Friday, February 20, 2015

Understanding ISIS

Recently I enjoyed a wonderful conversation with a friend of mine who was raised a Muslim and became a Christian. It was only natural that we began to discuss the atrocities committed by ISIS, and the unfortunate way that some people stigmatize all Muslims as essentially nothing more than radicals and terrorists. So I have been thinking about a way to try to explain what ISIS represents to Muslims as a whole, and to do so in terms familiar to Christians. Here's my best shot.

From a Christian point of view, we believe that the story of the Old Testament was fulfilled in Jesus Christ. In the language of Paul, the Law of Moses was a shadow that pointed to the reality of Christ (Colossians 2:15). And while the Old Testament contains many prophecies that - if interpreted literally - sound like a militaristic Messiah was going to subjugate the Gentiles and restore Israel as the center of the earth, ruling over the nations with a "rod of iron" (Psalm 2:9), the New Testament explains that the rule of Jesus is spiritual rather than martial, and that His kingdom is not secured by military might (John 18:36).

But suppose you were a Jewish person who did not believe Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah. And suppose further that you believe the Old Testament should be interpreted very literally, and very scrupulously. In fact, suppose you believe the following:

  • That the penal code found in the Law of Moses should still be followed, including stoning adulterers and homosexuals (Leviticus 18), and those who teach another religion (Deuteronomy 13:1-5).
  • That the land promised to Abraham - from Egypt to the Euphrates - is the rightful possession of Israel, and that Jews have the divine right to use the same tactics as Joshua and the Israelites in the conquest, including slaughtering men, women and children, to regain this territory.
  • That you should purify your people from false doctrine and sin to prepare them for the coming of the true Messiah, just as Malachi promised (Malachi 3:1-4).
The reality is that not many fellow Jews would follow your lead. Not many Jews want to embrace the penal code of the Law of Moses, or believe that the conquests of Joshua are normative for today, or that Jews who aren't practicing, orthodox Jews should be executed. There is a growing problem of right-wing religious extremism in Israel (see this article), but it is still a decided minority. And that's why the scenario I laid out is merely hypothetical.

But what I just outlined as a hypothetical is the reality in the case of ISIS. The radical clerics who are the driving force behind ISIS have opted for a very literal interpretation of certain parts of the Quran and certain reports from the life of Muhammad (called hadith). Abu

Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-professed leader of ISIS, has decided to proclaim himself leader (caliph), and impose this ideology on the Islamic world. The vast majority of the world's 1.5 billion Muslims do not want to live under his interpretation of Islamic law (shariah), and do not agree that the wars between Muhammad and the Meccans provide a normative pattern for all time, and do not believe Muslims who disagree should be executed. Hundreds of Muslim leaders have written an open letter to al-Baghdadi to make this clear. 

This in no way diminishes the real horrors perpetrated by ISIS. Nor does it minimize the grave dangers posed by ISIS, for - unlike my hypothetical example - there are many Muslims to whom this ideology is very appealing, so much so they are traveling to Syria to help al-Baghdadi try to establish his medieval nightmare. But this movement is a fringe movement in the larger Muslim population, and indeed, Muslims are by far the greatest victims of its atrocities. And it seems to me that it will be up to Muslims to stop it.

But the main point I want to make in this post is that we must be careful - especially as Christians who are supposed to be interested in the truth - not to carelessly sweep all Muslims under the same rug. Loving others means treating them as we would want to be treated - and what Christian wants to be lumped in the same category as the Westboro Baptist Church lunatics who protest at military funerals? And love also means we have a passion to share the gospel, but painting all Muslims with the broad brush of radicalism will raise needless barriers to reaching people like my friend.