The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun -- Ecclesiastes 1:9 (KJV)
When it looked like the long-suffering nation of Iraq would have a reprieve from war, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (also known as ISIS and/or Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant ISIL) brought the war spot-light back on Nebuchadnezzar’s soil. As we learned from the last blog, the al-Qaeda derived breakaway group ISIS has swept through western and northern Iraq, capturing cities like Fallujah, Ramadi, Tikrit, and the country’s second biggest city, Mosul (ancient Nineveh). Mosul’s fall and ISIS’s march to Baghdad brought Iraq back into global headlines, with understandable alarm.
Despite its current fame, there is a lot of mystery involving ISIS. It was formed in 2010, perhaps a reconstitution of the remains of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). The American-led military surge of 2007 was a setback for AQI. The winning American strategy was to pay and work with Sunni tribes in Iraq to defeat the terrorists who were stealing their country.
So how did ISIS come to take their place? The civil war in Syria. Having successfully reconstituted in the milieu of Syrian chaos, they captured territory in the north and east of Syria. From here, ISIS ignored the 1920 League of Nations-drawn international border between Syria and Iraq and, with their speed, boldness, and ruthlessness, captured Iraqi territory while the national army fled, leaving weapons in their wake.
Al-Qaeda vs. ISIS: What’s the Difference?
Despite the successes of ISIS, al-Qaeda has disowned the young bucks in February 2014. Why? Remember that al-Qaeda and ISIS are Sunni Muslim, Wahhabi/Salafist groups that believe in a pure, primitive, 7th Century Islam devoid of all modernity. By definition, they hate Shiite Muslims, apostates, and infidels. Both groups share common ultimate goals: the destruction of Israel, jihad against the West, and a caliphate that, at a minimum, spreads from Spain in the West to Indonesia in the East.
It is the methods where they diverge. Al-Qaeda, out of pragmatism and rationalism, has no problem working with the Shiite Iranians and there has been known cooperation between the two. For the younger, ideologically pure ISIS, working with the Shiites is as despicable as any other non-salafist group. Al-Qaeda believes in being kind and tolerant to the local Muslims they occupy; the goal is to win their support and cooperation. Not so with ISIS: they waste no time implementing Islamic Sharia legal code and punishments are quickly meted out, including amputations, floggings, and executions. It is especially in this area that al-Qaeda has felt the need to distance themselves from their wayward offspring.
Ultimately, the fall out between al-Qaeda and ISIS revolves around a simple proposition: should a jihadist Sunni group with imperial ambitions work with the Shia and other ‘apostate Muslims’ (al Qaeda’s position) or confront and kill them (ISIS’s position) in order to establish the long coveted Muslim caliphate (empire run by the caliph) in the Middle East?
The Muslim world has had caliphates throughout its 1,400 year history. The last caliph was the sultan of the Ottoman Empire in Constantinople. With the establishment of the Turkish republic in 1923, Turkey’s founding father Mustapha Kemal Ataturk pushed through a strong western, secularist agenda and the office of caliph was effectively abolished. There has not been one for over 90 years. Al Qaeda and ISIS want to restore the office of caliph and the caliphate, with all the glory it implies.
ISIS SUCCESS: Whereto From Here?
With ISIS on a roll, and with Muslims around the world applauding their success and signing up to join (including up to 150 or more Australian citizens), what is their goal? The original goal was to establish a caliphate in the Sunni areas of Iraq, which are basically the centre of the country. This was expanded to include the Sunni areas of Syria. Today, the immediate goal is to overthrow the current Iraqi government, capture the entire country (especially their oil fields), establish a Sharia-based Islamist kingdom that could eventually become an Islamic caliphate.
Nothing new under the sun: Iraq has the distinction of being base for five world empires. The last one was the Abbasid Empire from 750-1258 AD, with the new city of Baghdad as its capital. At its apex the Abbasid Empire spread all the way to Spain.
For a new caliphate to be born, the jihad needs to go beyond Syria and Iraq. Their leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi is in discussion with his men about plans to conquer Lebanon, Sinai, Gaza, and Jordan. ISIS detests Jordan’s King Abdullah II and pledged to slaughter him as an apostate and western-stooge. All countries around Iraq, including Iran, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria, and Turkey, are on notice. Bear in mind that unlike the United States, Russia or Australia, distances are not vast. From Baghdad to Jerusalem is only 543 miles or 875 kilometers.
What’s next? Could the nation of Iraq be partitioned, with the Kurds ruling the North, ISIS/Sunni ruling the centre, and the Shia ruling the South?
Iraqi Kurds, who have been enjoying autonomy and prosperity since the 1990s, have apparently seized the oil fields of Kirkuk. This happened in the aftermath of ISIS’s June 2014 capture of nearby Mosul. Kirkuk and its oil are claimed by the Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen. Controlling these fields could lead to fabulous wealth. If the modern Kurds are descendants of the ancient Medes, then there could be prophetic implications as well.
As tragic and horrific the situation currently is in Iraq, especially for its beleaguered Christians, bear in mind that there is ‘nothing new under the sun.’ Being centrally located, with no natural mountainous barriers and two major rivers called Tigris and Euphrates, the history of Iraq has been one of invasion and war, as well as imperial glory. Ancient Mesopotamia gave the world some outstanding civilizations like the Akkadians, Sumerians, Babylonians, and Assyrians. Yet, they have been infamous for their great cruelty and human rights abuses, both on the giving and receiving end. Next time you’re in London, visit the British Museum (one of the few free places in the British capital) and inspect the Mesopotamian section. You will see carved reliefs of people being pummeled, abused, impaled, decapitated and more. When the Mongols sacked Baghdad in 1258 AD, effectively ending the Abbasid Empire, the slaughter lasted for one week, 100,000 people were murdered, and the Tigris River turned blood red.
This is not to make light of the current tribulation. Praying Christians are urged to pray for the people of Iraq and Syria, especially Christians in Ar Raqaa in Syria, in Bartilla in Iraq, who are living at great peril either under ISIS (al Raqaa) or in their shadow (Bartilla).
Nothing new under the sun: Students of Bible prophecy need to watch Iraq, Turkey, and Iran, all which had long-lasting empires, to see if Babylon the Great will rise again. There are seven chapters of Scripture devoted to the fall of Babylon (Isaiah 13, 14, 47; Jeremiah 50, 51; Revelation 17, 18) which have not yet come to pass. Could an ISIS/Sunni-empire or a Kurdish/Mede Renaissance usher in a latter-day Babylon which will become the greatest of cities, only to be cast down and destroyed as Revelation predicts? Let’s continue to watch and pray (Matthew 26:41).