Just in case you missed it, ISIS (aka ISIL) is now IS. This is not the first name change for the political/militant organization that is even too radical and violent for Al Qaeda. Before becoming ISIS (ISIL) the group was known as ISI, but only after abandoning the acronym AQI, which was the name adopted after the organization’s founder decided to drop the original non-acronymic name: al Tawhid wal Jihad.
For those who need a refresher on the acronyms, IS stands for “the Islamic State” and when prefixed to IS or IL, it represents “the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham/the Levant.” The “IS” less AQI refers to “Al Qaeda in Iraq.” The founder of the parent group, al Tawhid wal Jihad, was Abu Musan al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian born Muslim who left a decadent life of alcohol and partying to go to Afghanistan where he would join Osama bin-Laden and the United States backed Mujahedeen towards the end of the Russian occupation.
Zarqawi was not merely seeking youthful adventure among rabid mercenaries who view most breathing humans as the enemy. He was on a mission that he believed was divinely appointed. His mission was not to evoke terror for terror’s sake, nor was it to bring down Western governments and forcefully convert all Europeans to Islam. Everything he did had one overarching purpose: to establish an empire sized state in formerly Muslim land that had been manipulated by European powers.
The Islamic State (IS) is very clear that one of their main objectives is to undo the work of the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement. Named after British and French diplomats, Sir Mark Sykes and François George-Picot, the Agreement (also known as the Asia Minor Agreement) parceled portions of the imperialistically dubbed “Middle East” to Britain, France and Russia. According to the Agreement, when the Triple Entente dealt their final blow against the Ottoman Empire, France was to control the south-east sections of Turkey, northern Iraq, Syria and Lebanon; England would have jurisdiction over southern Iraq, Jordan, and parts of Palestine; and Russia would get key areas in Turkey and Armenia.
Early resistance to European hegemony in the region came in 1928 when Egyptian Hassan al-Banna formed the Muslim Brotherhood to socially mobilize Muslims against the British colonizers in Egypt, along with other European powers that had annexed formerly Muslim land. As far as al-Banna was concerned, Muslims across the globe were obligated to unite under the banner of their common faith and resist the influences of Western imperialism and its anti-Islamic agenda. Although religion was the uniting glue, what the Muslim Brotherhood really sought was political autonomy where Muslim values would be the basis of all laws and life.
Just four years after the establishment of the Muslim Brotherhood, Arab States began to seek independence from their European overlords. In 1932, Iraq was formally granted independence from Britain. Several years later, Britain would additionally agree to freedom for Egypt (1936) and Jordan (1946). During this period, the French would also offer autonomy to Syria (1936) and Lebanon (1943). However, while the language of “independence” may sound good, the British—especially—were masters at holding on to their colonies even after they supposedly let go. It would be two decades after the treaties that they would withdraw troops from Egypt and Syria, and even after the three-year long Palestinian Arab Revolt (1936-39) they refused to let go of that geographical part of their bounty until the creation of the State of Israel in 1948.
For many Arabs, the establishment of Israel served as a constant reminder that Western powers could do whatever they desired in “Muslim” territory. Although the Palestinians had been the scorn of many of their Muslim siblings in the faith, their plight became symbolic of the ongoing struggle between two worldviews—a struggle with roots that reach deeper than the Crusades. While the majority appear to have accepted the status quo and have learned to live with the power imbalance, an influential minority view acceptance as defeat and are determined to establish a type of Islamic caliphate that heretofore has only existed in the imaginations of an idyllic few.
This powerful minority views every act of Western interference into Muslim majority countries as an insult against Islam itself, and are especially incensed by Muslim governments that make too many concessions for Western secularism. Their anger reached a boiling point with the United States led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and the rest is history. In the name of religion, the Islamic State along with its counterparts in Boqer Haram, Al Shaabab and Al Qaeda, are willing to enact horrific acts of destruction in their quest to establish an anti-Western political state.
As far as the IS is concerned, the US is the most formidable obstacle to the achievement of its goals. This is not to say that its leaders are not wary of other western governments, but it is the United States that acts with impunity and even thumbs its nose at the United Nations. Under the license of the “War on Terror,” hundreds and thousands of innocent Muslim civilians have lost their lives, and the massive embassy in Baghdad serves as a reminder to the region that our nation’s global tentacles are not restricted by borders.
Strangely, while the strategies of the IS and the US are different, their objectives are the same. They both want to exercise ideological and political influence over the people of the so-called “Middle East.” Their rationales may contradict each other, but they would both like to see a region that is friendly to their contrary political agendas. In their path to fulfillment, both have bloodied their hands in the name of “righteousness” and blinded their eyes to the reality that violence only begets more violence. The IS may choose to broadcast their inexcusable horror by recording executions of journalists while the US prefers to preserve the anonymity of the untold casualties of their extraordinary renditions, but the Omniscient God has recorded the name of every perpetrator.
Ultimately, from a spiritual perspective the enemies at war with each other are both friends of the “Enemy.” It is he who deceives political entities into thinking that they can implement their influence over all the world or significant segments therein (Rev 13:14). It is he who hardens the hearts of humans to such a level of calcification that they are unable to embrace the humanity in another (Matt 24:12). It is he who hijacks religion and brainwashes people into thinking that God has endorsed their manipulative agenda (Rom 10:1-3). It is he who convinces both the IS and the US that evil can be overcome by evil (Rom 12:21). It is he who enters into the hearts of some who claim to follow Christ yet they promote patriotism as they cast away compassion (Matt 5:44).
As you contemplate these words and meditate on these texts, never forget that “a tree is known by its fruit.”
Keith Augustus Burton directs the Center for Adventist-Muslim Relations at Oakwood University.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/6229