The charter of the United Nations begins with “We the people.” The U.N. is the one organization that ostensibly ties all of the world’s people together. And yet I’m sure that swaths of human beings don’t identify themselves as a part of the set that is that particular “we.” And why not?
The preamble of the U.S. Constitution begins with the phrase, “we the people,” and yet clearly there are many Americans who don’t feel a part of the U.S. government’s “we.” This disassociation is no doubt partly due to feeling at odds with decisions being made in New York or Washington. But I also wonder if there isn’t something more basic at work. Are we by nature or nurture given to tribal instincts?
On Monday, Feb. 1, I was invited to a meeting at the U.N. where we spent about 11 hours addressing the issues around religion and extremism. The director of the U.N. Counter-Terrorism Task Force, Dr. Jehangir Khan, was one of our speakers. There was a mix of religious leaders, scholars and U.N. personnel.
The emphasis was rightly placed on root causes of extremism. It was noted that every religion has had its forms of violence and that the largest victims of our current crisis are mostly Muslim.
There are some understood root causes of these conflicts: food/resource scarcity, poverty, and tribal/religious hatred dating back centuries. Those and other factors are easy to diagnose if not to cure. But there are also forms of extremism that seem to defy easy explanation. Why, for example, are some relatively comfortable middle-class youth attracted to the call of ISIS? Why are so many young teens, including girls, willing to give of their own short lives? How is it possible that middle-class Syrians have killed their own family members in the cause of ISIS?
The answer is not a case of simple religious devotion. Rarely (if ever) do such recruits go to their local imam and ask for permission. Terrorists, while often committed to some religious rituals, often jettison all kinds of pietistic rules in their violent quest to conquer.
It seems likely that violent militancy in the name of religion has a complex set of causes. However, there is one clear commonality at root in all cases of human-to-human depravity: drawing the “we” too narrowly and the division too starkly.
Who is the I in we? All pathological ideologies — whether religious (like radical Islam) or political (like Nazism) or tribal (like the Rwandan genocide) — have a core primordial tribalism that has a stark “us and them” at its core. While there may be multiple causes for these forms of deficient ideologies, what is clear is that they all have this in common: a refusal to grant humanity to another, combined with an elevated view of one’s own group.
This is not unfamiliar or distant to any of us. However, in the United States this mindset is usually subtler than mid-20th century Germany. When the state of Michigan was sending bottled water to state workers before admitting that the water in Flint was toxic they were de-humanizing the citizens of the town while implicitly elevating the state workers. When there is a large ethnic difference in the way violent force is parceled out by the police force, then a sub-set of Americans is not implicitly included in the “we.” Their lives do not matter — or matter much less, which is a distinction without a difference. In Flint or in Fergusson, Mo., we see a de-humanization that shares similar ideological roots as that in Syria and Iraq today.
I have some thoughts about that little two letter word “we”:
1. Let’s recognize its centrality in our faith. Jesus is presented in the Gospels as one who consistently encourages us to widen the “we.” Who is the neighbor? Surely not the unorthodox Samaritan? He is we, Jesus says. Who is worthy of a theological conversation? Surely not an immoral, foreign, uneducated, woman! She is we, Jesus says of the woman at the well. And yet surely the “we” can’t include a kid who requested his inheritance before his parent’s death and then blew it all! No way am I the we with that reprobate. And yet … well, you know the story.
2. Let’s apply this truth to our religious life. By this I mean let’s recognize that though we may believe very different things than those of the Muslim or Hindu faith, we are all a part of one big human family, and we are they. Though we so often seem to forget this — or at least the politicians who are trying to scare us into another war want us to forget this — the vast majority of all human beings on earth are not out to convert, manipulate or destroy us. They simply want to live their lives in peace. Like we do. This is why interfaith dialogue is really important. It’s helpful to hear from our Muslim sisters and brothers about their own struggle with what ISIS is doing to their faith tradition. It’s good to hear from the multitude of Muslims who detest that Saudi Arabia — with its horrid human rights record — is an example of an Islamic state.
3. Let us apply the truth to our political life. The “we” of humanity requires that we approach social ills and political problems with a realization that we are all in this together. We can’t fix our immigration problems with a wall any more than you can fix your health by never leaving the house. We must speak out against those who would demean an entire religion or population. Our policies must empower people, not focus solely on bombing those we don’t approve of. We must think energetically, dream drastically, of how to help us all, knowing that in a small world the all is we.
Last week U.S. national security leaders said that there are more terrorists groups than ever. Among other things this means our “whack-a-mole” policies are clearly not working. We must seek to engage in the root causes of terrorism or we’ll continue to see groups like ISIS rise. This isn’t easy, but I do think conceptually a major fundamental issue is simple. It means using every educational, religious, political and social tool to broaden the “we” of the human family.