Six weeks after ISIS overtook their village outside of Mosul, Iraq, Sief and Jacob Jebrita said they received an official cease and desist letter from the terrorist group saying their work was forbidden under Islamic law. The two brothers, partners in a small photography and videography business, lost their sole source of income. But that was just the beginning.
Sief and Jacob shared their story while sitting in St. Mary, Mother of the Church in Amman, Jordan, with a delegation of religious media. The church, led by Fr. Khalil Jaar, has become home to more than 150 Iraqi Christian refugees who have fled their homes while ISIS continues to push through the region.
Because of their Christian faith, Sief, Jacob, and their families were targeted by ISIS. They told me of a soldier ripping an earring out of a girl’s ear, slicing it open because it was not acceptable for her to wear jewelry. As ISIS militants forced people out of their homes, they would not allow them to bring anything with them at all except the clothes on their backs. They told me the story of one mother walking with her little boy who was forced to leave behind his bottle of milk after a soldier knocked it to the ground and shouted at them. As the situation worsened, they said they saw Yazidi men killed for refusing to accept Islam, and Yazidi woman sold into slavery in Mosul – $500 for younger women and $100 to $300 for older women.
Basima al-Safar retouches a picture of Jesus on an easel outside her house overlooking the flat Nineveh plains, 30 miles north of Mosul.
The murals she paints tell the story of her people, Christians in Iraq. But with Islamic State militants nearby, she is worried that life in Alqosh and towns like it could soon come to an end.
The Assyrian Christian town of around 6,000 people sits on a hill below the seventh-century Rabban Hormizd Monastery, temporarily closed because of the security situation. Residents of Alqosh fled this summer ahead of Islamic State militants. Around 70 percent of the town’s residents have since returned. Still, a sense of unease hangs in the air.
Below the monastery in the boarded up bazaar a lone shopkeeper waits for customers. At the edge of town local Christian fighters staff lookout posts, checking for danger. With Islamic State fighters just 10 miles away, these men and most residents of the town are scared that they may have to flee again.
Whether ISIS is "Islamic," or a "state," it is definitely terrifying. As it terrorizes the Levant — killing Muslims, Christians, Jews, Yazidis, and other religious/cultural minorities in Syria and Iraq — and takes the lives of Western journalists, it strikes fear in the hearts of many.
Swirling around the alarming analysis are the rumors and realities of individuals from Europe and the U.S. joining the ranks of ISIS and fighting for their "cause."
The intelligence organization Soufan Group recently released a report stating that fighters from at least 81 countries have traveled to Syria since its three-year conflict began. Hundreds of recruits come from nations like France, Germany, the UK, and the U.S.
Of all the fearful intimations of this conflict, this feature seems to be the most frightening to many in the West. Could it be that my neighbor is a secret jihadi? Are redheads (a "pure" European stock) more prone to terrorism? Are mosques their hideouts? Regardless of the judiciousness of these questions, underlying them all is the question "why?" Why would someone leave the West to fight for ISIS in Syria and Iraq?
According to the Soufan report, those that leave for the Middle East to fight are typically 18-29 year-old men (some as young as 15) and some Western women who join with their spouses, or come alone to become "jihadi brides." These men and women are Islamic, often second or third generation immigrants, though very few have prior connections with Syria.
Why do they join? Is it religious devotion? Psychological imbalance? Tendency toward radical movements and anarchy? All of these motivations may play a part, but my argument is that these men and women who leave their Western homes for the dunes of terror are lonely.
These Western jihadis are isolated — that is why they join ISIS.
Here at Sojourners we have written a lot about nonviolence. We take seriously the words of Jesus that we should love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. We believe that violence begets violence, or as Jesus put it, “Those who live by the sword die by the sword.” Personally, I take seriously the words of René Girard, the founder of mimetic theory, that we are now “confronted with a perfectly straightforward and even scientifically calculable choice between total destruction and the total renunciation of violence.”
Many Christians look to the Bible to justify divinely sanctioned violence against our enemies. Excuse me for stating the obvious, but Christians are not Biblians. We are Christians. As Christians, we should be putting Jesus first. Not Deuteronomy. Not Joshua. Not Judges. Not David. Not Solomon. Not Peter. Not Paul. Not the Bible.
And Jesus calls us to nonviolence. As one of the early Christians stated, the way of Jesus, the way of nonviolent love that embraces our enemies, is the way of the cross and the world thinks that way is foolish.
We proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.
The headlines and talk shows are dominated by the response ISIS. To be clear, this group readily uses fanatical and brutal actions to achieve its radically exclusive vision. The images they skillfully project are like violent, X-rated video games made real. No wonder that many react to this horror with chills going down their spines. But there is something that worries me more: the ongoing Ebola crisis.
How did ISIS come about? Sure, there’s huge complexity. Yet, we know that ISIS never would have emerged without, first of all, the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the ensuing, devastating war that left that nation in physical, political, and psychological shambles. Second, the sectarian, Shia-dominated regime, which emerged as the final U.S. ground troops left, further radicalized Sunni extremists. These factors were the breeding grounds for black-clothed fanatics ready to cut down any who differ with their identity, even if the majority of its victims are Muslims.
ISIS’s greatest recruiting tool is continued and renewed U.S. and Western military intervention in the Middle East. That, of course, is what their brutal actions are attempting to provoke. The moral callousness of this strategy inspires the fear which they desire and welcome.
However, ISIS can and will be contained. The neighboring regimes in the region are all deeply threatened by ISIS. In the end, they will be compelled to combat and resist ISIS the more these fanatics move out of the desert and toward others’ homelands. It will be bloody, but eventually other nation states and threatened sectarian groups, representing for the most part more mainstream and globally dominant expressions of Islam, will contain and defeat ISIS. The necessity and means of outside military assistance from the West and elsewhere is highly debatable, and at the end of the day, I don’t believe this will be the decisive factor.
When churches conclude their summer hiatus and resume full-scale ministries this week, much will have changed from a year ago — outside their doors.
Conditions might have changed inside, too. But it is the world outside that demands fresh attention in mission and ministry.
Ferguson, Mo., has happened, revealing disturbing trends in law enforcement and deep fault lines between white experience and black experience.
Russia’s aggression against Ukraine happened, threatening a resumption of dangerous tensions between Moscow and Western democracies.
The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria happened, raising the dreaded specter of a take-no-prisoners war on modernity, reason, progress, women and other faiths.
The 113th Congress happened, mired in systemic dysfunction, with one party determined to cripple a black president and to channel more wealth to the wealthy.
The Koch brothers and their megabuck cronies happened, changing the face of electoral politics with unprecedented infusions of cash and ideological vitriol.
The two-tier economy happened, with one tier doing extraordinarily well and a much, much larger tier falling further behind, leaving despair among all age groups.
Border wars between terrified migrants and swaggering white men bearing arms against children happened, threatening America’s true core value as a welcoming nation promising freedom.
These outside-the-walls developments have little to do with the usual church fussing — except to say that it’s time for church people to stop their usual fussing.