Thursday, July 24, 2014


Recent news from Iraq has struck me as an absurd rerun of medieval times. You probably heard that an organization calling themselves first ISIS, now the Islamic State, took over large swaths of that country. They weren’t alone, but have gotten most of the press coverage that I’ve seen. Perhaps that’s because they’re the loudest group, the most ridiculous and brutal, and therefore have scared people. As a Christian pastor who respects Islam greatly, I thought some perspective would be worthwhile.
First was news they’d declared a new “caliphate,” demanding allegiance from all the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims. If you think that sounds ominous, don’t. Honestly, it’s laughable. The caliphate was a political/religious office that operated on-and-off in Muslim societies over several centuries. It was last recognized in the Ottoman Empire, which ended after World War I. For Ottomans, the caliphate functioned like a licensing agency and legal advisor. To be an “approved” imam (Muslim clergyperson), you needed its credentials and training. If the emperor had questions about Islamic Law, the caliphate was consulted. Some Muslims thought everything the caliphate said was binding, others didn’t. Muslims outside the empire respected this office, but mostly followed local leaders.

The pre-Ottoman Caliphate, however, could be more powerful, especially among Sunnis. Some “Caliphs” held absolute political and religious authority over their territory’s inhabitants. They even presumed to speak for and to all Muslims, by right of their special selection by Allah. Rarely was such universal deference accorded to a living Caliph, mind you. But that didn’t keep some from trying.

All of which points out the absurdity of the Islamic State’s recent declaration. It’s attempting to restore a vanished institution based on mostly fantasy history anyway. The caliphate rarely, if ever, held all Muslims’ allegiance. Plus, if a Caliph emerged today, American, Egyptian, and Indonesian Muslims certainly wouldn’t accept an Iraqi terrorist thug in that role. In other words, though our media frequently gets this wrong, “Muslim Culture” is a broad, diverse phenomenon. Much better to say “Muslim cultures”, and honor that variety.

But that’s not all that bothers me about the Islamic State. Last Friday, they told all Christians living in the Iraqi city Mosul to convert, pay, leave or die. Again, this is a restoration of pre-modern Islamic political practice. In the Middle Ages, when Muslims conquered non-Muslim territory, many leaders said, “You can stay. But you must pay a special tax,” thereby raising government funds from Christians and Jews. Frequently, in fact, conversion wasn’t allowed. That decreased tax revenue! Occasionally, forced conversion, death or expulsion did occur, but that wasn’t the norm. And this was a time when Christian rulers gleefully killed or expelled non-Christian subjects. So the Islamic tax was an act of tolerance foreign to our medieval Christian kin.

Nowadays, however, that tax seems less than hospitable, right? We’ve matured, grown more comfortable with celebrating inclusivity and openness. But the Islamic State’s grandiose, delusional leadership has different ideas for human civilization. Their goal isn’t effective governance. It’s violently enforced religious purity. And by expelling Mosul’s Christians, whose community roots date back nearly to Jesus, it’s also an attempted extermination of their peoplehood, their identity.

Such behavior shouldn’t be acceptable in these highly-connected, diverse times. And none of you would do so, surely, but consider a related phenomenon, closer to home. Pew reports that Muslims are America’s least respected religious group, and they’re frequently treated as all the same. Some idiot with a gun and medieval dreams spouts farcicalities in the Middle East, and Western news outlets fret about “Islamic Civilization”, worrying “whether we’re safe.” Such generalization is identity violence, like Mosul’s Christians are experiencing (minus the actual threats, obviously). It strips American Muslims of their unique identity, to say nothing of Iraqi Shiites or Iranian Sufis.

Christians are called first and always to love, and love demands individual attention, along with rejection of all group violence. So when you read these stories, don’t give into stereotypes. Remember to love. And say a prayer for our persecuted, fleeing Christian sisters and brothers, along with one for the Islamic State, that they’ll rediscover their faith’s tolerance, seek Allah’s forgiveness and put down their swords.

Grace and Peace,
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