Things are not always as they seem…
A recent article in Spiegel sheds new and significant light on the inner workings of ISIS. The article is based on documentation discovered in the home of one of the Islamic State’s chief architects—Haji Bakr—a former Colonel in Saddam’s Air Defense Forces—after his demise at the hands of Syrian rebels. Based on new evidence presented in the article, it seems that the prevailing narrative of ISIS as an offshoot of al-Qaeda whose top leaders are deeply motivated by religion must be revisited and indeed revised. Read the article to fill in the gaps, but to summarize briefly…ISIS’ highest echelon of leadership may be a cadre of elite Iraqi former military whose dismissal after the American invasion resulted in their captivity and eventual release. Haji Bakr was one of these who later moved into the anarchy of Syria to establish a beachhead from which to attack Iraq. The flowchart of ISIS leadership is inspired by totalitarian regimes such as the former East German domestic intelligence agency—“Stasi”. To be sure, the architects realize the power of religion to mobilize fighters and strike fear into the hearts of dissenters. They also exploit the Islamic system of jurisprudence to manipulate and control the population. Thus the name “Islamic State”—a rebirth of the ancient Caliphate of Islam complete with a Caliph who becomes the visible spokesperson. However, if Spiegel’s report is accurate, the Islamic identity of ISIS is a tactic carefully crafted by former leaders of Saddam Hussein’s military.
Admittedly, the leadership structure of the Islamic State is not altogether clear. Nevertheless, in light of these new findings, perhaps it is time for a few penetrating questions. I ask them as a Jesus-follower whose primary concern is how Jesus is understood among Muslims. First and foremost, I ask these questions of myself.
First question: Have I at any time smugly congratulated myself that I do not belong to a religion that beheads Christians, slaughters Yazidis and other minorities, displaces thousands and mercilessly annihilates even other Muslims who dissent?
I have a tendency to compare the worst aspects of Islam with the best aspects of my faith. Over quite a few years of interacting with Muslims, I’ve realized how harmful that tendency can be. So when I hear the news of the most recent beheadings, how do I react? Do I succumb to the effect of the media tidal wave and simply castigate Islam as the culprit for this senseless perversion? If I have done so, I must now realize that identifying the culprit requires a more nuanced understanding. It is certainly true that crimes have been perpetrated in the name of Islam and sometimes the perpetrators draw their inspiration form the core texts of the religion. However, in this particular case, the masterminds of terror and fear-mongering—the brains behind the operation—do not appear to be religiously inspired. Rather they are attempting to regain the power base they lost when Saddam’s regime fell. To do so, they strike fear into the hearts of millions in order to dominate and subjugate anyone who resists them, including Muslims. Of course, they have successfully recruited a band of disenchanted warriors, possessed by a passion to re-establish the religious, social and economic superiority of Islam. Still, if the Spiegel article gives us an accurate picture, we can see the militancy of misguided individuals as a pawn on the chessboard of regional power-play and political machination.
Second question: Have ISIS’ antics in any way contributed to my reluctance to personally relate to and interact with Muslim people?
Stereotyping: “to believe unfairly that all people or things with a particular characteristic are the same.” I tend to think I know them all because I have a general impression. In our media-driven age the impression is usually based on news reports or documentary, not personal encounter. Right? Consider Jesus. How did he respond to the stereotyped peoples of his day? The dreaded Roman military occupiers—“I have never seen such faith, no, not in Israel.” The religiously deviant and ethnically compromised Samaritans—“My food is to do the will of him who sent me. Look at these fields! They are white—ready to harvest.” The despised and impure woman—“Take heart, daughter. Your faith has made you well.” The turncoat Jewish tax collector: “Come down from there. I need to stay at your house.” The Pharisee persecutor of the Way: “I’d like you to represent me!”
Even though Jesus had some tough words for the religious elite of his own people, it seems he never succumbed to the stereotype. He always overcame it, saw things differently, looked into people’s souls, not their religious affiliations or ethnic features.
Let’s make it clear…that Muslim guy who stocks the shelves at the local big box store, he just may have a delightful sense of humor. The veiled woman waiting in front of you in line may have a very interesting story to tell. The student, son of a refugee, may be inspired by a keen sense of social justice. But we’ll never know if we can’t get beyond the stereotypes to interact with them in a personal way. Jesus’ method for interacting with a prejudiced people group is simple, direct and personal. He lingered by the well. He had a conversation.
Third question: Am I willing to critique my own religious heritage first before criticizing the religion of others?
Over-familiarity has perhaps robbed us of the humor of Jesus’ imagery. “How can you say ‘let me take the speck out of your eye’ when there is a plank protruding from your own eye? You hypocrite! Get the plank out of your own eye and then you can see to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” Jesus’ use of metaphor makes his point with stunning clarity. Appropriate self-critique can spare us the deep embarrassment of falsely and ignorantly critiquing others. If Islam, as a religious system, bears some guilt for perpetrating violence, it is not the first religion to do so. In fact, as I call myself a Christian, I need look no further than the protracted wars of religion in Europe or the Inquisition to find a plank about three meters long jutting out of my eye socket. Yes, I hear your protest “but that’s not what Jesus taught!” You’re right. He didn’t. So why do we—his followers—get it so wrong, so often, even to this very day?
Please don’t misunderstand me. The questions I ask are not meant to absolve the Islamic State of its atrocities. Justice should be served. My concern is how the identification of ISIS with the religion of Islam is impacting our active engagement in representing Jesus’ kingdom fairly and honestly amongst Muslim peoples in the entire world. While the Islamic State has taken the religion of Islam as its tactic, its front, we must realize that Islam is every bit as diverse and multi-faceted as Christianity and other world faiths and philosophies. The radical posture adopted by ISIS fighters represents the extreme right side of the socio-political-religious spectrum of Islam. In fact it seems fair to say that Islam is experiencing a unique moment in history in which many of the foundational tenets of the faith adopted in medieval times are being questioned openly and forcefully.
I contend that this moment of transition and re-evaluation presents a unique window of opportunity to Jesus-followers. Islam is in the throes of change, as indeed is our world. A survey of the history of Muslim-Christian relations reveals embarrassing episodes when Christians were so caught up in the power struggles of their day that they failed to understand the importance of representing the Lord they professed before their Muslim contemporaries. Our era is similar to those early centuries of the Islamic empire when Muslims and Christians were mingling in the great cities of the Middle East. Today, however, Muslims live beside us on a world-wide scale. We attend the same schools, work in the same businesses, view the same social media and download the same books and movies. Never has the interpenetration of Christians and Muslims throughout the world reached such global proportions. Never before has the need for honest and humble face to face conversation been greater. Are we seizing the moment? Are we lingering by the well?
One final question: Am I terrorized by the terrorists?
Jesus has something to say about that:
 Haji Bakr is pseudonym. The article records his real name as Samir Abd Muhammad Al Khlifawi. Read the article here: Also for another article describing the Baathist roots of the Islamic State, click here.