Since 9/11, there's been significant discussion about the threat posed to the United States by madrassahs in Pakistan and other Muslim countries. Coming from the same root as the Arabic words for "to study" and "to teach," madrassah essentially means "school." But the word has taken on a negative connotation, since some of these institutions, which adhere to a religious curriculum, are known to have trained students who later joined groups such as Al Qaeda and the Taliban. An opinion piece in today's Monitor refers to the indoctrination, extremism, and terrorism that can result from the curricula of radicalized schools as "the madrassah effect." Of course, effect implies cause.
So what these authors - and many other experts - are contending is that some madrassahs are causing young people throughout the Muslim world to think and act in ways that are detrimental or even fatal to humanity. Part of the concern is that because these students are indoctrinated at such a formative age, it's unlikely they will ever be open to more moderate ideas.
Even if we've never entertained the idea of becoming a terrorist, many of us have at times felt driven by anger or injustice, and have acted in ways that harmed those around us - and in ways that we later regretted. But maybe we've also had times when we've been able to put aside those seemingly irresistible feelings and have been able to forgive, to reach out to someone who has wronged us. Maybe we've even had a change of heart that not only influences our reaction in that moment, but transforms our entire character.
One of my favorite stories about such an experience is the biblical account of St. Paul on the road to Damascus. At that time, he wasn't quite the saint he later became. In fact, Saul, as he was then known, was on a rampage to kill every Christian he could find, when suddenly he was blinded by a bright light and he heard a voice asking, "Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?" When Saul asked who was speaking, the reply came, "I am Jesus whom thou persecutest: it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks" (Acts 9:4, 5).
When I was growing up, I didn't know what "pricks" meant, so I imagined Saul thrashing around in a wild blackberry patch like the one near my house, getting prickers stuck in his skin, just as I did.
But later I learned that the Greek word translated "pricks" also has the figurative meaning "divine impulse." So that biblical passage could be taken to mean, "It's hard for you to resist the divine impulse to be Godlike and perfect, just as God has created you to be."
In Saul's case, it proved not only hard, but impossible, to resist that divine impulse. As a result, he was completely transformed. He became one of the most stalwart advocates of the teachings of Christ Jesus, working tirelessly and with unfaltering dedication, despite persecution.
Whenever I find myself believing that someone or some people are incapable of changing their ways, I remind myself of the Saul-Paul story. I think, "If that guy could have a turnaround, is there really anyone in the world who couldn't?"
That includes the students of extremist madrassahs. No matter what road these young people seem to be marching down, no matter what kind of ideological indoctrination they've been exposed to, that same light that appeared to Saul can appear to them. And the same tender but firm voice can speak to them, transform them, and enable them to see their true identity as Godlike, pure, and eager to act on the impulses of divine, ever-present Love.
And the great news is, this Love is governing each individual from the remote, rugged mountains of Afghanistan to the peaks of Kashmir to the vibrant streets of Cairo. Even in the nooks and crannies that are beyond the reach of antiterrorist efforts, the irresistible touch of divine Love is reaching men and women and turning them to a better life.
Just as it's impossible for darkness to get between the sun and its rays, so it is impossible for hatred, violence, or destructive impulses to corrupt God's inviolate relationship with each one of His sons and daughters.
The more each one of us is transformed by this healing truth, and the more diligently and consistently we affirm the Godlikeness of each individual - regardless of his or her background - the more we will see this proven in our world today.