The real war on terror

The world has been obsessed with Paris in recent days. Over the weekend, the Islamic State claimed responsibility for three co-ordinated attacks in the French capital, which killed (at the time of writing) around 130 people. Many more were injured, some critically, which means that the final death toll may well rise.

This latest attack by Islamic militants has predictably raised a great deal of polarising discussion.

On the one hand, there are those who adamantly insist that terror has no religion, and that these attacks can in no way be justified in the name of Islam. Islam, they claim, is a religion of peace, and extremists have hijacked the religion for their own purposes. They will quote verses from the Quran that paint Islam as a religion of peace. For example, Quran 25:63 reads, “The servants of the Merciful are those who walk the earth in humility, and when the ignorant address them, they say, ‘Peace.’”

On the other hand, there are those who claim that Islam is inherently a violent religion. They argue that the Quran teaches the annihilation of all non-Muslims, pointing to texts like Quran 2:191, which reads, “And kill them wherever you overtake them, and expel them from where they had expelled you. Oppression is more serious than murder. But do not fight them at the Sacred Mosque, unless they fight you there. If they fight you, then kill them. Such is the retribution of the disbelievers.”

As you can see, both arguments will appeal to the Quran, Islam’s sacred text. Both arguments completely ignore the texts cited by the other position. If we are honest, the question is not a simple one to resolve. Islamic scholars will argue that we cannot simply take a verse out of its context in order to prove the inherent violence (or nonviolence) of Islam—and Christians will argue similarly when it comes to the Bible. Think, for example, how you would respond to some who claims that Christianity is a religion of violence, based on the following isolated verse: “But as for these enemies of mine, who did not want me to reign over them, bring them here and slaughter them before me” (Luke 19:27).

But regardless of our ultimate conclusion concerning the inherent violence or nonviolence of Islam, we have to deal with the fact that terrorist cells like ISIS and Al Shabaab claim to be carrying out their atrocities in the name of Allah and Islam. And the fact that these acts are being performed in the name of religion gives reason for Christians to pause and think.

After the Paris attacks, millions of people across the world overlaid their Facebook profile pictures with a French flag. This campaign (#PrayForParis) was designed to show solidarity with the French in their time of turmoil. This predictably roused the indignation of millions more.

Some refused to change their profile pictures because, they said, to show solidarity with France was to ignore other terrorist attacks and natural disasters that happened on the same weekend. Why, they asked, was everyone displaying French colours but ignoring the suicide bombings that killed at least 41 in Beirut just a day before the Paris attacks, or the string of bombings that killed dozens in Baghdad the same weekend? Still others pointed to earthquakes in Japan and Mexico, which received comparatively little attention to the attacks in France.

Then there were those who complained about the ineffectiveness of simply changing a social media profile picture. One image showed a picture of a snarling wolf, overlaid with the following message: “Praying and changing your profile picture won’t help. Getting mad and killing bad guys will.”

As people quibbled over whether or not a show of solidarity on social media was at all effective, I was struck in particular by the second argument above: “Praying and changing your profile picture won’t help. Getting mad and killing bad guys will.” It struck me as I read that that a secularist worldview cannot (or will not) possibly make full sense of the ongoing terrorism of ISIS and similar groups because that worldview does not see what is really at stake here. A biblical worldview is necessary in this regard.

Paul tells us that “we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12). He then lists the weapons that are suitable for engaging in this warfare—one of which is prayer (v. 18).

A secular worldview cannot possibly understand why prayer is effective in the war on terror because all that worldview can see is flesh and blood. To a modern secularist, the means to ending the war on terror is to bomb ISIS and similar terrorist groups into oblivion. If we can wipe their flesh and blood from the planet, we will have won the war.

A biblical worldview understands that there are deeper issues. The terrorist agenda, at least in this particular instance, is deeply theological. Whether or not the Quran actually justifies what the Islamic State is doing, members of the Islamic State justify their actions in the name of Allah.

In claiming responsibility for the Paris attacks, the Islamic State issued a statement, which read in part,

Eight brothers wearing explosive belts and assault weapons targeted areas carefully chosen in the heart of the French capital. The French stadium, during a match of two crusaders countries French and Germany where the imbecile of France Francois Hollande was present, the Bataclan where hundreds of idolaters participating in a party of perversity were assembled, in addition to other targets in the 10, 11 and 18 arrondissement—all simultaneously.

The statement went on to say, “The ground of Paris trembled under their feet and its roads became too tight for them. The toll of this attack is a minimum of 200 crusaders killed and even more injured, the praise and honor belongs to Allah.”

Notice the language employed by ISIS in this statement. They refer to the French as “idolaters”—an unmistakeably theological term—an “crusaders,” which is language employed in holy war. In fact, the statement later blames France “for having led this crusade, for having insulted our prophet, for boasting about fighting Islam in France, for striking a blow against Muslims in the land of the Kalifate with their planes.” If the secular world denies the theological reality driving the war, the Islamic State certainly recognises it.

The fact is, the war on terror—at least as it relates to the Islamic State and other Islamic extremist groups—is not against flesh and blood. It is driven theologically and is therefore “against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” While governments certainly have a responsibility to protect their citizens, and while the Bible would therefore condone military action against terrorists, the war will not be won in purely militaristic terms.

What is it that will turn people from hatred and war to love and peace? It is the gospel of Jesus Christ. Christians operating out of a biblical worldview have the most powerful weapon available in the war on terror. We must therefore pray and preach the gospel so that those under the lying sway of the devil will bow the knee to Christ and begin to love those whom they formerly hated.

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