Posts Tagged ‘Iraq’

N for Nazarene

October 12, 2016


Bob Blincoe from Frontiers, an organization that works with Muslims in the Middle East, brought to my church these tiny mosaics (useful as coasters) made by Iraqi Christians in exile in Jordan. The symbol is the letter N in Arabic. When ISIS invaded Syrian and Iraqi villages they spray-painted Christian homes with this N, standing for Nazarene. It was like being red-tagged by the building department. It meant: either convert to Islam, or get out now, otherwise you will be killed.

It occurred to me that the Iraqi Christians making these mosaics are doing exactly what the earliest Christians did with the cross. They adopted as their own the chilling symbol of oppression and violence used against them. It reminded them of what Jesus the Messiah had suffered, and of what they too might be called on to endure.

Maybe we should put these “N” symbols next to our crosses, to remind us of what they stand for.

The mosaics come from Aslan Child Rescue, an organization working to help churches in the Middle East and in Europe who have opened their doors to persecuted Iraqi Christians.


Is Isis Islamic?

February 26, 2015

I thought Tom Friedman’s column in today’s NYTimes nicely caught the nuances. Yes, ISIS is certainly Islamic. It’s a version of Islam with its own claim to historical legitimacy. (See the cover story in this month’s Atlantic.) Its appeal, however, is deeply rooted in the dysfunction of Middle Eastern governance.

So for a couple of reasons, we are not at war with Islam. First, because ISIS represents one school of Islam. There are others with a very different point of view. (We know a little about this, don’t we?–Protestants and Catholics, Assemblies of God, Southern Baptists and Episcopalians?)

Second, because most of its supporters are there for non-religious reasons, mainly that they see no good alternatives. There are misanthropic individuals who have latched on to extremist rhetoric as a way of validating their existence; there are Sunni clan leaders who hate the corrupt and intolerant Shia governments they live under. When they get tired of ISIS–and they will, because religious extremism is not a very pleasant thing to live with–the movement will wither.

If you want to expand ISIS’ sway, accept its claim to stand for true Islam. Then you will push all Muslims to defend it.

The Future of IS

September 13, 2014

I’m no expert on Islam or the Middle East, but my thoughts on the threat posed by IS were greatly influenced by a book I read a few years ago, God’s Terrorists: The Wahhabi Cult and the Hidden Roots of Modern Jihad, by Charles Allen. Here’s a short post I wrote reviewing the contents.

Allen’s book chronicles the history of IS-like groups going back to the 13th century, with considerable emphasis on their persistence and fanaticism in the 18th and 19th centuries when the British held sway in India and the Middle East. It’s extremely clear that IS is not a new phenomenon. Very similar Islamic theologies have persisted for centuries, and though their institutional life has waxed and waned, you can trace them through specific people and places during all that time. They have created considerable havoc.

While such extremism has persisted, it has never triumphed for long simply because it has never won the minds and hearts of ordinary Muslims. The reason the Taliban and their fanatical offspring have flourished of late is mainly Saudi oil money, which has paid for weapons and schools and relief efforts all over the Middle East.

And so it has done for IS. It’s possible that the Saudi money is drying up, but now IS has money of its own from its captured oil fields, banks, and extortion rackets. But how long can it last? IS cannot build an economy. Money stolen from banks is not a renewable resource, the sale of oil can only get more and more difficult as the US puts the screws on, and extortion tends to be a poor long-term business plan. Even captured weapons, of which IS has many, tend to run out of ammunition and spare parts. Like the Mongol invaders of the 13th century, IS depends on capturing new territories that it can loot. I doubt they will capture any more, now that US drones and aircraft are patrolling their movements. Surely IS extremism will put off any potential grassroots support. Sunnis may want to stick a finger in the eye of the oppressive Shia in Iraq, and in the US eye as well, but they will soon discover—if they have not already—the overwhelming dedication of IS to fanaticism. You can’t co-opt these people any more than you can co-opt a scorpion.

IS is a scourge on the face of the earth. To oppose it forcefully is a worthy cause, I believe. Its greatest enemy, however, will not be in opposing armies but in itself. It cannot sustain itself because it lacks any creative or positive power. Practically speaking, the only way IS can survive long term is to draw in the US  as an invading army. I am sure that is what they are attempting to do by murdering innocent US citizens and broadcasting the event on TV. We should resist their attempts to manipulate us into another Iraq (or Syrian) War.

Tribes with Flags

March 23, 2011

Thomas Friedman has a worthwhile column in today’s NYT. He divides countries in the Middle East between “real countries” that have a long-time national identity–Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco and Iran–and those that have a colonially imposed national identity, “tribes with flags.” These include, he says, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Bahrein, Libya, Jordan and others. These “tribes with flags” have no natural sense of national identity, and peace is only imposed on warring tribes by a strong-arm government. That’s why revolts in Tunisia and Egypt took hold, he says, while prospects for democracy in Libya, Bahrein, Yemen and Saudi Arabia are much bleaker. How much bleaker we can measure by remembering what it has cost, in Iraq, to coax a fragile, fractious democracy into existence.

The Psychology of Indecision (I Feel Cranky)

November 13, 2009

It’s hazardous to psychoanalyze your family members, obnoxious to psychoanalyze your friends, and downright dubious to psychoanalyze a nation. Nevertheless:

I’ve been thinking about the national mood, which is cranky. In four critical areas we are teetering on the verge of decision: health care, Afghanistan, financial regulation and climate change. All four are extraordinarily complex, all four appear urgent, and as a nation we are finding it very difficult to make up our minds about all four.  For each of these concerns I give at least even odds that we will not reach any decision of consequence in the coming year.  (Of course, not to decide is to decide, but in most of these cases the same issues would then be back with us next year.)

This indecision feels bad. I find myself looking back longingly on our election just slightly more than a year ago, when it seemed that we had made up our mind to something fresh and new. That felt good. Elections, however they turn out, give the sense of decision in a way that Congressional deliberation very rarely does. (It was the Republicans’ turn to feel good in last week’s gubernatorial elections—their turn to feel as though they had accomplished something.)

I relate our current crankiness to the dis-ease I myself feel when I am trying to make up my mind about a personal matter. Whether the decision is big or small, I am restless, crabby, and unproductive. I can’t sit still. I look for distractions. (Bless the internet for providing them, better than TV ever did!) All the alternatives seem bad. I need to spend more time analyzing their flaws. So many unknown aspects could go wrong.

Some people get so overwhelmed that they literally cannot make a decision. But healthier minds usually manage to move ahead. We decide on the Grand Tetons as our vacation destination, we plunk down money to reserve a cabin (lots of unknowns there), we put the dates on our calendar, we begin to get dog sitters and house sitters and all the rest.

And then we feel better. The unknowns remain. So do the imperfections of our choice. But we are in motion. We will work out the problems as we go. We will live with the imperfections.

In all four areas of national choice, we’re stuck in the crabby land of indecision. Added to that, we have a constitution that was deliberately crafted to make decisions difficult. (Thank God it’s not California’s constitution, which was crafted to make us crazy.) Added to that, there’s a partisan spirit in the land that sidetracks deliberation.

Beware of governments making decisions that aren’t thought through. (Remember Iraq?) I’m glad for the deliberative process. I realize that making a decision, any decision, feels better in the short run, but it doesn’t necessarily feel better in the long run.

At some point, though, you know all you are going to know, and it’s time to decide. Will we? Will we decide on a direction for any of these four matters within the next year? I hope so. I want to move on. I want to feel better.


October 30, 2009

Alyssa Rubin has a good article in today’s NYT on lessons she has learned from six years in Iraq. (here) The message is basically this: In a foreign land we get blinded by wishful thinking, aided by our ignorance. Optimism and hope can easily become hubris. She fleshes this out in some detail.

Her point is that as we ponder America’s role in Afghanistan, we need to be extremely careful not to think too highly of our own opinions. Rather, pay close attention to what is really happening. Whether you are convinced that Obama is dithering and delaying our prosecution of a nation-saving surge, or you believe that whatever we do in the mountains of Afghanistan is bound to fail and we should draw down our troops as soon as possible–don’t be too sure of yourself.

The lesson applies to Obama, of course. Unlike the rest of us, however, he has to decide what to do. God help him to get it right.