(Morning Star News) – Since summer 2014, the Islamist terrorist group ISIS – a.k.a. Islamic State – has devastated the political, geographic and combat landscape of the Middle East. At the same time, along with its ominous black banners, it has raised worrisome questions about the true nature of Islam.
For the Middle East’s ancient Christian communities, the threats posed by ISIS’ extraordinarily brutal warriors have been electrifying. In one haunting story after another, Islamic State jihadists have swept through Christian communities in Iraq and Syria, demanding that residents submit to Islam. Or flee from their ancestral homes. Or face the sword.
Other minorities in ISIS’ path, such as Yazidis and Shi’a Muslims, have suffered even worse fates.
In less than a year’s time, ISIS’s ferocious tactics and wanton destruction of ancient historical sites have eclipsed the rampages of Al-Qaeda affiliates such as Al-Nusra in Syria, the incessant imprisonment and execution of dissidents in Iran and Saudi Arabia, and even the kidnapping and killing wrought by Nigeria’s Boko Haram.
Across the globe, political observers, military tacticians and scholars have tried diligently to piece together a profile that clarifies ISIS’s motives and intentions. And now the March edition of Atlantic Monthly – a left-of-center and highly secular periodical – has published a surprisingly useful summary, offering both information and thoughtful insight.
What ISIS Really Wants, by Atlantic contributing editor Graeme Wood, is both expansive and intriguing. “The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths,” explains an introductory teaser. “It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse…”
The article deserves to be read and re-read carefully – start to finish.
Perhaps the most significant contribution Wood’s article makes – and there are several – is that the Islamic State’s self-declared caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and those who follow and serve him are, above all else, ardently religious Muslims.
Wood examines their fanatical views in depth, taking them very seriously. He interviews several devotees. His research flies in the face of an enormous blind spot – not getting religion – that disables far too many Western journalists.
Early in the article, Wood reviews the hard-core version of Sunni Muslim extremism that has been expounded repeatedly by the Islamic State’s Caliphate.
They have “…toiled mightily to make their project knowable. We can gather that their state rejects peace as a matter of principle; that it hungers for genocide; that its religious views make it constitutionally incapable of certain types of change, even if that change might ensure its survival; and that it considers itself a harbinger of – and headline player in – the imminent end of the world.”
“End of the world” ideology is nothing new to most Christians. Indeed, many of today’s believers are gripped by a sense of gathering darkness – embodied both in a notable “falling away” from Christianity (especially in the West), and in widespread global persecution. These and other signs of the times have ignited renewed interest in prophetic biblical writings, particularly among evangelical and Pentecostal believers.
Although Christians may believe they can “hasten the day of the Lord” through evangelism and prayer, most suppose that the grand finale on the world’s stage will be played out solely according to God’s timetable.
Apocalyptic Islamist ideology, on the other hand, teaches that Muslims must play an active role in bringing about the appearance of their messianic figure.
For example, the ayatollahs of Iran’s Islamic Republic are working to bring forth the return of the 12th Mahdi, their version of a messiah. In fact, former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad spoke in glowing terms of this messianic appearance during a UN speech in 2011. He said that the future will be built when humanity comes under the leadership…
“…of Imam al-Mahdi, the Ultimate Savior of mankind and the inheritor to all divine messengers and leaders and to the pure generation of our great Prophet….He will come alongside with Jesus Christ to lead the freedom and justice lovers to eradicate tyranny and discrimination, and promote knowledge, peace, justice freedom and love across the world…”
Less has been reported about Sunni Islam’s millenarian vision. David Cook, author of Contemporary Muslim Apocalyptic Literature, has done excellent research and writing on the subject. But it is ISIS that has focused the world’s attention on Sunni Islam’s “End of Days” teachings.
One primary principle Graeme Wood exposes is that, without a caliphate, there can be no fulfillment of a Sunni apocalyptic scenario. This is why the establishment of the caliphate has been essential to al-Baghdadi, setting ISIS apart from Al Qaeda and other Sunni sects, who anticipate an eventual caliphate, but have not aggressively sought to establish it.
But is ISIS truly Islamic?
Wood writes, “It would be facile, even exculpatory, to call the problem of the Islamic State ‘a problem with Islam.’ The religion allows many interpretations, and Islamic State supporters are morally on the hook for the one they choose. And yet simply denouncing the Islamic State as un-Islamic can be counterproductive, especially if those who hear the message have read the holy texts and seen the endorsement of many of the caliphates practices written plainly within them.
“Muslims can say that slavery is not legitimate now, and that crucifixion is wrong at this historical juncture. Many say precisely this. But they cannot condemn slavery or crucifixion outright without contradicting the Koran and the example of the Prophet.”
Islam wears many faces. And it is safe to say that relatively few of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims subscribe to the extremist teachings of ISIS and its fledgling caliphate.
Nonetheless, as Wood makes abundantly clear, at the core ISIS is a classic Sunni Islamic belief system. At the same time, ISIS serves as an ideological and strategic counterbalance to the radical Shiism of Iran’s burgeoning Islamic Republic.
Which raises a question: Which Islamists, in the long run, pose the greatest threat?
The calculating Iranian mullahs, with their nuclear ambitions and aggressive exportation of the Islamic Revolution?
Or the Islamic State’s insatiable jihadis, with their land-grabs, bloodlust, and swelling numbers of fresh recruits?
I asked Hudson Institute Senior Fellow, Hillel Fradkin – an expert on Islamic history and ideology – for his perspective on what lies ahead in the Middle East. Here’s what he told me.
“What lies ahead in the short term is, indeed, an ongoing struggle between the radical Sunni Islam of ISIS and the radical Shiite Islam of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Each aims at and embodies a vision of a radical and redemptive ‘Islamic State.’
“The two versions contradict one another, so there can be no peace between them. But they also feed off one another. Iran is already the more successful of the two. It has transformed what was formerly a loose alliance called the ‘Shiite Crescent’ into a ‘Shiite Empire,’ which it now proudly and loudly proclaims while consolidating control over Baghdad, Beirut, Damascus and Sana.
“In the meantime, Christians will continue to be afflicted between these hammers and anvils. Their remaining safe havens in the region will be the State of Israel, the Kurdish Regional Government and, perhaps, Egypt under President al-Sisi.”
Lela Gilbert is author of “Saturday People, Sunday People: Israel through the Eyes of a Christian Sojourner” and co-author, with Nina Shea and Paul Marshall, of “Persecuted: The Global Assault on Christians.” She is an adjunct fellow at the Hudson Institute and lives in Jerusalem. For more, visit her website: www.lelagilbert.com. Follow her on Twitter@lelagilbert.
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