The Second Coming
A friend asked me to participate in a series of calls hosted by a political consultant whose job was to coach candidates on how to raise money from evangelicals. Even though he was a thoroughly secular person, the consultant had an almost visceral understanding of evangelicals — and why we’ve been called “those useful idiots.”
While he shared none of our beliefs he knew exactly which words to use and, literally, how often to inject references to Jesus — not just God — into a conversation. There was no doubt in his mind that religion motivated us in spite of his finding that incomprehensible. He was successful at his work because he knew the importance of beginning with our reality and not his own.
This week I read what I consider to be the best explanation of the reality of the Islamic State. The article answers the question of why our political leadership finds it inconceivable to accept that ISIS is not an economic or political movement but is instead a force driven by deeply held religious convictions.
In the Atlantic Monthly article “What ISIS Really Wants,” author Graeme Wood makes a convincing case that “Muslims can reject the Islamic State; nearly all do. But pretending that it isn’t actually a religious, millenarian group, with theology that must be understood to be combatted, has already led the United States to underestimate it and back foolish schemes to counter it. Without acknowledgment of these factors, no explanation of the rise of the Islamic State could be complete. But focusing on them to the exclusion of ideology reflects another kind of Western bias: that if religious ideology doesn’t matter much in Washington or Berlin, surely it must be equally irrelevant in Raqqa or Mosul. When a masked executioner says Allahu Akbar while beheading an apostate, sometimes he’s doing so for religious reasons.”
Our leaders and cultural elite have no capacity for understanding — or taking seriously — the theology and actions of militant Islam. We seem to be dumbfounded that millions of people’s lives and actions are actually defined by their religion. For too many of our policy makers, religion is on the periphery as something that comforts, soothes and should bring people together as a peaceful and calming influence. But as Kenan Malik recently wrote in The New York Times Sunday Review, “The fact that Islamist extremists practice their religion in a manner abhorrent to liberals does not make that practice less real.”
ISIS is not simply angry, disenfranchised men participating in acts of random violence. They believe that their actions will precipitate a state of international chaos which will, ultimately and ironically, bring about the final judgment and the return of Jesus who will slaughter all infidels – Muslim and Christians alike.
ISIS is not motivated by universal health care, a decent minimum wage, free education and the Rodney King ideal, “Can’t we all just get along?” They are devout adherents to religious teachings that are ancient, coherent and intent on creating and enforcing a barbaric theocracy.
ISIS is not “modern secular people, with modern political concerns, wearing medieval religious disguise” as we might be tempted to think. They are — except for the fringe psychopaths — people whose religion demands every heinous act they commit.
Almost a century ago, William Butler Yeats wrote:
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
the ceremony of innocence is drowned;
the best lack all conviction, while the worst
are full of passionate intensity.
Nothing confirms our lack of understanding their reality more than in how we have labeled ISIS as nihilists — people who believe in and care about nothing at all. This could not be further from the truth. They are neither mere terrorists nor militant nihilists. They are evangelists of a distorted and powerful faith.