Posts Tagged ‘ISIS’

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.


The Appeal of ISIS

August 13, 2015

You shouldn’t miss the NYT article on sexual slavery under ISIS. For me it demonstrates, even more than mass beheadings, the systematic evil of this would-be state. Sexual slavery is a planned, systematized, regulated practice—and a religious practice at that. It describes ISIS members praying before and after raping young girls they hold as slaves.

A complementary piece is Roger Cohen’s column musing on the appeal of ISIS. He notes ISIS’ “unquenchable appeal” to an international clientele. “It is clearly tapping into something deep,” he writes, and adds, “Perhaps that something is at root a yearning to be released from the burden of freedom.”

For some ISIS’ appeal may be sex and violence, the chance to be cruel and triumphant. But the West offers a fair opportunity for sex and violence too. Cohen is probing something deeper: a revolt against the West’s determined drive to extend near-absolute freedom to every choice: whom to marry, when to divorce, when to die, whether to have sex, and with whom, and so on. He quotes novelist Michel Houellebecq, who sees France facing “a crisis that was set off two centuries ago when Europeans made a wager on history: that the more they extended human freedom, the happier they would be.”

Right now the loudest voices (and the most successful politics) belong to two extremes: the advocates of order, such as ISIS, and the advocates of freedom. But I think humanity’s true home is in a bounded freedom. This is the image of Eden, in which a garden is set out in the larger world, which human beings are to keep and explore, while not coveting the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

Even if you agree that we are meant to flourish in a bounded freedom, it’s no small thing to figure out how to set the boundaries. The politics are bound to be fractious. Whatever is done, is bound to be wrong sometimes. Nevertheless, it helps if we keep that image clear in our minds, and try to build our lives around it. We are meant for freedom—creativity, innovation, exploration. We are meant also to avoid the temptations of the absolute, set right in the center of the garden where we pass them by every day.

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 Hopes of Modernity

September 22, 2014

One hopeful promise of the modern era is that improved communication between different cultures and nations will lead to greater international understanding. This expectation is closely tied to technological advancement: as the world grows smaller, due to airplanes and radio and television and internet, we can become closer neighbors. Greater understanding will naturally lead to greater peace.

Thus, for example, the enduring faith in foreign-exchange programs. If young people from countries around the world experience each other’s families and communities—and thanks to modern air travel, they can–they will return home with a more sympathetic understanding of the Other. If this happens often enough, there will be no more war.

It hasn’t happened like that. I’m reading The War that Ended Peace, by Margaret MacMillan, a history of how the enlightened nations of Europe (and ultimately America too) stumbled into WWI.

She includes a passing observation that in the years before the war “railways, telegraph lines and then telephones and radios transmitted domestic and international news at unprecedented speed….. Increasingly, newspapers preferred to use their own nationals [as foreign correspondents] rather than rely on locals.” As a result, public opinion became better informed and increasingly involved in foreign policy. Governments began to try to manipulate the press in order to form public opinion. And popular newspapers learned to publish alarmist interpretations of events, to “stir up public emotions and elevate patriotism into jingoistic nationalism.” Lord Salisbury, the British Prime Minister, “complained that it was like having ‘a huge lunatic asylum at one’s back.’” [112-113] Ultimately this public opinion became a force pushing for war—a force that statesmen had to appease.

So better communication did not lead to greater understanding; it actually worked to accentuate differences. Sound familiar?

It’s striking that the lunatics and killers running ISIS are very savvy at internet communications. It’s very high on their list to broadcast quality videos of their savagery. The internet offers almost unlimited possibilities for communicating across differences. Yet as many have noticed, we tend to find an echo chamber for our own ideas and prejudices; and the internet also offers almost unlimited possibilities for hearing from people who agree with you, and recruiting them to your cause.

Technology does nothing to civilize or humanize us. It offers possibilities for both good and evil. What we make of them depends on other humanizing forces—parents, teachers, writers, broadcasters, pastors. But there is not such a good market for them! Apple sold ten million iPhones in three days. There is no similar demand for thoughtful and humane books, schools, churches, families or news shows.