ISIS: Rabbi Rami Answers Your Questions

ISIS: Rabbi Rami Answers Your Questions

Rabbi Rami’s inbox is full of questions about ISIS. In this special edition of Roadside Assistance for the Spiritual Traveler, here is a collection he compiled and comment below to add to the discussion:

I hear people blaming ISIS on the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. Is this right?

No. While the invasion of Iraq—a huge military, diplomatic, financial, and moral blunder in my opinion—contributed to the rise of ISIS, it didn’t create ISIS. ISIS is an Islamic expression of a global end–times fundamentalism arising in every major religion in opposition to what is sometimes called the Second Axial Age.

The First Axial Age (800 to the 200 BCE, the age of the Hebrew Prophets, Buddha, Mahavira, the Bhagavad Gita, Lao Tzu, Confucius, and many others) saw human religiosity shift from fear of one’s gods to love of one's neighbor. The Second Axial Age expands this love by enlarging our understanding of neighbor. In ancient times “neighbor” referred to your clan, tribe, nation, and co-religionists; today it refers to all humanity, all nature, and all life on any and every plane of existence. This expanding love challenges religious and political tribalism, and triggers violence against whomever the tribal leaders define as “other:” woman, homosexuals, Jews, Muslims, etc

Every religion is struggling with its apocalyptic extremists who fantasize about the end of the world and the coming of a redeemer who will destroy the hated and demonized “other” while elevating the faithful to their rightful place as God’s blessed ones. This is religion as death porn.

I know saying this isn’t politically correct, and that Muslims and American liberals deny it, but isn’t ISIS an authentic expression of Islam?

ISIS and Al-Qaeda are Islamic the way the Ku Klux Klan and Christian Dominionism are Protestant: they each represent the shadow side of their respective religions.

While people may claim their religion comes from God, and their holy book is the Word of God, and their theology accurately reveals the nature of God and what God requires of us, I view all religions, scriptures, and theologies as human creations. I’m not saying there is no God, only that, to paraphrase Lao Tzu, the God that can be named is not the Eternal God.

Because gods, religions, and scriptures are human creations they reflect the bi-polarity of human nature: just as humans can be saints and demons, so our gods, religions, and scriptures can be saintly and demonic.

Think of any given religion as a spectrum of behavior and belief. At one end of the spectrum we find principles such as universal love, justice, and respect for all life; a God who commands these principles; and an interpretation of scripture that teaches you how to live them on a daily basis. At the other end of the spectrum we find principles such as xenophobia, jingoism, misogyny, homophobia, racism, anti–Semitism, oppression, and irrationality; a God who commands these principles; and an interpretation of scripture that justifies hatred of and violence toward the demonized other. Every religion contains this spectrum theologically, because every human being contains this spectrum psychologically.

Unless and until we understand religion as a spectrum of behavior and belief we will never understand religious extremism or how to deal with it effectively.

What is the best way to defeat ISIS?

While there are lots of things we can do militarily, economically, and politically to defeat ISIS in particular, we must not imagine that defeating ISIS will put an end to Islamic extremism or the extremist end of the Islamic religious spectrum (see my answer to the previous question). You cannot remove the demonic end of any religion's spectrum of behavior and belief, but you can minimize its influence by strengthening those values, individuals, and institutions that promote the saintly end.

Regardless of the religion, the saintly values are the same. Here is how they are articulated in the Declaration of the Reform Muslim Movement:

“We reject interpretations of Islam that call for any violence, social injustice and politicized Islam. We reject bigotry, oppression and violence against all people based on any prejudice, including ethnicity, gender, language, belief, religion, sexual orientation and gender expression. We are for secular governance, democracy and liberty. Every individual has the right to publicly express criticism of Islam. Ideas do not have rights. Human beings have rights. We stand for peace, human rights and secular governance.” (see the entire proclamation at

Substitute your religion for the word “Islam” in this declaration and you have a sense of the saintly end of your religious spectrum. Ask yourself if the version of religion that you practice expresses the saintly end of the spectrum. You might be surprised: many so-called moderate religions are simply less demonic rather than authentically saintly. If you want to defeat religious extremism support the saintly end of your religion’s spectrum.

What can we do to see that we are not raising a new generation of extremists?

We must enlist parents and grandparents in strengthening the saintly end of their respective religious spectrums. One way to do this is to make sure that the stories they tell, the prayers they recite, the texts they teach and the interpretations they give them are heart-opening and not heart-closing, welcoming of neighbor and stranger rather than fearful of them. We must make sure that we are not demonizing "the other" and teaching our children a worldview that promotes the idea of "us against them." All talk of chosen and not chosen, saved and damned, true believer and infidel, high caste and low, etc. must be abandoned.

Would we be better off without gods, religions, and holy books?

No. We would be better off with better gods, religions, and holy books—ones that reflect the best of humanity rather than the worst.

Are atheists more saintly than believers?

No. Every human contains the full psycho-spiritual spectrum from the saintly to the demonic. Where believers might use god, religion, scripture to promote evil, atheists might use ideology, nationalism, and something like Mao’s Little Red Book to do so. But whether they call themselves believers or not, they are all trapped in the demonic end of the human psycho-spiritual spectrum.

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