How should Christians respond to ISIS?

October 24th, 2014

Recent news reports have been filled with stories of horrific violence committed by a terrorist organization that calls itself the “Islamic State” but has been called the “Islamic State in Iraq and Syria” (ISIS) and the “Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant” (ISIL). It is important to discuss the meaning behind those names and what they tell us about this group, but first it must be acknowledged that the group is responsible for some very disturbing and horrifying acts of violence.

On October 2, 2014, the United Nations issued a report detailing some of the acts for which the group is being blamed. “These include attacks directly targeting civilians and civilian infrastructure, executions and other targeted killings of civilians, abductions, rape and other forms of sexual and physical violence perpetrated against women and children, forced recruitment of children, destruction or desecration of places of religious or cultural significance, wanton destruction and looting of property, and denial of fundamental freedoms,” according to the report. We in the United States might have heard of some of these atrocities, but the ones that have captured the most attention in this country have involved the beheading of American captives.

On September 9, 2014, a video was released by ISIS showing the beheading of journalist Steven Sotloff. This was the second such video, following one about a month earlier of the execution of journalist James Foley. Who is this group that resorts to such awful measures in promoting their cause? Why have there been different names for them in the media coverage? How did they develop?

In a September 13, 2014, broadcast, National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered” gave a description of the different acronyms used to identify the group and what they mean. According to the report, the decision to call them ISIS or ISIL depends on how you translate the Arabic word al-Sham, which refers to the Levant, “an area that extends beyond the current borders of the Syrian State and into Lebanon and even Palestine and Jordan.” ISIL, then, is how the US government refers to the group, but most media outlets have chosen to go with a translation of that Arabic word that refers only to part of Syria, so it’s ISIS in the major news outlets.

The members of the group, however, have tried to rebrand themselves by dropping all geographic references in their name. They want simply to be called the Islamic State. This change emphasizes what the group actually wants to do: establish an Islamicstate — “a physical state that aims to expand its borders.”

ISIS began as an Al-Qaida off-shoot in Iraq following the US invasion in 2003. It is made up of Sunni Muslims, a minority group in Iraq (see the sidebar “Diversity Within Islam”). In 2006, the group’s second leader, Abu Ayyub al-Masri, changed the name of the group from Al-Qaida in Iraq (AQI) to ISIL in order to highlight the group’s territorial ambitions. The group has exploited unrest in Iraq and Syria to become more and more powerful over the years since their founding.

The world responds

The rise in power and influence of ISIS, along with their violent extremism, has sparked a variety of responses. Most notably, the United States and other nations have begun air strikes to assist Iraqi soldiers in preventing the group from taking over more territory. These air strikes expanded from Iraq to Syria on September 23, 2014.

Several Arab nations have participated in the strikes, including Bahrain, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates. This fact alone illustrates the truth that even though the group prefers to call itself the Islamic State, not all Muslims condone the violence they perpetrate. Recently, some prominent Muslim clerics have issued fatwas, or edicts, condemning ISIS. One of them is Abdullah bin Bayyah, who heads a group called the new “Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies.” He calls for “dialogue about the true tenets of Islam and, over the course of many pages, questions just about everything for which ISIS says it stands.”

Other such statements have been made against ISIS. Vatican Radio reports that an organization representing 57 nations and 1.4 billion Muslims issued a statement condemning ISIS’ attacks on Christians in Iraq, saying “they have nothing to do with Islam and its principles that call for justice, kindness, fairness, freedom of faith and coexistence.” The same report stated that the top Muslim cleric in Turkey also made comments condemning the violence.

Issues raised by ISIS

What issues arise as people of faith struggle to address the violence ISIS brings in its wake? First, it is important to understand that as sensational and frightening as the acts committed by ISIS are, as with all terrorist groups, we must recognize that they do not represent all of the adherents of Islam; nor do all of these adherents approve of the violence the group is committing. This point was emphasized in the previous section by describing the anti-ISIS and violence statements made by prominent Muslim clerics. It needs to be reiterated, however, because in some facets of the media, negative portrayals of Islam are being painted in very broad strokes.

Real Time with Bill Maher / HBO

This is not just happening on “the right.” A recent debate by actor Ben Affleck and comedian Bill Maher, both well-known for their liberal views, got substantial media attention. On the one side, Maher made some blanket statements about Islam; on the other, Affleck challenged Maher’s “stereotyping a religion of 1.5 billion people.”

A recent Pew Research Center survey showed that, indeed, Muslims worldwide are concerned about the rise of extremism among their ranks. They surveyed “14,244 respondents in 14 countries with significant Muslim populations from April 10 to May 25, 2014.” What they found was that the vast majority of people in the countries polled had negative views of extremist groups such as ISIS and Al-Qaida.

In addition to avoiding making blanket condemnations about people of a particular religion, it must also be recognized that there are voices calling to escalate a military response to stop the group. There are also voices, most notably in the Muslim community, as mentioned in the previous section, asking for dialogue and peace within the Muslim world, hoping to end such extremism at its roots.

Good people of faith, then, will likely disagree about the use of force and further violence as a means to stop ISIS. If this is the case, how can we seek to be peacemakers in our local contexts and on a global scale?

Making peace

We might not be in a position to impact the behavior of a terrorist group on the other side of the world, but we may be in a position to make our local community a more unified and peaceful place. If there is a Muslim community near your congregation, consider how you might engage in dialogue with them on matters of faith, peace, and justice. Perhaps it could be something as simple as inviting the group to your church for an event — intentionally reaching out to show welcoming hospitality. It might also include inviting a guest speaker to your church to talk about the real beliefs of Islam, over and against the rhetoric of violence and terror.

If the modus operandi of groups like ISIS is to commit horrific acts to inspire fear, shouldn’t the counterbalance of this be people of faith and goodwill coming together to commit acts of love and service, to inspire peace and understanding? 

Be sure to check out FaithLink, a weekly downloadable discussion guide for classes and small groups. FaithLink motivates Christians to consider their personal views on important contemporary issues, and it also encourages them to act on their beliefs.

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