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ISIS and religious belief

Si Walker, 20th November 2015

ISIS fighters holding up guns

Let me begin with an important caveat. We need to be clear that many Muslims are appalled by what ISIS has done. And we need to recognise that the slogans appearing in photos on social media - 'not in my name' - reflect this.

All that said, ISIS is a theological problem. I have been reminded of this by some of the things I have read in mainstream media.

For example, The Times stated on 16th November that 'co-existence with theocratic fanaticism is impossible.'

'ISIS is a theological problem'

The New York Times wrote at length on 14th August 2015 that 'ISIS enshrines a theology of rape.' This was the harrowing article about how sex slavery is being justified on religious grounds by ISIS members. The reports coming from young women contain the consistent claim that ISIS fighters knelt to pray before raping them. The article stated that the organisation has conducted 'theological discussions' with regard to guidelines for slavery of so called apostates. Whether or not their theology is a good reading of early Islam or of the Quran it is certainly formed from a theological vision.

The Atlantic, which is by no means a small-fry publication, has also identified the theological issue as the reason we have failed to understand ISIS. The Atlantic joined The New York Times in reporting the words of Major General Michael K Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East. He admitted ‘that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.”’

'wanting to say everything is equally good has left us unable to think clearly about our world'

Could the religious element, then, be one of things we need to face up to more fully?

The Atlantic points out that 'in the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” ..., statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors'. The Atlantic argues that western governments have tended to present ISIS as essentially secular psychopaths in religious dress; but this is to miss the problem as it presents itself on its own terms. Just consider that when Islamic State claimed responsibility for the Paris attacks it spoke of 'hundreds of idolaters [who] were together in a party of perversity' (quoted in The Times, 16th November). That is a certain reading of Islamic theology - although it is a terrible sentiment with awful consequences.

So I think I am urging us to recognise that Western thought has tended to want to see ISIS as a non-religious problem, perhaps to avoid saying that any particular religious world view could be any less good than another. However, there are good reasons to think that this is not the best way to understand the problem. Actually, wanting to say everything is equally good has left us unable to think clearly about our world.

'a religious problem needs a religious solution'

We aren't just singling out ISIS here. The Bible says that the way we live reflects what we believe about God. This should be evident from a reading of the Ten Commandments where the commandment not to murder follows the first commandment to put the God of the Bible before everything else (Exodus 20:3).

This is important, I would argue, because a religious problem needs a religious solution. Or, if I can put it like this, a 'God-issue' needs a 'God-solution'. As a non-politician I am probably not equipped to say what politicians should or should not do in the light of this. But as a Christian I believe we must take it on board by growing in confidence to reach out lovingly to all people. As those who take the Bible seriously we have a better vision of God: in Jesus Christ as the saviour of the world. He loved even his enemies, as was most clearly seen in laying down the power that was rightfully his, for others. We need humbly to share that vision and see it as the answer. As Christians we do indeed have something to say!