This essay is a part of the Patheos Book Club Roundtable discussing Rise of Isis: A Threat We Can’t Ignore (Howard Books, 2014) by Jay Sekulow, with Jordan Sekulow, Robert W. Ash, and David French.
Rise of ISIS is a brief book comprised of eleven short chapters. Although it’s title gives the impression that it focuses on ISIS in Iraq and Syria, only two chapters address the title’s subject matter directly. Three chapters are devoted to Hamas and its ongoing conflict with Israel, three chapters address international law in regards to warfare and its relation to terrorism, and two concluding chapters make the case for military force in the destruction of Hamas and ISIS.
Conservatives will likely resonate with this book in that it echoes much of what is found on talk radio, television, and the Internet from the right side of the political aisle. But as I hope to demonstrate, there is room for reasoned and principled political and theological disagreement with Sekulow and his fellow authors from a conservative perspective.
First, I present a few areas of critique by way of political strategy. This volume incorporates no critical self-reflection in relation to the rise of ISIS itself, or our government’s actions in response to terrorism that may be counter-productive.
In presenting a summary of the rise of ISIS, Sekulow gives no consideration to the role of U.S. policy and actions in creating a context for the formation of the terrorist group. The choices made by two presidential administrations played significant roles. Under George W. Bush the U.S. military removed Saddam Hussein and filled the resulting vacuum by putting Nouri al-Maliki into power as Prime Minister. Under Barack Obama’s administration a policy of little direct intervention into al-Maliki’s government was put into place, and as a result the Prime Minister pursued the systematic destruction of Iraq’s Sunni population. As a result, many embattled Sunnis fled to Syria, and would later become the backbone of ISIS forces bent on the destruction of the government that formerly sought to destroy them.
Another area for critical reflection is that some of the actions of the U.S. in response to terrorists may end up creating more terrorists in the process. At one point in this book Sekulow states that, “Terrorists take a life for the purpose of taking a life. American and Israeli soldiers take a life in the effort to save civilians” (64). Ironically, on the following page mention is made of U.S. drone strikes.
The Obama administration has pursued a dramatic escalation of drone strikes in the “War on Terror” over that of the Bush administration. While this has resulted in an increase in the number of terrorist deaths, it has also resulted in a significant rise in the number of civilian deaths. A report by The Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates between 416-951 civilians in Pakistan alone with up to 200 of them children. Sekulow argues that, “Nothing drives recruits to jihadists faster than the idea that they are strong while America and its allies are weak” (93). To the contrary, there is good data so support the idea that new terrorists are created in response to U.S. drone strikes, not to mention a variety of other contributing factors.
As the final area of critique on political strategy, Sekulow shares numerous examples of the horrific acts committed by ISIS and HAMAS. In part this serves a rhetorical strategy so that the reader will respond in support of the book’s conclusion in its call for military action. But there is the possibility that this is an emotionally-driven reaction hoped for by ISIS to further its goals. Matthew Hoh of the Center for International Policy has argued that, “The Beheadings Are Bait”:
“While escalating American airstrikes and sending more troops to Iraq may assuage the fear and horror affecting the American public, and motivating America's politicians, acting on those feelings will ensure greater conflict and loss.”
My second major area of critique in this volume is theological (which overlaps with my political concerns). Although Sekulow does not address theology or issues of faith in his volume it is relevant. In addition to being a frequent guest on FOX News, Sekulow is also often a guest on the 700 Club, and TIME magazine has called him one of the “25 Most Influential Evangelicals.”
As an Evangelical, in a position on ISIS and Hamas that must in some sense be informed by his faith, Sekulow concludes that the best way to oppose ISIS and other terrorist groups is to, “Expose its weakness, grind its forces into dust, and the jihadist impulse wanes dramatically” (95). As a conservative Evangelical with no desire to appease terrorists I wonder why Sekulow embraces a military response with no consideration of a strategy of non-violence as exemplified in the Gospels and ministry of Jesus. Several Evangelicals have offered their thoughts in this area, including Derek Flood, Carl Medearis, and Adam Ericksen. Related to this, Jeremy Courtney has set forth the following that sits in sharp contrast to Sekulow’s thesis:
“We need a long-term plan, not just a short-term fix. … The Christian church needs to reconsider its relationship with violence; that is part of what has landed us and others in this dire situation. We cannot carp about Christian persecution and not talk about violence and our use of violent solutions. We need a 40- to 50-year plan so that when the time comes to overthrow the next dictator, we are not as blind to our own complicity and stuck with short-term gains.”
Sekulow has argued that in responding to terrorism, “We cannot be held captive to our own wishful thinking” (29). His work in combating terrorism is laudable, but there are other options for responding to ISIS and Hamas which might be more readily visible if Sekulow were not held captive to his own political and theological assumptions.