How ISIS Should Shape Our View of the Church and Its Mission Globally

By Martin Accad

I’ve been blogging and speaking much about ISIS in recent months. Last July, as we were beginning to get to grips with the savagery of the group, I tried to call us all, as people who claim to love God, to face and fight our own demons instead of claiming they have nothing to do with us. By the end of the summer, the world was (finally) in uproar about the butchering of Yazidis, Christians, Shiites, and others at the hand of ISIS. Calls for the protection of Middle East Christians and other ‘minorities’ through articles, books and conferences, were being heard everywhere. And though international reactions were welcome, I felt it was important to urge the international community not to marginalize Middle East Christians further by reinforcing the mentality of victimhood and ‘minoritization.’ What we needed was empowerment and multi-faith unity. I thus called last month for a reframing of the issue, by casting ISIS as part of a violent and fanatic religious ‘minority,’ which needs to be confronted by the ‘silent majority’ of people of faith or no explicit faith who are loving and peaceful. During a talk on this issue in the UK at the BMS Catalyst Live event on 23-24 October, I launched the TreCooL initiative on Facebook (The Religious Coalition of Love) as a simple act of resistance against ISIS and other expressions of religious fanaticism. In the present post, I want briefly to look at what matters most for us to know with regards to ISIS, what the long-term implications of ISIS are for the church in the Middle East region, and how these two areas should shape our understanding of the church’s role and mission in the years ahead.

First of all, I would like to suggest that it matters more that we ask ‘why’ ISIS exists than ‘who’ ISIS is or ‘how’ it came into being. It seems that much of the media focus has been on attempting to understand the nature of ISIS. But the inquiry has often given way to conspiracy and stereotyping. Many in the Muslim community believe that ISIS is the product of intelligence agencies, a conspiracy designed to discredit Islam. The CIA and the Mossad are of course the usual prime suspects for this theory.

For many non-Muslims, on the other hand, ISIS has finally revealed the ‘true face of Islam.’ This narrative would have us believe that when ‘pure Islam’ is given free reign, ISIS is what it looks like. More time would be needed to debunk both of these myths. But beyond these mutual accusations, I believe that we should ask: Does it matter? Do we really care to know in which Frankensteinian lab ISIS was created? Does it not matter more to ask ‘why’ they are so successfully recruiting? Why they have such an appeal globally in certain circles?

The most helpful inquiry and clue into the ‘why’ of ISIS, rather than its ‘who’ or ‘how,’ I have found in a brief Arabic-language analysis by Saad bin Tuflah al-Ajami in the Qatari-based daily Al-Sharq (published on August 3, 2014). In his article entitled ‘We are all ISIS,’ the former minister of communication of Kuwait boldly asserts:

The truth that we cannot deny is that ISIS was educated in our schools, it prayed in our mosques, listened to our media, was transfixed by our satellite channels, stood before our pulpits, drank from the spring of our publications, listened to our (religious) authorities, obeyed their princes who are among us, and followed the fatwas (legal prescriptions) of those from our own flesh; this is the truth that we cannot deny. (Translation mine)

In addition to the bankrupt reactionist nature of our Arab societies that has so favored the flourishing of ISIS – say what you want about its emergence, I believe that ISIS has a powerful appeal on youths that are tired of always feeling on the abused and losing side of history. For them, ISIS suddenly offers the unique opportunity to be part of something ‘great.’ Land is being conquered at lightning speed, governmental and legal institutions are being established with the claim of religious moral high ground, and ‘the West’ is being challenged and boldly threatened.

Secondly, how do we assess the long-term psychological impact of ISIS on the church globally, indeed even on the international community as a whole? The ‘physical’ damage that the church and Christians in the Middle East are incurring at the hand of ISIS is fairly quantifiable and obvious. On the eve of Pope Francis’ visit to the Middle East last May, the Pew Center put out a brief analysis of Middle East Christians’ dwindling numbers. Although between 1900 and 2010 (the period covered by the analysis) the Christian population grew from 1.6 to 7.5 million (about fourfold), the non-Christian population grew ten times. Thus, the ratio of Christians in the Middle East shrank from 10% to 5% during that period. Factors are many and complex, including a difference in birth rates and spells of persecution and social hostility. But probably the most significant factor is emigration, which is largely the result of the psychological feeling of being an oppressed minority, a sense of victimhood, and the widespread mentality of survival among Arab Christians, with little prospect and hope for the future.

The global church needs to be intentional about not reinforcing this already debilitating psychological sense of being a minority needing to be rescued. Popular culture tends to applaud the ‘hero’ who comes to the rescue and the US has traditionally liked to play that role. But I don’t think this has paid off in the long term, either for those being rescued or for the US itself. In the case of ISIS, although direct victims will continue to be grateful for very specific and targeted interventions on their behalf by the US military for ‘protective’ purposes, I believe that the problem should otherwise be allowed to remain an Arab and regional problem. If the West intervenes too heavy-handedly, the ISIS problem will be another missed opportunity for our regional powers to engage in serious introspection and reform. And I have little doubt that from the ashes of ISIS will emerge a worse monster, and it will return to bite the US and other western nations.

Finally, then, what missional implications ensue from the ‘why’ of ISIS and from a recognition of the long-term impact it will have on the church globally? Reinforcing the ISIS narrative by accepting the ‘minoritization’ of Christians is, in some ways, no better than marking them – as ISIS has done – with the letter nūn (first letter in the word naṣāra, which is the name the Qur’ān uses for Christians). Instead, we should take a long-term and multi-faith approach that recognizes that those who love God and view their religion as a source of love and peace towards neighbors represent the majority who can transform the mainstream narrative. As Middle Eastern as well as global Christians, we need to recognize that Muslims for the most part are our allies in this struggle, not our enemies. Muslims with whom I have spoken feel the long-term damage of ISIS on Islam more deeply than most. The long-term solution is to encourage multi-faith initiatives that gradually will restore hope for a better future among the youths in societies that are particularly vulnerable to recruitment by ISIS. Kuwaiti analyst al-Ajami was incriminating Arab and Muslim societies in his confession: ‘We are all ISIS.’ But I think that the situation also incriminates all the rest of us, and we must confess that ‘we All are ISIS.’ If we can all shoulder some of the responsibility for the flourishing of ISIS, then clearly a satisfactory solution can neither be short-term, nor can it stop at the bombing of some ‘evil’ militants.

Can the Church globally start to think of its mission as one of coming alongside local governments and educational institutions? I am not advocating for some form of neo-colonial interventionism. Since we are sitting on this side of history, the hope is that we might be able to learn from it in order not to repeat mistakes of the past. What do the new missional forces of our day have to bring to this conversation? What can we learn from the Koreans, the Chinese and the Latinos about government reform, fighting corruption and building accountable institutions? What can we learn about economic development and entrepreneurship? What can we learn about fighting poverty? The best victory over ISIS is not one that will simply walk over the dead bodies of disenfranchised young militants. We will achieve true victory over ISIS when it becomes the reason for a complete overhaul of governments and institutions infested with corruption and repressive policies. HOPE, in which the Church can be a key contributor, is the long term solution that will dry up the recruitment pool of ISIS.

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