What then do we do about the situation?
The story so far: Islamic State is very Islamic. To disregard the religious aspect of Islamic State is a recipe for disaster. To refer to it as “a death cult” is nonsense. Fundamentalist religious belief is the ideology that drives the actions.
As might well be expected, when it comes to “What should we do about the situation?” there are quite a few suggestions.
(1) Military Action.
The theory here is “If IS seeks to establish a Caliphate by military force, we will oppose it with military force”. This is the action favoured by the US and its puppet government in Australia. It has a number of problems:
Firstly, the US and Australia have so far limited themselves to training and bombing, neither of which are/will be effective as “military action”. The Iraq army that was “defeated” at Mosul (they ran for their lives and left their American armaments behind) was trained and equipped by the US in the years following the Iraq war. Air power is based on wholesale destruction – the Bin Tre philosophy of “In order to save it we have to destroy it”. Kobane and Tikrit are now uninhabitable ruins.
The essential problem with military force is that it is counter productive. Violence begets violence. Militarism is logically and theologically irrational and eventually leads to a situation where buildings, nations and people can be reduced to ash in an instant. This is the Damocles Sword hanging over the world and to suggest that no one would use such an awful weapon is naïve to the nth degree. One country already has – not once but twice! The present attempt to prevent Iran becoming a nuclear power is patently hypocritical in the light of the nuclear stockpiles of the US and Russia – and Israel! Militarism is a recipe for disaster.
It is also dysfunctional as a political instrument. There is a deep distrust of the West in Iraq, and for good reason. It should not be forgotten that Iraq was created after the 1914-18 war with the British and the French carving out a portion of the former Turkish Empire and calling it the Kingdom of Iraq. It was done with no concern for ethnic and religious interests. Estranged Sunnis, Shia and Kurds were bound together and the former area of Kurdistan distributed amongst neighbouring countries. The Sykes Picot boundaries were, and are, a recipe for territorial, ethnic and religious violence. The seeds of the present position were sown a century ago. We are complicit in the cancer. We messed up in 1918, and we messed up again in invading Iraq in 2003. What a brilliant effort that was! Founded on a lie, it was intervention that made the situation worse. We are messing up today also. For the US and Australia to try by military means to perpetuate the status quo is both counter productive and stupid.
(2) Leave them to fight it out among themselves.
This apparently simple approach collapses in a heap when one sees the extent of the brutality of IS and the wholesale massacre of those who do not agree with them. Anyone with a sense of human values could not adopt such a position. In addition to this, Australia is now a multicultural society and we live in a global village. The fact that over forty percent of those fighting for IS come from overseas shows the extent of this. Some members of the village are also very dependent on the oil that lies under the sand of the Middle East and the US says bluntly that it is concerned with “safeguarding U.S. interests in the area”.
From almost every aspect it is now impossible for us to “let them fight it out amongst themselves.”
(3) Apply sanctions.
Once again it is a case of “been there, done that”. Sanctions were applied prior to the Iraq war and had little or no effect. It is true that IS is dependent on finance and the choking off that finance would have a huge effect. The problem is that another Islamic State (Saudi Arabia) is bank rolling the Sunnis who are the backbone of IS in Iraq. The situation is further complicated by the fact that the US is dependent of the oil in the sands of Saudi Arabia and has entered a hypocritical relationship with that country both in terms of the provision of arms and diplomatic relationship. Sanctions only work when they have universal acceptance. There is little chance of that happening while Saudi Arabia and its radical Islamic Wahabism is on the scene. The fact that 15 of the 19 nine eleven terrorists came from Saudi Arabia seems to have escaped the US authorities
(4) Get rid of religion
This is a simplistic answer often seen in the newspaper correspondence columns. Religion is variously defined but in essence it is an attempt to make sense of and give direction to life. Over the years it has expressed itself in many weird and wonderful ways – and still does so today. But to rid ourselves of religion in essence is simply not on. One of the world most evangelistic atheists, Richard Dawkins put it well “There are many physicists who are deeply awed, as I am , by the majesty of the universe…. and who are moved by this to say that there is something so mysterious that it is almost like God, and maybe use the metaphor of God… God is in the fundamental constants. And that’s fine…….But (for) other people God is that which…. transubstantiates wine, that which makes me live after I died – and that is a totally different matter”. As I was accustomed to say ‘I agree with my learned friend”. Religious conviction is here to stay.
One of the most enlightening moments in understanding Islamic State occurred when a teenager prevented from leaving Australia was asked why he wanted to go and fight. His answer was “I want my life to stand for something”. Who could differ with this statement. In a society where many stand for nothing but personal pleasure, it is admirable to find someone standing for something. The crucial question then becomes the nature of that to which we commit ourselves. This is the religious question. It was what Paul Tillich was getting at when he referred to God as “the ground of our being” and “our ultimate concern”.
All of which brings me to the central question with which I commenced:
How should we react to Islamic State?
(1) We should recognize that the driving motivation of IS is religious. Period!
(2) Inerrant scriptures, (be they the Koran, the Old or the New Testament) are a significant deterrent to world peace. The aim of IS is to establish what is essentially a seventh century state based on ideas expressed in an inerrant Koran. The doctrinal aspects of Islamic State, the legal system (Sharia), the emphasis on the after-life (seventy two virgins), the concept of a holy war (Jihad), apostasy and an apocalyptic approach to life are all based on an inerrant Koran .
There are strong parallels with Hebrew and Christian fundamentalism and their inerrant Old and New Testament. In Numbers 31 Moses on the defeat of the Midianites instructed his army officers to “Kill every male child, and kill every woman who has had intercourse with a man, but you may spare for yourselves every woman who has not had intercourse”. Shades of Islamic State!
I am not suggesting that we cease to use the Koran and the Bible as religious texts. They are, and will continue to be, major references for believing and behaving. They contain the story of the human race seeking life in all its fullness. They also depict the struggle between self seeking violence and a new world reflecting compassion and community. To take everything within the scriptures as inerrant is to miss the point completely.
(3) We need to overcome our reluctance to question the religious beliefs of others. Religious beliefs matter and affect life in general. We need however to do it with compassion and understanding.
The religious faith known as Islam (and for that matter Christianity and other religions) have much to offer the present life and future of the world. It is not however the social mores, the legal system and the violence of the century in which they emerged. The arrow of time flies on and we today have information and understanding not available to earlier centuries. The world was not created in seven days. Indeed creation is in the future and we are bringing it into being.
There is also no heaven above and hell below. Indeed there is no heaven and hell apart from the one we establish here on earth. To organize one’s life on the basis of some kind of heavenly paradise is non-sense.
Within the spectrum of humankind, there are “religious” people who want to stop the process and re-establish the society, mores, practices and understanding of earlier centuries. Some of them, such as the Amish with their horse drawn carriages are harmless and non violent. Others such as Islamic State, seeking to return to a seventh century society, are destructive and intolerant to the extent that they kill all who differ with them.
The point that I have sought to make in this blog is such bodies as IS invariably have a holy book that they regard as inerrant. From this, and their leader’s exposition of it, emerge many of the problems we face with these groups. What I am suggesting is that the way out of the present impasse is to question the concept of a timeless inerrant book – be it the Koran, the Bible or any other book.
At the time of writing, the newspapers are reporting of an Australian Muslim in Iraq (Neil Prakash) saying in a twitter post “To kill a disbeliever is the best feeling. To my brothers at home, what you waiting for? Rush for your place in Paradise”. The fact that there are going to be a lot of disappointed martyrs and that the reward of the martyrs doesn’t thrill me, is not the point. It’s in the Book!
And this, I am suggesting is the central point at issue – a literal and inerrant book – and until enough of us are bold enough say there is no such thing we will continue to be plagued by such phenomena as Islamic State.
When we lived in Busselton I was still working for RPH, and would commute a few days every fortnight. While it may seem like it was a bit of a drag, it had its positives. Driving on my own for a few hours allowed me time to think and reflect, and to listen to some of my music! This time of reflecting produced some of my best sermons and enabled me to ponder my role both in the church and in the world. Even though I should have actually been pondering the road!
Sometimes in our busy lives, there is no time to ponder, no time to reflect on experiences that have been very profound. We suddenly jump to another event, another activity, without first thinking how the previous event has affected us and the way we may see things.
Reflection is an active pastime. It requires time, and space, but without it, we may go on repeating the same mistakes we always make, or continue a way of living that is not healthy for ourselves or for others.
I had an experience recently that needs a lot of reflection. This is only the start.
I went up into the north of Western Australia for a week to help run a school holiday program for aboriginal kids living in a community just outside a major town.
While I had seen many pictures of the community and had heard about programs that had been running for a while, I was taken aback by the lack of resources that were to be found, by the lack of order, and by the lack of infrastructure to cope with a demographic found more in developing countries than ones like ours. Over 50% of the 400 people were under 18.
What I did find, however, were children who were energetic, generous in their affection, and fun loving. I found elders trying to protect and education these children and the wider community. I found “white fellas”, who were compassionate and giving, and who were very conscious that they did not want to be just one of many people coming in and then disappearing after giving unwanted advice.
I found I loved the wide open spaces, the red dirt and the boab trees. The environment, though harsh, seems to give a freedom not found in the city, with all its services and recreational activities.
And I found that the God of sea and sky, the God of you and me is also the God of our indigenous brothers and sisters. Reflected in their belief in the Wandjina, a supreme spirit being, which has eyes for seeing but no mouth with which to judge, is a God who has been carried with them through the generations. Their spirituality can teach us much about connecting to each other and all of creation. Creation stories are needed by every culture and generation, to find who they are and where they come from. We have both the biblical genesis stories, and our beautiful magnificent stories of the development of the universe and the stars and planets. The aboriginal people have their own stories which link them to the land and to their forebears which they generously share if we listen.
I am realistic, and acknowledge the harshness of the problems facing these communities. Years of dependency, the problems of alcohol, and the lack of parenting of the next generation leads one to despair. The reasons are complex, but the forced moving of the communities further and further away for their lands, and the social and racial injustice over many years, reflected in poor health and education standards, have not helped.
But acknowledging the realities does not change things. Action and involvement changes things.
There is hope, there is always hope. But hope is much more than wishful thinking.
Hope is about seeing a better, more life giving way and then following that way bit by bit until it becomes a reality. It’s not wishing for something to happen and then not doing a damn thing to help it happen. It’s getting in and participating in whatever way we can.
And it may take generations or it may just take one. Sometimes change can never seem like it is coming, and then, it does, with a bang. Or it can come silently, without us noticing that things are different. Suddenly we look around and things have changed.
In reflecting on our time, it is like so much of life, light and dark together, intertwined. But as Jesus followers, God bearers, we will always follow the light.
So I will be back, again and again to this community and its people, until suddenly the light stays on.