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Things are not always as they seem.

An exclusive investigative report in Spiegel, a leading German news outlet, sheds new light on the inner workings of ISIS.

The article is based on documentation discovered in the home of one of the Islamic State’s chief architects – Haji Bakr, a former colonel in Saddam’s Air Defense Forces – after his demise at the hands of Syrian rebels.

The evidence presented in the report suggests that the prevailing narrative of ISIS as an offshoot of al Qaeda whose top leaders are deeply motivated by religion must be revisited and indeed revised.

To summarize the key points:

  • ISIS’ highest echelon of leadership may be a cadre of elite Iraqi former military whose dismissal after the U.S. invasion resulted in their captivity and eventual release.
  • Haji Bakr was one of these who later moved into the anarchy of Syria to establish a beachhead from which to attack Iraq.
  • The flowchart of ISIS leadership is inspired by totalitarian regimes, such as the former East German domestic intelligence agency – Stasi.
  • The architects realize the power of religion to mobilize fighters and strike fear into the hearts of dissenters and to exploit the Islamic system of jurisprudence to manipulate and control the population.

The name “Islamic State” evokes a rebirth of the ancient Caliphate of Islam complete with a Caliph who becomes the visible spokesperson.

However, if Spiegel’s report is accurate, the Islamic identity of ISIS is a tactic carefully crafted by former leaders of Saddam Hussein’s military.

A few penetrating questions are needed in light of these revelations:

1. Have I smugly congratulated myself that I do not belong to a religion that beheads Christians, slaughters Yazidis and other minorities, displaces thousands and mercilessly annihilates other Muslims who dissent?

I compare sometimes the worst aspects of Islam with the best aspects of my faith. When I hear the news of the most recent beheadings, how do I react?

Do I succumb to the effect of the media tidal wave and simply castigate Islam as the culprit for this senseless perversion?

Identifying the culprit requires a more nuanced understanding. Crimes have been perpetrated in the name of Islam and sometimes the perpetrators draw their inspiration from the core texts of the religion.

However, the Spiegel report suggests that ISIS leaders are not religiously inspired.

Rather, they are attempting to regain the power base they lost when Saddam’s regime fell. To do so, they strike fear into the hearts of millions in order to dominate and subjugate anyone who resists them, including Muslims.

They have successfully recruited persons possessed by a passion to re-establish the religious, social and economic superiority of Islam.

But the militancy of misguided individuals is being used as a pawn on the chessboard of regional power play and political machination.

2. Have ISIS’ antics in any way contributed to my reluctance to personally relate to and interact with Muslim people?

In our media-driven age, impressions are usually based on news reports, not personal encounter. By contrast, Jesus engaged constructively the stereotyped people of his day.

The dreaded Roman military occupiers (Matthew 8:10), the religiously deviant and ethnically compromised Samaritans (John 4:34), the despised and impure woman (Luke 8:48), and the turncoat Jewish tax collector (Matthew 24:17), for example.

Jesus overcame stereotypes, seeing things differently and looking into people’s souls, not their religious affiliations or ethnic features.

We’ll never know our Muslim neighbors without moving from stereotypes to personal interaction.

Jesus’ method for interacting with a prejudiced people group is simple, direct and personal and offers a model for us – he lingered by the well, he had a conversation.

3. Am I willing to critique my own religious heritage first before criticizing the religion of others?

Overfamiliarity has perhaps robbed us of the humor of Jesus’ imagery about taking the plank from our own eye before removing the speck from another’s eye (Matthew 7:5).

Appropriate self-critique can spare us the deep embarrassment of falsely and ignorantly critiquing others.

If Islam, as a religious system, bears some guilt for perpetrating violence, it is not the first religion to do so.

Christians need look no further than the protracted wars of religion in Europe or the Inquisition to find our planks.

These questions are not meant to absolve the Islamic State of its atrocities. Justice should be served.

My concern is how the identification of ISIS with the religion of Islam is impacting our active engagement in representing Jesus’ kingdom fairly and honestly among Muslim people in the entire world.

While the Islamic State has taken the religion of Islam as its tactic, we must realize that Islam is every bit as diverse and multifaceted as Christianity and other world faiths and philosophies.

The radical posture adopted by ISIS fighters represents an extreme position within the socio-political-religious spectrum of Islam.

Islam is experiencing a unique moment in history in which many of the foundational tenets of the faith adopted in medieval times are being questioned openly and forcefully.

This moment of transition and re-evaluation presents a unique window of opportunity to Jesus-followers.

Islam is in the throes of change, as is our world. A survey of the history of Muslim-Christian relations reveals embarrassing episodes when Christians were so caught up in the power struggles of their day that they failed to understand the importance of representing the Lord they professed before their Muslim contemporaries.

Our era is similar to those early centuries of the Islamic empire when Muslims and Christians were mingling in the great cities of the Middle East. Today, however, Muslims live beside us on a worldwide scale.

Never before has the need for honest and humble face-to-face conversation been greater. Are we seizing the moment? Are we lingering by the well?

Mike Kuhn is a professor at the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary in Beirut. He has lived in Middle Eastern countries for 25 years and previously served as pastor of a church in the United States. A longer version of this article first appeared on the Institute of Middle East Studies blog and is used with permission.

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