If we count up the number of people killed or wounded in the ISIS Paris slaughter last weekend, and add all their families and friends, the level of human mourning is staggering. Then include the many other victims murdered in Beirut just days before, or the legions of those raped and killed in Iraq, Syria, Tunisia, Yemen, Libya, Egypt, and Turkey — who never receive the same attention as Western victims — and we see human devastation that is utterly evil.
From a religious perspective, the hardest thing about confronting evil is the painful human tendency to only see it in others, in our enemies, and to not see any on our side because of the blurred vision caused by the planks in our own eyes, to paraphrase the gospels. In discussing ISIS, we should clearly use the language of sin — the enormous sin of the ideological hate of ISIS finding its victims all over the world.
But theologically, sin begets sin. So we cannot simply name sins of ISIS ad nauseum without also lamenting the sins of the West that they use as inexcusable justifications for horrific violence. Overcoming the growing terrorism we face requires addressing the grievances rather than repeating our missteps and mistakes.
To satisfy our thirsty oil economy, the West has created false nations and consistently supported brutal oligarchs and allowed them to crush their democratic critics — all of which gave rise to fundamentalist extremism. The U.S. overturned a democratically elected government in Iran and installed the brutal dictatorship of the Shah, which gave rise the Islamic regime that we now so hate. (See how many of your friends and neighbors even know the name Mohammad Mosaddegh, the Iranian president we overthrew because of oil.)
The hypocrisy is endless: News of ISIS beheadings saturates the Western media, yet we ignore Saudi beheadings (for offenses such as apostasy and sorcery) on the same day; we look the other way when funders from our oil allies in the Gulf states actually finance the terror we condemn; we, a nation of immigrants, allow fear to dominate our response to the refugee crisis. These are sins too. And sin begets sin.
How do you “destroy” or “eliminate” something like ISIS, words we now hear every day from our politicians? How do we keep our country safe? Can we do it by more massive American invasions of Middle Eastern countries? Can we really “fight to win and then leave,” as Jeb Bush and others are now calling for? Massive invasions would require massive occupations. U.S. military invasions easily win in the Middle East but historically fail in the aftermath.
As David Cortright has said, “Military strikes from the West are exactly what the militants want, providing fodder for recruitment and justifying what is otherwise unjustifiable. Will we fall into that trap again?” Military victories have come quickly, but they don’t eliminate a growing ideology. Our invasions have actually exacerbated the instability and sectarian conflict that helped lead to ISIS as they gain more recruits for terror locally and now internationally. Temporary military victories in Iraq and Syria will not destroy or eliminate the continuing terrorism in the Middle East or in the West.
Pope Francis has said that the use of force to protect innocents from terrible aggression is justifiable as a last resort, but wars keep making everything worse with terrible consequences for many other innocents. As he said in 2014:
"In these cases, where there is an unjust aggression, I can only say that it is licit to stop the unjust aggressor … I underscore the verb 'stop.' I'm not saying 'bomb' or 'make war,' just 'stop.' And the means that can be used to stop them must be evaluated … one nation alone cannot judge how you stop this, how you stop an unjust aggressor."
Protecting millions of vulnerable and displaced people must be our urgent concern. Destroying the growing social media success of ISIS should also be a top priority, as should eliminating the resources and funding for terror. Even if that leads us to our oil allies and banks.
We must form a clear, direct, and unified global coalition – with the authorization of the United Nations Security Council, NATO, the Arab League, and the international financial institutions like the World Bank and the IMF — to unify a strategy of comprehensive economic sanctions and isolation against ISIS. We should also include sanctions against any nations or funders that support ISIS, which would signal how serious we really are. The full diplomatic power of the world’s nations should be focused with a unified and strategic use of force to protect the most vulnerable against ISIS.
A French journalist who was a hostage of ISIS for 10 months and got to know the group well says this:
"My guess is that right now the chant among them will be ‘We are winning.’ They will be heartened by every sign of overreaction, of division, of fear, of racism, of xenophobia; they will be drawn to any examples of ugliness on social media. Central to their world view is the belief that communities cannot live together with Muslims, and every day their antennae will be tuned towards finding supporting evidence. The pictures from Germany of people welcoming migrants will have been particularly troubling to them. Cohesion, tolerance–it is not what they want to see…. there is much we can achieve in the aftermath of this atrocity, and the key is strong hearts and resilience, for that is what they fear. I know them: bombing they expect. What they fear is unity.”
To win the “war” against ISIS, we must win the moral narrative — we must reveal ISIS’s distortions and lies, and destroy their moral and religious legitimacy to those they seek to recruit. The best way to defeat bad religion is with good religion, and the way to defeat religious fundamentalism is from within rather than trying to smash it from without. That means we also need a global religious coalition of Christians, Muslims, and Jews to unite together to undermine and defeat ISIS with our own religious public proclamations, demonstrations, and authority, especially with the younger generation. ISIS is not only a distortion of Islam — it is a blasphemy. And a unified and courageous assertion of our sacred scriptures, which all condemn their irreligious atrocities, would be the best spiritual weapon against ISIS.
The growing controversy over the unprecedented refugee crisis in Syria and Iraq will be a moral test of our battle with ISIS. Comments by presidential candidates and other elected officials calling the nation to shut our doors to the vulnerable millions of refugees, or only admitting Christians as Ted Cruz and Jeb Bush have called for, or even shutting down some mosques as Donald Trump has suggested, is utterly shameful and irresponsible.
Tim Dixon of Purpose, a group that has been supporting groups of civilians in Syria who are saving civilians from the rubble of the bombings, says this:
“I think we need to step up from just echoing the liberal arguments about tolerance and diversity - we need to understand that in a moment like this, it's compassion for the marginalized that most captures the character of God revealed in Jesus. That's where Matthew 25 takes you. Standing alongside Muslims now, making it clear we know they are not terrorists, is the most Christ-like act. It's also the most powerful counter to the poisonous, violent ideology of hate that animates ISIS.”
Compassion for the suffering of those different from us is at the heart of biblical faith, and welcoming “the stranger” goes right to the instructions of Jesus. Concerns about safety and vetting are reasonable and should be implemented. But to deny compassion to refugees is to distort our religion in response to the religious distortion of Islamic extremists. We must not allow their bad religion to make ours bad too. What a tragedy that would be.
The foreign policy of the United States since 9/11 has been to give easy answers to hard questions. That must stop. We can’t just keep doing what we have done before when it has so clearly failed. We need a deeper and wiser discernment now as to how best to proceed. Continuing to supply the narrative ISIS that clearly wants — dropping more bombs, invading more countries, refusing more refugees, offering our hate in response to theirs, and “showing no mercy” as some of our political leaders now vow — is to play directly into the hands of ISIS. Instead of that old narrative, we need to create a new one that can indeed defeat ISIS. Fear is our vulnerability. Instead, we must learn the spiritual discipline and habit of the scriptural command, BE NOT AFRAID.
Editor’s Note: In the weeks and months to come, we will try to make Sojourners a place of thoughtful, humble, and theologically grounded discernment about how to respond to ISIS. Your comments are very welcome.