Americans have difficulty understanding the appeal of the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL). President Obama even declared that “ISIL is not Islamic.” This statement is patently false, and in order to truly face the religious violence in the world today, Americans need to understand religion and know how to argue for peace and tolerance within traditional Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
The best way to combat the faith-motivated violence of groups such as Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State is not to dismiss religion in general, but to understand its visceral appeal. Even if Islam is more inherently friendly to theocracy and war, the vast majority of Muslim denominations do not advocate violence to create a world-wide Islamic State.
The leaders of the Islamic State understand something many in the West have forgotten. Life is not just about money, fame, comfort and entertainment. The human heart longs for more — for meaning, for sacrifice. Religion not only provides a way of viewing the world and a mechanism for enforcing morality, but it answers the deep questions within us: Why do I exist? Why is the world imperfect? What should I do to gain meaning and significance in my life?
This relentless drive — this passion for meaning — gives ISIS the edge over those who aim to stop potential recruits. But faith also holds the key to meaning without the slaughter of innocents — or in Christianity, with only the sacrifice of one innocent. Only this key of faith, not military struggle nor sound bites against religious violence, will truly turn back the tide. Redemption, not victory, should be our aim.
ISIS Gives a Cause for Sacrifice
In 1940, George Orwell wrote a review of Hitler’s “Mein Kampf,” and hit the nail on the head as to why some people choose even evil, violent causes over business as usual.
“Mr. Hitler has grasped the falsity of the hedonistic attitude of life. Nearly all western thought since the last war, certainly all ‘progressive’ thought, has assumed tacitly that human beings desire nothing beyond ease, security and avoidance of pain. In such a view of life there is no room, for instance, for patriotism and the military virtues,” Orwell wrote.
“Hitler, because in his own joyless mind he feels it with exceptional strength, knows that human beings don’t only want comfort, safety, short working-hours, hygiene, birth-control and, in general, common sense: they also, at least intermittently, want struggle and self-sacrifice.”
Orwell hits on the power of Hitler’s promise — not to give his people wealth or peace but a cause to sacrifice for, however evil. “Whereas Socialism, and even capitalism in a more grudging way, have said to people ‘I offer you a good time,’ Hitler has said to them ‘I offer you struggle, danger and death,’ and as a result a whole nation flings off its feet.”
ISIS promises the same struggle today, and the West cannot afford to be blind to its appeal. Compared to America’s constant struggle for more peace, prosperity and “income equality,” the Islamic State offers a sacrificial battle against almost insurmountable odds.
Can a few dedicated warriors reshape the political balance of the world? Since the time Islam split into Sunni and Shi’ite wings — divided over who is the rightful caliph, the political successor of Mohammed — the idea of a pan-Islamic caliphate has languished. The Ottoman Turks went further than most Islamic powers, but even they could not claim to have re-established a political unity encompassing all Muslims.
The warriors of the Islamic State have a unique opportunity — they can prove that the long decline of Islamic political power is a sham. They can prove that the great empire which conquered the Middle East 1,400 years ago was just the beginning.
No amount of American comforts or anti-ISIS sound bites can destroy this vision. The slaughter of innocents — from beheading Christians to throwing homosexuals off buildings — becomes a means to this end, and no amount of basic reason will open these people’s minds to see how evil it is.
The Faith-Based Response
While secular logic may prove powerless to combat this threat, Christianity and other forms of Islam provide an answer. Faith alone can combat faith.
Jesus Christ promised his followers a similar hopeless situation. “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you” (John 15:18-19).
Persecution, death and eternal glory — these are the promises of radicals. These are the keys to meaning through sacrifice, and they need not be a door to evil. Jesus’ disciples (except John) all died gruesome deaths, but not because they were fighting in a war, trying to force others to believe the Gospel by force. Each was either skinned alive, stoned, crucified or beheaded for believing that Jesus was the messiah, and trying to convince others.
Jesus explicitly did not promote political change through force of arms. When he declared that he was the messiah, many followers expected him to overthrow the Roman Empire. Instead, Jesus explicitly called for Jews to pay their taxes, saying: “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mark 12:17). Indeed, this is one of very many reasons why many Jews to this day reject the idea that Jesus was the messiah.
Nevertheless, the tiny hopeless Jesus movement spread like wildfire. The message of one man bearing the sins of everyone, dying in their place to satisfy a righteous God, took the Roman Empire by storm. Christians believed that every life was valuable, and research by sociologist Rodney Stark suggests that their care for the sick and dying — unlike pagans at the time — was one of the main forces propelling the faith onward.
Against all odds, a faith which emphasized love and sacrifice dominated an empire focused on conquest and the force of arms. A radical, inspiring movement prevailed over business as usual — and it wasn’t evil or violent.
Moderate Islam also presents a compelling faith that need not be bloody or militant. While the prophet Mohammed did conquer his hometown of Mecca by force of arms, and his successors spread throughout the Middle East and North Africa by conquest, his faith has provided a religious basis for peace and learning as well.
While there is a great deal of over-exaggeration about the Islamic “Golden Age,” it cannot be denied that learning and scholarship flourished in the Middle East under Muslim rule. Arabic translations preserved many ancient texts which were recovered in Europe during the Renaissance, and developments in medicine and mathematics furthered human knowledge. Even if Christians and Persian Zoroastrians — who went by Arabic names — achieved most of these breakthroughs, they did so under Islamic rule, at a time when ruling Muslim elites embraced pluralism.
Further, moderate Muslims today prove that Islam need not be backward or theocratic. Dr. M. Zuhdi Jasser, founder and president of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy, has spearheaded a movement of patriotic American Muslims who advocate for the separation of mosque and state.
“We need to take back the mantle of Islam, we need to separate mosque and state, and not only condemn the Islamic State but all Islamic states, no different than the American Revolution condemned theocracy,” Jasser declared on Fox News’ The Kelly File. He attacked a wide interpretation of Sharia (Islamic law) as “misogynistic, anti-Western, and anti-freedom,” but praised the moderate Muslims across the world who advocate for freedom under Islam.
Jasser attacked states like Saudi Arabia and Iran, which are ruled by Islamic law, even though they do not claim to be Islamic caliphates. He condemned their leaders for imprisoning moderate Muslims, and called for all Muslims to embrace a full understanding of liberty as achieved first in the West.
Jasser’s movement of freedom-loving Islam provides a radical response to the terrors of the Islamic State. While both find their roots in the faith of Mohammed, one fights for liberty and justice, the other for theocracy and the murder of innocents.
“This is True Religion”
Religion can provide a motivation for violence, but far more frequently wars are fought between states for political and economic reasons. While the BBC’s “God and War” audit found that religion played a role in 40 percent of wars over the past 3,000 years, that role was almost always minor. Charles Philip and Alan Axelrod surveyed 1,763 wars and discovered that only 6.98 percent involved religion.
Even the Crusades — that perfect bug-bear for anti-Christian apologists — began as a response to the political and military advance of Islam. After reports that pilgrims to the Holy Land were being slaughtered and mistreated, the pope raised an army to help the Eastern Roman Emperor reconquer Jerusalem. In contrast to the general spirit of Christian doctrine and scripture, Pope Urban VIII said Christians dying in battle would be saved. This doctrine, combined with some remarkable historical events, led to the long slog of wars widely condemned by historians.
Whatever the actions of individual Christians, the Christian faith does not advocate taking up arms to force people to accept Jesus as the messiah. Indeed, Christianity arguably laid the groundwork for science, free markets, international law and the separation of church and state. Jasser advocates all these elements of modern prosperity in Islam as well.
Obama had a good reason for declaring ISIL “not Islamic.” Religion, he claimed, never justifies the slaughter of innocents. As James 1:27 states, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” As viewed from this standpoint, the Islamic State is not motivated by religion, but by a particularly cruel ideology.
Religious or not, ISIS is both radical and inspiring. Freedom-loving Christians and Muslims should respond with our own radical and inspiring movements, but in the service of peace, justice and sacrificial love. You do not defeat false religion with slogans — you fight it with the truths of the Living God.