It’s going down in Iraq. As ISIS (the Islamic State, formerly known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) presses towards Baghdad, the amount of blood on their hands grows thicker and the number of knee-jerk reactions grows greater, and the storm of indescribable pain rises higher, especially for the individuals on the ground. For what it’s worth, ISIS’s organized structure suggests it shouldn’t be written off as a haphazard group of militant extremists; they move with steady precision, employing highly-trained armies and sophisticated social media. (A quick Google search returns systematic Tweeting and refined yet chilling video footage to promote their cause.)
Over the weekend, ISIS declared themselves a caliphate, and the idea here, it seems to me, is a return to the glory days. The caliphate, which was originally an early Islamic state with a fused focus on religion and politics (details disputed), represents a golden age in early Islam, to which ISIS desperately wants to return. This strikes me as an incredibly human sentiment, very similar to what Paul Ricoeur calls “the myth of the exiled soul,” in which a human’s existence centers around returning to the glory from which a soul has originally come. It’s human to feel unsatisfied with the present and long for a return to the past or, perhaps, an escape. We see this everyday in the form of mid-life crises–parents longing for high school days or washed-up rock stars releasing new albums. ISIS’s “caliphate” feels similar in a way. Their acts of terror are nothing but desperate attempts to cleanse themselves by returning to what they understand as early, or idealized, Islam.
While I by no means intend to downplay the atrocities committed, popular coverage suggests that ISIS is an inhuman force against which we must work, and quickly. We must contain them, suppress them, defeat them; they’re just not like us. And maybe they aren’t. But maybe they are. Maybe they’re just a group of humans, and that’s what makes this so painful—that this whole conflict is no more than humans turning on humans, brother against brother. And what if the motive is no more than good old-fashioned self-justification? What if the motive is the same reason I want to get a “good” job, buy myself a Jeep, and put on some muscle? I’m convinced these things will make me somebody; I want to justify myself and make my existence worthwhile according to my own terms. While ISIS attempts to build for itself a heaven on Earth–a goal borne of genuinely religious motives–self-justification in the form of control forces their cause to swerve awry. The attempt to engineer a path to paradise ultimately results in catastrophe and unspeakable pain.
Iraq and Syria have been in the ditch. Syrians have grown familiar with unrelenting civil war that has raged for over three years now; Iraqis have lived under a perpetually transitioning government and the unbearable pressure of uncertainty. Churches all throughout the region have seen their sanctuaries collapsing under smokescreens. It’s no wonder that radical groups emerge to face the chaos. They know what the ditch smells like, and they want out. Evidence? ISIS has produced an App called the Dawn of Glad Tidings, which automatically posts ISIS’s [typically horrific] updates to users’ Twitter accounts. To me, the name—Dawn of Glad Tidings—sounds quite Christian, and, what’s more, it sounds quite human. Not everyone wants to be American, to subscribe to democracy, to convert to Christianity. Not everyone wants peace. But everyone, at some point, wants a dawn of glad tidings, a morning filled with joy and purpose and dancing.
To that end, “containing” ISIS seems insufficient. A political maneuver to exert control over the region strikes me as all too similar to the human construction of a paradisal caliphate. In the end, it’s just a human attempt to exert control, thwarted from the beginning by self-justification. In the end, we are left empty-handed, on the ground, foaming at the mouth, unable to fix ourselves.
So where do we go from here? I can’t say for sure–this Arab-wannabe is tapping out before the conversation gets too diplomatic. But before I go, there’s one more thing.
“When they [Jesus, Peter, James, and John] came to the disciples, they saw a great crowd around them, and some scribes arguing with them. When the whole crowd saw him, they were immediately overcome with awe, and they ran forward to greet him. He asked them, “What are you arguing about with them?” Someone from the crowd answered him, “Teacher, I brought you my son; he has a spirit that makes him unable to speak; and whenever it seizes him, it dashes him down; and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid; and I asked your disciples to cast it out, but they could not do so.”
He answered them, “You faithless generation, how much longer must I be among you? How much longer must I put up with you? Bring him to me.” And they brought the boy to him. When the spirit saw him, immediately it threw the boy into convulsions, and he fell on the ground and rolled about, foaming at the mouth. Jesus asked the father, “How long has this been happening to him?”
And he said, “From childhood. It has often cast him into the fire and into the water, to destroy him; but if you are able to do anything, have pity on us and help us.” Jesus said to him, “If you are able!—All things can be done for the one who believes.” Immediately the father of the child cried out, “I believe; help my unbelief!”
When Jesus saw that a crowd came running together, he rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, “You spirit that keep this boy from speaking and hearing, I command you, come out of him and never enter him again!” After crying out and convulsing him terribly, it came out, and the boy was like a corpse, so that most of them said, “He is dead.” But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he was able to stand. When he had entered the house, his disciples asked him privately, “Why could we not cast it out?” He said to them, “This kind can come out only through prayer.” (Mark 9.14-29 NRSV)