How Daesh (داعش) Does Really Effective Ministry

Rod Dreher does the world a tremendous favor today by posting a number of links to anthropologist and terror scholar Scott Atran , including this recent piece in The Guardian on the nature of داعش (Daesh, or The Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria), this long interview with Russia Today, this essay in The New York Review of Books, and this piece for Foreign Policy.

Read them. Atran understands the appeal of Revolutionary Islam — he understands the appeal of revolution itself, especially for the young, who seek both adventure and moral clarity as they seek a place and a purpose in the world — and he appreciates the difficulties the bourgeois West faces in dealing what is essentially a revolutionary crusade to make a perfect world. I think Atran underestimates the sheer overwhelming and crushing power of bourgeois banality — it has steamrolled everything in its path, and I doubt Revolutionary Islam, for all its rage and well-planned violence, will prevail over the essential bureaucratic and mechanical meaninglessness of modernity.

I won’t belabor many of the points Atran makes — you should just read them. Mostly, he focuses on the tremendous appeal of meaning and purpose that داعش presents to the young, disaffected and otherwise, of the West, young people who are looking for something bigger to belong to.

Meaning, belonging, and purpose — I write a lot about these things in my book. That was the appeal of Islam for me, and it was the appeal of Revolutionary Islam for the few years I flirted with it. Secular modernity has done very poorly for some — misfits and castoffs and otherwise marginalized people for whom there is no room in a society that won’t tolerate alternative forms of meaning to modernity’s search for comfort, security, and pleasure. Or for whom there is no space in or with the moralizing cohorts of the progressive left, which demands inclusion in a world I’m honestly not sure is worth being included in and which simply doesn’t include us in their idea of inclusion anyway. (Yes, I am still something of a frustrated revolutionary. I really do wish I had a revolution I could fight and die for, worth fighting and dying for…)

And I’ll have to be honest, when the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America tossed me out of their candidacy process in 2014, saying I was too much of a sinner — too much of a potential liability — to be a pastor, that set off a tremendous crisis of meaning and purpose in my life. One that I haven’t really been able to resolve. Because I still ache to belong to something. And I don’t now. Because I’m not allowed to belong.

So, I get the appeal of داعش, and were I younger, I think it’s something I could join. I would have found beheadings distasteful, but honestly, it’s about building a better world. So I could have lived with them and justified them. After all, no sacrifice is too small for a better tomorrow — George W. Bush set fire to all of Iraq with the promise of a better tomorrow — so Americans aren’t all that different. Save that our means are mechanical, bureaucratic, and impersonal. We don’t get our hands so terribly bloody when we kill.

But none of this is what I want to focus on. In the NYRB piece, Atran notes something stunning as he critiques Western efforts to counter داعش “propaganda”:

In its feckless “Think Again Turn Away” social media program, the US State Department has tried to dissuade youth with mostly negative anonymous messaging. “So DAESH wants to build a future, well is beheading a future you want, or someone controlling details of your diet and dress?” Can anyone not know that already? Does it really matter to those drawn to the cause despite, or even because of, such things? As one teenage girl from a Chicago suburb retorted to FBI agents who stopped her from flying to Syria: “Well, what about the barrel bombings that kill thousands? Maybe if the beheading helps to stop that.” And for some, strict obedience provides freedom from uncertainty about what a good person is to do.

By contrast, the Islamic State may spend hundreds of hours trying to enlist single individuals and groups of friends, empathizing instead of lecturing, to learn how to turn their personal frustrations and grievances into a universal theme of persecution against all Muslims, and thus translate anger and frustrated aspiration into moral outrage. From Syria, a young woman messages another:

I know how hard it is to leave behind the mother and father you love, and not tell them until you are here, that you will always love them but that you were put on this earth to do more than be with or honor your parents. I know this will probably be the hardest thing you may ever have to do, but let me help you explain it to yourself and to them.

And any serious engagement must be attuned to individuals and their networks, not to mass marketing of repetitive messages. Young people empathize with each other; they generally don’t lecture at one another. There are nearly fifty thousand Twitter accounts supporting ISIS, with an average of some one thousand followers each.

There’s a word for what داعش is doing here — ministry. While Western governments futz and fiddle (and generally fail) with programs and policies, داعش is building individual relationships of empathy and support, reaching across as individual human beings to other individual human beings, listening to life stories and then slowly, carefully, and deliberately providing a meaning and structure, and then a series of answers about life and the world that lead to purposeful action.

According to Atran, the FBI has only one person — an agent in Los Angeles — doing any kind of counter-engagement.

Here the whole problem of the West (including the church) lies bare — we cannot conceive of anything or anyone working outside the confines of our bureaucratic and institutional structures. We cannot think outside of those structures, and we cannot hire (or call) people who don’t quite fit in them (or don’t fit in them at all) because fitting in those structures, conforming to them, is more important than actually accomplishing the things those structures and institutions are designed to accomplished. In our modern understanding, man was clearly made for the sabbath, and damned is the man who cannot or will not rest on the seventh day.

I know many pastors who are deeply frustrated with a bureaucratic church life that seems deliberately and purposefully intent on suffocating or even preventing ministry. The good they do, the relationships they build, the presence of God they share and are part of, seem almost accidents in daily lives given over to bureaucratic and administrative nonsense. Its seems much of the world works that way, on accident rather than on purpose. It is deeply frustrating to live in a world like that.

And deeply human to want to change that.

Atran is right. Since the summer, I’ve done an online ministry with young people that has worked largely in this dynamic. It’s not hard to find kids who ache to be listened to empathetically — they are all over Whisper — and to say a kind word or two to them. To gain their trust simply by listening. I try to give hope, a Jesus-shaped hope (without overtly mentioning Jesus, though as I have read Atran’s work, I think that has been a mistake) to those who express hopelessness and despair. It’s tough work, this empathetic relationship building, even online, and I was successful at it when I was unemployed and could devote myself to it full time. But once I was employed, and had other work that swallowed up my days, well, there have been a couple of significant failures because I could not devote all the time needed to all the people I had committed to.

And as I think about this ministry, I suspect no church in its right mind would approve such a thing — much less approve me to do it. Too risky. Too unquantifiable. Too … strange. Where’s the program? The job description? The accountability? The measures of success?

If the West wanted to properly counter داعش, western governments would create — or better, probably foster and encourage — a cadre of empathetic relationship builders (or pastors, if you will) who will meet the same kinds of people in the same kinds of ways that داعش recruiters do and engage them. By listening, by empathizing, and then by slowly inviting those people into an understanding of their life, their meaning, and their purpose that doesn’t involve the waging of global revolution. I personally think love is a good organizing principle, but then I would. Perhaps we could aim to create an “Army of Love,” jaish al-hub جيش الحب, though what the point of that army would be, aside from doing what Jesus tells us to do — preach, teach, and baptize — I’m not sure.

Mostly because I don’t think there is anything more. But that’s just me.

What I do know is that no Western government could organize this without thinking in terms of call centers or customer support. Without imposing the means and methods of modern management in order to try to continually prove its effectiveness. Without job descriptions and regular metrics. You couldn’t sell mere relationship building, love as both means and end, to a modern organization. Contractors are allowed to rob governments blind but something as “unorganized” as this would simply give managers the hives. I’m not even sure a church could do it effectively. Because churches are wrapped up in the same way of doing business as governments and corporations. It’s all the same rotten culture.

So, داعش will continue to find — and be found — by those seeking meaning. Because young people want to know their lives have value and purpose. Because so many are hungering for meaningful encounters with empathetic adults who will value them and help guide them toward that purpose. I know because I’ve met them. And I still meet them. There are young people out there who hunger for meaning, purpose, and belonging, who yearn for something more than the grand buffet of unlimited consumption and meaningless comfort, of using and being used. And right now, for some, داعش provides that.

A smart society would find room for such people without demanding the kind of complete conformity that liberal modernity demands. But we do not live in a smart society. Most people seem happy with the promises of the modern world (and bully for them) and cannot fathom why some of us are misfits, malcontents, and marginalized — why we want something more. Or something different. So, because of that, it probably won’t matter what even a fairly large portion of the disaffected and the misfit want or even choose. We’ll all be steamrolled by the impersonal machine that is bureaucratic modernity anyway. The West can afford to do nothing. It can afford not to care.

How to Meet Another Soul

A friend brought this heartening (and yet somewhat sad) piece on autism from The Atlantic to my attention this weekend.

Particularly maddening are the descriptions from time gone by of the emotional capabilities of people with autism. I remembering hearing things like this — to the extent any of them were ever mentioned — in the 1970s and 1980s, before such a thing as Asprger’s existed and people with autism were considered hopeless cases and lost causes, fit only for institutional care.

NeuroTribes amasses a disturbing number of statements by autism researchers who seem unable to make the trip themselves. One clinician describes autism as a terminal illness and autistic children as dead souls. Others consider them “shells” or “husks.” The most unnerving revelation occurs when Silberman profiles Ivar Lovaas, the developer of a common therapy known as Applied Behavior Analysis. In a 1974 interview, Lovaas says that autistic children “are not people in the psychological sense.” He combats an autistic child’s self-injurious behavior by striking her, and his therapy rooms deliver corrective shocks through gridded floors. Spoons of sherbet serve as rewards—a method that seems less sweet when Lovaas reports that “it is a pleasure to work with a child who is on mild food deprivation.” Today’s behavioral therapies tend toward Lovaas-lite, an exacting but benign regimen of small treats, but just last year the Food and Drug Administration held a panel to discuss the use of electrical shock to modify self-injuring and aggressive behavior among autistic patients. Although representatives of a Massachusetts clinic argued it was a necessary treatment of last resort, the panel recommended banning the apparatus used in the procedure.

I’m puzzled by such statements. I’m not entirely sure how anyone could arrive at them, unless the clinical study of human being is so utterly detached from actually being human, and meeting and experiencing other human beings, that it is simply incapable of actually seeing what is human in someone who isn’t “normal.”

And I wouldn’t doubt that. There’s lots to be gained from the “scientific study” of people, but science sees things as objects.

I’m reminded of an encounter with a young autistic boy Jennifer and I took care of for a time when we were in seminary.

His name was Georgi, and his mother was working on an MBA at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business. He was 10, and his mother was not married to the father. Jennifer babysat Georgi after school for a bit, and then his mother had to go to London for a series of job interviews one week, and some time later, she had to go on a week-long class retreat.

So, we got to take care of Georgi in our apartment for two weeks.

It took a little work, particularly on my part (I’d never ever done anything remotely resembling parenting before). The first night we had no schedule and no ritual and it was a disaster. Georgi was up to all hours banging around and bouncing off things.

But the second night, we figured it out. He would help me set the coffee maker and get the coffee ready for tomorrow morning (Georgi would run the grinder for exactly one minute), and then Jennifer would help him brush his teeth, wash up, and go to the bathroom, and then I’d tuck Georgi in bed, read him a chapter (each night) from Winnie the Pooh. And then we’d pray.

And he slept. Soundly. All night.

Georgi would play with my legos. By play, I mean he’d get out my lego set, get out the instructions, and build to the design. He wouldn’t really play with it, not like I did. And he wouldn’t make things up, either. He needed the instructions.

Georgi liked listening to my songs. He was also obsessed with videos of elevators, and it was taking care of Georgi that I learned one of the greatest gifts of the Internet is that it allowed autistic people to connect through their obsessions. Who knew there was a whole community of people out there took videos of elevator rides, pointing out all the features of elevators and the buildings they were in?

Georgi rarely spoke in complete sentences. Much of his thinking was very concrete — one night, Jen and I sat with him in a seminary classroom while he drew corporate logos on the chalkboard.

But he could talk in complete sentences. For the time we took care of Georgi, Jennifer and I allowed ourselves one cocktail each night, because caring for Georgi was draining. Our friend (and fellow seminarian) Joy would occasionally come over, drink with us, and let Georgi play with her iPhone. Which Georgi really loved, between the games and the elevator videos on Youtube.

One evening, I got the cocktail shaker down from the cupboard and Georgi got excited.

“Joy must be coming over!” he said. And ran to the window to wait for her.

The emotional connection came one Saturday morning. I’d just come back from one of my typical unpleasant encounters with the ELCA’s Metropolitan Washington DC candidacy committee — the folks overseeing my now-defunct process to become a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America — and a good friend, Mark (who is now a pastor in Kansas), wanted to know what happened.

Well, I got angry. I yelled. And then I started crying. Because it was a miserable and difficult — even abusive — process. (Lutheran church bureaucrats are incredibly good at being callous and abusive.) After we all made sure the Georgi knew I wasn’t angry at him, I went into my bedroom and sat in my comfy chair to regain my composure.

That’s when it happened.

Georgi came in, sat on the bed across from me, and put his hand on mine. And he held my hand for a bit. He never made eye contact, and he never said anything, but he just sat there with me, holding my hand. Some combination of “it’s going to be okay” and “I care that you hurt.” It was a very compassionate response. A very empathetic one.

It still makes me tear up when I think about it, that amazing moment. I will never forget it as long as I live.

So, “not people in the psychological sense?” What kind of person is willing — is able — to so carelessly and easily say such a thing? What attention aren’t they paying? How important is it that human beings fit, or can be bent or folded, into the precious scientific categories we’ve made for ourselves?

We are lesser people for having made folks with autism solely the objects of study and care. (Just as we are lesser people for having reduced any human being to that status of object fit only for study, or worse, consumption, abandonment, or destruction.) For failing to see how they are human, and how their humanity adds to ours, makes us whole, a complete humanity. And for failing to see what autism tells us about God — the very same God in whose image Georgi is made. Whole and complete, without flaw or blemish, a child of the living God.

I’m saddened and angry that our pitiless modernity has done this to so many people, bent and broken and destroyed so many human lives. But I’m also glad people with autism are claiming their own identities. Creating their own communities. Making sense of their own lives. Writing their own stories.

Asserting their humanity.

A Management Problem

This … disgusts me:

What if you lived in a world where every kid got tested for potential depression when they were in elementary school? This video, from Binghamton University, describes new research on how we’d do it.

The researchers created a test that’s designed to determine whether children of depressive parents will also suffer from depression. So the researchers took children of depressed mothers and showed them pictures of people expressing different emotions. Based on previous research, Binghamton University psychology researcher Brandon Gibb and his colleagues believe that children whose pupils dilate when they see a sad face are more prone to depression. That’s because pupil dilation is an empathy response. [Emphasis mine — CHF]

Now, aside from utilitarian objection of asking already overloaded teachers, social workers, child protection people, police, and so forth, to do more — and to do work they simply are not trained or competent to do — I have one real simple problem with this idea.

It turns something which demonstrates compassion and care for others into a problem. A diagnosis.

And the machinery that will roar into action in order to deal with this “problem” — for this turns empathy into a problem to be solved — will be about as kind and compassionate as every other institutional response to the truly human. Which is to say, it will at best be callous. At worst, deeply  and brutally cruel.

Humanity already has enough problems valuing empathy and compassion. We like to claim we do, but we don’t, not really. (Yes, the Upland, California, I grew up in may have been a egregious example of a place and a people who really did not value these things.) We tend to abuse and brutalize those who feel anything, or feel anything more, than they are supposed to.

And don’t tell me that an empathy reaction as a sign of possible future depression isn’t going to problematized, and those who respond in this very human way won’t be somehow stigmatized. Because that’s what our institutions do best — they brutalize and marginalize and stigmatize the weakest and most vulnerable. Because they create the weakest and most vulnerable.

I know some good progressive-slash-liberal out there thinks this is a really swell idea. A compassionate idea designed to reduce or prevent future suffering. The problem is, progressivism-slash-liberalism, in nearly all its guises, has striven to reduce human caring to a scientifically regimented and guided profession, to be done only by trained professionals. Because actual human feeling gets in the way of properly managing human beings.

Or of being properly managed.

The progressive view is a handmaiden to neoliberalism, which reduces (or is trying mightily to reduce) all human relationships to commercial transactions. They empower each other, though progressivism gets the raw end of the deal, as neoliberalism doesn’t need the nonsense progressives peddle in order to turn everything into a commercial exchange, measurable and valued solely by the market. But this doesn’t stop progressives, who at heart all want a well-managed society. The care we have for each other cannot be measured or monetized or regulated unless its done solely (or mainly) by caring professionals — doctors, teachers, social workers, administrators (and in this ugly scheme of things, pastors). Which is why people should not be allowed to care for each other. That’s the purview of professionals, and only they can be trusted to actually care.

The rest of us exist only to be beaten or medicated or propagandized into a passive and consumptive stupor.

If there is an emphatic reason I support something akin to The Benedict Option it is that we who are called by Jesus to follow are also called to create an “economy” in which money plays no role in determining value — of what is exchanged, or of ourselves, as human beings and children of God. In which we care for and support each other as human beings without regard to the market or the state. That our very human emotions, our weaknesses and our frailties and our brokenness, matter.

That we are more than things to be managed.