Note: The specific audience for this article on extremist Islamic terrorism is non-Muslims in the Western world, simply because this is the main audience that reads my work. I believe the general principles I discuss here apply to everyone, but of course they would apply in different form to our Muslim brothers and sisters from all over the world, who are also struggling with this issue.
It is hardly news to anyone that the Western world is currently in the grip of the fear of extremist Islamic terrorism. In light of 9/11 and other events like the recent attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, this fear and the belligerent responses it has generated may seem perfectly sensible. But is it? Personally, while I understand the human tendency to fear amorphous threats and have nothing but compassion for everyone who is struggling with this, I believe that at root this fear and the attacks it has seemed to justify are sheer madness. As a student of A Course in Miracles, I have to wonder: What would happen if, as the Course constantly calls upon us to do, we chose love instead of fear? What would happen if (to alter John Lennon’s famous words slightly) we gave love a chance?
We’re all familiar with the outward manifestations of this fear: the various wars carried out by Western powers and their allies in the Middle East, the turning away of Muslim refugees and rise of anti-immigrant parties in Europe, the turning away of Syrian refugees and even proposals to ban entry of all Muslims in the United States. In short, fear is being used as a rationale for hatred and separation, for turning against our Muslim brothers and sisters—ironically, for rejecting people who are themselves fleeing from the terror of groups like ISIS.
And equally ironically, this fear and hatred is exactly what terrorists hope to bring about. Terrorism, as the word itself makes clear, is about terror: the generation of fear, through violence or the threat of violence, to achieve political ends. The goal of ISIS, as one of its own missives says (quoted by Scott Atran in The Guardian), is to “bring division to the world and destroy the grey zone”—the zone of peaceful interaction between Islam and the Western “infidels.” As Nicolas Hénin, a Frenchman who was held hostage by ISIS and got to know his captors well, wrote after the Paris attacks:
[Members of ISIS] will be noting everything that follows their murderous assault on Paris, and my guess is that right now the chant among them will be “We are winning”. They will be heartened by every sign of overreaction, of division, of fear, of racism, of xenophobia; they will be drawn to any examples of ugliness on social media.
This is just one reason why, speaking in ordinary worldly terms, our response to terrorism makes no sense. Why give them exactly what they want?
Another reason our response makes no sense is that, again speaking in ordinary worldly terms, a person’s chance of being killed in a terrorist attack in a Western country is remote—lower, in fact, than the chance of being struck by lightning. Indeed, in the US, a person’s chance of getting killed by a Muslim terrorist is lower than that of getting killed by a non-Muslim mass shooter (though both are in the “less than being struck by lightning” category). This, of course, does not mean that we should do nothing at all to deal with the problem. It does mean, however, that we should put this problem in perspective. While these terrorists are certainly a serious problem in the territory they occupy in Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere, they are no existential threat to the US or Europe. The only thing that is an existential threat—in the sense of threatening to change our open democratic societies into much more fearful and inhospitable places to live—is our fearful, attacking response to these terrorists.
Turning to the Course’s teachings: What we’re seeing in this response to terrorism is a dynamic that the Course describes frequently in its pages. This dynamic starts with the decision to attack: our ego-based drive to maintain, through attack, the “attack on God” (W-pII.3.2:1) that began the separation. Our attack on others-rationalized by the claim that they attacked first and our attack is only “self-defense”-inevitably leads to fear of their counterattack, which leads to our attacking them in further “self-defense,” which increases our fear still further…and so on.
The Course speaks in graphic terms of the intense fear that this dynamic of attack and counterattack reinforces in us. It leads to a terror-stricken defensiveness that Lesson 153 of the Workbook speaks of in especially poignant terms:
The world gives rise but to defensiveness. For threat brings anger, anger makes attack seem reasonable, honestly provoked, and righteous in the name of self-defense….
…[As a result,] Attack, defense; defense, attack, become the circles of the hours and the days that bind the mind in heavy bands of steel with iron overlaid, returning but to start again. There seems to be no break nor ending in the ever-tightening grip of the imprisonment upon the mind.
Defenses are the costliest of all the prices which the ego would exact. In them lies madness in a form so grim that hope of sanity seems but to be an idle dream, beyond the possible. The sense of threat the world encourages is so much deeper, and so far beyond the frenzy and intensity of which you can conceive, that you have no idea of all the devastation it has wrought.
You are its slave. You know not what you do, in fear of it. (W-pI.153.2:1-5:2)
We can easily see this dynamic in the relationship between Islamic extremists and the West, can we not? Each side regards the other as the aggressor, and itself as making a perfectly reasonable response in “self-defense.” The West regards the attacks of groups like Al-Qaeda and ISIS as naked aggression against innocent people, and its own retaliatory invasions and bombings as fully justified. These extremist groups regard Western countries as ruthless imperialist invaders bent on destroying Islam, and their own retaliatory attacks as fully justified. The actual history of relations between Islam and the West is, of course, very complicated. But isn’t it interesting that, just as the Course claims, each side ends up wearing “the face of innocence” (T-31.V.2:6), a stance that says that “it is good within an evil world” (T-31.V.2:9)?
And so we live in terror “so far beyond the frenzy and intensity of which you can conceive, that you have no idea of all the devastation it has wrought.” I think this is profoundly, tragically true. This terror has always been with us; our fear of terrorism is only one form among countless others, past and present. We have indeed been in the grip of the seemingly eternal madness of defense and attack, attack and defense, ad infinitum. We have been the slaves of this madness, which has had an iron grip upon our hearts and minds.
What, then, can we do to undo this? On a worldly level, the situation looks incredibly complex and intractable. Indeed, we don’t know what we do, and our madness is so thoroughly entrenched that “hope of sanity seems but to be an idle dream, beyond the possible.” Yet in the face of this, the Course gives us an answer that is stunning in its utter simplicity: We can make a decision to let go of fear and embrace love. We can turn to the Love of God (whether we believe in God or not—one doesn’t have to say “of God” to embrace love), which the Course promises is the one sure solution to every problem we face:
Only the Love of God will protect you in all circumstances. It will lift you out of every trial, and raise you high above all the perceived dangers of this world into a climate of perfect peace and safety. It will transport you into a state of mind that nothing can threaten, nothing can disturb, and where nothing can intrude upon the eternal calm of the Son of God.
Put not your faith in illusions. They will fail you. Put all your faith in the Love of God within you; eternal, changeless and forever unfailing. This is the answer to whatever confronts you. (W-pI.50.3:1-4:4)
As I write these words about just needing to let go of fear and embrace love, a part of me says, “That’s going to sound so simplistic, so naive, so unrealistic.” And I do think it’s unrealistic to expect us to be able to make that choice overnight. It’s a process that will take time, effort, patience, compassion, and a lot of help.
But the more I reflect upon what I’ve seen in life, the more I’ve come to believe that in the end, it really does come down to choosing love. That really is it. I see the crying need for this choice every day, as I contemplate issues from the personal to the international. In so many situations, I see people—not only sworn enemies, but even those who are ostensibly friends and allies in a common cause—engaging in fearmongering, anger, attack, division, and self-serving. So often, we look upon one another with a mindset of “This is my feared enemy—how can I protect myself?” rather than “This is my beloved brother—how can I help?” This, in my mind, is the fundamental issue. We need to adopt the mindset of love. Everything else, including the solutions to the many seemingly complicated problems we face, flows from that one choice.
This is a process, as I’ve said. And I think the first step we can take is just making the commitment to love, making a firm choice to head in the direction of love. We need to see how sensible this direction really is. We need to recognize that what’s actually naive and unrealistic is believing that fear and attack will ever lift us out of fear and attack. It is actually hard-nosed realism to conclude that this approach has utterly failed. Yet we have countless real examples, on every level of the human experience, of love bringing about miracles in situations that seemed utterly hopeless. Since that is so, what more sensible choice do we have than to commit ourselves to love, however challenging the path to love may be?
What might this look like in our response to Islamic extremism? I don’t know for sure; doubtless it would take many forms (including forms of firmly responding to attacks and preventing attacks from happening). But imagine this: What if instead of reinforcing fear and hatred, we non-Muslims committed ourselves to extending love to our Muslim brothers and sisters in every way possible? What if we sent love to the Middle East in our meditations? What if we showered the region with prayers and blessings? What if we joined as good neighbors with the Muslims in our own communities? What if we encouraged our governments to let the refugees in, and to send humanitarian aid to war zones instead of dropping bombs? What if we followed the example of Germany and Scotland, who are welcoming refugees? What of we practiced the “strategy of generosity” that Rabbi Michael Lerner advocates, a strategy that says the way to change hearts and minds is not attack but kindness?
One inevitable argument against this runs something like this: “Those crazy terrorists who think they’ll go to Paradise and enjoy 72 virgins will never be swayed by anything we do.” My response to this is twofold. First, the truth is that many people do leave terrorist groups of all stripes, including extremist Islamic groups. People are swayed by love. I’ll never forget the story I read years ago of a hard-core neo-Nazi leader who ended up leaving the movement and becoming an activist against it, simply because one Jewish man had treated him with kindness. Second, even those who don’t leave such groups will not have the support to engage in terrorist attacks if the wider population, grateful for Western generosity, turns against what the terrorists stand for. Terrorist movements thrive with support; they wither and die without it.
It strikes me that in this time of terror, something like A Course in Miracles is needed more than ever. What better antidote is there to terror than the message that we truly can let go of fear and choose love? I’m not suggesting that we become evangelistic preachers and try to convert people to the Course. I’m suggesting that to the degree that we Course students can be real models of the choice for love—not just in our response to terrorism, but in every aspect of our lives—we can make a genuine difference. In personal guidance to Helen, Jesus once called the Course “a helper to the world.” We have a priceless gift in our hands. What might happen if we, along with many other people all over the world following the way of love in all its myriad forms, could be living examples of the choice that can free the world from terror?
Let’s face it: Responding to terrorism with terror has led to nothing but more terror. Why should we be surprised by this? Is it not time to try something new? Is it not time to give love a chance?