Heads of the Hydra


This time it’s Paris. It was already Paris earlier this year. It was also Madrid, London, New York and suburban Washington D.C., and it was the Russian cities of Buynaksk, Moscow and Volgodonsk in 1999, and the infamous Moscow theater disaster in 2002. In each case, terrible violence was committed against masses of innocent people, not to mention the exponentially greater destruction that is ongoing in much of the Middle East and North Africa. What’s it really all about?

Let’s be clear about one thing: This terrible violence is not about Islam. That accusation is a canard. It’s an excuse, a pitiful substitute for careful analysis and consideration. Islam certainly contains within it textual and intellectual support for both the potential and the actual employment of violence. You’ve seen the violent Quran verses and the hateful statements from the Hadith, and you’ve seen Muslim calls for universal jihad against infidels. But if you have any Jewish education, you’ve also seen equivalently violent verses from the Torah and hateful verses from the Talmud. Christian religious literature likewise contains vitriol spewed against opponents of the early Jesus movement and the established Church. And we know of the grisly Crusader massacres, directed not only against Arabs in the Middle East, but also against northern Europeans in the Northern Crusade, and French Cathars and their Catholic supporters in the Albigensian Crusade, both of which resulted in mass murders of tens of thousands of innocents.

“But the Jews don’t do those things!” For the most part, this has been true.

But that’s because historically we haven’t had the power to do these things. First, we lost the war against the Romans (which we started). That decimated our population and shut down our political independence and ability to raise an army. Then we lost the culture war against our brothers and sisters who believed that Jesus fulfilled the Jewish messianic expectations at the time.

By losing the culture war, we lost the possibility of overcoming the Romans peaceably. The empire was teetering religiously as masses of Roman citizens had lost interest in their traditional pagan religion and were seeking a religious expression that would better fulfill their spiritual needs. Many became Judaic “God-fearers,” or went all the way and became Jews. But more went over to the Christians, whose large and growing numbers convinced Constantine to legalize and then privilege Christianity. Eventually, Christianity became the only legal religion.

I’ve often wondered what the world would be like if the Roman Empire had gone over to the Jewish option. Of course, there is no way of knowing, but having the great military legions of Rome at a religion’s disposal is a sure way to ensure a militarization of religion. As Shimon Peres once put it, if you have a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.

So let us Jews be a bit more humble and realistic as we look at the violence and horror that have become the No. 1 domestic product and export from the Middle East and North Africa. Islam is not the problem. Panic and scolding and blame will not solve our troubles.

Religion has proven itself time and again to be a very effective way to mobilize large numbers of people to engage in extraordinary behaviors. Sometimes it is to heal and restore. Sometimes it is to hurt and tear down. Good and bad people throughout the ages have managed to use religion for political purposes, sometimes to bring reconciliation between suffering people in conflict, other times to release violence against innocents in order to deflect criticism and vent frustration and rage.

Those who have a firm grasp on the core texts and interpretive traditions of the three scriptural monotheisms know that all our religions contain vectors of thought and action that tend toward violence against detractors and foes, and counter vectors that tend toward peaceful modes of conflict management or resolution. Different situations trigger one or another of these vectors, which then becomes dominant for a period of time. As situations evolve, so do religious responses to them.

Last month I attended a U.N.-sponsored conference at Rutgers University called “Youth and the Allure of Terrorism.” The organizers brought in people working on the ground in Syria, Iraq, Turkey, Libya, Nigeria, Niger, the Kurdish areas of Iraq and Turkey and Syria, as well as experts in law enforcement in the United States and Europe. One such expert, who served in the Los Angeles Police Department before joining the FBI, noted that the profile of a young person in North America who tries to join ISIS is quite similar to the profile of at-risk youth of any or no religion who join other terrorist groups, violent gangs or who engage in mass shootings. They tend to feel vulnerable and see themselves as victims. They lack opportunity. They exhibit low-level mental health problems. They feel like outsiders, ostracized, disconnected from community and family. They have anger issues and have no effective opportunities to manage their growing rage. They engage in a lot of media viewing, especially violent videos.

Why is the trend toward violence among our youth increasing? He tallied recent changes, all remarkably related to this list of motivators: a marked reduction in mental health support across the board, increased xenophobia and more social dislocation. People are moving into new places without viable social networks and community support. And without support, young people are relying more on the Internet and social media for personal sustenance.

Similar analyses came from those working with youth in the Middle East, North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa. Youth there often feel alone and unprotected and alienated from their communities. Government corruption, bureaucratic oppression and lack of economic and social opportunity smite large numbers of at-risk youth like a plague. As they suffer, they observe seemingly happy people enjoying wealth — often exorbitant wealth — in movies, videos and other media, that they feel they have no chance of obtaining for themselves. These can be strong motivators for youth to lash out in various ways, which can include joining violent, extremist organizations.

It goes without saying that we can and must defend ourselves against all who murder innocents and work to destroy the societies in which we live. The U.S. took out Osama bin Laden in 2011. Last week, we learned that a U.S. Predator missile killed “Jihadi John” (Mohammad Emwazi). But without fixing what lies underneath the monster of this violence, we are cutting off only a few of the Hydra’s heads. More simply spring up and continue their venomous terror. We can militarily defeat ISIS, al-Qaida and their spawns. I am confident of that, certainly. But if we fail to address the social, economic and political issues that drive people to radicalism, the Hydra will continue to raise her head and we will all continue to feel the pain.


Rabbi Reuven Firestone is Regenstein Professor in Medieval Judaism and Islam at Hebrew Union College and the author of “Jihad: The Origin of Holy War in Islam.”

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