We are privileged to feature a three-part series reflecting on the Islamic State group (ISIS). The author is an MCC worker in the region, whose name is withheld for security reasons.
Last year Nishwan,* a former student at a seminary in northern Iraq, showed me a video on his phone. He was with a delegation from his church, traveling toward the front lines between the Kurdish Peshmerga and fighters from the Islamic State group. He hasn’t been home since August of 2014, when the advances of the Islamic State group (ISIS) forced him to flee.
ISIS still in control of his town, he doesn’t know if he ever will. In the video they pass the ruins of a bridge, then turn around and begin driving back. “If you go straight,” he said, “you would get to my home in ten minutes.”
Over and over again I find myself speechless when listening to stories of suffering in Iraq. What words of comfort are there? In the face of an evil like ISIS, what can we advocate for?
Karl Barth argued that repentance has to come before action. But we can only repent of what we know, so understanding has to be first.
How, then, should we understand ISIS? Algerian writer Kamel Daoud described their origins this way: ISIS “has a mother: the [U.S.] invasion of Iraq. But it also has a father: Saudi Arabia and its religious-industrial complex.” This neatly spans the divide between causes internal and external to the region.
However, it is helpful to be even more specific: ISIS is a totalitarian movement created by the fusion—in the fires of the U.S. occupation—of former Iraqi Baathist leadership with al-Qaeda in Iraq. Putting it this way gets at the peculiar combination of organizational competence and ideological virulence that so characterizes the group. ISIS’s religious mystique masks tradecraft more like East Germany’s than that of a medieval caliphate.
Hannah Arendt, who wrote on the totalitarian regimes of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union under Stalin, said that such movements are mesmerizing because they combine “terrible efficiency” on the one hand with “wasteful incompetence” on the other.
Sometimes—as in their use of suicide bombers on the battlefield—ISIS’s actions are horrifyingly effective. Other times—as in their prolonged suicidal assault on Kobane in the fall of 2014—they seem nauseatingly wasteful. It is not just, Arendt argued, that such groups are “especially ruthless” but rather that they live a different reality—within which their actions are both justified and reasonable.
But the dangerous thing about totalitarian movements is that, by operating in their fantasy reality, they may bring their alternative world about. Consider, for example, ISIS’s conviction that Sunnis are locked in an apocalyptic war to the death with the West and with the Shi’a. At times—the 2006 bombing of the Shi’a al-Askari mosque in Iraq, or the Paris attacks last year, or Donald Trump’s anti-Muslim appeals—that imaginary world becomes our own.
Like the beast in Revelation 13, “the whole earth” watches ISIS—not worshipping, perhaps, but fascinated by its ascent from terror to terror. “Who is like the beast and who can fight against it?” This is the trap set by ISIS for the world. That, mesmerized, we fall into their reality. The best way to resist ISIS is to make our lives a denial of the reality they seek to create. To begin to do so is to repent of the reality that we have already created.
*Name changed for security reasons.
“Repentance is the ‘primary’ ethical action upon which all ‘secondary’ ethical conduct depends and by which it is illuminated.” Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans, (London: Oxford University Press, 1933), 436.
Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, (New York: Harcourt, Inc., 1968), 419.