*NOTE-- since I published this blog, the twitter account here linked has been disabled. There are tweets circulating speculating that this particular ISIS fighter is the suspect responsible for the beheading of journalist James Foley.
I spent a good deal of time reading ISIS tweets today from young, British-born jihadis who had joined the fight.
We are the ink its written with. pic.twitter.com/BadCNKdhM5 (ISIS flag)
— Abu Abdullah Britani (@AbuAbdullah_RT) 3 Août 2014
Like, possibly the most interesting thing in the world.
Perhaps it's because once again it is my Catholic sisters and brothers being tortured, raped, and beheaded. It could be me. It could be any of us.
Or perhaps it's because this whole crisis in Iraq is happening concurrently with my return to journalism. I wanted in on this career in the first place because of this very issue-- the middle eastern thing that occupies so much of my heart and thoughts. My co-workers on the college paper I started on used to joke about me ending up reporting from the middle east in a mini skirt and pink knee-high ugg boots, excitedly chatting with battle-worn men. Even as a young, oblivious, partying college student, the middle east and the religious dialogue excited me and called for me. I'm older and wiser now (I hope) but that call is still there.
Whatever the reason, I feel wide awake for the first time in years.
I am still shaken by the intimacy afforded by social networking in our day--reading tweets is a glimpse into the minds of these men who committing unspeakable violence against peoples who have literally done nothing wrong save profess a different belief system. Reading these is such an intense experience. It is terrifying, because of the proximity... they are sitting here, tweeting, just like me. It is also strangely beautiful. They are sitting here. Tweeting. Just like me.
Recently, my Maronite Patriarch, Bechara Boutros al-Rahi, called ISIS out. ISIS had crossed into Lebanon and he knew he needed to act, and fast. He said to them:
"Humanity is the only thing we share with you. Come let’s talk and reach an understanding on this basis ... you rely on the language of arms, terrorism, violence and influence, but we rely on the language of dialogue, understanding and respect for others.”
When I first heard his words, my reaction was disappointment. I wanted him to say something stronger, something more aggressive and harmful. But having soaked in these tweets, now, I believe his response was perfect.
All we seem to have in common is our humanity-- and yet humanity is everything. In the midst of that idea and despite their horrifying actions, I find myself struggling to really despise them. Their humanity impresses me, because their courage and bravado seems almost superhuman. Like the Vikings of old which I so admire, they march on, fearless and unrelenting. Superhuman, in some ways. Something deeper is going on here.... because a human being just like you and I cannot possibly be capable of the kinds of atrocities these men are committing.
But let's get something straight-- these guys bleed like the rest of us. Heartache, frustration, a need for identity, loneliness, unrest... you name your struggle, they have experienced it. Some of them come from a long line of terrorists, but most of them appear to have been radicalized not by their families but by those who were willing to mentor them, those Muslim leaders who poured into the youth and the hurting and the hungry for truth. These are men who strove to make meaning out of their lives, and out of existence, and not only that but had the courage to do something about what they discovered. Something uncomfortable. Something insane. We have to hand it to them, almost... for if there ever was a worthy enemy, here it stands. I am simultaneously disturbed to my core and silent in awe and admiration. There are men not so dissimilar in many ways all around me yearning to find the meaning of life and to give of themselves to get at it. Men who would go in a heartbeat to defend my suffering sisters and brothers in Iraq, if the opportunity came along. Men who ache with incredible sadness that they cannot join in the struggle to defend Christians from these zealous Jihadis. This boggles my mind. Men boggle my mind.
So my Patriarch is right, but dialogue will also get us only half-way there. They speak violence, but they desire sanctity and a purge of evil and sin. My sense is that we must speak violence back to them, for it is the only language they understand, but we must do so with respect for life-- a challenge many Christians are not capable of accepting, but which contains the hope of glory, because it is the life-changing Gospel that actually purges evil and sin and brings that sanctity which these men seem so hungry for.
Americans are often dumbfounded at the hatred Islamic extremists have of the West, and yet we have to admit that every single American soldier who served in Iraq or Afghanistan--- or even here at home-- and who came home with something on his conscience has contributed to the problem. Every single Western civilian who has embraced materialism, modernity, and sin and left even one part of his life untouched by the light of truth and goodness is to blame. God allows this because it purifies. We have to acknowledge our own failings if we are going to dare to hope for a different and better future for our children. I sat transfixed at the idea that each of these ISIS fighters felt they had gone "From the land of the west to the land of the blessed." I've done it too--- moved east in the hope of finding what my soul was craving. I found it there. I get that.
Their twitter feeds told this unspeakably beautiful, heartbreaking, hideous and despicable story with so much detail and intimacy. Each time, the same tale: they hoped to go from pain and sin to submission and salvation... to glory.
Do we need to use violence to combat ISIS? I believe so. Absolutely-- it's the only way to deal with this threat. We need to act with equal, lethal, and co force, but we need to do so with IMPECCABLE accuracy, and with a moral high ground. With SPIRIT. And we need to do so in the name of humanity, and with the Gospel and the hope it affords for humanity on our lips and hearts and minds. In other words, this must be a crusade, and not an ordinary military operation.
Many of the ISIS Fighters appear to have left affluent upbringings and "normal" western-style families in cities whose streets I have walked often, to live in the dust of the desert and blow us and themselves away. In their own words, they have come "from the streets of London to the dirt roads of Jihad." They are brave, they are motivated, they believe that they are literally saving their souls, and they are on a mission to give their all for Allah. Their courage is astonishing.
At the same time, they are the first to tell you that their aim in itself is a struggle. As Abu Abdullah Britani, an apparent volunteer with IS, said on his twitter bio: "Me being here don't mean nothing and don't make me nothing. I don't even know if its accepted." This stands in stark contrast to the message of the evangelical protestants we often hear in America, which cries out--- "It doesn't matter, we're all OK because Jesus died! You can't work your way anywhere. Just say it, believe it, and you're good. Sit back and let God."
No-- this, this is such a different mentality. So sacrificial. So.... Catholic.
There is a lot of talk in the US Army about "winning the hearts and minds of the people." Even a cursory glance at these militant's feeds show a constant, steady, stream of unwon hearts and minds. These are men on a mission, and nothing but God Himself can deter them.
In the end I am struck completely in awe of the new way I see them-- as if through the eyes of the scripture I have memorized from Matthew 11:12, which reads: "And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force." (KJV)
For these men of the Islamic State --- who purge themselves through violence against others, Christianity is a great mystery, an offense, for instead of harming others we purge evil in the world through violence against ourselves--- through fasting and alms and prayer and good works, and undeserved kindness, and cheerful acceptance of suffering. Through the cross.
The stark contrast is not lost on me, and in my heart, I mourn the potential goodness these men would be capable of, had someone else poured into them, and radicalized them a different way.
Look to your left and to your right. The people you see there will all know a day when they will be forced to decide, to "choose now whom they will serve." (Joshua 24)
How will you impact them in that decision? What are you doing for those around you to ensure they are radically affected by the Gospel of light?
As my husband said today, in a status update:
"It's not enough to be of the right opinion, to believe what is right, to say what is right, to think what is right. To do what is right, for your own part, is nothing. You men and women who think that not doing evil is your occupation, you're like a city under siege. You're worthless. You are worse than worthless: You're demoralizing to even look upon. You doers of good deeds who think your 'doing' emancipates you from believing, thinking, and saying what you must you are like a tree whose fruit is eaten by birds before it ripens. It bears fruit but for no good. It is not enough to simply say, or think or do. You must do both, at once. But there is a third thing: You must inspire your brother! YOU must. YOU create the culture of unbreakable fraternity, of zeal and piety. That should be your brotherhood: Zealots of Piety."
As for me, and my house? We will serve the Lord.
The children here have hearts of lions. When the helicopters out the still play on the streets pointing their toy guns towards the sky.
— Abu Abdullah Britani (@AbuAbdullah_RT) 17 Août 2014