Like a nightmare come to life, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant has emerged as one of the world’s most frightening terrorist groups.

Video of gruesome beheadings, torture and other atrocities show the barbaric nature of its attacks. The group — better known as ISIS or ISIL — has made it clear that the U.S. is a target of its vengeance.

Even more frightening for Americans is how very little is known about this violent organization.

“People are worried and concerned and confused about who these people are, why they’re so angry, what their goals are,” Franklin College professor David Carlson said. “We’ve seen on the news on ISIS is really good at changing the realities of that region of the world. What I’ve found speaking is people asking what they can do, how they can not feel so helpless.”

After 10 years of teaching about religion and violence, Carlson has developed an insight into the workings of groups such as ISIS. As a professor of religion and philosophy, he has been invited to speak numerous times throughout the country on the terrorist group’s worldview and how people of all faiths can combat its hatred.

The ISIS question will be one of the most important foreign policy issue in the coming years, and it’s important that people in the U.S. understand what this group is.

“I’ve found Muslims in America to be in tremendous pain, and a lot of it is spiritual pain. They’ve told me at times that they were hoping people in America would be more like Jesus,” Carlson said. “In a way, we’re trying to be.”

Carlson has offered a course on religion and violence at the college for the past decade. About a year ago, he was ready to stop teaching it, feeling that 10 years was long enough for the topic.

But about that time, ISIS started gaining more notoriety in the news.

“I realized that instead of walking away from religion and violence, this is the big challenge of our time,” he said.

Carlson has given his presentation about 30 times in the past year, speaking to church groups, seminaries and conventions about the Muslim extremists.

At the core, his discussion looks at the history of Western involvement in the Muslim world and how that has led to ISIS’s emergence. The roots of the group stretch back to World War I, when Arabs in the Middle East joined British and French forces to fight the controlling Ottoman Empire.

Negotiations implied that as compensation for their assistance, Arabian people would be given their own nation-state in the area. But France and Britain went back on that agreement, creating the Middle East that exists today with a collection of smaller nations.

“For us, this is ancient history. But in the Arab mentality, this is still fresh, that the West did not give us what they promised,” Carlson said.

From that perceived injustice, and many others during the past 100 years, a faction of Arabs has arisen to claim that independent nation-state they were promised — ISIS.

ISIS has focused its vitriol on the U.S. due to lingering feelings of betrayal following the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in the Iraq War. Sunni Muslims have joined the group after the majority Shiites have made them second-class citizens in Iraq.

“That anger comes from the fact that we meddled in that region, and that in their view, the Sunnis lost out big time because of America,” Carlson said.

The group has recruited young Muslims from around the world — including in the U.S. — by making them feel that the West will never be a place where they’re welcome.

In the U.S., that effort has been aided by events such as the one in Garland, Texas, where people created satirical cartoons of Muhammad, the holy prophet of Islam. The cartoon contest event was attacked by gunmen who were later found to have ISIS sympathies.

“(ISIS) loves that, because the message of that kind of event is that Muslims are not welcome here,” Carlson said. “That’s exactly what ISIS wants.”

The way to combat those feelings of animosity is for people of all faiths to stand together against violence of any kind.

One of the initiatives that Carlson is helping lead is called Prayer Partners for Peace. By partnering with the local mosques in the U.S., Christians and other faith communities can pray for each other and better understand one another.

“Prayer in Islam is extremely important, and prayer in Christianity is as well,” Carlson said. “What we ask is that people pray that God’s will be done in our country. Instead of increasing that sense of Muslims feeling they’re not welcome here, we want Muslims individually and as communities to know that Christians are praying for them.”

Carlson’s message is one that has drawn the attention of all people of faith. He will speak to a conference of Ahmadiyya Muslim Community in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, this month. Having a Christian speaker at the conference is a rarity.

He had been invited to the Parliament of the World’s Religions, a gathering of 10,000 people from 50 faiths that will feature speakers such as the Dalai Lama.

To illustrate his message, Carlson will discuss the incidents in Garland as well as what occurred in Columbus in August 2014. Vandals spray-painted the word “Infidels” and a reference to the Quran on three churches in the city. Instead of allowing fear and suspicion to divide the community, faith leaders stood together to denounce the act, whoever had done it.

“It’s groups of different religions standing together, not agreeing theologically but saying that in all of these faith traditions, the neighbor is sacred. In all of these religions, we must build bridges over walls of separation,” Carlson said.

At the end of August, Carlson will again take part in the third annual Festival of Faiths. The event celebrates the different faith traditions in central Indiana, highlighting the differences as well as the similarities between the religions.

The message is central to eventually crippling and defeating the hatred exemplified by ISIS.

“It’s really a celebration of religious freedom in America, so we can live in peace together,” he said. “We draw together to show that what we are is how the world should be — that we believe differently, but value each other and celebrate that our country is so diverse.”

The Carlson File

Who: David Carlson

Home: Franklin

Occupation: Professor of religion and philosophy at Franklin College

Wife: Kathy

Education: Bachelor’s degree in political science from Wheaton College; a bachelor’s degree in biblical studies from the American Baptist Seminary of the West, California; doctorate in New Testament from the University of Aberdeen, Scotland. He has also conducted postdoctoral studies at Duke University on a National Endowment for the Humanities grant and at Indiana University.

Honors: Recipient of the Faculty Teaching Award and the Dietz Faculty Excellence Award at Franklin College

If you go

What: Festival of Faiths, a celebration of central Indiana’s diverse faith traditions and community organizations, featuring worship organizations and nonprofit groups from a wide array of religious backgrounds.

When: 1 to 5 p.m. Aug. 30

Where: Veterans Memorial Plaza, 50 E. Michigan St., Indianapolis

Who: The festival is organized by the Center for Interfaith Cooperation, an Indianapolis group focused on fostering collaboration between different religions.

Cost: Free

Author photo
Ryan Trares is a reporter for the Daily Journal. He can be reached at or 317-736-2727.