters in faith.
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Whatever the actual relationship between ISIS and Islam, it is politically useful to minimize the relationship and make ISIS something alien – Daesh and not ISIS, ISIL, or the Islamic State.
Useful, but dishonest. There are in fact many good reasons for Muslims around the world to oppose ISIS. In addition to killing Christians, Jews and westerners, it slaughters Muslims that deviate from its religious and political dogmas.
It is an ugly blot on Islam that delegitimizes Islam as a religion in the eyes of its critics. It threatens the way of life of tens of millions of Muslims across the region, and threatens them with years of war.
Obama’s approach is useful if we believe that we can destroy Daesh with military power, if we think that we can simply kill them all. That is as foolish a hope as was the belief that killing Osama bin Laden meant the death of al Qaeda.
You can’t kill an idea by killing a man, nor kill a movement by bombing it into oblivion. You kill it with better ideas, and by changing the intellectual and political ecosystem in which it thrives.
In order to do that, you must understand what it is you’re fighting. Lies are useful in warfare, where the first casualty is always the truth. They aren’t useful in building a lasting peace.
Radical Islam comes from Islam.
But not just from Islam. Why is fundamentalism such a fringe element of Mormonism? Why do so few Baptists feel the need to defend their faith from critics by violence? Why do Episcopalians treat their critics with indifference, not with screams of rage and drawn swords?
Jesus may have been the Prince of Peace, but he was no meek and retiring wimp. He overturned the tables of the money changers and threw them bodily out of the temple. “Do not suppose I have come to bring peace to the earth,” he told his disciples. “I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.”
In his name, Christians poured death and destruction on the heads of their enemies for a hundred generations.
And yet fundamentalism and militant violence have become much more rare among Christians than in Islam. Why?
Fundamentalism may take its ideology from religion, but it is first and foremost a political phenomenon, not a religious one. It is born of weakness, of resentment, and of a sense of being thwarted by powerful forces and enemies you can’t fight on your own.
Mormons have become politically and economically successful, as American as apple pie and increasingly self confident. Episcopalians have no need to stand up for themselves against The Man; they are The Man. Jews know their place in the world is precarious, but they don’t lack for confidence in their ability to survive.
Muslims occupy nations that, even with the wealth of oil, are largely on the margins of global power and influence. Many of them are economically poor, but even when they aren’t, they often have little say or influence in the governments that rule their lives. Children of the middle class see their options limited, and even for the children of wealth, tomorrow is ruled by forces beyond their control.
State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf drew ridicule when she said that the problem with Islamist terrorism was “lack of opportunity for jobs.”
If she meant that job programs for Muslim youth would kill ISIS, she deserves the ridicule; it won’t.
But her comment touches on an important point: When the future is bright, your kids are less likely to throw their lives away as terrorists.
ISIS believes that it is in the end days, heading toward the Muslim version of Armageddon. The religious element is what makes its behavior seem so crazy: They behead and American and America starts lobbing bombs; they burn a Jordanian and Jordan starts lobbing bombs; they behead a group of Egyptians and Egypt starts lobbing bombs. Do they want to be bombed?
Yes. As fundamentalists they adhere to the fundamental elements of their tenets. The world is against them; the world hates their beliefs; God will make them victorious; that is all as it should be.
ISIS – Daesh – wont be destroyed by force of arms. It will only be destroyed when it loses the power to draw young Muslims into the fold. Military force is a necessary part of destroying it, but on its own, it may only force them to move and reappear under a new name; it will only make them stronger.
It is the idea of ISIS that must be destroyed. That must happen from within the Muslim world. Force from outside will only increase their political draw. The idea of ISIS will die only when the Muslim world becomes self-confident and vibrant, when the gap between reality and aspiration has been reduced, when political and economic landscape have changed to become hostile to Islamist extremism.
And given the political realities in the world today, that won’t happen in out lifetimes.
Listen to Critical Conversations featuring Dr. Jim Picht with host Lisa Ruth and guest T.J. O’Hara as they discuss the state of the world including the threats of ISIS and Islamic radicalism on the Middle East and President Putin’s aggression toward Ukraine.