In the United States, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) permits nonprofit religious organizations to voice their opinions and beliefs, to promote a stand on “hot button” religious topics and to advocate changes to legislation without violating their tax-exempt status. In the words of the IRS regulations:
“no substantial part of (church) activities (may consist of) carrying on propaganda, or otherwise attempting to influence legislation.”
As a blog affiliated with a faith-based nonprofit organization, it has been and remains our policy to avoid matters of political rhetoric and debate, even though such topics are not explicitly barred by our tax-exempt status. So how it is possible for the monastery to publish a post entitled “Islamic Jihad: A Holy War” without violating its self-imposed policy that precludes posts related to politics? Because the horrific acts of Islamic terrorists and the Islamic State (ISIS) are theological issues and must be understood as such. So please allow me to express my perspective of radical Islamic fundamentalist theology as an Eastern Orthodox Catholic Christian.
I believe that most Americans view the “war” against ISIS as a socio-political issue, rather than a religious one. I also believe that many Americans do not really understand the fundamental beliefs and goals of ISIS. Bluntly stated, ISIS loyalists are not merely a collection of psychopaths; they are a fundamentalist religious group with carefully considered beliefs and tenets, one of which is that they are a central actor in inciting the apocalypse. To many Westerners, it sounds fanciful to suggest that ISIS believes it is fulfilling an apocalyptic prophecy, but this is the primary belief that fuels vehement jihad.
What follows are six important key points* to better understand ISIS:
- ISIS is Islamic. VERY. There are many who claim that ISIS is not Islamic or is a twisted distortion of the Muslim faith. That’s wrong. ISIS “follows a distinctive form of Islam whose beliefs about the path to the Day of Judgment matter to its strategy,” ISIS lives by the most literal translation of the Koran imaginable, as revealed by Mohammed in the seventh century. A Christian analog would be living under the strict edicts in the Book of Leviticus.
- ISIS is the most extreme of extremist sects. Just as there are many flavors of American evangelical extremism, ISIS is on the furthest end of the conservative orthodoxy, in terms of its beliefs, literal interpretation of seventh-century law and punishment, and what’s required of true believers for jihad.
- To ISIS, required punishment; to others, war crimes. Anyone who follows the news has witnessed ISIS’ horrific videos of beheadings, the burning alive of captives, and mass executions of men and enslavement of women and children, as well as forcing women to be sex slaves, such as the Yazidis in northwestern Iraq. ISIS loyalists believe an Armageddon-like battle will occur in Dabiq, named for an area in Syria near the border with Turkey. In other words, ISIS sees its carnage as a prayer and required devotion, not as arguably the worst manifestation of evil on the planet today.
- Top prophecy: they’re in the battle for end times. ISIS propaganda is filled with the belief “that the armies of Rome will mass to meet the armies of Islam in northern Syria; and that Islam’s final showdown with an anti-Messiah.” This is key to understanding what the terrorist attacks are in part about, which is baiting Islam’s enemies to fight them where the epic end-times battle has been foretold.
- ISIS claims its great battle against Islam’s last adversaries will be won on the plains of Dabiq (Syria). According to the prophecy, about one-third of the Muslim forces will flee (“whom Allah will never forgive”), one-third will die as “excellent martyrs” and the remaining one-third will win the battle and then conquer Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey). The final confrontation will occur in Israel, where Jesus—the second most revered prophet in Islam—will return to Earth and lead the Muslims to victory. ISIS intentionally strives to draw the United States into the fight. In their eyes, a U.S. military response is actually desirable, as it fulfills this prophecy.
- Countering evil in our time. Clearly the first steps in countering the evils an apocalyptic regime like ISIS presents—mass murder, sexual bondage, child slavery and more—is understanding who and what they are. One ISIS defender explained:
The Islamic State’s referencing of prophecy is part of a bigger theological problem. The validity of ISIS’ claims rest upon the capture of Dabiq, the arrival of U.S. ground forces, the uniting of Muslims behind the Islamic State and military victory over the U.S. and its allies in the area. Muslims need to address the traditional understanding of Islamic end-of-times prophecies and the role of Muslims in triggering their actualization. This entire mindset of fulfilling prophecy through war must be explicitly challenged by every peace-seeking Muslim.
The U.S. and its allies must not avoid tackling ISIS out of concern that doing so will reinforce its prophetic claims. National security and human rights are at stake. The defeat of ISIS requires the leaders of the Western world have a genuine understanding of ISIS’ goals and beliefs and take seriously ISIS’ deeply held religious belief that this is a holy war. The U.S. and its allies must strategically use this insight to create a decisive contradiction to the core elements of the prophecy. If this happens, the Islamic State’s proclamations of prophetic fulfillment will be discredited, and the West will confront and defeat the newest face of evil in our times.
*This post is excerpted and adapted from 6 Keys to Understanding ISIS’ Barbarism, Apocalyptic Vision and Desire for an End-Times Battle in Syria