I've recently had the pleasure of reading 'My Year Inside Radical Islam' by Daveed Gartenstein-Ross. Daveed's book interested me because his journey in some ways paralleled, and in some ways mirrored, my own. And I believe there are also important lessons to be learned about identity, will, and the spread of radical Islam today.
Daveed was born in 1976, into a liberal, secular Jewish family in Ashland, Oregon. They lived at what he describes as "the hippie end of a hippie town" and embraced a spiritual, multicultural ethos. In his activist college days, he became friends with al-Husein Madhany, who would provide Daveed's introduction to Islam. Before long, Daveed embraced the Muslim faith and converted.
Al-Husein's mystical, universalistic, Sufi-oriented brand of Islam appealed to Daveed. But as he became more deeply involved in Islam through the Al-Haramain Foundation, he quickly became exposed to a very different side of the faith - one bitterly opposed to the message of people like Al-Husein.
I recommend reading the book to find out how Daveed found his way out of radical Islam, and came to embrace another faith.
I found DGR's book fascinating on a number of levels, some of them personal. Like Daveed, I'm a convert, but not to Islam or Christianity. Born in suburban New England about half a generation earlier than Daveed, I grew up in a home that, apart from my family's lack of Jewish roots, sounds similar to Daveed's in a lot of ways. My parents were nominally Unitarian Universalists, who had broken away from their conservative Christian upbringings and met in a Unitarian church. As a young adult I became interested in Judaism, learning Hebrew and attending Jewish services (first Reform and Conservative, later Orthodox) from my late teens to early twenties. At 25 I had an Orthodox Jewish conversion.
But I want to get back to DGR's book. Reading 'My Year Inside Radical Islam', I was struck by the way the fanatical Salafi stream of Islam drove out the milder Sufi and Nashqibandi strains - and I was reminded of my friend Michael Totten's book 'Where the West Ends'. Totten traveled throughout eastern Europe and western Asia, along the fault-lines of cultures. He witnessed many things, including the inexorable advance of radical Islam against the moderate forms of the religion. In my review of the book I wrote that
There is the image of the lonely liberal, surrounded by a sea of increasingly hostile and violent factions. There is the conflict between old traditionalism and new fundamentalism. ...
The Serbian film writer Filip David is one of those lonely liberals; so is the half-Serbian, half-Bosnian Predag Delibasic, who takes pride in having declared himself variously a Jew, a Muslim, and a Yugoslav - and claims that nonexistent nationality to this day. Perhaps the loneliest, though, is Shpetim Mahmudi, an Albanian Sufi mystic who must watch the gradual encroachment of foreign-backed Arab islamists on the grounds of his religious compound. His story is tragic.
It also points to something important about religious conflict in the Muslim world: that the conflict is often not - as Westerners sometimes imagine - a case of Western modernity threatening to extinguish Islamic tradition. Rather, it is instead a direct attack on centuries-old, evolving religious traditions by well-armed, well-financed followers of a comparatively recent fundamentalist sect. It is ancient moderation versus newfangled fanaticism.
And I think that that's the same thing Daveed Gartenstein-Ross witnessed in his time in the world of Islam.
My own relationship to religion is complicated and better suited to another post. But I do want to bring up Natan Sharansky's central insight from his book 'Defending Identity':
"The enemy's will is strong because his identity is strong. And we must match his strength of purpose with strong identities of our own."
The widely-accepted fallacy is that "conflicts arise because of religious dogma, so if we get rid of religious dogma we'll reduce conflicts". But the danger in having no fixed set of doctrines is that you can easily get drawn into all kinds of crazy stuff. And that's as true today as it was when Daveed was in college.
Devotion to a good doctrine can give you the strength and the faith to reject bad ones. What you believe matters.