“How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” That plaintive question of the psalms comes to mind in connection with reports of the conversion to Islam of James Foley, the journalist who was murdered by the Islamic State last August. According to some freed hostages, the imprisoned Foley, who was well known to be seriously Catholic, adopted the Muslim practices of daily prayers and Koran study, a religious transformation that appeared genuine. His mother responded to the reports by saying, “Only God and Jim know what was going on in his heart.”
Observers are right to withhold judgment.
The brutality of the Islamic State, and the ferocious violence with which it coerces outward embrace of Muslim identity, are enough to make any hostage conversion suspect, since religious faith assumes freely chosen inner disposition.
The reports of Foley’s conversion have nevertheless brought attention to further aspects of his admirable life, while prompting a deeper reflection on the meaning of religious conviction, and the ways it can be shaped by extreme experience. Foley himself, describing a routine he adopted in a previous captivity, in Libya in 2011, spoke of praying in the Islamic fashion with his Muslim cellmates; “I prayed five times a day,” he said. “It was so powerful, and it was something I needed to do to commune with these guys who were relying on their faith in Allah.”
Anyone who has paid close attention to, much less enacted, the ritual Muslim act of full prostration toward Mecca, an eloquent and repeated posture of gratitude and submission, can feel the tremble of a heart attuned to the Holy One. But Foley was sensitive enough, and honest enough, to confront the inner conflict that the power of such practice provoked. “I was thinking, ‘Jesus, am I praying to Allah? Am I violating my belief in you?’ ”
Foley’s qualms raise profound religious questions, but also go to the heart of a global crisis of faith that comes dangerously close to turning the war against terror into war against Muslims everywhere. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are routinely described as “the three monotheistic religions,” all descended from Abraham, and all worshiping the one God. But more and more, Islam is spoken of as a religion apart, with its main identity tied to the actions and beliefs of a small minority of fanatics.
But the respect for Muslim faith that James Foley manifested during and after his first captivity, in Libya, and that his fellow captives saw on display in Syria, points to Islam’s essential holiness, a religion that makes God present for more than a billion people. Yes, one presumes to suggest, Foley was praying to Allah. And no, he was not violating his belief in Jesus.
The psalm with which this column began refers to what’s called “the Babylonian Captivity,” when ancient Jews were kidnapped by an enemy and held captive for half a century (586-538 BCE). “By the rivers of Babylon we sat down,” the psalm says, “we also wept when we remembered Zion.”
Even in their exile, the people remained faithful to the God of Abraham, rejecting the false gods of their captors. Martyrdom came into the biblical story.
But it is not enough to say the Jews simply held fast to their old idea of God. The extreme experience of having been deprived of their culture led the captive people into a whole new appreciation of their faith, for in Babylon they discovered that the God whom they previously located in the Jerusalem Temple, attached to Zion, had accompanied them into “a foreign land.” The Lord is still with us! In Babylon, they realized that their God transcended place – and, for that matter, transcended traditions of worship we know as “religion.” In exile, as this Christian sees it, the Jewish people came to the crucial recognition that God was not the God of the tribe only, but of all that exists. In captivity, the true magnanimity of the Holy One could be sensed.
That is how the precious particularities of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam began – in a vision of universality, born of captivity. It seems that, in his own particular – and one can say noble – way, Foley underwent such a vision himself. Perhaps his captivity opened him freshly to the omnipresence of the Holy One, whether named as the Father of Jesus, God, or Allah. The test of such worship, of course, is in compassion toward near neighbors, which Foley demonstrated by praying with Muslim cellmates – “these guys.” It is for the largeness of James Foley’s heart, and the spaciousness of his faith, that the world cries out today.
James Carroll writes regularly for the Globe.