I think it is really important to go beyond the ideas that IS’ actions either implicate all Muslims or have nothing to do with Islam. It’s interesting to read these interviews with former hostages, prisoners, ex-IS fighters and so on, and get a fuller picture of what motivates the organisation and those who join it. It seems to paint a picture of people who often think in particularly Islamic terms, but in some ways aren’t all that different from the rest of us. It’s one of those times when Godwinning is appropriate - IS is just so cartoonishly evil and bloodthirsty that it’s hard to understand why anyone would join them. On the other hand, plenty of Christians joined the Nazis, yet many of their children and grandchildren are still Christian and more well-known for their tolerance and openness than their hatred.
It can give you a very different perspective on the relative importance of things down here. A number of the things that IS is fighting about aren’t the things that they would otherwise be angry about, and they don’t target the people that they would otherwise. When you can be told stories about the last times that very clearly promote violence, and you are told that this is your part in this story, this can be a powerful motivation for a lot of different actions. For example, there are a number of hadiths that mention people bearing black flags that will come from the east and be victorious.
Three will fight one another for your treasure, each one of them the son of a caliph, but none of them will gain it. Then the black banners will come from the east, and they will kill you in an unprecedented manner.
When you see them, then pledge your allegiance to them even if you have to crawl over the snow, for that is the caliph of Allah, Al-Mahdi.
This site examines them and points out that they are considered weak, but yet:
Throughout history, groups of Muslims have used such traditions and symbols like the black flag to attribute themselves to Al-Mahdi, a righteous ruler who will appear near the end of time. Perhaps among the first to do so was the Abbasid dynasty who carried black banners and referred to their Caliphs as Al-Mahdi in an attempt to legitimize their rule.
So basically, these kinds of statements and narratives can act as a sort of banner that can be used by violent people, which is seen in a number of religious and non-religious groups. Where there are more specific narratives that involve this kind of violence, there are more tools for them to use. When IS comes with a black flag and acts out its part in this narrative, it’s more likely that people respecting that narrative will say that something momentous is happening rather than turning against them.
This is one reason I am very sceptical of nationalism. It is well known to have dangerous results. On the one hand, there are some good things about loving your country and I certainly don’t have a problem with people who do. Like religion though, things that unite people can also separate them from others, so it’s not harmless. I’ve seen this in a few countries where there are nice people who you know not to bring up certain subjects with. China and America are quite similar in this regard. Similarly, I think there are a number of pitfalls in different religions and I don’t like the idea that ‘true religions’ (whatever that is) are loving, peaceful etc. They’re not nothing either. They’re often based a set of ideas and beliefs by very flawed people in particular contexts. The Torah, Qu’ran and hadiths were written in a context of conflict, while the New Testament was written by a minority within an occupied country, so a lot of the violence is more implied. Jesus didn’t attack people, but plenty of people got put on the List. All of them have plenty of handles to be used for good and evil.
For example, Leviticus 19 has plenty that modern humans could learn from. When you harvest your crops, leave some for poor and travelling people. Deal honestly, and don’t have unjust weights. Do justice, and don’t have two kinds of justice for rich and poor. Pay your workers promptly. Don’t slander. Love your neighbour as yourself. Treat foreigners well. However, it’s mixed in with a lot of rubbish. If you make a sacrifice and eat it on the third day rather than burning it, you should be cut off from your people. Don’t make idols (and you know what happens to people who do!). Don’t mix different kinds of seed, cattle or fabric. If a man has sex with a slave girl, she’s someone else’s property so they don’t get put to death (yay!) but he has to pay compensation to God.
Most people manage to come out with something half sensible despite all of this. However, I know quite a few people who would be a lot more tolerant of gay people if they Bible didn’t tell them not to be (or at least they thought it did). They would have a lot more friends outside their religious group and therefore be more understanding of others if the Bible didn’t reinforce the idea that his people were special and should keep themselves separate. They would be more aware of certain faults if the Bible didn’t teach that they were virtues. They would spend less time evangelising and more time providing practical help if they didn’t believe that non-Christians were doomed. They would have different ideas on abortion if they didn’t believe you get assigned a soul at conception. This doesn’t mean that all Christians have to be like this (or that they can’t have a convincing theology that doesn’t emphasise this), but sacred books aren’t blank canvasses and they carry the culture and morality of that time. There are a number of parts of the Bible that you have to either take very metaphorically or quietly ignore.