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Thursday, February 19, 2015

Is Islamist Extremism A ‘Perversion Of Islam’ Or Just Like Every Other Holy War?

President Obama has gone out of his way to stress the fact that the United States is not at war with Islam, but with terrorists.  Yesterday he acknowledged that religion did indeed play a role in ISIS, al-Qaeda, and Boko Haram, but a perverse one.  These militants are using a perverse, distorted vision of Islam as justification for their terrorist actions.  In other words they are not ‘real’ Muslims like the millions of peace-loving Islamic faithful in the world, but some other devilish kind.

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The President is making these tortuous distinctions for political reasons.  He wants the larger Muslim world – and especially the smaller American one – to understand that the United States has nothing at all against Islam, a Biblical, respected, and important religion.  If he can convince Muslims that he has nothing against them per se then they might focus on the real enemy – those who committing the atrocities, and betraying Islam.

What the President misses, however, is the fact that religious militancy is not a perversion, but a historical reality.

The Old Testament is a good place to start. The conquest of Canaan was a brilliant military campaign.  The Battle of Jericho was only the beginning, and many important battles ensued – Ai, Gibeon, Hazor, Gilgal, and Shechem – and under the leadership of Joshua, the Israelite armies were successful.

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Barry Bandstra, a Hebrew Scholar, suggests that the campaign of the Israelites was nothing less than a jihad:

The army followed Yhwh’s instructions and the city walls collapsed. Entering the city was now possible through breaches in the fortifications, so each soldier went straight in:

They devoted to destruction by the sword the entire city: man and woman, young and old, cow and sheep. (Exodus 6:21)

The phrase “devoted to destruction,” sometimes called “the ban,” refers to the divine injunction to destroy the entire population of a city along with all its material goods. This injunction has often been referred to as holy war though the phrase is never used in the Bible. This approach to conquest views Yhwh as the divine warrior who alone fights the battle and achieves the victory, therefore to him alone belong the spoils. By killing and then burning the entire city, everything was given over to the deity. In principle, the Israelites were not allowed to benefit personally or materially from the victory.

Whether the Israelites benefited from the victory or not is immaterial. The Israelites were fighting a religious war.  The Jews believed that they were indeed God’s Chosen People and, guided by him, would reclaim their homeland.

How different is this from those Islamic groups intent on creating a new Muslim Caliphate, one that would retake lands from the infidel and restore God’s law?

For those who might suggest that ISIS is more brutal than the invading Jews, they might look again at the verse cited above.  The Israelites, under the secular command of Joshua and the divine guidance of Yhwh burned Jericho to the ground and with it every man, woman, child, and animal in their path.  They believed that only total victory would ensure their righteous place in the land of Canaan.

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The Christian Crusades were also jihad.  Armies of Europe marched to Jerusalem to rid the Holy Land of the infidel. Jerusalem was Christianity’s holiest site, the location of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher which commemorated the hill of the crucifixion of Christ and the tomb from which he was resurrected.

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The First Crusade (1096–1099) started as a widespread pilgrimage (France and Germany) and ended as a military expedition by Roman Catholic Europe to regain the Holy Lands taken in the Muslim conquests of the Levant (632–661), ultimately resulting in the recapture of Jerusalem in 1099.

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The Crusades are most commonly linked to the political and social situation in 11th-century Europe, the rise of a reform movement within the papacy, and the political and religious confrontation of Christianity and Islam in Europe and the Middle East. Christianity had spread throughout Europe, Africa, and the Middle East in Late Antiquity, but by the early 8th century Christian rule had become limited to Europe and Anatolia after the Muslim conquests. The Umayyad Caliphate had conquered Syria, Egypt, and North Africa from the predominantly Christian Byzantine Empire, and Hispania from the Visigothic Kingdom.

In essence, the Crusades were not unlike the Israelites conquest of Canaan.  Both campaigns had religion as their foundation, but did not ignore geopolitical realities.  Both the ancient Jews and the Crusading Christians fought under the banner of God, but had hegemony, nationalism, and political interests at the fore.

While the Crusades were in many ways a defensive action – i.e. to retake lands once under Christian control – the Muslim conquests of the 7th and 8th centuries were offensive.  Muslim armies fought to expand their religion and the their territories with the objective of creating an Islamic Empire.

ISIS, Boko Haram, al-Qaeda, al-Shabab and other militant groups have the same goal – the re-establishment of a Muslim Caliphate, one which unifies political rule with religious faith.

The recent Balkan wars were also about religion and territorial hegemony. Orthodox Christian Serbs were determined to rid their former empire of Bosnian and Albanian Muslims.  The term ‘ethnic cleansing’ was used to describe their intentions; but again, they were behaving like the Jews, Muslims, and Christians before them.  Religion and political goals were united.

Protestants and Catholics fought each other in Northern Ireland since William of Orange; and while the roots of the conflict were certainly territorial, economic, and political, no one can deny the religious hatred that fueled the IRA, as brutal and uncompromising a paramilitary force as ISIS.

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The only reason why President Obama is having difficulty developing a strategic policy to confront the advances of ISIS is because America, despite its profound religious faith, is a secular country.  Logic, reason, democracy, the rule of law, and the principles of the Enlightenment are the only values that matter. They are the secular equivalents to the tenets of the Bible.  It is impossible for Obama and his secular advisors to understand Islamic jihad, for its goals and purposes are antithetical to Enlightenment humanism.  Sharia law is brutal, uncompromising, unforgiving, and enslaving, and the just the idea of a Caliphate based on it is anathema. How can anyone reject rationalism, democratic inclusivity, and economic competitiveness?

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At the same time, all it takes is a cursory look at history to see that ISIS is not an anomaly.  Their wars are no more evil than those of Canaan, the Muslim Conquests, or the Crusades.

Which leads me to the second reason why the President is having such a tough time – moral confusion. ISIS is not immoral; but amoral. They use terror, maiming, and decapitation as a strategic and operational tool. We in the West are angered but hogtied. Our moral exceptionalism prevents us from confronting the enemy where he lives – in an amoral world.  For ISIS, victory is the only goal. The ends justify the means.  The United States is still in a state of idealistic denial.  There must be a moral way to resolve this conflict.  Think again. (See: ISIS, Barbarism, Or Just Business As Usual? http://www.uncleguidosfacts.com/2014/08/isisbarbarism-evil-or-just-business-as.html)

Ignoring the religious foundation for Islamic militancy and refusing to accept ISIS as simply an accomplished enemy, not a Satanic force is a double whammy of historic proportions.

Acknowledging the religious roots of Islamic militancy allows the West to be focused in their fight against it.  The seeds of Muslim rebellion are sown in madrassas where Islamic fundamentalism is linked with political ambitions.  Young French Muslims are taught that France is the enemy because of its depraved, profligate ways; and because of its political imperialism.  How can such inflaming rhetoric be cooled?

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The West also is hopelessly myopic when it comes to the appeal of religion to the poor, disadvantaged, and marginalized.  Radical Muslims in Bangladesh, for example, have told the nation’s poor that joining them will give them a political power they have never enjoyed; and that martyrdom in the cause of Islam will assure them a place in Heaven. How could a poor Dhaka slum-dweller turn down that cocktail?

We are not at war with Islam; but we are at war with those who wish to re-establish a medieval hegemonic Muslim Caliphate. Given the fact that there are 1.6 billion Muslims in the world, it is in our interest to keep them quiet, complaisant, and as democratic as possible.  Otherwise we will be cut off from oil, resources, and geopolitical influence. Yet, because most of the world’s Muslims are worse off economically that other groups, a fundamentalist call to arms is very appealing.

Image result for images map Muslim Caliphate ISIS

Why has there been little condemnatory outcry from the moderate Muslim world about the actions of ISIS? Because the Wahhabi-style Muslim fundamentalism at the root of their jihad is appealing.

Given all the above, I sympathize with President Obama who, like most of us, is out of his depth when it comes to dealing with a phenomenon like ISIS – a brutal, amoral, and  deeply committed force whose soldiers are unafraid to die, to blow themselves and others up in the name of God. Our military strategy is just the opposite – to spare American soldiers death, mutilation, and suffering; to respect civilians; and to build coalitions regardless of the strength, honesty, and abilities of our allies.

It is about religion, Mr. President; and it is time you faced it.  

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