Wednesday evening and Thursday morning, worshippers filled Congregation Sherith Israel’s awe-inspiring sanctuary for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year (5775). This told me a lot about what’s going on in China and the Islamic State.
Let’s start with the synagogue. Most Friday-night Shabbat services draw 50–75 worshippers, Saturday mornings fewer. A guest cantor, musical group, speaker or bar- or bat-mitzvah may attract 100–200 people—a fraction of the Rosh Hashanah crowd. So if most congregants rarely attend Shabbat services, what draws them to the High Holy Days?
I suspect they are “touching base”—reminding themselves that they share a heritage with generations present, past and future. They may drift away during the year, but they return annually. They engage in a natural human tendency to seek meaning in life beyond the material.
China’s population mirrors that desire. Over the past 40 years, China has developed a large middle class. It’s not exactly America’s middle class, but hundreds of millions of Chinese live above the poverty level and enjoy disposable income. China’s upper crust flaunts fabulous wealth. But this doesn’t seem to be enough.
In the current issue of foreign affairs, John Osburg reviews Evan Osnos’ book, Age of Ambition. It seems that many middle-class Chinese remain dissatisfied. They want more from life. Osburg writes, “Perhaps the most significant response to the perceived moral and spiritual crisis has been a surprising flourishing of religion.” In China, that religion is in great part Christianity. Because religion offers alternative ways of thinking, it disturbs the Communist Party.
Which brings us to the Islamic State. A number of ISIS fighters come from the West—Europe, the U.S., Australia and so on. Many were born there. They have access to education and prospects. Yet they’re drawn to ISIS, which does not promise the lifestyle of the rich and famous.
Now, I don’t think that Islamists like those of ISIS, Al Qaeda and their offshoots are anything but twisted in their religiosity. Most have little or no Muslim schooling. Granted, some verses in the Quran offer a basis for hatred of others. Likewise, so do some verses in the Torah. However, 2,000 years ago the Rabbis reinterpreted or rejected troubling narratives and commandments. They moved forward. Islamists want to go 1,400 years backwards.
ISIS’ Western fighters and supporters seek higher values they feel they can’t find at home. Young, impressionable and testosterone-fueled, they succumb to a concept of universalistic religion—Islam isn’t just right for them, it’s mandatory for everyone. Moreover, only their version of Islam is acceptable. They choose the path of Eric Hoffer’s “true believer,” preferring the simplicity of unswerving faith and incredible brutality over the often-messy business of questioning, debating and even changing positions every so often.
The quest for meaning follows many paths. Islamism proves grotesque in its bloodthirsty righteousness. It’s not that ISIS’ followers aren’t human. It’s that their religious choices forsake basic humanity.
May each of us in this New Year advance our own quest for meaning in the direction of peace, recognizing that we are all children of the same Creator and all deserving of the same respect.
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