What a horrible, nauseating scene, reminiscent of the dark days of the Iraqi insurgency ten years ago. An American man dressed in an orange jump suit, shaved head, located somewhere in the Syrian desert. Behind him was the menacing figure of a completely black clad jihadist, knife in hand, who spoke with a British accent. The American prisoner read a prepared statement telling the United States to stop bombing targets of the Islamic State, also known as IS or ISIS. After reading the statement, the jihadist took the knife and beheaded the prisoner.
The man in question was free-lance journalist, James Foley, age 40. As an ‘Arab Spring journalist,’ Mr. Foley was no stranger to danger. He had spent 44 days in captivity during the 2011 Libyan civil war. Later on , he went to Syria to report on the war there. In November, 2012, he and his translator were kidnapped but the latter was released. No one knew anything about the whereabouts of James Foley until Tuesday, August 19th 2014, when he appeared just before his execution. Later, we learned that the United States tried unsuccessfully to rescue hostages in Syria, including Foley.
What Does it Mean?
What does the death of James Foley and the spreading of the Islamic State across Syria and Iraq mean? Especially since he was an innocent man who committed no crime and had no trial.
It means war: pure and simple. In the Cradle of Civilization, modern Iraq and Syria, the most unspeakable horrors are being committed. It is hard to find a modern day equivalent to such savagery, be it the Khmer Rouge or the Nazis. Perhaps the Spanish Inquisition or major ancient Mesopotamian despots could match the wantonness and brutality we are seeing today in Iraq and Syria. Raping, killing, torturing, beheading - even of children - there is no bounds to how far they will go. Their victims are fellow Sunni Muslims, Shia Muslims, Christians, Yazidis, anything and anyone who is not one of them. They have declared themselves implacable foes of current Sunni regimes like in Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Negotiating, compromise, appeasement, inducements, all these things are out of the question. Apart from holding large swathes of territory in Syria and Iraq, IS/ISIS has lots of donated and confiscated money, heavy American weapons seized after the Iraqi army fled, and is gaining many recruits. Sources tell us over 6,000 men joined them just in the last month. This number probably includes those who were born and/or raised in the democratic western world.
Yet the picture is bigger - much bigger. What we are seeing is outworkings of jihad or jihadism. While IS/ISIS presently has the greatest profile, because of their military victories, jihadism encompasses all kinds of groups beyond Iraq and Syria. This jihadist war stretches from Pakistan in the east, and goes westward with the Taliban of Afghanistan, al Shabaab in Somalia, insurgents in Yemen, al Qaeda is various places, turmoil in Libya, Central African Republic, and Mali. Let’s not forget Boko Haram, which has no problem killing schoolboys and enslaving schoolgirls. On the anniversary of the centenary of the start of World War I, we would do well to remember that this is a global fight, not just an Iraqi/Syrian one. It is like a new, low-level world war, starting off in the 10/40 window of the developing world but ultimately targeting western civilisation.
What Can We Do?
Is there anything decent people can do about this war?
Here are some things to consider:
1. Local solutions, where possible: Local problems are best solved by local people; or else they will turn into a greater international issue.
2. Support the Kurds: Western governments should militarily support the Kurds and their respected peshmerga fighters. They lack the sophisticated American equipment that IS/ISIS has but they don’t lack courage. They already seized the great Mosul Dam from IS/ISIS, no small feat. Germany’s Bundestag and Italian legislators have approved shipment of weapons to the Kurds. In other arenas, finding trustworthy local governments and supporting them is advisable.
3. A New Alliance: An anti-jihadist Middle East coalition should be formed with the Kurds, moderate Sunnis, and possibly Israel itself (overtly or covertly).
4. No more donations: The Saudis need to stop their citizens from sending money to the jihadists. Since the Saudi royals are in the cross-hairs of jihadists, they may be more willing to take action.
5. Defeat home-grown western jihadism: Western countries need to practice ‘zero-tolerance’ of their citizens travelling to jihadist war zones to participate in the fighting. Belonging to a jihadist group and/or fighting for one should be a felony and punishable by law. In all other areas, there should be a no holds barred approach to fighting the radicalisation of Muslims towards jihadism.
6. ‘Socially responsible’ media: It is time that the news media and social media like Facebook, Twitter, You Tube and related groups make sure they are yanking off of cyberspace videos and photos and messages from jihadists, especially of propaganda and executions (apparently a crucifixion was tweeted). Even in the most enlightened of democracies, freedom of speech has its necessary limits (e.g. liable, defamation, death threats). The free and effective publicity that the media provides terrorist groups gives an image of success, invincibility, inevitability, and fear. Remember that human nature ‘worships success’ and these images on social media are helping to recruit young jihadists, looking for adventure, a cause, and a way to vent their grievances. They see jihadists ‘on a roll’ and this perception needs to be stopped. It was reported that the video of James Foley’s execution was removed - bravo - but private citizens and western governments need to put pressure on social and other media outlets to ban jihadist and violent photos and videos and messages.
7. The Spiritual Battle: The ultimate cause of this war is spiritual and the solution is equally spiritual. Ancient Mesopotamia not only gave civilization and history but also unspeakable cruelty. Just visit the British Museum in London and see the deeds of despots against conquered people. With this in mind, remember Ephesians 6:12 (KJV), which says:
For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.
The ‘Prince of Babylon,’ the spiritual force that motivated the expansionism and cruelty of the ancient empire, has not yet retired. Ultimately, the battle is not with men in black in the desert but with black demons in sky. That’s why we need to put on the whole armour of God (Ephesians 6:10-18). Most importantly, there is the practice of fervent and effective prayer (James 5:16). Prayer will accomplish what armies cannot.
What can we pray for:
A) Wisdom for US President Barack Obama, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, key political leaders in the European Union. God can give them the understanding, unity, and resolve they need to make the right moves that get the right results;
B) Protection of innocent people: Christians, Muslims, Yazidis, all who are facing affliction and danger;
C) The reversal of the jihadist juggernaut: Division among their leaders, drying up of their financial resources, the wilting of their recruitment drive, the reversal of their military fortune, the incompetence of their operatives. May they start loving life instead of death and martyrdom. May they have a revelation of the true and living God.
The challenge of jihadism is a cause of great concern but it is also a chance for people of faith to rise up and let their light shine.