It is difficult to tune in to a newscast or to social media these days without learning about the latest atrocities committed by ISIS (sometimes referred to as ISIL, “the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant”). This jihadist group controls territory in Syria and Iraq, and claims to be the revival of the historical Caliphate or center of worldwide Islam. It is famous for broadcasting the beheading of its prisoners, including lately some twenty-one Coptic Christians who were working in the construction industry in Libya. All twenty-one were given the chance to save their lives by embracing Islam; all twenty-one refused, and confessed Jesus as their Lord, dying as true martyrs for the Christian faith. What are we as Christians to make of all this? I suggest three responses, one regarding front line of the military, one regarding the public arena of debate, and one regarding the private arena of the heart.
Regarding the military response, it seems clear that ISIS’ bloody progress needs to be stopped, and this can only be done with through sustained military might. We should be clear what the phrase “sustained military might” means—it means the continued killing other human beings in great numbers, and at a cost in human life to our own side as well. Some of our young men will return home in body bags, and innocent people in the Middle East will also be killed including women and children, in what the military will report euphemistically as “collateral damage”. It is useless to suppose that war can be safely waged by one side, and that ISIS can be stopped by simply dropping bombs from a safe distance. Even with today’s military and drone technology, war means “boots on the ground”. The choice is not between “boots on the ground” or winning the war in some other way. The choice is between boots on the ground or not winning the war. War is not something that can be sensibly or successful waged with half-measures. One thinks of Yoda’s counsel to the young Luke Skywalker when he said he would give it a try at a difficult task: “No. Try not. Do, or do not. There is no try”. Or, if one prefers the Scriptures to Star Wars and Solomon to Yoda, one might cite his counsel in Ecclesiastes 9:10: “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might”. Some might argue that this is not our war. I would suggest that it is precisely our war, if for no other reason than that ISIS has declared war on Christian nations and will carry out that struggle through terrorism on our doorsteps as it has already begun to do. After all, ISIS’ official motto is “Remaining and expanding”, and it seems as they intend to be true to their word. Killing on the field of battle is terrible and full of sin, but it seems as if we have no other moral choice.
Perhaps scarcely less important is our response in the arena of public debate. In this forum one hears repeated over and over again that ISIS has nothing to do with Islam, that its fighters are not true Muslims, and that Islam is a religion of peace. One wonders if such politically correct rhetoric is not at least partially inspired by a desire to get the Muslim vote at election time, or at least the vote of the liberal left. It is certainly not inspired by any reading of history. Speaking of “remaining and expanding”, Islam expanded militarily so aggressively in its earliest years that by 732, a scant one hundred years after the death of Muhammad, Islam had spread as far as north-central France, and were only repelled from there by the heroism of Charles Martel at the Battle of Tours. It is fashionable to deny that such violent men and women are true Muslims. Instead they are referred to as “radicalized Muslims”, “Islamists”, “jihadis”—any term to make clear that their actions do not represent any authentic form of Islam. But the jihadis themselves quote both from the Qur’an itself to justify their actions, as well as the historical precedents set by the Prophet Muhammad. It was Muhammad who beheaded his foes, establishing and spreading his rule by killing in war, and delighted in violent victory. It was Muhammad’s first and intimate followers who continued to spread his religion with the sword. There are other ways to interpret the Qur’an and practise Islam, but it seems clear that the jihadist version of Islam has as much claim to be regarded as Islamic as any of the other versions.
In the arena of public debate, we need to ask our Muslim neighbours why it is that Islam has more than its fair share of such extremism. Certainly many Muslims are peaceful, tolerant, and loving. One is heartened to hear of Muslims in Egypt joining hands to protect Christian churches, and of the Muslim who protected the innocent in Paris during the Charlie Hebdo massacre. A family of such lovely and peaceable Muslims lives just down the hall from me in our apartment building; they hail me happily as “Fr. Lawrence”, and when I see them dressed and leaving for worship, I call out, “God bless you!” as they pass me in the elevator on the way to their mosque. But the mystery of Islamic extremism remains. Granted that many Muslims are sensible, tolerant, and peaceful, one still needs an explanation for why the House of Islam holds so many terrorists. Not all Muslims are terrorists, of course, but it seems that most terrorists are Muslim. It will not do to say, “all religions have war-like adherents in them” and then to quote the Crusades as an example of Christian violence. One must be desperate to find examples of specifically Christian violence if one has to invoke the Crusades. The first Crusade was about a thousand years ago, and the last one ended about 800 years ago, whereas the last example of specifically Muslim violence was on last night’s news. Our peaceable Islamic neighbours need to put aside their natural and famous defensiveness, and ascertain why this is so. My guess is that it is so because of the violent nature of the Qur’anic texts and the violent career of its founder. Such things set a religion on a trajectory. But if my guess is wrong, our Muslim friends still need to come up with a better one. As Christians engaged in open debate in the public square, we should humbly and peacefully ask the question and help our Muslim friends look for the explanation for why Islam has bred such extremism. The Muslims themselves will have the most to gain from the conversation.
Finally we examine what our response to ISIS should be in the private arena of our hearts. And here there is not much room for any debate—we are called to keep our hearts free of hatred and rancour and lust for revenge, and to pray for those who do evil. The soldier’s task is to wage war, and the citizen’s task is to debate respectfully. It is every Christian’s task is to forgive and love. The provocative nature of ISIS’ atrocities is intended by them to heat things up, to inflame the passions, and to polarize, dividing everyone into two warring camps of “us” and “them”. It is just here that we must rely upon Christ to give us His peace, and to remain serene in the face of such provocation. ISIS may be our enemy, but the Lord has called us to love our enemies, and pray that God may have mercy on them and convert them. In the public square we hear other shrill voices, voices of political rhetoric, angry and anxious for retaliation. These voices must not be allowed to drown out the still small voice of the Lord, whispering in our hearts and calling us to love. This is our first response to the work and words of ISIS, and the most important one. And this interior work of Christian love is not incompatible with the other tasks of the soldier and the citizen. It will be difficult to perform all three of these tasks at the same time, and for mere men it may be impossible. But not for Christian men and women, for we know the living God. And with God, all things are possible.