The so called ‘Islamic state’ is an increasing presence on the world map. When Mohammed first saw his vision 1400 years ago, Islam, the new teaching of Mohammed, began to take territory. Hilaire Belloc, an Anglo–French writer and historian and one of the most prolific writers in England during the early twentieth century, wrote in his books The Great Heresies and Survivals and New Arrivals:
Within a hundred years, a main part of the Roman world had fallen under the power of this new and strange force from the Desert. Such a revolution had never been. No earlier attack had been so sudden, so violent or so permanently successful. Within a score of years from the first assault in 634 the Christian Levant had gone: Syria, the cradle of the Faith, and Egypt with Alexandria, the mighty Christian See. Within a lifetime half the wealth and nearly half the territory of the Christian Roman Empire was in the hands of Mohammedan masters and officials, and the mass of the population was becoming affected more and more by this new thing.
… For centuries the struggle between Islam and the Catholic Church continued. It had varying fortunes, but for something like a thousand years the issue still remained doubtful. It was not till nearly the year 1700 that Christian culture seemed – for a time – to be definitely the master.
ISIS is now taking territory in Iraq and Syria. It aims to submit the whole world to Muslim law, which encompasses politics, economics, family, science, and soul. However, the current disconnect in American politics regarding the nature of this group is interesting. Modern Western culture is now post-Christian with secular values and beliefs less fully defined and clear than those held by previous societies. President Obama and Hillary Clinton are fervently wary of using terminology other than ‘terrorists’. Last week Hillary Clinton stated: “Let’s be clear though, Islam is not our adversary. Muslims are peaceful and tolerant people and have nothing whatsoever to do with terrorism.” Presidential candidate Ted Cruz holds a different view, emphasising “Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama – the modern democratic party has a blindness to radical Islamic terrorism and they’ve endangered the safety and security of this country, the safety and security of millions of Americans.” He maintains that much of Obama’s foreign policy has allowed ISIS to become stronger.
It is clear that ISIS, at least, believes that it is charged with changing the demography of the entire world, because that is what its reading of Islam charges it to do. Noah Feldman, a professor of constitutional and international law at Harvard, makes some interesting comments about ISIS’s current strategy:
To understand the strategic objectives of the Beirut bombings, begin by putting yourself in the shoes of the planners. Almost all of Islamic State’s successes have come under identical circumstances.
In essence, the group’s trademark is to exploit the vacuum in weak or crumbling states. This includes Syria, where civil war rages, and the Sunni area of Iraq, where the Baghdad government’s writ barely ran even before Islamic State took over.
It also includes those far-flung places where self- declared affiliates have sprung up to exploit power vacuums, particularly Libya and Afghanistan.
In Egypt, the state is relatively strong, but Islamic State nevertheless is challenging it at its weakest points. The bombings in August of government security facilities in Cairo, attributed to Islamic State, were intended to push Egypt into chaos.
Since then, the downing of the Russian jet, almost certainly carried out by Islamic State affiliates in Sinai, has revealed this strategy further by raising questions about Egypt’s ability to function as a sovereign state that protects air travel.
Lebanon is a far more fragile state than Egypt.
And it has a far greater advantage as an Islamic State target: Its proximity to the Syrian battlefield.
Right now, the group has no direction in which it can plausibly expand its territory except Lebanon. Turkey, Jordan, Iran and Saudi Arabia are all strong states that won’t countenance the loss of land.
Lebanon, however, is vulnerable to civil war, which would create the vacuum Islamic State needs.
We are all interested in stopping them. The West does not sanction murder to get ones way. Yet, Modern Western culture tends towards relativism – from the point of view of the state, all religions are equally true for those who believe in them. This presents a problem when dealing with extremist religious groups. For example, last week a lady fought to wear a colander on her head in her driver’s licence photo and won, despite no head coverings being allowed, because she said she her religion is ‘Pastafarian’ and requires this. The state has no way of evaluating religious claims like this beyond lumping it in the broad category of ‘religious belief’.
But freedom of religion need not prevent individuals engaging with whether a particular religion is true to the exclusion of others or whether a particular branch or off-shoot of a religion is false. To engage with those who seek to establish Islamic State, or who might be at risk of joining the ideology, should we not engage more with whether or not the group’s actual spiritual ideology is true? If Hillary Clinton is going to say Islamic State has nothing to do with Islam, should she not also point to where the group has gone wrong with its interpretation of the Qur’an? One would assume a great familiarity with the historical evidence for and the many teachings and branches of Islam on her part when making such a statement on behalf of Islamic people.
Two articles of differing opinions have recently appeared on this website that seek to provide greater engagement with the ideas behind ISIS: one from a Muslim point of view and one from a Jesuit point of view. For his part, Belloc argued in the early 20th century that Mohammed borrowed from Catholic doctrine and distorted it:
“I will maintain that this very powerful, distorted simplification of Catholic doctrine- for that is what Mahommedanism is – may be of high effect in the near future upon Christendom.”
Islam is certainly having a “high effect” on the world now. Whoever is wrong or right, these articles engage with belief systems that compete with other belief systems and cannot all be true. We are all individuals seeking truth, and people of different religions hold many of the same values, morals and beliefs to be true, and can respect and engage with each other peacefully. However, all religions cannot be fully true at once. That defies logic. Rigorous debate helps individuals to arrive at truth – something every human seeks at some level.
If the West does not have strong values or truths that it is willing to defend, other than capitalism, materialism and individualism, then those that do have strong beliefs will continue to take territory – and have a strategy to do so. We need to know what the values we hold strongly are, and what they are based on, in order to defend ourselves.