Understanding ISIS

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In 1987, Chuck Colson published Kingdoms in Conflict, which began with the following fictitious scenario.  Militant Jews were preparing to blow up one of Islam’s holiest sites, knowing that in so doing they would provoke “total war” with their Muslim neighbors.  They were taking this action in the sincere belief that, in so doing, they would precipitate the coming of the Messiah to deliver Israel from her enemies.  In Colson’s story, the American President–an evangelical Christian–sat on his hands too long, torn by doubts over whether he should interfere politically or militarily with what might be the fulfillment of Bible prophecy.

Graeme Wood’s piece in the Atlantic, “What ISIS Really Wants,” paints a detailed explanation of ISIS and their aims that reminded me of Colson’s story.  ISIS is sincere in its belief that its actions will bring about the end of the world.  They are apocalypticists, who see the world in terms of two forces (Islam and non-Islam) locked in an all-out fight to the death.  And they long for that struggle to escalate, because it will usher in the next age, when Islam will triumph over all other religions and worldviews.

Further, because of its brand of Islam, ISIS is singularly designed to frustrate any attempts at peace-making.  They believe:

  •  … that recognizing any boundaries between their nation and other nations is a grave sin against Islam.
  •  … that elections and democracy are grave sins against Islam (because they contradict theocracy); not only so, but negotiating with any elected leaders is also a grave sin against Islam.
  •  … that they will go to war with the West, and that they will suffer grave losses until only a few thousand faithful subjects of the Caliph are left, cornered in Jerusalem by the armies of Rome (the Christian West).
  • … that only when the faithful jihadis have been all but destroyed, will Jesus (the second prophet of Islam, not the Christian Messiah) return to destroy the anti-Messiah and give the Muslims victories over all their enemies.

Notice how perfectly this insulates them against peace-making efforts.  There is no legitimate authority except Allah and his direct interpreters, no delegation of authority to kings or leaders.  Whatever happens–victory or abject defeat–is a fulfillment of their prophecies, a direct act of Allah.

Seriously: read Wood’s essay.  It’s both terrifying and enlightening.  And it actually got me to reconsider one of President Obama’s actions that has puzzled me: why does he refuse to refer to the religious motivations of the Islamic terrorists who have acted recently, or why has the White House avoided mentioning that the 21 Egyptians beheaded the other day were beheaded because they were Christians?

Answer: ISIS is trying to provoke a war with the West.  The more they can paint their actions as a war against Christianity and the West, the more it feeds their apocalyptic ideology, and the more appealing it makes them to Muslims who already lean in their direction, who long for the purity and clarity of fundamentalism.

Right or wrong (I think wrong), Obama and his people have decided that they can’t lose if they refuse to play the game.  They are hoping that other Muslims will rise up and destroy ISIS.  But what if al Quaeda decides to partner with ISIS?  Or if ISIS’s ambitions–so far confined to their local area–grow, or they move toward Israel?

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