An ancient Jewish hermeneutical principle teaches that the “mashal” is not like the “nimshal” an analogy never completely matches that which is being analogised. The semanticist Alfred Korzybski expressed this with the words “The map is not the territory.” When we analogize two things we can expect significant overlap but not perfect correspondence. Here too in this meme (as many have pointed) the correspondence is not perfect. Still I think the overlap is worth exploring and meaningful.

People have asked, “Is it really fair to compare the KKK, a tiny fringe group who define themselves by attitudes to race to ISIS which is enjoys wide popularity in the Muslim world and represents a legitimized, albeit repugnant to some, interpretation of Islam?”   Beneath this question are some problematic assumptions. The KKK while now quite small was a major force in the reconstruction south. They were mainstream and politically powerful. The KKK, even today, links its racist attitudes to Christianity.

In fact, nearly all racist groups in America including the KKK espouse what scholars of American religion call “The Christian Identity Movement” which roots their racism solidly in Christianity. To this day, the KKK uses the symbols of Christianity, the crusader cross on the uniform and the flaming crosses. The Christian Identity Christianity claims not just to be an authentic interpretation of Christianity but THE authentic interpretation of Christianity. The ADL estimates that there are 25,000-50,000 people who openly identify with this movement primarily in the US and Britain According to the ADL, they are heavily involved in criminal activity ranging from hate crimes so terrorism. The CIA estimates that ISIS fighters number something less than 40,000. So even the numbers are not so incomparable.

But OK, so a bunch of hicks and skinheads believe some weird kind of Christianity but every one knows THIS is not Christianity. Our Christian neighbors don’t believe this stuff but I am not so sure about the Muslims. Get real, ISIS IS Islam.

Muslim scholar after Muslim scholar says it isn’t –

Like Judaism, the parameters of the religion are not decided by popular vote but by scholarly convention. If every major thinker in Islam says its not Islam it is not Islam. Non-Muslims need to get the pain that Muslims feel at seeing their religion dragged in the mud and represented by a sheer brutality that Muslims reject.

But do they really?

It is true that Muslim organization after organization has completely condemned ISIS, but don’t people really support them? What about the Al Jazeera poll? 81% of Al Jazeera readers said they supported the victories of ISIS. Wow, that is scary. It would be if it were in any way a representative sample of anything. The Al Jazeera poll only appeared on the Arabic service (the English service has a very different, wider audience and seems to have more autonomy than the Arabic service.) It represents a very small sample even of the Arab world focused in the gulf states and Egypt. Al Jazeera Arabic is regarded as a propaganda arm of the Qatari leadership, suspected of being the bank rollers of ISIS. Reporters involved in the poll have resigned claiming that the poll was falsified. So the Al Jazeera poll is most likely tells us a lot about the anti-Shia hatred of a small powerful Sunni elite rather than some broad base of support for ISIS.

So the analogy is fair in the sense that both the KKK (and the Christian Identity Movement) and ISIS represent themselves as THE authentic representatives of their faith. In both cases this is a claim that is widely rejected by scholars of that faith. In neither case is their wide popular support.

When it comes to the potential danger of these two movements the analogy reaches its limits. The KKK and its allied groups appeal to a world of white privilege that has largely been dismantled by the civil rights movement and largely made irrelevant. Christian Identity will attract a small number of the disgruntled white working class in the US and Britain but its appeal is very limited.  ISIS may have a broader appeal. ISIS pitches it’s call to action in two directions. It pitches to those in the Middle East who have faced the hopelessness, poverty and oppression of colonialism followed by tyrannical despotism. To them this vision of a  “Just” Islamic state may seem a plausible alternative to the politics of power and privilege. The other appeal is to the Muslim youth of the West conflicted by the seeming emptiness and rootlessness of Western civilization. Teens in the West are barraged with messages of empty despair about themselves. One can never be beautiful enough. One can never own enough. Intuiting the utter bankruptcy of this view of the world, youth may look for meaning in a cause. ISIS and its allies stand at the ready, to recruit young people to what they describe as a life of meaning and heroic purpose.

The take-home message here?

We need to get that it is as painful for Muslims to see their religion represented by the ISIS as it would be for most Christians if the KKK or Skinhead churches were said to represent Christianity. That news agencies and other “officializing” media insist that ISIS is somehow a legitimate take on Islam feels unfair and hatefully discriminatory to Muslims. The meme reminds us that we can legitimately see ISIS both as a band of religious crazies who, like the KKK, cloak their politics and their hatred in a perversion of faith.

We need to think very deeply about the ways that media uses ISIS to consistently dehumanize and indeed, demonize all Muslims. What are the implications of these attitudes for our policies and actions as individuals, communities and nations.

Lastly, should we take ISIS seriously? YES, VERY SERIOUSLY. To do that we also need to think about the ground on which ISIS grows. We need to examine our role in supporting a culture of despotism and hopelessness in the Middle East. We need to look at the ways in which we foster a culture of meaninglessness in the West.

Rebbe Nachman of Breslov taught, “If you believe you can destroy, then believe you can fix.”

The threat of ISIS is an invitation to fix the world, to create a world in which people seek heroism in doing acts of kindness in which people find meaning in service to humanity not the raw pursuit of power. ISIS sells false idealism and false hope. We need to sell real idealism and real hope.

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