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Understanding the Islamic State - A Fool's Errand?

The quest to understand the "validity" of a religious sect will be unsatisfying.

There has been much ado about what we should call the fighters from the “Islamic State” and other assorted terrorist organizations that are dominating the news with beheadings, bombings, burnings, and assorted other “Killer B’s.” President Obama and other politicians delicately (or indelicately, depending upon where they are on the political spectrum) step around the issue of the role played by religion by using labels such as “extremists” rather than “Islamic Extremists” to describe the perpetrators of these violent acts. There is of course an accompanying sideshow of media pundits, mostly non-Muslims, debating the extent to which Islam is a “religion of peace” that has been hijacked by a group of thugs who have perverted it for their own ends.

Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain
Source: Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

In many ways, these debates are a fool’s errand and they reveal many of the biases in thinking that we all fall prey to.

One such bias is what social psychologists call the Out-group Homogeneity Effect. In a nutshell, it is the tendency to perceive members of groups that are not our own as being more similar to each other than members of our own group.

Ask someone to describe the “typical” member of one of their in-groups and you are likely to hear a lot of hemming and hawing followed by a statement to the effect that “We have all kinds of people in my group; everyone is a unique individual.” Ask them later about the typical member of some rival out-group and you will receive a much more confident judgment (often accompanied by eye-rolling) of what “they” are all like.

The truth of the matter is, Muslims are not a “group” at all any more than “Islam” is a monolithic religion. George W. Bush fell into this out-group homogeneity trap, evidenced by his admission on the eve of the American invasion of Iraq that he did not know that there were different types of Muslims (i.e., Sunni vs. Shiite). And Sunnis and Shiites are just the beginning. There are Sufis, Yezidis, Ahmadiyya, Salafis, and so on. Each of these groups considers itself to represent the one “true” Islam, and each perceives the other Muslims as out-group apostates.

We in the West are in no position to pick and choose which Islam is the “true” Islam any more than a Muslim can decide which Christians represent “true” Christianity.

Roman Catholics, Jehovah’s Witnesses, 7th Day Adventists, Evangelicals, Lutherans, and Orthodox Christians are very different from each other and each truly believes that it represents Christianity at it purest. European Catholics and Protestants spent a few centuries trying to sort things out violently, as it appears that Muslims are doing now.

As devoutly as one may believe in one’s own religious brand, an objective settlement of which is the “true” one will forever remain elusive. [Please note that this blog entry is NOT an invitation for you to contact me in an attempt to convince me that your particular strand of religious faith is the correct one.]

The impulse to immediately categorize our relationship with other people is an inherent part of our psychology. The identification of others as kin vs. non-kin or trusted in-group member vs. suspicious out-group member was absolutely crucial to the success of our prehistoric ancestors as they made daily decisions about the degrees of sharing, cooperation, avoidance, or violence that they would visit upon those they encountered.

People who did not swiftly and efficiently make accurate judgments did not compete very well and those genes have long ago been weeded out of the garden of human DNA. One of the reasons why race and religion have always posed such perplexing social obstacles is that they provide an easy way to make a decision about who is, and who is not, one of “us.”

I am not arguing that this is how it should be, but rather that it is an unfortunate side effect of the Stone-Age mind that we use to navigate through the 21st century. In some ways, religions have perpetuated the problem by providing absolute certainty of being right. If God is on everyone’s side, then everyone holds the moral high ground. This also complicates the question of whether or not a religion is a “religion of peace,” as most religions have codified very different rules about dealing with in-group members versus dealing with out-group members. The rules about dealing with in-group members are invariably about peace and brotherhood; the rules for out-group members, not so much.

In short, we do ourselves no favors by denying that religion is a big part of the violence occurring in the world today, but it is also clear that religion is not the whole story either. We are seeking clear answers where none are to be found.