As I travelled home from three days in Kazakhstan where I attended the Fifth Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions, I was struck by the number of times I encountered two questions. These questions were perhaps most pointedly asked by Foreign Minister Erlan Idrissov in a private briefing with members of the small American delegation in Astana: how can young people brought up in Western ways, attending Western schools, exposed to Western democracy, showered with the opportunities of Western societies be so easily turned to brutality, intolerance and violence by the likes of ISIS, and what can religious leaders do about it?
I confess I did not answer Mr. Idrissov’s questions very well. I was neither clear nor coherent. Nor did I propose a specific strategy. I derive little comfort from the notion that other answers at the Congress were also unsatisfactory or that governments have spent billions trying to find a solution. Rather, I was disappointed at my own failure to articulate an answer or offer a plan. The Congress saw much hand wringing on this subject, much fear expressed for our children, but little constructive response as to how we counter the power that such extremists hold over our youth.
So, on the long trip home, with the urgency of the questions fresh in my mind, I sought to formulate an answer to the Foreign Minister that would be thoughtful, comprehensive and yet strategic.
First, we adults must set the example. We must look within ourselves to determine what we believe and how deeply we believe it. We must be confident in our conviction that dialogue across lines of difference is a far better answer to the failures of our world than ruthless, intolerant violence will ever be. We who love peace and pluralism must stand fast in this belief and not run scared or apologetically from this position. The prevailing assumption of so many political, corporate, military and, yes, religious leaders is that the very exercise of conversation lacks integrity, and is a sign of softness, compromise, weakness and futility.
No. We must boldly, courageously and continuously proclaim that conversation is key to understanding and that understanding is key to human fulfillment. It must become an unshakeable rally cry. We must expose radical narrow mindedness that demonizes others as a devastating dead end for the human spirit. Engaging “the other” in dialogue is an act of courage. Shutting down conversations is neither Godly nor tactically productive. It is simple minded, arrogant and cowardly. We need to tell this story anywhere we find ourselves, no matter the cost. And in some settings, the cost will be excruciatingly high. Such is the price of moral leadership, needed now more than ever in interactions across the social spectrum, from family members to nations.
Next, we need to counter the negatives that already exist in society, owning the idea that injustice is sometimes done by individuals and groups who profess to live by fair-minded principles. We must expose hypocrisy wherever we find it and call out governments, corporations, organizations and individuals who capitalize on exploitation and demand that they stop. We must begin with ourselves and ask how we are complicit with systemic injustice. When whole groups are persecuted to maintain the status quo or feed into an existing power differential, then morality, ethics, values and faithfulness are absent.
We must not just throw an interruptive cog into the wheel of systemic injustice, we must completely stop the wheel from turning. Shut it down. By so doing, we remove injustice as justification for those whose twisted logic use oppression to oppress others. By saying no to injustice, we remove an important rationalization for those who would wantonly destroy in the name of the same. As individuals and social agents, we must create a new narrative, change the story to one with spiritual and ethical values common to all religions at its core and make the new story engaging and compelling.
While “no saying” is a vital element in an anti-ISIS strategy, it is by itself insufficient. We must also proclaim a loud yes to accompany our emphatic no. We must say yes to the countless life-affirming acts of goodness and generosity that fill our planet each day. We must exploit both traditional and social media conduits to tell very human stories of the good done in religion’s name to save lives, feed the hungry, heal the sick, fulfill the promise of self-empowerment and offer opportunities for hope and release from violence, oppression, isolation and fear.
We cannot simply denounce injustice. We must offer an alternative paradigm – equally intense – that lives matter, that relationships count, that communities can overcome onslaughts from all manner of turbulence. We must seize the story from the dominant media narrative and tell a new story, featuring specific examples rooted in generosity and sacrifice.
It is important to remember, despite the impression from pundits and politicians, that only a tiny fraction of our young people are attracted to the ISIS ideology. While we may not ever fully rid the world of fringe elements bent on destroying lives, communities and cultures, if we eclipse the ISIS saga in the media and in our consciousness with alternate invocations of bravery, risk, sensitivity and love, we will be able to isolate the “terror” that accompanies the current ISIS strategy – its threat that it can strike anywhere, anytime. No, it cannot; but only if we do not let it.
This, Mr. Foreign Minister, is how I should have responded to your question during our briefing. I hope you can forgive my delay and find some comfort in these words.