We enter Ramadan reflecting on the tragic loss of life in Manchester. We pray for the souls of the victims, for the recovery of survivors, and for strength of heart for all the families affected.
There is small comfort in efforts to understand the terrorist mind, but perhaps some hope for the future lies there. The evils we understand we can perhaps avert.
In a recent op-ed piece for the New York Times, columnist David Brooks used an illuminating word: alienation. Under the title for his piece, “The Alienated Mind,” Brooks explored the mind-set of Americans who voted for Donald Trump. Trump voters felt let down by social institutions that had sustained them—government, the family, the economy, and schools. Disruption of the established order seemed the only solution. That’s just what Trump offered.
Social alienation has many faces. It also shows in the Muslim community, particularly among the children of first-generation immigrants. Salman Adebi, who committed the Manchester murders, was a second-generation Muslim immigrant in the U.K. His Libyan parents reportedly fled the Gaddafi regime. But Salman was born in Manchester, England. Second-generation Muslim immigrants in Western nations are sometimes caught between two poles, of their parents’ style of religious life, and of the surrounding, secular culture. They are sandwiched between these options, neither of which is real for them. Like the Trump voter, they feel deserted by the social institutions around them and seek recourse in social destruction. That’s just what ISIS offers.
But alienation has still another face. It shows in the human condition. A message that many religions share is that our lives founder unless we focus on God. The alienation here is not from social institutions but from the ground under our feet. For even the social institutions provide no sure grounding. That is what the singer Peggy Lee lamented in her 1960s song, “Is That All There Is?” in lyrics that query the meaning of life. It’s what the Persian poet Rumi taught in the opening of his famous poem, the Masnavi: There a reed dislodged from its bed longs for return to its source, as our own souls, dislodged from God, long for return to God.
Living as we often do, in our alienation from God, we can appreciate what motivates the alienated Trump voter and ISIS sympathizer. But the God-seeker does not look for help in disruptions—just the opposite. The turn to God is towards unity—with God, with ourselves, with others.
There are two ways to live our religions. We can live them out of their historical particularities, which divide us from each other, or we can live them out of their focus on God, which unites us. There is no doubt which of these God prefers. God commands us not to divide over our religions (Quran 42:13). The religions jointly express in different cultural languages a single eternal truth: our lives founder unless they focus on God.
This is what the terrorists miss. They think they are living God’s Islam, but they are only living their own misguided take on Islam. Sadly, they illustrate a deception the Quran condemns when they profess a faith they do not truly have (Quran 2:6-20).
Acts of terror do not reflect God-centered Islam. Violent disruption cannot mediate the justice and mercy of God. God’s religions heal partisan divides, whether between President Trump and his opponents, Islam and the West, or ISIS and the wider world of the moderate Muslim community. When God called the Children of Israel, when Mohammad addressed his native tribe, they raised them above their parochial identities.
So what is the answer to terrorism? What can bridge the divide between religion and secular society? That space can be filled with new traditions based on old, adapted to the adopted country. Islam lived from God’s perspective recalibrates to that space. Islam has been adapting to local cultures for centuries in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. For culture does not define it. God does. This is the message of Cordoba House in New York City. We work to shape an Islam for Muslim Americans.
When a religion ceases to speak from God’s perspective, it divides from God and alienates its followers. Out of that alienation some will become terrorists, but let the terrorists hear anew what Moses called to the children of Israel: “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God the Lord is one,” or as it is written in the Quran, “Say, God is One” (Quran 112:1). Let the Oneness show through the diverse cultures of the West. Let it speak in all the tongues of the world. Let all the pluralities and diversities among us gather under the wide tent of the one God, so we could seal the void, help the alienated, and combat terrorism at its core.