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Deadly Meaning

From Herbert’s Dune Trilogy, among the most disturbing images is that of a Fremen Mujaheddin crashing his flitter into an Imperial troop transport. The observer recognizes it as the completely rational act of a warrior in the service of a greater purpose.

IS is reliant, it appears, on similar behaviors among the ranks of its elite fanatics. Infiltrating as civilians, they kill indiscriminately, and then detonate a suicide charge when security forces arrive. The ensuing chaos is exploited by a conventional assault that seizes the target.

The common refrain in public media is that religion is the common thread in such events. Certainly the Fremen were incited by faith in their Messiah, Maud’Dib, born Paul Atreides. IS fanatics surrender themselves in the belief that they are engaged in a jihad, their death thus gaining in the afterlife the boon due to a holy martyr.

The chorus of the anti-religious is composed of people with many good reasons to want to live. They have people that want to listen to them. Among that audience are those seeking to understand IS, primarily for the purpose of destroying it. Others simply wish to disengage from the problem – if Muslims do not hold any value in life, what are we to do? All too often the answer is, “Go to the Met and pay someone to keep the evil out.”

The talk show hosts, ushers and garbage men protect us from becoming cut adrift. They create a sense that we mean something, that the world will order itself to our needs. They make life worth experiencing. But what of them? Do we really imagine that they find deep satisfaction in serving that purpose for us? Does the garbage collector sweeping the streets of Los Angeles at 2 A.M. float in visions of the latest triumph at Disney Hall? Or does he just see a used condom in the gutter?

It is from those forgotten by the elites that IS recruits in the Western world. A house-bound girl recounts her experience of posting a question about Islam online, and being taken into a community of people that were devoted to her psychological needs. There was nothing concrete exchanged – she was brought in simply by the ready attention that provided a sense of meaning something. She abandoned her church and converted.

Strangely enough, that is what religion is supposed to do. People are supposed to take the time to be present for one another. Ultimately, that simple human attention is overtaken by direct relation with the divine presence. Our need for human validation decreases. We become, instead, a refuge for others.

But those initial stages are terribly vulnerable: the hope of receiving love is formed in the soul of the seeker, but not yet anchored to God. In that state, tyrants can enter and substitute their purpose. The sacred community, threatened from without by reprisal for violence organized by their leaders, spawns martyrs committed to protecting the source of meaning in their lives. The immediate and practical realities of conflict drown out the tenets of scripture written by people wiser but at the remove of centuries.

As the gap in wealth yawns ever wider in this country, I wonder whether the elite sees beyond their immediate circle of servants to concern themselves with how to connect the society as a whole to a sense of purpose. Herding people around with fear isn’t enough. Neither are the theories of capitalism or science, no less mysterious to most than the Qaballah. If we fail to fill this vacuum with meaning, sooner or later people will grasp for meaning in the only act that any longer has significance – their death.

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