Has ISIS peaked? Will it soon fall into ruins, as all madly driven and ferocious movements seem to do? Its sudden rise as global terrorist #1 seemed to catch all by surprise. As small as it was in its beginning, its capacity to sustain a crescendo of unspeakable violence along with its ability to capture and manage territory and people appeared incompatible. The power of the world’s mightiest military machines seemed stuck, its brains and brawn ineffective if not awkward, inconclusive if not unsure, apprehensive if not afraid.

We have messed with local Middle East realities at our risk. Dropping bombs on foreign nations not only doesn’t solve or eliminate problems, but it creates more trouble than we ever imagined possible.

We face two extremes: to make more of it than we ought, or to shuffle it to the side, leaving it as a failed idea on the garbage heap of history. As I have nosed my way through trying to make sense of ISIS’ origin and shape, I’ve had behind every question, whether to a specialist, informed person, or moment of research, this underlying question: how could this be happening and what is its end game?

ISIS is not a flash in the pan. Out of centuries of theological and social refining, Sharia shaped an expression of Islam that most Muslims buy into. For sure, not all support or abide by the extreme radicalization which al-Qaeda or ISIS advocate or practice, but within the Islamic world there is this spiritual and social genetic predisposition to enforce its discipline. While only a minority of Muslims consciously affirms ISIS, it would be amiss to say it does not rise from its roots.

Further, the radicalization of this current breed will not end tomorrow. This is generational. The 30, 000 plus who have slipped over the borders into Syria and Iraq are younger, many non-Islamic (but then covert) and many not Arabs. They have been mesmerized by the charismatic call of the leader to join a new world order, in which the evil and immoral West will be dealt a deathblow.

This charismatic call is not just an appeal to the dispossessed. Those who took part in recent Western killings and bombings were not unemployed but many from the middle class. To assume that ISIS is made up of desperate young men and women, languishing in camps of unemployment, simply doesn’t hold. Those may be places for recruitment of foot soldiers, but the ones who create mayhem are well educated and employed. So what stirs them into action? Some suggest it is a collective humiliation of Middle Easterners; that the West manipulated the borders (after WWI), created new countries and set up kings and rulers (Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, for example) and more recently invaded its countries, all producing a shaming effect.

What we are witnessing is a “perfect” storm. Joining in a single moment of time are factors reinforcing each other, building synergistically, triggering social movements, employing deep emotions of young people, pumping passion so that self-immolation is considered a joyous calling. Here are some reminders.

  • A 270- year history of Wahhabism, providing a religious base of radicalization
  • Foreign invasions – Afghanistan in 1980s (Russia), Yugoslav wars of the 1990s (NATO), Afghanistan 2001 (USA), Iraq 2003 (U.S. – led Coalition)
  • Osama bin Laden and colleagues furious at these incursions, in Afghanistan in 1989, they formed al-Qaeda, a fighting group to strike back
  • After the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the released Iraqi soldiers created a ready-made army of anxious, unemployed and experienced fighters who in time were employed by ISIS
  • Sunni humiliated by a Shiite government in Iraq was, vulnerable to recruitment
  • The U.S. withdrew in 2011 and left billions in armaments
  • Radicalized Iraqi Sunnis unhappy with al-Qaeda created ISIS (2006)
  • Arab Spring breaks the power of Syrian King Assad, and the country dissolves into chaos
  • Syria provides opportunity for Iran and Saudi Arabia to engage in a proxy war
  • Newly formed ISIS takes over much land in Syria and Iraq and declares a Caliphate
  • ISIS inspires radicalized citizens of the West to bomb and kill

Though this story is fluid, there are underlying factors that continue to drive ISIS.

Islamic faith does not divide between the secular and the religious. Division of church and state is fundamental to our governmental formats and authority, and it informs how Western society operates. Not so for Islam. Some countries in which Islam forms a majority (Indonesia) Christians have relative freedom. But other countries such as Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, Sharia law rules.

While most Muslims rightly decry Islamic radicalization, ISIS charisma reaches into the young, whose parents would be appalled if they knew that their young people were finding it attractive.

To date it is Muslims who are the ones most often afflicted and killed by ISIS. It’s the reputation of Islam, which is in tatters, a nightmare for those wanting to put it forward as a peaceful and modern faith. Islamic scholar Christine Schirrmacher notes, “At the moment Jihadism is certainly one of the biggest threats to world peace. The result of terror and death in the name of Islam is first of all that Muslims themselves are the main victims, because in most countries especially fellow Muslims of the terrorists die due to attacks and executions, as it happened during the years of fighting in Iraq. In addition, the whole Muslim world suffers from terror and jihad because the reputation of Islam as a religion is damaged.”

As professor Schirrmacher notes, Islamic fundamentalism is a huge threat to peace, not limited to the region of its current wars, but globally. As we have witnessed in Paris and San Bernardino, their wildcat strikes continue. The West is just too open and free for terrorists not to take advantage.

Our social/political fixation has been on Iran’s nuclear capability, while leaders seem oblivious to the radical religious exports of Saudi Arabia. Our presidents and prime ministers openly court Saudi princes, while underneath, these same princes send billions to build mosques, sponsors schools, and foster radical Wahhabism. The naivety of those we elect to the highest offices is appalling in their chosen ignorance and embarrassing in their pretense.

Muslim devotees ask, “Why would I convert to Christianity and join an immoral community?” They link the West with Christianity. I might object, arguing that many in the West are not Christians, or nominal at best. This they don’t grasp. Watching Hollywood’s latest, they assume those messages are normative to what we believe and how we live. As they link Christian commitment to what they view, it is understandable how they come to such conclusions.

In many countries in the Middle East, it is dangerous to be a Christian and tens of thousands have fled. In North Africa conditions are always changing. In Saudi Arabia it is dangerous for a local to confess Christ. For those in Africa, especially northern Nigeria and other countries in the region, Boko Horam is murderous and strikes without warning.

How then are we to think? Here are some guidelines for consideration.

First ask, “What might it feel like to be humiliated by a foreign power whose religion I believe wants to obliterate mine?” Make an attempt to understand their fears and concerns, trying to see the world through their eyes.

Second, avoid the trap of partisan thinking. Sides lineup one against the other. We listen to one and demagogue the other. Step back and ask what is being said. See through a wide-angled lens, noting factors at play out on the edges.

Third, create distance between the often-sold policies of one’s favorite or most despised political leaders. It is not difficult to find political decisions over the past few decades that were wrong, made by all parties. A little humility helps.

The question I’m about to ask is not pandering to a “do nothing” view. It is this: How would this look through the eyes of Jesus? In the center of military haranguing, as religious leaders linked together in conspiratorial silence with the Roman Empire, who were making life miserable and dangerous for the early church, the Spirit reached out to Cornelius, of the Roman military who as a Roman solider would be obliged to oppress the Jewish community. Yet it was by him working with the disciple Peter that the Gospel was introduced to the gentile world.

We can assume that the Spirit is at work in places and in ways known only to him. In time we will read or meet those for whom – even in vicious and barbaric situations – Jesus was there in the center, bringing life in the most surprising ways.

The turbulence of the Middle East is both politically and militarily overladen with Islamic fundamentalism. Within the immediate borders of its battles, governments of the West, Russia, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Syria and others are the only ones who can untangle the complex intertwining of interests, fighting and influence.

While this is out of most of our hands, there are things we can do.

Make contact with and build friendships with Muslims in your community: befriend them, assuring them that they are welcomed. Listen to their stories. Invite them to a meal. Let them see your life and hear of your faith. Tell them your story only after you’ve heard theirs.

Pray without ceasing. Within the social/religious/political dynamics at work, the Evil One takes advantage, exacerbating violence: anything darkness can do to destroy, it will. This is spiritual warfare, yet our weapons are not physical but spiritual in the breaking down of strongholds.

Our prayers might include: our leaders and the decisions they make, Muslim neighbors or workplace colleagues. Pray for Christians caught in places of threat. Provide support to missions and agencies working to build peace, those serving in humanitarian ways and in public and private witness. Let’s be generous in our praying and in our giving.

The great narrative of God’s creation and his life-giving love calls his people to be counter-cultural, counter-intuitive, seeing life from the landscape of eternity. Biblical stories will filter our thinking, empowering us to think, live and respond differently. The prophet Micah lays out a healing and transforming vision:

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.

And what does the Lord require of you?

To act justly, and to love mercy

and to walk humbly with your God. (6:8)

We are given no other way.

Brian C. Stiller
Global Ambassador, World Evangelical Alliance
December 2015


Photo found on: Google Images

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