The Crisis with ISIS


Poster-Cult for Total War

Author Dr. Edward Long, Jr.
Author Dr. Edward Long, Jr.

Almost daily, the media calls our attention to the horrendous behavior of a group known as ISIS. We are rightly concerned about the threat this group poses to the quality of life as we know it. However, discussions of ISIS seem to focus more on the bizarre nature of the behavior than on its possible causes or to strategies (other than massive uses of maximized counter-violence) that might be used to overcome it. It is not adequate merely to become increasingly afraid. As Christians, we must seek to understand ISIS and to consider ways to deal with it that are consistent with our own best instincts and values.

What is ISIS?

To understand ISIS, it is important to examine the nature of violent extremism as it has grown in recent decades. The use of violence by terrorists differs in crucial respects from the ordinary exercise of military power. Terrorists may use violence merely to vent anger rather than to deter  threats or bring about change. They may strike at random without any declaration of their intentions. They can operate without the sanction of a recognized authority. They almost always attack noncombatants and frequently employ them as hostages. The appeals of such behavior are that it can be carried out by small groups, with considerably less visible or costly effort than ordinary military operations and that it is difficult and expensive to counteract. Over-reaction by others is a goal that is often enhanced by exploitive publicity and outrage within the societies targeted.

Gas maskAlthough ISIS shares many features with terrorist extremism, its unique distinguishing feature is its advocacy of a special state–not a state in the modern Westphalian sense of a geographical entity governed by a political system, but the establishment of Muslim rule under a Caliph who exercises authority across several present political boundaries. This idea has its roots in a particular reading of a religious heritage that regards faith as involving political and social structuring. This is often associated with an eschatological expectation of a messianic figure whose rule will create an entirely new order of things. The promise of that vision is so high as to warrant any means to bring it about.

The behavior of ISIS is determined by two main factors. The first is belief in the validity of Shariah, the Islamic moral code as alleged to have been set forth by the prophet Mohammed himself. Shariah is understood as the only proper foundation for both individual and public behavior. Many of ISIS’s violent practices are rooted in the provisions of this code. To the sensibilities of most modern societies, these practices such as beheading (for apostasy) and amputation (for theft) appear horrendous and barbaric. For the radical Islamist, however, they are viewed as a form of loyalty to the explicit instructions of the founder of their religion and understood as necessary for the preservation of an orderly society.


Perhaps the behavior ISIS exhibits is an exaggerated form of what has been happening in all cultures.

It is important to note that this stance differs in degree, but not in kind, from the attitude of those who regard the death penalty as necessary for the deterrence of murder. To be sure, Shariah prescribes the death penalty for a broader spectrum of crimes and contends it must be carried out in a more gruesome way in order to be a deterrent, but the assumption of both is that public behavior must be held in check by the threat of severe punishment for wrongdoing. The behavior we consider horrendous is less the product of deliberate malfeasance than misguided zeal.

The second moral agenda of ISIS, less frequently mentioned in popular accounts, is a progressive social welfare program that includes such amenities as free health care and provisions for public care of persons in need. Although this may seem to some on the radical right as further cause for fearing ISIS, it may very well account for the acceptance of ISIS by those in need of such support.

Map of Middle EastWhile ISIS’s behavior can be described, its aims may not be as readily identified. Does ISIS seek to extend its agenda to the whole world, or is it concerned only with the Muslim world? To what extent is its use of religion merely incidental to its aims – or is religious zeal the font and origin of its behavior?

Equally difficult to know are the reasons for its appeal. Is ISIS the product of exasperation with the ongoing turmoil of the Middle East and resentment over intervention in that area by Western nations? Does it resent major changes in political boundaries claimed to be warranted on scriptural grounds even if they have the explicit approval of international sentiment and humanitarian warrant? Does the U.S. bear some responsibility for the formation of ISIS, as our essentially unilateral intervention in the internal affairs of the region in the name of “counteracting terrorism” visits anxieties and dislocations that breed resentment? These and similar matters need to be taken into account as we consider the possible reasons why movements like ISIS arise.

ISIS in Context

SoldierAttention must be given to some larger trends in the world within which ISIS has appeared. Perhaps the behavior ISIS exhibits is an exaggerated form of what has been happening in all cultures. Changes in moral perception of violence as an instrument for altering behavior have occurred in almost all modern societies. These can be summarized in the development of ‘total war’ – a set of practices based on the assumption that the only thing that finally shapes relationships between political groups is the capacity to exercise naked power. These trends have become such a pervasive aspect of late twentieth and early twenty-first century life that we have become accustomed to them without realizing it.

This mindset has grown ever since the First World War. Its rise to dominance is evident in the creation or huge enlargements of a permanent military establishment by many countries, particularly our own. War is now seen as a normal and ongoing state rather than the an unusual and infrequent need to deal with a social threat. Only someone in their very late eighties or nineties will remember anything else. A related trend is the continual increase in the nature and use of violence in the conduct of war (particularly with new technology), along with the assumption that any restraints on such use are impediments to ‘getting the job done’. Obliteration bombing of cities and the use of torture are but two examples of the fact that the use of violence has become largely exempt from any moral scruples, legitimized entirely by the extent to which it promises to be successful in either threatening or killing the enemy. ISIS’s model is attractive to younger generations who have known no other state of affairs. Likewise, responding to ISIS falls to persons who have little, if any memory, of a different kind of world.

How Should We Respond?

We come now to a quite different question: namely, what can and ought to be done about ISIS and the threat it poses?

Anti-war protestorThe most commonly offered solution is to destroy it using America’s massive military power (with assistance from allied nations if it is forthcoming). In other words, “Wipe it off the face of the earth!”

The use of the word destroy has slowly replaced the term defeat with respect to what military power should accomplish, and the difference is worth noting. To defeat an enemy is to use military power to bring it to the point of agreeing to an armistice in which it gives up the behavior against which the military action is taken. In contrast, to destroy” is to use military action to eradicate the enemy completely.

Those who call for the destruction of an enemy bear an obligation to show how exactly it can be done. Can a movement such as ISIS can ever be completely destroyed? Does killing its leaders (as the United States has already done in several instances) cause it to collapse, or does it  prompt it to regenerate in even more vigorous versions? If it cannot be destroyed by killing leaders, can it be destroyed by killing the great majority of its members – in something like a mass genocide? Is that ever an ethical option?


By the strange logic of history, we might do more to overcome terrorism by making our society work responsibly for the good of all our citizens and the needy of the world than by devising means to assure those who threaten us can be destroyed.

Although the appeal to ‘destroy ISIS’ is alluring on the political stump, it makes no strategic sense. We need to consider better alternatives.

War planesOne alternative is to use military power accompanied by efforts to persuade the enemy that its future depends on gives up certain kinds of malfeasant behavior. There are risks in doing this, but it is not clear that the risks are greater than those of conducting war for the sole aim of annihilating an enemy and they may even be lower.

To do this would require imaginative intelligence rather than bombast, so it might be difficult to sustain such an effort within a society in which intelligence is becoming less honored than gross acquisitiveness and truculent posturing. To understand military power in terms other than mere victory would require developing some consensus as to a vision for the future of the Middle East–a consensus that still eludes us. It would require a clear understanding of how a world can be diverse and yet congenial. Entertaining such a total strategy–one involving diplomacy and negotiation as well as coercion, is not soft-heartedness (as it is often portrayed) but fair-heartedness.

Is ISIS an ‘Islamic’ Problem?

What is the role of religion in all of this? Whether or not we like it, we cannot ignore the place religion plays in the human enterprise – and in this problem in particular. A half century ago, Harvey Cox wrote a book called The Secular City which celebrated what he took to be the evaporation of religion from public life and the benefits of living without it. Since then attention to religion and its consequences have come back to prompt more and more attention. (Harvey Cox saw this and wrote another book largely taking back the first one.) Simply put, religion does not go away, and it is impossible to understand what happens in the world without paying attention to it.

Facing Terrorism - LongIt is clear that ISIS is driven by a professed religious orientation. Whether or not that makes it more of a threat than it would be without that orientation may be an open question. It is equally uncertain whether it would be entirely different were it not to be associated with religious roots. Does religion make the difference, or is religion drawn in to reinforce and give sanction to understandings and behavior that have their origins in other factors?

The relationship between religion and an inclination toward violence is not, as many critics of religion suppose, an inevitable one. There are many aspects of religious devotion that work to counter this relationship–or at least try to do so. These include admonitions instructing believers to love (not only those within their group, but even enemies!), teachings that humility and self-denial are preferable to arrogance and bombast, admonitions to be aware of one’s own faults before criticizing others, teachings that declare friendship preferable to suspicion and concern for those in need preferable to hardness of heart. There may be variations in the degree and the manner in which such mandates are followed in the various traditions, but most if not all of the major religious favor the pursuit of peace and goodwill over conflict and hate.


There are resources within Islam itself for discrediting and diminishing the presence of religiously sanctioned terrorism.

To be sure, religious adherents don’t always live up to such ideals. Some members of most religions actually deny the validity of these peace-oriented ideas. Islam has its ISIS and American Christianity its crusaders (and various neoconservatives that fit the bill). The struggle within traditions to honor the admonitions to peaceful behavior and to avoid the misuse of religion to favor violence and contempt is a perennial one. Religion is too often coopted by powers that seek to manipulate tribal, ethnic, or racial differences to take land or resources from others, but such legitimation threatens the internal diversity of the religious tradition.

Islamic grave yardIslam is no exception to this pattern. Although it has members who understand jihad to call for the intense use of violence, it also has members who understand jihad to stand for something quite different – namely, a steady resolve to overcome evil both in themselves and in others. Their use of the idea of jihad is quite similar to our use of the word “war” when employed in phrases like “The War on Poverty,” where the use of wanton violence is not implied. Those who embrace Islam in this manner are just as troubled by the use of the idea of jihad to support terrorism as we are.

Moreover, those who study these matters with care know that in thinking about jihad there is in Islam a body of reflection that almost exactly parallels the kind of thinking in Christianity that is known as just war doctrine–which has far more potential significance as a way of restraining the use of violence than it is a way of condoning it. Both traditions would do well to pay attention to how such teaching can restrain the use of violence without resorting to pacifist absolutism. The pacifist witness can be of great assistance in peacemaking, but it does not have to be the only premise on which the illegitimate use of violence can be overcome.


We may not be able to do much to prevent terrorists from misusing their religious convictions, but we can seek to prevent the misuse of ours.

If the religions of the world do not deal with the growth of wanton violence that characterizes total warfare, there is little to keep civilization in any of its current political spheres from descending further into the conditions that can only eventually result in utter and mutually destructive hostility. Those who recognize this within the Islamic heritage are probably at as much of a loss to understand why fellow believers support ISIS as we are at a loss to understand why Christianity is so frequently turned on its moral head by the jingoism of some of its professed adherents.

shutterstock_723030There are resources within Islam itself for discrediting and diminishing the presence of religiously sanctioned terrorism. For example, there is a massive movement that started many years ago among Muslims in India that is now estimated to have over 50 million followers all over the world. This is a revivalistic form of Islam, stressing the importance of faith, prayer, and nonviolence as central marks of true discipleship. It is called Dawah and Tabligh (or simply Dawah) – in Arabic, “calling and proselytizing.” It urges followers not to join ISIS.

Why do we not hear more about this movement and others like it? And why do many assume we have to be hostile to Islam as a monolithic threat? Calls for sweeping and uncritical hostility to Islam as a whole, even if they are not implemented, encourage the fear and hatred upon which terrorism builds its appeal. We may not be able to do much to prevent terrorists from misusing their religious convictions, but we can seek to prevent the misuse of ours.

Reforming Our Own Political Life

There is much we can do in our public life as a nation to counteract the anxiety upon which terrorism thrives, starting with our political and economic systems. Can you imagine what some of our so-called presidential debates sound like when viewed from other countries? They hardly project the assurance that as a nation we know what we are doing! Recently over half a million citizens of England signed a petition seeking to bar one of the leading contenders from entering their country on the ground that he is a menace.

Joanna Hipp - nations flags at the UN-SwitzerlandIrresponsible public behavior within our society has adverse consequences for our standing in the world. By the strange logic of history, we might do more to overcome terrorism by making our society work responsibly for the good of all our citizens and the needy of the world than by devising means to assure those who threaten us can be destroyed.

The point of this discussion is that ISIS is not merely an instance of malfeasance found only in the behavior of one small group. Rather, it is a development that extends and exacerbates a trend that has been slowly developing over several decades and has been manifested (albeit sometimes in less toxic variations) in the world as a whole. This is not to discount the threat that ISIS poses, but it is to contend that eradicating ISIS alone will not eliminate the problem. If the vision of the human condition found in both religions and Enlightenment thinking is to remain viable, a repudiation of this trend across the whole global spectrum must occur.


AUTHOR BIO: Professor Edward Long was a leading participant in the team that wrote “Peacemaking: The Believers’ Calling” (1980). He has written a number of books dealing, among other things, with the idea of ‘peacethinking’, among them the 2004 book Facing Terrorism: Responding as Christians. Has contributed to much of the church’s teaching on peace and international relations since the 1960’s, including the resolution Religion, Violence, and Terrorism

EDITORS’ NOTE: There is no business coming before the 222nd General Assembly directly related to ISIS, but the editorial staff of Unbound believe that this overview is helpful in setting the stage regionally, thematically, and theologically for several items of business in the Committee on Middle East Issues (Committee 8) and the Committee on Peacemaking and International Issues (Committee 12).

Read more articles in this issue “A Year for Confessions: Issues of Social Justice Coming before the 222nd General Assembly.”

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