056 Radical Islam is Filling a Spiritual Void, But There’s an Even More Radical Alternative

Picture: David Vespole (Flickr, creative commons)

Here’s what radical groups like ISIS desire: a world under Islamic rule, through strict submission to Sharia law, achieved by jihad or ‘holy war’. But let’s look for a moment at the desires of ISIS’s young recruits. As it turns out, what they’re looking for is meaning, purpose, and a cause to join that’s bigger than themselves. This is a desire every human being has – a desire secular society fails to fulfill, leaving jihadists and others to fill the void. But there’s another way to meet this longing.

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The Void Revealed

In their penetrating New York Review article following the Paris attacks, Scott Atran and Nafees Hamid point out that around 90 percent of French citizens who have radical Islamist beliefs have French grandparents, and 80 percent come from non-religious families. According to the figures then, most French Islamists are former secularists. They are drawn into jihadist religion not through their families but through their peers who are searching for a cause to live for and values to live by.

As one convert who’d been in and out of jail told Atran and Hamid:

“I was a mess, with nothing to me, until the idea of following the mujahid’s [holy warrior’s] way gave me rules to live by”: to channel his energy into jihad and defend his Muslim brethren under attack from infidels in France and everywhere…

As another 24 year-old radical told them:

They [Western society] teach us to work hard to buy a nice car and nice clothes but that isn’t happiness. I was a third-class human because I wasn’t integrated into a corrupted system. But I didn’t want to be a street gangster. So, I and my friends simply decided to go around and invite people to join Islam.

As this advice from one young Syrian woman to another shows, this cause is seen as great enough to overrule allegiance to one’s family:

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…

As New York Times columnist Ross Douthat has surmised:

The deep reality here… is that many human beings, especially perhaps young human beings, still crave a transcendent purpose, even in a society that tells them they don’t really need one to live a comfortable, fulfilling life. And more than that, many people experience both a kind of liberation and a kind of joy in submission to these purposes, even — as is the case with ISIS — when that submission involves accepting forms of violence and cruelty that rightly shock the conscience of the world.

A Radical Alternative

In their article, Atran and Hamid suggest that offering employment and education opportunities to ISIS-vulnerable youths will only go so far. This shouldn’t surprise us. Spiritual problems need spiritual, not just material, remedies. And I believe the human longing for a cause to live for and values to live by can be met by something more radical than radical Islam.

Following the Radical Jesus…

You may know by now my own journey through Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and the book the journey birthed. In this radical manifesto Jesus provides:

A radical prayer that gives us a cause to live for:

May your Kingdom come soon.
May your will be done on earth,
    as it is in heaven. (More on this in a second)

A radical set of values to live by that transform our relationships:

If you are kind only to your friends, how are you different from anyone else? Even pagans do that. But you are to be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect.

A radical way of life that critiques the ‘nice car, nice home’ values of consumer culture:

Don’t store up treasures here on earth, where moths eat them and rust destroys them, and where thieves break in and steal… Wherever your treasure is, there the desires of your heart will also be.

A way that demands radical allegiance:

If you refuse to take up your cross and follow me, you are not worthy of being mine. If you cling to your life, you will lose it; but if you give up your life for me, you will find it.

A way marked not by radical terror but radical love:

But I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you! In that way, you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven.

… into the Dream of God

Psychologists tell us we need a cause to live for to live well. Secularism isn’t providing that, so radical Islam rushes to fill the void by calling recruits to the grand dream of an Islamised world. But when Jesus calls us to pray for our Father’s kingdom to come ‘on earth as it is in heaven’ he is calling us to God’s dream for the world, which is as radically peaceful as it is beautiful. It will be:

A world of fulfilled longings:

As Blaise Pascal intimated, there’s a God-shaped hole in the heart that only God can fill, and this longing will be fulfilled when God’s dream is complete: “Look, God’s home is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people”

A world of healed wounds:

Every tear will be wiped from our eyes as there will be no more mourning or pain. Death, disability, and illness will be gone, and our groaning earth will be made well. Earth and humanity will be whole in God’s fulfilled dream

A world of radiant beauty:

The new heavens and earth will gleam with God’s own beauty—a glory like the most dazzling of jewels

A world of restored harmony:

There will be harmony between nations as they walk in God’s light and turn their swords into gardening tools. There will be economic justice for the poor, even harmony between animals. God’s dream will be a place of peace

What if God’s dream inspired us to become pastors and missionaries to help fulfill spiritual longing? Or nurses and therapists to help heal people’s wounds? Or designers and filmmakers to help spread God’s beauty? Or aid workers and politicians to help restore God’s harmony? The possibilities are many, the career opportunities endless. We are called to be part of God’s dream coming true.


Former radical Islamist Charles Featherstone says a search for meaning, purpose and belonging was what drew him into revolutionary Islam. This spiritual longing exists within every heart and denial of it only creates a void for dangerous ideologies to fill. But I believe there is One who issues a challenge more radical than the jihadist’s cause. One who calls us to radical love, not terror.

Your Response

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  1. My book Resilient: Your Invitation to a Jesus-Shaped Life is out. Find out more
  2. I’ll be speaking at Oxford Community Church next Sunday. Details here
  3. Merryn and I will be contributing to a special retreat in January especially for couples wrestling with infertility. More information here

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  • November 25, 2015
    David Pascoe

    Love the framing of the Christian worldview as being just as radical as radical Islam. The search for meaning is a deep one and gives a credible answer to why we as a society cannot grasp why young people are joining ISIS. Even the Federal Police here are shrugging their shoulders as to how to really truly counter radicalism. It is like they have never even thought about it. Some wisdom here that they could benefit from!

    • November 25, 2015

      I think you’re right, David. This truly is a spiritual issue. Secularism just doesn’t have the resources to meet it, and while sidelining faith (as France does significantly) leaves society only more vulnerable.

  • November 25, 2015
    Andy Coller

    Sadly, many Western Christians underestimate the power of the Gospel. We likewise should reject Western consumerism and reflect a powerful loving gracious alternative.

  • November 26, 2015
    Steve McAlpine

    Really enjoyed listening to this Sheridan. Just wrote something on that recently too. Really resonates with where we can take things as God’s people.

  • November 27, 2015
    Nick Sharp

    I’ve been waiting and wondering to see what would arise to replace post-Modernism. The scepticism about an overarching cause has left people empty and directionless. Postmodernism is criticised for its tendency to allow contradictory ideas to co-exist – if an unthinking radical belief in a cause takes its place, we shouldn’t be surprised if people seem capable of bypassing their consciences.
    Thank you for offering us something deeper and more truly fulfilling.

  • November 29, 2015

    beautifully put


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