What They Get Wrong About ISIS

Rob Schwarzwalder is Senior Vice President at Family Research Council. This article appeared in Real Clear Religion on February 21, 2015.

ISIS is motivated by its deeply-held religious convictions.

We can argue ad infinitum about whether or not ISIS's interpretation of the Koran is correct, or whether or not Islam is a religion of peace. But what is unarguable is that ISIS is animated by deeply-held beliefs about God, His will, and the future of humankind.

President Obama is reluctant to call the ISIS terrorist group "Islamic," in that he insists ISIS distorts the teachings of Islam. But ISIS stands for the "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria;" it styles itself, and the Administration calls it, the "Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant," meaning all the Middle East (including Israel).

Others protest that it is axiomatic for an American president to call Islam "a religion of peace." Not to do so, they say, is an affront to the hundreds of millions of peaceful Muslims and insults one of the world's most prominent faiths. They also cite episodes of "Christians" being brutal, as in the Central African Republic and Rwanda.

Of course, brutality committed in Jesus's name is blasphemy and intrinsically anti-Christian; no serious student of Christianity -- no serious Christian -- can ever claim such. Regardless, say defenders of the "Islam is a religion of peace" narrative, ISIS is not truly Islamic. American political leaders must affirm those Muslims who live peacefully (and that would include the great majority of Muslims worldwide).

The repressive nature of Islam as it is practiced in Muslim-majority countries (conversion is illegal in Islamic-run states, for example) invites immediate skepticism of the "religion of peace" trope. Moreover, as Graeme Wood observes in a landmark piece for The Atlantic, to deny that ISIS is Islamic is intellectual fraud: "The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic. Yes, it has attracted psychopaths and adventure seekers, drawn largely from the disaffected populations of the Middle East and Europe. But the religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam."

However, Koranic interpretation is not my interest here. Rather, it is twofold:

First, a piece of rhetorical advice: Instead of saying "Islam is a religion of peace," American political leaders should say, "The great majority of the world's Muslims are peaceful, and eschew the barbaric violence of ISIS, the Boko Haram, and other openly militant Muslim groups." This cuts away the theological debate about the nature of Islam while affirming the bulk of the world's Islamic population at the same time.

Second, ISIS and other Islamist groups are driven by their religious beliefs. To deny or minimize this is to spurn reality. Whether or not those beliefs comport with the Koran is a distinct issue.

This fact seems lost on secular elitists who are attempting to figure out how to deal with ISIS. Here's what President Obama wrote in an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times earlier this month:

Groups like al Qaeda and ISIL promote a twisted interpretation of religion that is rejected by the overwhelming majority of the world's Muslims ... groups like al Qaeda and ISIL exploit the anger that festers when people feel that injustice and corruption leave them with no chance of improving their lives...Efforts to counter violent extremism will only succeed if citizens can address legitimate grievances through the democratic process and express themselves through strong civil societies. Those efforts must be matched by economic, educational and entrepreneurial development so people have hope for a life of dignity.

The issue for those devotees of Islam who see their faith mandating violence is not jobs (per the State Department's oblivious Marie Harf) or "improving their lives" (per the President). It is their firm conviction that Allah demand certain behaviors, behaviors that include militant, violent, widespread acts of killing to establish a "caliphate" worldwide.

Graeme Wood writes that ISIS's adherents are faithful to their vision of what the Koran teaches -- period.

We can gather that their state rejects peace as a matter of principle; that it hungers for genocide; that its religious views make it constitutionally incapable of certain types of change, even if that change might ensure its survival; and that it considers itself a harbinger of -- and headline player in -- the imminent end of the world...much of what the group does looks nonsensical except in light of a sincere, carefully considered commitment to returning civilization to a seventh-century legal environment, and ultimately to bringing about the apocalypse.

The worldview offered by President Obama and Ms. Harf is one in which economic opportunity and education are sufficiently fulfilling that they will palliate the dissatisfaction of the followers of ISIS, the Boko Haram, al-Qaeda, and the other networks of Islamic terror around the world.

This is the materialistic perspective of the elite secular class. It comes from the same source as then-candidate Obama's condescending remark about people in "small towns" in Pennsylvania and the Midwest, that "they cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations."

This sniffing, above-the-bourgeoisie mindset is one of the reasons this Administration has been so ill-adept at countering ISIS. It cannot reckon with religiously-impassioned violence and, therefore, rationalizes away the intensity of such conviction and reduces the "real issues" to the economic -- to the material.

This perspective eliminates from human experience the longing for the transcendence only God can complete. It is as religious in its presuppositions as is ISIS is in its fierce devotion to its understanding of Islamic faith.

What to do?

First, my colleague Travis Weber has it right: "The answer for followers of ISIS is to walk in the footsteps of Jesus Christ, who offers all human beings (regardless of skin color, ideology, political party, nationality, prior life choices, or past faith) the chance for complete devotion, both in the here and ever after."

However, no American president can serve as a Christian evangelist. Instead, he can (1) affirm the peaceful character of most Muslims and, as he rightly has done, urge that attention be given to the Islamic leaders who have condemned ISIS and (2) acknowledge the theological propulsion of ISIS and its assorted allies, quit pretending the answer is entrepreneurship, and lead a coalition to defeat ISIS militarily -- a coalition preferably composed substantially of military forces from Islamic nations.

The church must offer the Gospel. Christians must stand for their faith, just like the brave martyrs throughout the Middle East have been doing. And ISIS must be stopped, to which end the American president should work to defeat of our enemies in as conclusive and immediate a way as possible.