Since the terrorist attacks in France by ISIS (Daesh) there has been a wealth of public discussion as to how the world should respond. This has also been the case among Christians. An article at Religion News showed a split among evangelicals, some like Franklin Graham arguing for military action, with others like Ed Stetzer arguing for more peaceful responses. In this blog post I won’t address this evangelical divide specifically, but instead will share four general suggestions by way of an evangelical response to the French attacks, and those that will unfortunately take place in the future.
1. Seek out multiple sources for understanding Islam and terrorism.
After the French attacks it was natural for people to look for materials to try to understand what took place. One article that has been mentioned repeatedly is Graeme Wood’s essay, “What Islam Really Wants” in The Atlantic. This article has great appeal because it explains ISIS by way of an apocalyptic scenario, it argues that the terror group is motivated largely by religious concerns, and it analyzes Islam largely in terms of its sacred text of the Qur’an.
However, Wood’s piece has been the object of serious criticism. For example, in an article at Religion Dispatches, Eric Gurevitch shares a few of his concerns, including Wood’s tendency to analyze Islam by way of a focus on an individualized and literal reading of the Qur’an. This is a sola scriptura focus familiar to many Protestants, particularly evangelicals, but Wood is correct to note that this is not how Muslims interpret their scriptures and understand their own religion. (See John Azumah’s critique of this type of approach in his fine essay in First Things, which which was reproduced by the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization.)
In order to develop a balanced understanding of Islam and terrorism, as well as other forms of religious violence and conflict, seek out a variety of sources. This should include primary sources written by Muslims, and scholarly materials written by academics who study religion and religious violence and terrorism for a living from within their various disciplines of specialization. Readings in the history of the Middle East, and US policies and actions in the region are also important to consider. Finally, develop a relationship with a Muslim in your community. "Reading" him or her in relationship and conversations will be extremely helping in developing an understanding of Islam taken from the abstract to the personal. Popular media treatments have their place in trying to understand the issues, but they should supplement more in-depth sources as part of a balanced portfolio of data and interpretations.
2. Resist the temptation to connect causal dots from Islam to terrorism.
With each major terror attack reported in the media, people being sharing their opinions on the cause of the violence. Many times the religion of Islam is said to hold the blame. From this perspective Islam is inherently a religion of violence, and the Qur’an is read as providing several texts that Muslims naturally follow when enacting acts of terrorism. But as evident as this explanation might be to many, especially evangelicals, there are good reasons to come away with another understanding. Consider the research of Robert Pape on suicide terrorism. In his extensive analysis terrorism is motivated more by political concerns related to perceptions of American military forces as occupiers of Muslim lands.
Then there’s the research of anthropologist Scott Atran. Like Pape, he has reached the conclusion that religion has little to do with the appeal of terrorism and terrorist violence. Instead, he suggests that terrorist groups like ISIS provide strong psychological forms of appeal. He says, "As I testified to the US Senate armed service committee and before the United Nations security council: what inspires the most uncompromisingly lethal actors in the world today is not so much the Qur’an or religious teachings. It’s a thrilling cause that promises glory and esteem. Jihad is an egalitarian, equal-opportunity employer: fraternal, fast-breaking, glorious, cool – and persuasive."
One other example comes by way of journalist Lydia Wilsons’ interviews with former ISIS terrorists. Just like Pape and Atran, her interviews revealed that Islam was not the motivating factor.
This is not to say that religion is not involved in Islamic terrorism. Research indicates that religion is often used by way of appeal as a legitimizing factor for violence, whether by Islamic groups like ISIL, Buddhists attacking Muslims in Myanmar, or Christian militia members attacking Muslims in the Central African Republic. Human beings are prone to violence against “the other” and use religion or ideology as justification, but this does not mean religion should be understood as a causal mechanism. This is true for Islam and Muslims as much as any other religion and its followers.
3. Ask whether the use of military force is the best long-term solution.
After attacks like those in France it’s natural to get angry. These acts of violence were preceded by numerous beheadings, attacks on Christians and other minority religions, and some of the most awful acts of murder and violence in the Middle East. We want ISIS and the violence to stop. The aerial bombings by the US and othe countries have had some effect, but ISIS’s campaign of violence continues. Now in the wake of the French attacks, many are calling increased military action by America, including the possibility of troops on the ground. While this might seem the best strategy, scholars who specialize in the analysis of religious violence argue otherwise. ISIS’s attacks in France may have come from an organization struggling to maintain its momentum. If this is true then the attacks were designed strategically to draw America and our allies into a military conflict in Iraq and Syria. ISIS hopes that this would then lead to more sympathy and support for their cause if the perception is that America is occupying even more Muslim land. In addition, as Mark Juergensmeyer has argued, a call to war “may actually increase the movement’s appeal to disaffected youth around the world and lead to new volunteers willing to undertake the kind of suicide attacks that led to the horrors of the Paris attack.” In recent decades American foreign policy has involved the use of military action in the Middle East, and each time it has led to increased numbers of terrorists and terror attacks. While the use of military force remains a tool in the toolkit to combat terrorism, we must come to recognize it is but one, and that we need a multifaceted approach that both addresses contemporary terrorism and also stops producing new terrorists in the future.
4. Consider your long-term investment in countering religious conflict.
In the wake of horrific events we struggle to know how to not only understand them, but also how to get involved in ways that can make a difference. On way people tried to do this was by changing their avatars on their personal profiles on Facebook so that the colors of the French flag were superimposed over people’s profile pictures. This was a great outpouring of support for the people of France. And in taking this step many felt like they were doing something to try to respond. But we need to do more if we want to move beyond showing support and really make an impact on a world characterized by religious conflict and violence. Matthew Loftus talked about this in an essay at Christ and Pop Culture. He said, “if you want to work towards the end of these tragedies, you will have to give yourself to something for a long time and give of yourself until it hurts." It is laudable that so many people feel a solidarity with the people of France given what they’ve experienced. But we can and should get involved in activities that will help to counter and eventually reduce, perhaps even prevent religious terrorism in the future. One of the ways you can do this is to contact those ministries and organizations that work toward religious diplomacy and peacemaking. They can provide you with a variety of ways that you can get involved and invest in their organizational work, and in so doing you can make a real impact in the US and around the world.