As an evangelical theologian and pastor, I want to say that ISIS is evil. Evil is a term we don’t normally hear in the media or politics, which is likely a good thing given our lack of public morality and civility these days. Indeed, judgementalism was condemned by Jesus, but is still often practiced by many churches — so humility is always called for. But it is still a responsibility of the faith community to name evil where it clearly exists in the world. And by any standards, the actions of ISIS are evil.
The latest report issued by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq, on “The Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict in Iraq,” catalogues the human rights atrocities committed by ISIS, making it abundantly clear that this group is evil. They include:
- attacks directly targeting civilians and civilian infrastructure,
- executions and other targeted killings of civilians,
- abductions, rape and other forms of sexual and gender based violence perpetrated against women and children,
- slavery and trafficking of 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.
The report goes on to identify the targeting of ethnic and religious groups — such as Christians, Yazidis, Shi’ite Muslims, and many others — and subjecting them to “gross human rights abuses, in what appears as a deliberate policy aimed at destroying, suppressing or expelling these communities permanently from areas under their control.” The report describes the actions as possible “war crimes, crimes against humanity, and possibly genocide.”
In light of these sober findings, the faith community must remind the world that evil can be overcome, and that individuals involved in evil systems and practices can be redeemed. But how to overcome evil is a very complicated theological question, which requires much self-reflection. In trying to figure out how to overcome evil, it is often helpful to first decide how not to. Here is a good example of how not to respond to the reality of evil.
Bill O’Reilly, Fox News’ top-rated political pundit and talk show host has devoted a great deal of attention to ISIS atrocities and what he believes the Western response should be. Unfortunately, while O’Reilly rightly condemns ISIS as evil, he frames the conflict as a “holy war” that ISIS is waging against the West, Christians, and anyone else who does not share ISIS’ extreme views. O’Reilly defined his “talking points” as “Judeo/Christian philosophy versus the Jihad.” According to O’Reilly, “this is now a so-called holy war between radical jihadists and everybody else including peaceful Muslims … The holy war is here. And unfortunately it seems the President of United States will be the last one to acknowledge it.” While it’s a common Fox practice to turn everything into a partisan issue against President Obama, O’Reilly is also spreading a very dangerous theology.
O’Reilly has also said that it is “appropriate to define the worldwide conflict between Muslim fanatics and nearly everybody else.” They “want to kill us, he says, “And there are millions of them — period.” So O’Reilly has urged congregations to act, saying, “Americans of faith and goodwill must demand our federal government begin to take the holy war seriously.” Because, he says, America is the only country that has the power to lead this fight.
Here is the problem. The idea of a “holy war” is indeed what ISIS most wants. It’s what ISIS is clamoring for and is deliberately trying to provoke with their sadistic and brutal cruelty. Their highly publicized barbarity is an attempt to provoke a “holy war” with us as their primary enemy, which would give credence to their complete perversion of the religion they claim — a fundamentalist and apocalyptic interpretation of Islam. ISIS would like to be seen as the sole defender of true Islam in an existential battle against people of other faiths and other Muslims who do not share their extreme beliefs. Dignifying them by accepting their language of holy war only helps legitimize ISIS and makes it easier for them to recruit more followers.
Former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski made some excellent points in a recent discussion on MSNBC’s Morning Joe:
The worst thing we can do is to become the sole combatant against the forces of evil that are operating in that region. We have to avoid any direct collision with the world of Islam, we mustn't label the enemy as Islamist, but we must work with those governments in the region that are prepared to defend themselves. … The key point I have in mind is that strategically we are not the chief protagonist in the region, because if we are, we become the inheritor of the colonial era, and we even become more hated in the region than is the case today.
He also said that we should help those in the region who are prepared to deal with the problem, “and also in extreme circumstances to take care of those who kill our people, but beyond that I think we ought to abstain.”
Only when we learn from past mistakes will we find better direction. And because the ISIS crisis has to do with the relationship between religion, politics, and violence, our response must have a religious component as well. Here is what we must keep in mind:
1. There are no “holy wars.” War is always the result of a failure to resolve human conflicts without violence. War is a consequence of our sins. Even when theology is used to justify the use of force, or “just war,” it is still a failed and sinful response to other sins. There is no glory or righteousness in war. And those who argue for the use of force should be repentant and humble when they do so. All faith traditions and leaders, whether they accept the concept of “just war” or not, must never call war “holy.” The beginning of our response to ISIS must be for all of our faith traditions, leaders, and members to completely reject the concept and language of holy war. Since Bill O’Reilly claims to be reaching out to faith congregations — asking us to press our American government to fight against a “holy war” — we should reach back to O’Reilly to help him understand why this rhetoric is so wrong and dangerous.
2. We must admit that our primarily military response to terrorism since 9/11 has not worked; it has made things worse. The world and our lives are less secure now because of previously failed military responses. In particular, the war in Iraq, based on false pretenses and carried out in wrong ways, is a primary cause of ISIS. The Iraq war destabilized that country and the region, re-fueled the Sunni/Shia sectarian conflict (just as many people in the international religious community warned), revealed American practices and policies like torture and supporting oppressive regimes — all of which have accelerated deep grievances that are at the core of the ISIS ideology. We cannot just keep doing what has failed. Protecting people from murderous assaults is a legitimate and necessary task that will require a serious strategy. But a primarily American military strategy cannot defeat ISIS, and even if an overwhelming American force were to enter Iraq and Syria to destroy the present ISIS army, they or something like them would rise up again. American forces permanently occupying the Middle East is not sustainable strategy for peace, but a formula for endless worldwide terrorism.
3. Only new political and economic solutions in the Middle East will finally transform the current state of affairs. While some, including Fox News hosts like O’Reilly, continually disparage “political solutions,” it is an obvious piece of the puzzle. A lasting solution will require the often-divided Middle East states themselves to take responsibility for their own region and for their own failures of governance — together. The United States must only assist them if they take responsibility for reasonable governance. We must be honest that the injustice and corruption of autocratic states in Muslim countries is a direct cause of ISIS, and our uncritical support for these governments must change. Beheadings in Saudi Arabia must be opposed as much as ISIS beheadings. Our Saudi hypocrisies, along with other Arab regimes, exist because of our thirst and addiction to oil, and are part of what leads to an ISIS. Theologically, sin does beget sin, and accountability is necessary to a more peaceful future.
4. Fundamentalism, in all our faith traditions, is a politicized use of religion based on fear and power, and it is best defeated from the inside, not the outside. Fundamentalism cannot be bombed away from without, which just gives them new recruits. Religious fundamentalism is best defeated from within its own tradition. A global alliance between faith leaders and communities must be built to support responsible and courageous Muslim leaders whose teaching and practice must ultimately undermine the lethal ISIS fundamentalism. A religious component is a necessary part of defeating ISIS.
5. Understanding and addressing the roots of terror to build a strategy to defeat it does not dismiss terror’s evil, barbaric behavior. Whatever ISIS’ beliefs may be, and whatever grievances they might have against the Iraqi and Syrian governments, the West, and others, evil is never justified. But it’s also true that terrorism is always built on grievances — real and perceived — that are used to recruit for and perpetuate its ideology and violence. So addressing those grievances and correcting course along the way is essential to defeating terrorism. Truthfulness, consistency, accountability, and reversing past mistakes are moral and even religious issues that must be addressed if we are to defeat terrorists like ISIS.
Jim Wallis is president of Sojourners. His book, The (Un)Common Good: How the Gospel Brings Hope to a World Divided, the updated and revised paperback version of On God’s Side, is available now. Follow Jim on Twitter @JimWallis.