Portraits of Belief: The Parallels Between Mentorship at Colgate and of Terrorist Groups

For many people, religion or other forms of spirituality are a comfort. Solace may be found in the presence of someone ‘out there’ watching over you, empathizing with both suffering and elation. Religion can also influ-ence an individual’s moral, social and political viewpoints by helping them decide what they view as right and wrong. Religious leaders are often influential mentors.

At Colgate, Mark Shiner is the Univer-sity Chaplain and Catholic Campus Min-ister, and James “Putter” Cox is the Prot-estant Campus Minister. Both chaplains can be helpful to students, especially those struggling with the adjustment to college and to adulthood.

Religious influence exists in other situa-tions, most strikingly in one that is elusive and quite terrifying for most of the Western world since 9/11: terrorism. In the form of threats, suicide bombings and large-scale attacks, especially those from al-Qaeda af-filiates, it is probably the most dominant source of Western fear. Terrorist groups use vulnerability, internal uncertainty and desperation caused by poverty to convince individuals to join their cause.

The way that terrorist groups gain fol-lowers and supporters is not unlike the way some people seek guidance from religious leaders. I do not intend to equate religious mentors at Colgate with terrorist ‘mentors.’ I aim, instead, to explain how terrorists cap-italize upon a normal human vulnerability. Mentorship has the capacity to ameliorate – but also to exploit – vulnerability in young people. Exploitation by groups like al-Qae-da or Hamas have the effect of amplifying rather than amending vulnerability.

Colgate’s religious leaders, especially Chaplain Shiner, were aware of the insecu-rity that may come with youthfulness. In October, Colgate brought Eboo Patel to campus. Patel’s book, Acts of Faith, discusses his creation of an organization, the Interfaith Youth Core, that promotes good works, es-pecially those religious in nature, among young people. He created this organization as an antidote to terrorist organizations that use religion to inspire evil actions.

At Colgate, Minister Cox would rather steer individuals to certain scripture than help them with each issue.

“I feel my mentoring job is to orient people toward Biblical texts, so they can gain respect for and trust of it,” Cox said. “Ob-viously there are immediate practical and personal issues that theology can’t help, but hopefully in the future the individual knows where to look in Biblical texts for guidance.”

“The question of mentoring is the question of authority, and where authority lies,” Cox said. “However, authority lies not in a denomi-nation, group or the mentors themselves, but in the Biblical text.”

Cox’s point illustrates a crucial difference be-tween good and bad mentors. A good mentor’s goal is foremost to help the individual in need of mentorship, in order to promote empathy. A bad mentor’s main interest is that of the group, and only secondarily of the individual. Unlike a proper mentor who would perhaps steer young Muslims to the Koran for guidance, terrorist leaders make the group the authority. They con-vince young Muslims that the group’s views are right, and use such vehemence that it is difficult to doubt.

For Chaplain Shiner, conscience is an important part of mentoring.

“The biggest idea I try to emphasize is the role of the conscience, of which there are many manifestations, and that it’s most important to seek to obey the conscience,” Shiner said. “If you believe something to be true, you should organize your life around it. If you don’t believe something to be true, you can’t live your life as if you did.”

“I need to be really careful of the mes-sage I’m sending people,” Shiner said. “I try to influence people to be empathic human beings, with empathic consciences.”

Through their ‘mentoring’, terrorist groups deprive individuals of the ability to discover their own conscience, and instead impose the moral code of the group. As opposed to allow-ing them to become decent and understand-ing humans, they convince them that their insecurity and uncertainty will be eased by the adoption of their inherently evil beliefs.

The causes of youthful vulnerability differ for people, though. Destitution and long-term oppression are major factors that lead individuals to terrorism. For most, vulner-ability comes in the form of social, familial or financial stresses.

To understand the power of this vulner-ability of future terrorists, it is necessary to understand the conditions in which they are raised. Because there is such raw desper-ation in most situations in which terrorists are recruited, even the hint of a solution can be very attractive.

Imagine growing up in the West Bank. Perhaps your house was requisi-tioned by Israelis to build a settlement, forcing you and your family to live in a crowded and decrepit house or refugee camp. To get anywhere, you would have to pass through Israeli checkpoints, and would likely be harassed each time. Your family would probably struggle for food every day, and there would be few job opportunities for you.

Palestinian activists use terror – and the offer of its cessation – to wager for the better-ment of living conditions. You would prob-ably be attracted to this idea, and to the idea of doing something tangible to help your family and fellow Palestinians. The older, authoritative terrorists understand how des-perate life seems, and the logic of using ter-ror seems legitimate when they explain it. Maybe they will choose you to do a valiant suicide mission, emphasize the good you will do for the community and promise your im-mediate ascension to heaven. The wise, older men have endowed you with a way toward a better future, and you would do anything to improve the horrible situation in which you have been living.

And so you strap a bomb under your clothes and detonate it in downtown Tel Aviv.

A mentor has the ability to impart the feeling of understanding, which allows peo-ple to contend with their external problems. Terrorists who use mentorship to their ad-vantage can also impart an understanding of a situation to an individual who has been at an extreme disadvantage due to situations like these. They show individuals a tangible way to react to the situation, as a religious mentor could lend a tangible way in which to cope with internal or external stresses.

What the connection exposes regarding terrorism is that the majority of terrorists are not simply evil people by nature. In-stead, they are individuals seeking solace of some sort, and a terrorist group has pro-vided it. It is easy to capitalize on insecurity, and can quickly be done. Patel suggests a means of thwarting terrorism through ed-ucation and mentorship with the hope of producing empathy.

Perhaps a genuine empathy toward those we most fear can lead to the cessation of their exploitation, and thus of terror itself.

Contact Selina Koller at [email protected].