Posts tagged ‘ISIS’

ISIS and Sufis

Because it was over the long Thanksgiving weekend, the ISIS attack on an Egyptian Sufi mosque that killed 305 people a week ago Friday received some attention, but not as much as it might have normally.  But it is important.  The sheer scope of the tragedy is gut-wrenching.  The mass shooting at the Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas claimed 59 lives.  The mass shooting at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs claimed 26.  The attack on this mosque killed over 300.  It is sobering to try to fathom.

Part of what makes this attack so disturbing is that one group of Muslims – or at least self-identified Muslims – in ISIS perpetrated this attack against another group of Muslims who are Sufi.  At its heart, this attack was driven not by political or cultural differences, but by an all-out holy war.  Rukmini Callimachi, in a report for The New York Times, explains:

After every attack of this nature, observers are perplexed at how a group claiming to be Islamic could kill members of its own faith. But the voluminous writings published by Islamic State and Qaeda media branches, as well as the writings of hard-liners from the Salafi sect and the Wahhabi school, make clear that these fundamentalists do not consider Sufis to be Muslims at all.

Their particular animus toward the Sufi practice involves the tradition of visiting the graves of holy figures. The act of praying to saints and worshiping at their tombs is an example of what extremists refer to as “shirk,” or polytheism.

Certainly, the veneration of the dead is a problem – not only for many Islamic systems of theology, but for orthodox Christianity as well.  When the Israelites are preparing to enter the Promised Land, God warns them:

Let no one be found among you who sacrifices their son or daughter in the fire, who practices divination or sorcery, interprets omens, engages in witchcraft, or casts spells, or who is a medium or spiritist or who consults the dead. Anyone who does these things is detestable to the LORD; because of these same detestable practices the LORD your God will drive out those nations before you.  (Deuteronomy 18:10-12)

On this, many Christians and Muslims agree: venerating the dead is not only superstitious and paganistic, it smacks of polytheism by exalting a departed soul to the position of God, or, at minimum, to a position that is god-like.  Yet, one can decry the veneration of the dead without creating more dead, an understanding that many others in the Muslim world, apart from ISIS, seem to be able to maintain with ease.  Theological disagreements can be occasions for robust debate, but they must never be made into excuses for bloodshed.

There are some in the Christian world, who, like Sufi Muslims, venerate those who are dead in ways that make other Christians very uncomfortable.  Catholicism’s veneration of the saints, for instance, is rejected as unbiblical and spiritually dangerous by many Protestants, including me.  But this does not mean that there are not many theological commitments that I don’t joyfully share with my Catholic brothers and sisters, including a creedal affirmation of Trinitarian theology as encapsulated in the ecumenical creeds of the Church.  I may disagree with Catholics on many important points of doctrine, but they are still my friends in Christ whom I love.

Jesus famously challenged His hearers to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44).  Part of what I find so compelling about Jesus’ challenge is not just its difficulty – though it is indeed very demanding to try to love someone who hates you – but its keen insight into the devastating consequences of hate.  If you love your enemy, even when it’s difficult, you can most certainly love your friends, and, by God’s grace, you may even be able to make friends out of enemies when they become overwhelmed by your love.  But if you hate your enemy, even your friends will eventually become your enemies, and you will hate them too.  Why?  Because hate inevitably begets more hate.

ISIS has made a theological system out of hate.  Thus, they have no friends left to love.  They only have enemies to kill, including other Muslims.  Christians, however, worship a God who not only has love, but is love (1 John 4:16).  For all the Sufis who are mourning, then, we offer not only our condolences, but our hearts, and we hold out the hope of the One who is not only the true God, but the one Savior, and who makes this promise:  ISIS’s hate that leads to death is no match for Jesus’ love and His gift of life.

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December 4, 2017 at 5:15 am 1 comment

ISIS Takes a Tumble

ISIS’s caliphate has fallen.

This is the news that broke last week when the Syrian Democratic Forces, who are backed by the U.S., finally broke the terrorist group’s last metropolitan stronghold in Raqqa.  The New York Times reports that:

Celebrations erupted in Raqqa, where residents had lived under the repressive rule of militants who beheaded people for offenses as minor as smoking. Fighters could be seen cheering and firing celebratory gunfire in the streets, according to residents reached by phone and text message.

One video shows a woman ripping off her burqa and chanting joyfully, overcome with emotion that her city has been liberated.

Even with this victory, Raqqa is still a plenty dangerous place.  ISIS still probably has suicide bombers in hiding waiting to launch attacks.  The terrorist group has also booby-trapped many areas with improvised explosive devices.  Moreover, the city of Raqqa itself has been devastated.  The New York Times published another article featuring images from cities across Iraq, including Raqqa.  All of them lie in ruins.

Still, this is an important milestone victory against a terrorist group whose territory, at its height in 2014, covered 34,000 square miles in Syria and Iraq and whose tactics against defectors and dissidents were nothing short of gruesomely brutal.  In Paradise Square in the center of Raqqa, later fittingly renamed Hell Square:

Prisoners were tossed from tall buildings, beheaded, lashed or shot while the crowds gathered … Hands and feet were chopped off. Others were stoned to death … Bodies and severed heads were carefully placed around the square by Islamic State militants and would remain there for days. Those who lived and escaped to tell the tale would describe how the bodies were labeled, identifying the victim’s crime in a deliberate warning to others.

Sadly, as chilling as these macabre parades were, we know that, even if scenes like these are in the past for now, they may not be in the past forever.  Wickedness is horrifyingly resilient.  But even if the war against the wickedness of ISIS has not yet been fully won, we can be thankful that a major battle has been.  We can also be thankful that, no matter how brutal a regime may be, we have a perfect Sovereign who, in the words of the prophet Daniel, graciously and often necessarily, “deposes kings and raises up others” (Daniel 2:21).

Daniel’s words about God’s power over world affairs come as he is interpreting a dream for Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon.  The king has a dream where he sees his kingdom, the kingdom of Babylon, along with four future kingdoms:  the kingdom of the Medes and the Persians, the kingdom of the Greeks, the kingdom of the Romans, and the kingdom of God.  In his vision, only one kingdom lasts.  Daniel, in his interpretation of Nebuchadnezzar’s vision, reveals to the king which kingdom will endure:

The God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed, nor will it be left to another people. It will crush all those kingdoms and bring them to an end, but it will itself endure forever. (Daniel 2:44)

Only the kingdom of God, Daniel says, will endure.  Every other kingdom, including Nebuchadnezzar’s, will fall.

In a world where a kingdom like ISIS’s can have its say, we can be thankful that the kingdom of God will eventually carry the day.  So, as grateful as I am that ISIS’s caliphate is waning, I’m ultimately hopeful for a perfect kingdom that is coming.  For when that kingdom comes on the Last Day, ISIS will not only lose the prospect of further victories like they have now thanks to the brave work of the Syrian Democratic Forces, they’ll lose even their past victories, as the death they have wrought will be swallowed up by the eternal life that Christ, by the cross, has bought.

ISIS has an even bigger loss to come.

October 23, 2017 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Terror in Manchester

Manchester Town Hall

Terror struck again, this time at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, England.  What began as a night of fun for fans of the pop music diva ended with 22 dead, many of them children, and 59 others wounded when a suicide bomber detonated himself in the middle of the concert arena.  ISIS quickly claimed responsibility for the attack, which was carried out by 22-year-old Salman Abedi who seems to have become radicalized after travelling to Syria.

Once again, the world is left struggling with what can only be described as a senseless and ghastly act of violence.  As I have after other similar attacks, I want to offer a few thoughts on how to process yet another week marred by a terrorist’s malice.  Here are three things to consider.

Sin is real.

In general, we want to believe that people are good.  Sure, there may an occasional evil outlier, but, overall, we like to assume that people are hardwired for goodness.  The steady stream of terrorist attacks, however, indicates differently.  Indeed, the tragedy in Manchester was the most widely reported terrorist attack of last week, but three additional attacks were also launched this past week – one in Egypt, another in the Philippines, and yet another in Indonesia.  Heinous acts of evil are rampant.  Sin is all too real.

It is true that the vast majority of people, thankfully, will never be party to a terrorist plot.  Every one of us, however, will struggle with some kind of sin.  Whether it be the sin of deception, or lust, or pride, or anger, none of us can escape the sirens of our sinister sides.  Because we live in a broken world, we have to live with the sad fact that the sin of terrorism will continue to be “out there.”  But because we ourselves are broken people, we also have to live with the sad fact that we will continue to struggle with sin in us.  The apostle Paul is right when he writes, “For all have sinned” (Romans 3:23).  Sin is real and is everywhere.

Righteousness is real.

We may struggle against sin, but we also yearn for righteousness.  We recoil in disgust against terrorism precisely because we know it’s wicked and we yearn for what is right.  But how do we know what is right and that terrorism is wrong?  Paul explains that, even if we do not know God, we know what is right and wrong because God has written righteousness on our hearts: “When [people], who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts” (Romans 2:14-15).  This is why, in the face of evil, we appeal to and press toward righteousness.

Justice is coming.

In his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, Martin Luther King Jr. declared, “We refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt.”  At a time when racism was rampant, Dr. King believed justice would ultimately triumph.  And although racism still spreads its ugly tentacles through our society, justice has been slowly but surely bludgeoning the evil of racism over the 54 years since Dr. King’s speech.  What is true of racism is also true of ISIS and other organizations like it.  The evil of ISIS is simply no match for the justice of God.  ISIS may delight in the death of the innocent, but a day will come when “there will be no more death” (Revelation 21:4), for “death will be swallowed up in victory” (1 Corinthians 15:54) through Christ.  Indeed, Christ has already defeated death by His resurrection.  And because of Christ’s resurrection, those who lose their lives in Him do not lose their lives forever.  Death, for them, is but a pause in the drumbeat of life.  Their resurrections are soon to come when Jesus comes.

So after a week when a terrorist did his worst, we can take comfort in the biblical promise of everlasting life.  To quote the poet and pastor John Donne:

One short sleep past, we wake eternally 
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

May 29, 2017 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Death Is Dying

about 1324-5

Even as we celebrated Easter yesterday, it was difficult not to be burdened by the death we see around us every day.  This past Sunday, 44 worshipers lost their lives at St. George Church in Tanta and St. Mark’s Cathedral in Alexandria, both in Egypt, when ISIS suicide bombers detonated themselves in the middle of these churches’ Palm Sunday worship services.  Closer to home, in San Bernardino, a man signed himself into an elementary school at the front desk and then proceeded to walk into the classroom where his estranged wife was teaching and fatally shoot her while also wounding two students, one of whom later died from the injuries he sustained.  After his shooting spree, he took his own life.  Then, of course, earlier this month, there were the sarin gas attacks by the Assad regime against his own people in northwestern Syria.  Death is all around us.

And this is why I am so glad we get to celebrate Easter.

The story of Easter is a story of many things.  It is a story of joy, as the people close to Jesus realize the man who they thought was dead has risen.  It is a story of fear, as the women who come to the tomb that first Easter morning encounter angelic beings who startle and scare them with their fantastic message.  But it is also a story of subversion.  It is a story of subverting all those who prefer death to life.

N.T. Wright explains the subversive nature of Easter well:

Who…was it who didn’t want the dead to be raised?  Not simply the intellectually timid or the rationalists.  It was, and is, those in power, the social and intellectual tyrants and bullies; the Caesars who would be threatened by a Lord of the world who had defeated the tyrant’s last weapon, death itself; the Herods who would be horrified at the postmortem validation of the true King of the Jews.[1]

In a world where terrorist attacks, school shootings, and chemical bombings instill fear into all who see and hear about them, the resurrection of Jesus reminds us that, in the words of the prophet, “no weapon forged against [us] will prevail” (Isaiah 54:17), even if these weapons kill us, for “the one who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead will also raise us” (2 Corinthians 4:14).  A tyrant may kill us.  But God will raise us.  This is Easter’s promise.  And this is why it is so good to celebrate Easter at a time like this.  For Easter reminds us that even if this world full of death, we need not fear.  Christ has risen.  And because He has risen, we will rise.

Take that, death.

___________________________________

[1] N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope (New York:  HarperOne, 2008), 75.

April 17, 2017 at 5:15 am 2 comments

Turkey, Germany, Power, and Love

berlin-christmas-attack

Terror doesn’t take a break for Christmas.

This past Monday was a tragic day in Europe.  In Istanbul, Russia’s ambassador to Turkey was assassinated by Turkish police officer Mevlut Mert Altintas, who shouted “Allahu akbar!” and “Do not forget Aleppo!” in an apparent protestation of Russia’s recent bombings of the embattled city.  Then, later the same day, in Berlin, a Tunisian man, Anism Amri, is suspected to have driven a semi-truck into an open-air Christmas market, killing twelve and injuring scores of others.  ISIS has claimed involvement in the attack.

In one way, this is all too predictable.  Terrorists are trained and indoctrinated to be callous to human carnage.  They seek power through the exercise of brute force.  ISIS has made no secret of its goal of a global caliphate and, even if it knows it can never realize such a theocratic dream, it will lash out at every opportunity possible to, at the very least, wield power through fear.  Terror attacks will continue.

It is difficult to imagine how Christmas must have felt for the loved ones of those lost in these attacks.  A day that celebrates history’s greatest birth is now tinged by the stain of death.  And yet, Christmas is precisely the message this world needs in the face of these continuing attacks.  For Christmas reminds us how such attacks will ultimately be overcome.

On the one hand, we should be thankful that responsible governments work tirelessly both to prevent these attacks and to bring attackers to justice. On the other hand, we should never forget that such efforts, no matter how noble they may be, are ultimately stop gap measures.  The defeat of terrorism lies not in the power of human governments, but in the meekness and weakness of a babe in Bethlehem.  N.T. Wright explains why this is the case when he writes:

You cannot defeat the usual sort of power by the usual sort of means.  If one force overcomes another, it is still “force” that wins.  Rather, at the heart of the victory of God over all the powers of the world there lies self-giving love.[1]

Terrorism is rooted in a lust for power.  But a lust for power cannot, in an ultimate sense, be exorcised by a use, even if it’s an appropriate use, of power.  A lust for power can only be defeated by, to use N.T. Wright’s phrase, “self-giving love.”  And this is where Christmas comes in.  For it is self-giving love that moves God to give His one and only Son to the world as a babe at Christmas.  It is self-giving love that moves God’s one and only Son to give His life for the world on a cross.  And through the meekness and weakness of the manger and cross, victory is won over every sinful use of power.  To use the words of the apostle Paul: “Having disarmed the powers and authorities, Christ made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross” (Colossians 2:15).

In the 1980s, one of TV’s most popular shows was MacGyver.  At the heart of the show’s popularity was the fact that no matter how perilous a situation he may have found himself in, MacGyver always seemed to find a way out of it using the simplest of means. A pair of binoculars that deflected a laser beam.  A paper clip that shorted out a missile on its countdown to launch.  MacGyver’s strange and unexpected hacks to disarm every danger imaginable have become so eponymous with MacGyver himself that his name has turned into a verb.  If there is a problem that calls for a creative solution, you can “MacGyver” it!

In a world that knows only the use of force in the face of force, Jesus pulls a MacGyver.  He solves the problem of the abuse of power in a way no one expected.  He uses a manger to enter the brokenness of our world.  And He uses a cross to overcome the sin of our world.  In this way, a Turkish assassin is no match for the manger.  And a Tunisian terrorist is no match for the cross.  Why?  Because though the former things may engender fear, the latter things hold forth hope.  And hope will win the day.

________________________

[1] N.T. Wright, The Day the Revolution Began (New York:  HarperOne, 2016), 222.

December 26, 2016 at 5:15 am 2 comments

The ISIS Atrocities You Probably Haven’t Heard About

isis

ISIS must be stopped.  It’s difficult to come to any other conclusion when story after story of the group’s atrocities continue to pour in.  In a horrifying iteration of violence that has become ISIS’s trademark, a woman named Alice Assaf recounted how when jihadis marched into her town over two years ago, they killed her son for refusing to disown his faith in Christ, murdered at least six men by baking them alive in ovens, and killed 250 children by massacring them in dough kneading machines at a local bakery.

Are you sick to your stomach yet?  I certainly was when I read the news story.

But too many people have not read this story.  Stories about emails and Tweets among the two major party presidential candidates have relegated ISIS’s atrocities to the background.  Certainly, this year’s presidential election with all of its crazy ups and downs is important.  But when many people lose track of, or, I fear, even lose interest in ISIS’s activities, something has gone tragically wrong.

Just last August, it was being argued that we should ignore, or at least downplay, ISIS’s crimes.  During an official visit to Bangladesh, Secretary of State John Kerry explained:

No country is immune from terrorism. It’s easy to terrorize. Government and law enforcement have to be correct 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. But if you decide one day you’re going to be a terrorist and you’re willing to kill yourself, you can go out and kill some people. You can make some noise. Perhaps the media would do us all a service if they didn’t cover it quite as much. People wouldn’t know what’s going on.[1]

The Secretary of State was arguing that by featuring terror attacks in the headlines, we are only emboldening the terrorists by giving them what they want – free publicity, which leads to more recruiting power, which leads to more killings.  As it turns out, however, even as ISIS’s publicity retreats, the atrocities continue.  A lack of headlines does not seem to temper ISIS’s bloodlust.

We must understand that what drives ISIS, ultimately, is not a desire for fame, for land, or for money.  A theology is what drives the group.  I am sympathetic to Muslim theologians who argue that ISIS’s theology is not Islamic or representative of Allah in any meaningful or traditional sense, but even if this is the case, ISIS nevertheless has a theology.  It has a conception of a god who calls and commands its adherents to do the things they do.  And the things this god calls and commands them to do are horrifying.  But they will continue to do them, whether or not the world is watching, because they think their god is watching – and is pleased with them.

This is why we must continue to pay attention.  We must continue to pay attention because we serve and worship a God who does not order the execution of the oppressed, but cares about the plight of the oppressed and invites us to do the same.  We must continue to pay attention because we serve and worship a God who hates injustice and promises to confront it and conquer it with righteousness.

Perhaps what was most shocking to me about the article I read outlining ISIS’s bakery massacre was the headlines in the “Related Stories” column of the website I was visiting:

All of these articles carried datelines of August and September of this year.  ISIS is still on the loose, even if we don’t see it or know it.  Perhaps it’s time to see and notice once again.  After all, the blood of those it has slaughtered is crying out.

Are we listening?

____________________________

[1] Jeryl Bier, “Kerry in Bangladesh: Media Should Cover Terrorism Less,” The Weekly Standard (8.29.2016).

October 31, 2016 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Using Kids to Kill

Turkish Attack


Women cry during a funeral for victims of the attack on a wedding party that left at least 50 dead in Turkey.
Credit: Ilyas Akenginilyas Akengin / AFP / Getty Images

Late last week, word came that more than 50 people had been killed at a wedding party in Istanbul when a suicide bomber walked into the party and blew himself up.  In a nation that is always on high alert because it has seen so many of these types of terrible attacks, how did a terrorist slip into this party unnoticed?  Officials estimate that the suicide bomber in question was between 12 and 14 years old.  In other words, no one noticed the bomber at the party because this bomber was, in relative terms, a baby – a child.  And children are harmless – or so we think.

Exploiting kids to kill its enemies has been a longstanding and and cynically promoted strategy of ISIS.  Reporting for USA Today, Oren Dorell, citing the expertise of Mia Bloom, a researcher at Georgia State, explains:

In the initial seduction phase, Islamic State fighters roll into a village or neighborhood, hold Quran recitation contests, give out candy and toys, and gently expose children to the group. This part often involves ice cream…

“To desensitize them to violence, they’re shown videos of beheadings, attend a live beheading,” Bloom said.

Then the children participate in beheadings, by handing out knives or leading prisoners to their deaths, she said. The gradual process is similar to that used by a pedophile who lures a child into sex, “slowly breaking down the boundaries, making something unnatural seem normal,” she said.[1]

In another article that appeared in USA Today last year, Zeina Karam explains how ISIS teaches kids to behead their victims:

More than 120 boys were each given a doll and a sword and told, cut off its head.

A 14-year-old who was among the boys, all abducted from Iraq’s Yazidi religious minority, said he couldn’t cut it right. He chopped once, twice, three times.

“Then they taught me how to hold the sword, and they told me how to hit. They told me it was the head of the infidels,” the boy, renamed Yahya by his Islamic State captors, told the Associated Press last week in northern Iraq, where he fled after escaping the Islamic State training camp.[2]

All of this is ghastly, of course.  The thought of children being trained to commit brutal acts of murder feels utterly unthinkable to us.  But why?

Scripture is clear that all people, from the moment of our births, are sinful.  To cite King David’s famous words: “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me” (Psalm 51:5).  So that a child could or would commit a sinful act should not be particularly surprising to us.  Little kids commit all kinds of sins – everything from lying to defying to hoarding – all the time.  But the thought of a child committing murder seems different.

Theologically, the thought of a child committing murder seems different because, at the same time all people are born sinners, we are also born as bearers of the image of God.  In other words, at the same time we all have sinful inclinations, we also have a righteous Creator who has endowed us with a moral compass.  When this moral compass is violated, guilt ensues, for we cannot fully escape the mark of our Creator.

God’s mark proves to be particularly poignant when it comes to the sin of murder.  This is why God’s image is specifically invoked against the taking of a life: “I will demand an accounting for the life of another human being. Whoever sheds human blood, by humans shall their blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made mankind” (Genesis 9:5-6).  To watch one person kill another person is so completely incongruous with who God has created us to be, it cannot help but startle us.

In a human, then, there are two tugs – one that is of sin and the other that is of righteousness.  And these war against each other.  ISIS has fanned into a giant, roaring flame the inclination to sin in the lives of little children.   This is sadly possible to do because of humanity’s sinful state, but it will not escape the judgment of God.  In the words of Jesus:

Things that cause people to stumble are bound to come, but woe to anyone through whom they come. It would be better for them to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around their neck than to cause one of these little ones to stumble.  (Luke 17:1-2)

Christ does not take kindly to those who intentionally and systematically lead children into sin.   After all, He made them in His image and He cares for them out of His love.  May His little ones be saved from those who would harm them.

__________________________

[1] Oren Dorell, “Here’s how the Islamic State turns children into terrorists,” USA Today (8.23.2016).

[2] Zeina Karam, “Islamic State camp has kids beheading dolls with swords,” USA Today (7.21.2015).

August 29, 2016 at 5:15 am 2 comments

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