How does ISIS recruit? I wonder about this dark army. On what basis do they attract trainees to affiliate with their mayhem? It seems like an impossible case to make. It isn’t. Roger Cohen wrote in the Times that 500-800 youth in Britain, and another 900 from France, are headed into their jihadi ranks. Two girls, 15 and 17, were detained in Paris last month, conspiring with Isis.
“Many young British Muslims are confused about their identity, and buy into a narrow framework that can explain events,” says Ghaffar Hussain, who is with a British research group grappling with religious extremism. “Jihadists hand them a simplistic narrative of good versus evil. They give them camaraderie and certainty. ISIS makes them feel part of a grand struggle.”
In high school, I had teen friends who became involved in serious drugs. They were “expanding their minds,” they said. Others felt buried in loneliness or insignificance only to join bizarre cults like the Moonies, then a global force, where belonging seemed to promise self-transcendence.
Even if we have a job and get a leg up, we long for more than grinding like ants on a hill, and grimly putting up with one blasted thing after another. People yearn to belong, for a life that matters. Ghaffar Hussain called it uniting with “a grand struggle.” I call it living out of a grand narrative. We’re hard-wired for this, to glow with meaning, beyond existing within life’s tedium.
You can’t get this from sports. Sports can take us within ourselves, teach us about winning and losing, being part of a team. But they do not deal in ultimate concerns. You can’t get this from academic or job or financial success. These can enrich our intellect, secure a livelihood, or give us the earmarks of prosperity. But they’re not about ultimate concerns. Their focus is still “me”.
Living out of a grand narrative puts life on a greater grid than our ups and downs. It gives life a ceiling far above becoming a more enviable rat within the rat race of life. We get caught up in transforming life projects that truly matter, bigger than ourselves, originating centuries ago, and to continue long after we’re gone. Football and shopping can excite, but can’t give us this.
Britain and France have very little left of living breathing Christian faith, only cathedrals from an era when the people strove to do something so magnificent as styling cathedrals to praise God. We cannot just go through the motions. Faith in God is passion and adventure, or it is nothing. Nature doesn’t tolerate a vacuum. If we’re indifferent in our faith toward God, if we affirm it is just as easy to be good without Christ and church, if we imagine none of it matters, think again.
Let us notice that, shall we? If we neglect the grand narrative of “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.” (II Cor 5.19) something else will surely fill this void. That void won’t vanish. Last Sunday it did my heart good to see many eager children register for Church School, and 15 youth that night with parents preparing for confirmation. The grand narrative matters, whether we like it or not, whether we agree or not. Every weekend here at church, we are re-narrating lives, redeeming purpose, recasting horizons. Funny, this life is more about God than about us.