This was originally going to be quite a different post.

I planned on talking about the disappearance of Christians from the Middle East, but Fr. Paul Wheatley has recently done that. CBS also ran a story on 60 Minutes (see also the report from ThinkProgress). All I had to add was that the main Christian targets of the so-called Islamic State, the Assyrian Orthodox and Chaldean Catholics, represent a Christian community with roots in the second century. Meanwhile, their national identity goes back to the twenty-sixth century BC, in significant continuity with a civilization that began around 7300 years ago. It is their past that is being destroyed in the Mosul Museum and at the archaeological sites like Nimrud (called Calah in Genesis 10:11).

Few in the West seem to understand the Assyrians’ situation, perhaps because there is a myth that every native of the Middle East is an Arab. If nation-states like England or France are the norm (where nearly everybody historically looked, spoke, believed, and acted roughly the same), then we expect countries like Iraq and Syria to fit the pattern by being wholly Arab nations. We ignore the existence of large non-Arabic-speaking populations, whether Assyrian, Armenian, Kurdish, Turkish, or Iranian. The same is true for groups like the Druze, Yazidis, and Alawites that don’t fit our pattern neatly. Israelis are also regularly presumed to be Ashkenazi Jews from Europe or America, although the majority had ancestors from the “Arab World” (a tenth of Israeli citizens are Arabs, and that does not include the population in the Territories). Palestinians are often presumed to be Muslim, although there was once a very large Christian minority. Lebanon had a Christian majority as recently as the 1950s, and Turkey had large Christian populations until the 1920s (see the recent report in the New York Times on the upcoming centennial of the Armenian genocide).

That history doesn’t matter to most Westerners, because it conflicts with the popular notion that the Middle East is composed almost exclusively of Third-World Arab Muslims, a First-World enclave of Ashkenazi Jews, and a few inconsequential minorities who have no national identity. The recent efforts to drive out Christians can’t possibly affect many people. Sadly, that isn’t true. These misconceptions have profoundly affected Western attitudes and policies towards the Middle East.

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Truth should matter to people who follow somebody who claimed, “I am the truth.” Sadly, that isn’t always true, either.

I then planned to write a piece on the rise of the Islamic State, but Graeme Wood has done a much more comprehensive job in an article in the March Atlantic Monthly that generated all sorts of responses. The Dominican scholar Dominic Mary Verner has controversially put that into a Christian perspective. They point out the fundamental error of trying to explain IS using politics, economics, or psychopathology alone. It is a religious movement that makes perfect sense in its own terms, which are extreme but in continuity with other Salafist movements (fundamentalist Muslims, including the Wahhabis who dominate Saudi Arabia).

We shouldn’t err in another direction. It is no more the case that all Muslims are alike than that all Iraqis are Arabs: IS is clearly a minority group, despite its influence. But the popular argument that “IS isn’t Islamic,” is just as preposterous as a claim that Jim Jones and David Koresh weren’t Christian. They represented a very bad heretical Christianity, just as most Muslims would regard the IS ideology as very bad Islam, but the behavior of Jones and Koresh was consistent with their belief systems.

Similarly, IS behavior is not insane, but consistent with their belief that the most merciful way (in the long run) to conduct jihad is to win quickly by showing no mercy whatsoever (in the short run). They have become masters in the use of social media to create terror and debilitate their opponents. Those opponents fall into two categories: apostates (including any Muslims who refuse to acknowledge the universal jurisdiction of the Caliph) and infidels (including all non-Muslims). Apostates should be killed and infidels enslaved. When that is their expressed belief — and the belief of some of their Islamist rivals — we should not be surprised when their behavior follows. (Woe to Assyria!) As religious people, Christians should understand the demands of faith better than our secular compatriots, but I haven’t noticed that to be the case. We keep trying to understand IS as a political movement and not a faith movement.

Wood and Verner both quote the Princeton scholar Bernard Haykel, who says that many who deny the essentially religious character of IS are:

“embarrassed and politically correct, with a cotton-candy view of their own religion” that neglects “what their religion has historically and legally required.” Many denials of the Islamic State’s religious nature, he said, are rooted in an “interfaith-Christian-nonsense tradition.”

That applies to Christians as well as Muslims. Westerners have come to believe, with President Eisenhower, that “our form of government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply-felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is.” True faith invariably leads to niceness, so the details don’t matter. (See also, though, this ThinkProgress interview with Haykel, where he distances himself from Wood’s article but not from the quotation above.)

My original post was then going to point out that the West has done almost nothing about the situation, but that has recently changed also with some American air support. When I noted to a friend that we don’t appear to be doing anything about genocide, slavery, and mass torture, he responded that the international community had put itself on record as opposing them. He urged me to consider the alternatives to violence in liberating the eight million or so people currently in Islamic State territory. Like most other Americans, I have done so while sitting in front of my television watching men being burned alive, women sold into sexual slavery, and children forced to become soldiers and suicide bombers.

Westerners cannot use reason to talk “the Caliph” and his followers out of conducting jihad. It is a core religious belief. Americans who argue for religious exemptions to laws of general application should especially understand that. Besides, the Salafists believe that reason can never be substituted for revelation. If the Caliph is the sole legitimate political and religious authority in the world, bilateral diplomacy is a contradiction in terms. The legitimacy of the Caliph in the IS system depends on his constant pursuit of jihad, so agreeing to peace would amount to abdication and suicide. His rivals in other extremist groups from Nigeria to Pakistan are in the same position.

In response to that, what are we Western Christians to do? For one thing, I think we should recognize that any solution must take the religious dimension into account. The most effective counter to IS intransigence is likely to come from other movements within the Muslim world. Unfortunately, those groups may have no inherent interest in preserving or restoring local Christian communities. That may depend on the West. The assistance requested by various parties in Syria, Iraq (including Kurdistan), and elsewhere in the region could be conditioned on the recipients’ support for a multicultural and multifaith Middle East. Westerners who are theologically and politically aware (like the readers of Covenant) should consider what they could do to promote that goal, and pray long and hard about the consequences if we do nothing.

The featured image is “Nimrud palace reliefs” (2007) by F. Tronchin. It is licensed under Creative Commons. 

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Fr. David Kendrick

Thank you for this thoughtful and heartfelt perspective. I would only add the importance of supporting all religious minorities in the Middle East. If we westerners speak only of the Christian community, I suspect that we’ll be dismissed as “crusaders.” That the U.S.’s first military action was on behalf of the Yazidis, I hope, will make our advocacy on behalf of the Christians more credible.

A good point, David.