Islam, Jihad, and Syria

An image distributed by Islamic State militants on social media purports to show the destruction of a Roman-era temple in the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra
Translation: Blowing up a pagan temple in Palmyra.

Two days ago I shared my new article at Christianity Today contrasting Muslim and Christian polls about eschatology. As ISIS surged in the Middle East, it activated also Christian visions of Armageddon.

But it is good also to look at the raw material. This article by Josh Landis contains many interesting tidbits on how Syria ignites the Muslim imagination. Not only the sometimes jihad-bent Salafi trend can be animated, but the generally assumed peaceful Sufis also see the early centrality of Sham, as greater Syria is called in Arabic.

If some judge this as confirmation of Islam’s essential violent core, here is one passage to highlight. I suppose it could be read either way, but it does show the focus of the early community on empire-building:

Salafi-Jihadis may be very different from classically conceived Jihad but they believe that they are continuing in the footsteps of an old tradition which goes all the way back to the earliest days of the Prophet.

Whilst it is noteworthy that Jihad occupied a very small part of the Prophet’s life, the first books written about his life was about his battles. From there a whole literary genre called maghazi developed.

Moreover, there are historical compendiums such as Futuh al-Buldan of al-Baladhuri, one of the earliest surviving texts on how Islam conquered the classical world with offensive jihad.

Apart from the jurisprudence dealing with the legal issues surrounding the concept of religious warfare, there are plenty of works written on the battles of the Companions, as well as books dealing with the concept of Futuwwa, martial and spiritual chivalry, and of course there are biographies of famous warriors.

Contrast, perhaps, with the Civil War and WWII literature popular among Americans. Yes, it is a contrast between a nation and a religion, and therefore not exact.

But it also highlights the difficulty of examining Islam, which stands in between ‘religion’ and ‘nation’.

Let it at least be an example of the shared propensity of mankind to glorify battle. Most Muslims, and Americans, would quickly defend the rightness of their particular historical cause. Perhaps they are not wrong.

But allow it to give pause in defending the rightness of any particular current cause –  religious, national, or otherwise.

And if you like, review again the CT link showing how some read forward the battle into the future, perhaps the near future, perhaps even the present.

Christianity Today Middle East Published Articles

Who Awaits the Messiah Most? Muslims


This article was first published in the Jan-Feb print edition of Christianity Today.

Jesus did not show up to defend ISIS—and the first to celebrate was a Muslim.

“The [ISIS] myth of their great battle in Dabiq is finished,” Ahmed Osman, a Free Syrian Army officer, told Reuters in October after coalition forces drove more than 1,000 extremists from the backwater Syrian city known as the Armageddon of Islamic eschatology. The jihadists had expected the Messiah to appear and bloody his lance on approaching Christian crusaders.

Muslim belief in the end-times return of Jesus may seem surprising, but according to recent polls, they expect him with greater anticipation than do many American Christians.

A Pew Research Center survey in 2012 found that more than half of Muslims in Iraq, Lebanon, and Tunisia—and just under 50 percent in Morocco and the Palestinian territories—believe in the “imminent return” of Jesus. Outside the Arab world, more than half of Muslims in Turkey, Pakistan, Malaysia, and Thailand say Jesus will return to Earth in their lifetime.

By contrast, a 2015 poll by the Brookings Institute found that only 12 percent of US evangelicals believe that Jesus will return in their lifetime.

Past polls communicate a greater expectancy. In 2010, Pew found that 27 percent of US Christians expected Jesus to definitely return within the next 40 years, while another 20 percent found it probable. Among white evangelicals, 34 percent said “definitely” while 24 percent said “probably.”

The Qur‘an alludes to the return of Jesus (accompanied by a figure called the Mehdi), who on the Day of Resurrection will be a witness against Christians who claim him as the Son of God. But Muslim eschatology is derived primarily from Islamic traditions that have varying degrees of canonicity.

The exact timing of events does not tend to be the concern of Muslim theologians. But the general narrative is that Jesus will descend to Earth, kill the pigs, break the crosses, perform the pilgrimage to Mecca, defeat the Christian armies of Rome, kill the Antichrist, and usher in a period of worldwide Islamic prosperity.

Please click here to read the full article at Christianity Today.

Biola Middle East Published Articles

The Struggle for Enemy Love in the Arab Christian World

This article first appeared at The Table. For more articles featuring thoughtful Christian perspectives on the the nature and embodiment of love, growing through suffering, and acquiring humility, click here.

Love Your Enemies Arabic
Translation: Love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, pray for those who persecute you, and whoever strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also


I have long taken pride in the distinctive teaching of Christianity to love your enemy. It was not until I began learning Arabic I better appreciated what this called for.

Perhaps like many American Christians my pride was an identity marker more than a mark of Christ. I had never suffered for my faith, nor had any enemies to speak of. But in a pluralistic world of competing religious claims, widespread political polarization, and far-flung military adventures, ‘love your enemy’ became a mantra to lift me out of the morass and place my feet firmly on the moral high ground.

Only Jesus commands this, I thought; my Christian religion is different. I had always believed it was true. This was confirmation it was better.

The Sermon on the Mount allows us to cherish our ideals, with full admittance of the still mostly philosophical difficulties. Who has ever forced us to walk a mile? And beggars? They’re all in the big city. Turning the other cheek would be hard, but the envisioned moral strength? Powerful.

One morning years later I awoke surrounded by posters of smiling Arab pop stars. During vacation break from language school in Jordan I arranged for an immersion experience in the ancient city of al-Karak, home to a 12th century Crusader castle. One-quarter of the population remains Christian; one local family took me in and displaced their preteen daughter from her room.

But there at the door by the light switch a prominently placed sticker served as a reminder each morning as she left the room. Ahibbu ‘adakum. Love your enemies.

I went to the Arab world imagining a place where this command might be more practical. Muslims were not essential enemies, of course, and Jordan was well known as a place of coexistence. But perhaps they were theological enemies? In any case the region was characterized with tales of persecuted Christians. How would ordinary believers live the Sermon?

Ihsanu illa mubghideekum, the sticker continued. I was less familiar with this injunction. Baariku la’aneekum. Perhaps like many American Christians, Jesus taught me from the mountain. What I would come to learn is that Arab Christians quoted his Sermon on the Plain. Do good to those who hate you. Bless those that curse you.

The family I stayed with in al-Karak was well respected with no known enemies. But every morning their daughter entered a Muslim culture armed with instructions that have buoyed Arab Christians for 1400 years. Whether jizyah and jihad, or colleagues and citizens, they have been the minority ‘other’. American Christians, white-skinned at least, have little idea what this entails.

Going to Egypt, later still, I saw the results first hand.

I wished eagerly to explore the context. Both Matthew’s and Luke’s account end with the command to pray for those who treat you wrong, and more than other places in the Arab world, Egypt was understood to be a place of Coptic suffering. ‘It takes a presidential decree to fix a church doorknob,’ I was told. ‘Christians get attacked in their villages, and they are the ones put in prison.’ Over time I would learn that the reality is quite nuanced, but the sentiment is telling both for visceral incidents of suffering as well as the ethos they produce. Many have suspected that Christians of the region had bought a modicum of peace in exchange for evangelistic mission, beaten down by the task of communal preservation. I experienced Copts as simultaneously integrated in society and withdrawn into their churches. They would speak of Muslims as friends, but whisper of Islam as an enemy ideology.

But what of the celebrated Sermon on the Plain? How would they not just love, but also bless? Specifically and practically, how would they do good?

In one city south of Cairo I interviewed a man who provided a commendable, if telling example. Due to government difficulties in extending services to underdeveloped areas, Muslims and Christians have learned to take care of their own. Until recently Islamist groups had long provided a safety net for the majority, while the Orthodox Church ensured care for Christian widows and the Coptic poor. Neither group would profess denying help to the religious other, but both mirrored the reality of increasing emphasis on religious identity.

This man worked with a Christian agency that aimed to break the dichotomy and serve all. Unaffiliated with the church, Muslims were the employed majority as well as present on the board of trustees. By no means were they an enemy, but Christ’s love to the other was clearly among his motivations.

A jovial and cheerful man, he turned deadly serious on my next question: ‘To better reach your community, would you consider partnering with a Muslim organization?’ It seemed innocuous enough but touched a deeply sensitive nerve. ‘I swear by the Messiah,’ he answered angrily, ‘there is not one Islamic organization that also takes care of the Christians!’

He may be right; he was certainly the expert. But from the heart, the mouth speaks. Here was one of the best examples of a Christian doing good to people who many in his community would internally generalize as a sort of enemy. But despite his charity, he ultimately demonstrated an uncharitable spirit. Let there be little condemnation, but the question is fair though terribly hard: As I Corinthians 13 warns, did he risk becoming a resounding gong?

Nuance is necessary, for the other is not the enemy unless they press against you. For most Arab Christians the ordinary Muslim is an ordinary person, though the Islamist can be a threat in the desire to set his creed as the organizing principle of society. In a region with much religious conservatism, the line between Muslim and Islamist can be difficult to draw. This man railed against the latter, and perhaps with good reason. But it was clear his love for the other did not extend to love for the enemy. Instead of doing them good, whatever that could have meant practically, he was in existential competition.

In the years that followed Islamists rode a revolutionary wave into the presidential palace. Despite their conciliatory discourse with Western audiences, in Arabic some of their members and supporters uttered vile and vitriolic threats against their opponents, Christians included. One year later as Copts joined the masses that turned against the new political elite, they paid the price as their churches were burned throughout the country. Christians were praised for their patience, and rallied behind the military and millions of Muslims to oppose the Islamist enemy. In this case the term is at least rhetorically appropriate; once chosen as legislators and government ministers, they were now rejected as terrorists and an internationalist cabal.

Western opinion is divided over the veracity of this accusation, but as concerns local Christians it is largely irrelevant. Certainly they suffered; certainly they ascribed to widespread public messaging. But in the vanquishing of their enemy almost no voices of love were offered. These need not be in dissent; they might only be in pleas for due process or care for the relatives of the justly imprisoned. During Islamist rule many Christians worried and some chose to emigrate. Some, probably many, prayed for their new president. But if a few have since sought to bless the fallen Islamists who curse them still, their example has not moved the needle of Coptic opinion, where nary a tear has been shed.

How then is this spirit present in a ten-year-old girl who lost everything?

If Islamists in Egypt were a challenge, even a disaster, in Syria and Iraq they were a catastrophe. When the so-called Islamic State overran Mosul in July 2014, thousands of Christians left their homes and fled to Kurdistan. Among them was Myriam, who with her family lived in a half-built shopping mall. Interviewed a year later by the Christian satellite network SAT-7, her testimony went viral.

‘I will only ask God to forgive them,’ she said when asked how she felt about those who caused this tragedy. ‘Why should they be killed?’ Contrast her with the opinion of some Americans, who wonder why we have not yet bombed ISIS into oblivion.

Perhaps it is the depth of the loss that summons the breadth of compassion. Perhaps children are not chiseled as rigidly as adults. Beautiful testimonies of forgiveness have been offered by Egyptian Christians as well, whose family members were martyred by ISIS in Libya. Unjust suffering recalls a crucified Jesus, whose dying prayer to God was that sin not be accounted to his tormentors. From afar we recoil, and demand justice. Likewise, Egyptian Christians felt vindication when their government bombarded ISIS in Libya the next day.

Let them not be blamed on account of ‘love your enemy’. The children of Israel broke into song when Pharaoh’s army drowned in the Red Sea. David prayed for deliverance from his enemies and a psalm of exile wished their children smashed against the rocks. Romans established the role of government in the preservation of order and punishment of the wrongdoer. And one day, Christ himself will wield the rod of iron as his enemies are fashioned into a footstool. Outcry against suffering is natural and must be voiced for emotional health. Justice is real, necessary, and must never become the antonym of love.

But mercy triumphs over judgment, and love covers over a multitude of sins. The Christian ideal keeps no record of wrongs, and hopes all things. This seems impossible when facing an enemy of any caliber, let alone the Islamic State. It almost seems perverse. The higher calling of love must uphold the lower calling of justice, and demands great discernment in weighing Jesus’ instruction to be wise as serpents yet innocent as doves.

Arab Christians are in an unenviable position. The Egyptian church must navigate this wisdom-innocence paradigm with the utmost care. The Syrian-Iraqi church has been scattered. If they have not yet lived up to the fullness of ‘love your enemy’ it only serves to remind us how far we are from what they endure. That God has kept them from abject loathing is sign enough of the Spirit’s power. That they fill up in their flesh what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions is reason enough to humbly bow and support them in prayer.

Unfortunately, my proximity has not enabled the vision of practical suggestion. Lord willing, the eyes of a foreigner have helped some see afresh the demands of the gospel. Ultimately, application is up to them.

But over the years I have come to see the Sermon on the Plain as a better template than the Sermon on the Mount, especially if read in reverse.

Pray for those who mistreat you. If persecution is rare, mistreatment is not. If love if ethereal, prayer is grounding. With an act of the will I can choose to place my enemy before God. Perhaps I even begin with the imprecatory psalms. But rather than grumble or plot revenge, I turn the matter over to him.

Bless those who curse you. Once in God’s hands the prayer can change, even with rising of the nature of offense. No matter how difficult in our power, the Spirit’s power enables our will to progress further. The step is tangible, but nothing is yet asked of the heart. With gritted teeth I seek God’s grace not only for my hurt, but for the ultimate well-being of my enemy.

Do good to those who hate you. But again, God pushes the envelope as the severity of opposition increases. Anyone might curse me in a moment of frustration. Hatred takes time. But in answer to a decision that hardens a heart, my decision is to loosen my own. In asking God to bless my enemy, he transforms me to do it myself.

Love your enemies. Whatever practical action results, something mystical occurs. At least, I can only trust God that it will. Somehow, and whatever it means and feels like, love happens.

It is this love that is the hallmark of Christianity, not my initial congratulatory pat on the back that I was born into and believed in a superior faith. This is the love that can transform conflict. But it is also the love that can get trampled underfoot.

Why has the latter been the trend for Arab Christians over the past 1400 years, as their numbers have dwindled to near extinction? Have they not loved enough? Have they not stood for justice? Have they compromised too readily? Have they allowed their hearts to harden?

We cannot know, and we dare not judge. Bear well that the sermon passage ends with a plea: Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. Look upon them with sympathy, and upon the region. They are brothers in sisters in faith, within brothers and sisters in humanity. Surely among them are the ungrateful and wicked, but as sons and daughters of the Most High, in imitation we are commanded to be kind.

And remember, the Sermon on the Plain places the Golden Rule smack within the section on loving your enemies. It is among the most beautiful verses in Arabic: Kama tureedun an yafal al-nas bikum, afalu antum aydan bihum hakatha. Do not let the foreignness of the language exaggerate further the foreignness of the concept. Enemies need love even more than the rest of us. Invite Arab Christians to help us learn.


Just War Can be Impatient

Just War and Pacifism

While pacifism can be accused of dangerous idealism, within Christian moral theology it provides a very important balance to the just war tradition.

Interviewed in Plough, Ron Sider says adherents of the two perspectives must dialogue in cooperative friendship.

How might Just War adherents and pacifists work together?

Pacifists and Just War Christians need to assess each situation together. With some frequency, there will be situations where applying the Just War criteria will lead us to conclude, “This war should not be fought, this invasion should not take place. An alternative must be found.” There may be, however, other situations where Just War Christians will conclude that they must go to war.

But the Just War theory requires that war is a last resort, and until you’ve tried all reasonable nonviolent alternatives, war is not a last resort. Unless Just War Christians are ready to test all reasonable nonviolent alternatives, the Just War position has no integrity.

Likewise, pacifists have no moral right to pretend their way is better unless they are willing to run the same risks in a nonviolent struggle against evil as soldiers do in battle.

The context of the interview is the phenomena of ISIS, and whether or not their savagery demonstrates the folly of nonviolence.

Sider has long been a voice for pacifism, and relates that Christian Peacemaker Teams have had some success in transforming conflicts. It would have been nice if this interview presented ideas for the nonviolent defeat of ISIS, however preliminary in form and difficult to imagine.

But his statement puts the burden of proof on those who advocate military solutions. What alternatives have you tried first? What about second, or third?

Before supporting war, ask a pacifist if he or she has any ideas to offer. And pacifist, be creative and bold. The world has many problems you can speak to. If not, many others will rush to offer that which you can only criticize, from afar.



Christianity Today Middle East Published Articles

Christian TV Helps ISIS Survivors

This article was published at Christianity Today on January 7, 2016.

SAT-7 Myriam and Sandra
Myriam (L) and her friend Sandra reunite at school (via SAT-7)

Last spring, a 10-year-old Christian girl famously forgave ISIS for driving her family from their home in Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city. Myriam’s video interview with Christian broadcaster SAT-7 went viral, witnessed by more than 3 million people on television and social media.

When Myriam fled from ISIS, so did her friend Sandra. Sandra’s family first took refuge in Lebanon, while Myriam’s family headed for Erbil, the capital of the Kurdish region of Iraq. Eventually, both families settled into a refugee camp at Mar Elias Catholic Church in Erbil.

Myriam previously told SAT-7 she had three wishes. The first: For her message of forgiveness to reach the world.

Now her second and third wishes have also been fulfilled. She has returned to school, and Sandra has joined her. She now shares a desk with her childhood friend.

“I can’t describe the joy that I felt,” Myriam told SAT-7.

But the joy of school is unknown to most of the approximately 3.5 million internally displaced children of Syria and Iraq. World Vision estimates that 2.5 million Syrian children—including both the internally displaced and refugees—are not attending school.

Terry Ascott, CEO of SAT-7, told CT that without school, money, or dignity, these children are at great risk.

Please click here to read the full article at Christianity Today.


Top 10 Persecution Stories at CT

Many thanks to readers who have followed my articles at Christianity Today. CT just published a year-end summary of the ten most read stories about the persecuted church, and I am pleased to report my articles placed at numbers 1, 3, 6, and 10.

That the articles needed to be written in the first place involves little of pleasure, but I am glad that in most there have been moments of grace amid the suffering.

1) How Libya’s Martyrs Are Witnessing to Egypt

Murders spark largest outreach ever amid new freedoms and new threats.

3) Forgiving ISIS: Christian ‘Resistance’ Videos Go Viral in Arab World

Ten-year-old girl from Mosul becomes Christian broadcaster SAT-7’s most-watched interview ever.

6) Libya’s 21 Christian Martyrs: ‘With Their Blood, They Are Unifying Egypt’

As Coptic Christians mourn ISIS beheadings, they praise the response of their government and Muslim neighbors.

10) Why Christians Are Fleeing One of Africa’s Oldest and Largest Christian Homelands

Beyond the search for a better life, evangelicals and Orthodox in Ethiopia increasingly share even more.

And this story came in at #16 of the 20 most read ‘Gleanings‘, subtitled ‘important developments in the church and the world’.

16) More Martyrs: ISIS Executes Dozens of Ethiopian Christians in Libya

Propaganda video released the same day Justin Welby arrives in Cairo to honor the previous 21 victims.

For what it is worth, none of the articles made the overall top 20 most read list, which was dominated by US domestic trends, though some with international aspects.

As for this list, in general I do not like the word ‘persecution’ or a focus thereupon. Though these articles certainly qualify, the word risks setting Christians into an ‘us versus them’ mentality that risks violation of many Gospel principles. The struggle, says the scripture, is not against flesh and blood.

But without doubt the next mentioned ‘principalities and powers’ have employed flesh and spilled blood. I am grateful to be in a position to help tell these stories, and pray they may result in greater love both for the church around the world, and those who stand against her.

Thanks for reading — and within your power — acting accordingly.

Lapido Media Middle East Published Articles

The Russian Airline Disaster and Islamic State in Egypt

Abu Osama al-Masry
Abu Osama al-Masry, blurred in a Wilayat Sinai propaganda video; from SITE Intel Group

Who downed Russian airline flight 9286 as it left tourist resort Sharm el-Sheikh in October, killing all 224 on board?

Russian officials have confirmed a bomb brought down the plane, while Whitehall has labelled shadowy leader of the new ISIS affiliate Wilayat Sinai – Abu Osama al-Masry – ‘a person of interest’ in on-going investigations.  Egypt has yet to release details from their investigation.

‘Foreign tourists, workers, and troops in Egypt are at greater risk than ever’, wrote Zach Gold in Egypt Source.

‘Whether [WS] was responsible or made an opportunistic claim, the group’s willingness to even rhetorically target foreign interests in Egypt is another dangerous marker in a pattern of threats’, he added.

A former Azhar student and clothing importer Abu Osama al-Masry claimed responsibility on behalf of Wilayat Sinai. ‘They were shocked by a people who sought the hereafter, loved death, and had a thirst for blood’, he said.

‘We will inherit your soil, homes, wealth, and capture your women! This is Allah’s promise’.


‘Eloquent in quoting the Qur’an’: Abu Osama al-Masry, blurred in propaganda video. Photo: SITE Intel Group

Al-Masry, a nom-de-guerre indicating he is Egyptian, is said to have been born in northern Sinai but grew up in Sharqiya in the eastern Nile Delta.

The 42-year-old former student at the Muslim world’s most prestigious seat of learning, al-Azhar in Cairo, al-Masry is said to be ‘well versed in Islamic jurisprudence’ and ‘eloquent in quoting the Quran’.

Wilayat Sinai, meaning ‘the province of Sinai’, pledged allegiance to the Islamic State on 10 November, 2014.

It was previously known as Ansar Beit al-Maqdis (ABM), translated roughly as ‘Supporters of Jerusalem’ – implying the same apocalyptic zeal as IS.

Lapido Media nailed this affiliation a year ago – and the fact of the reluctance of the West to believe it amid the complexity of Egyptian culture and the prevalence of ‘conspiracy theories’.

On 5 November 2014, we wrote:  ‘Ali expects the “Supporters of Jerusalem” – a home-grown terrorist outfit operating out of Sinai – to soon announce their allegiance to ISIS. Abu Hamza al-Muhajir, he said, was an associate of Abu Musad al-Zarqawi in the Islamic State of Iraq and believed to be killed by US forces in 2010.

‘But some evidence suggests he is still alive and operating out of the Sinai with the Supporters of Jerusalem,’ Ali said.


If the Russian airline attack is confirmed, it will not have been the first time Wilayat Sinai has targeted foreigners.

Strategy, however, is shifting from attacking tourism in Egypt as part of an economic war, to attacking tourists in retaliation for their nation’s policies.

In February 2014 the group killed two South Koreans and an Egyptian driver in a bus traveling from St Catherine’s Monastery in the Sinai.

They also claimed responsibility for the hideous executions of American oil worker William Henderson in August 2014, and the Croatian Tomislav Salopek in August 2015.

Wilayat Sinai’s fighting force is estimated between a low of one to two thousand militants, and as high as five to twelve thousand.

The sparse population of North Sinai is approximately 435,000, or forty per square mile.

Unlike the Islamic State, WS’s composition is mostly local, consisting of veteran jihadists, disaffected Bedouin, and disillusioned youth. Some foreign fighters come from Palestine, Saudi Arabia, and Syria, and WS have issued a call for more.

Egypt has accused Turkey of providing support for Wilayat Sinai, posting names and pictures of alleged operatives they have captured.

Wilayat Sinai also benefits from members who previously served in the Egyptian military, before defecting or being expelled.

Walid Badr, a former major in the army, was the suicide bomber in the September 2013 assassination attempt on the interior minister. One month later former officers Emad Abdel Halim and Hisham Ashmawi led an assault on a checkpoint in Sinai killing 31 people.


WS, under its original guise of Ansar Beit al-Maqdis was formed sometime in 2011 in response to the Egyptian revolution of 25 January.

Egyptian security says ABM breathed new life into existing bands of militants such as al-Tawhid wa al-Jihad, which had conducted operations against tourism hotels in Sinai in 2004, 2005, and 2006.

After formally merging, ABM originally targeted Israel, launching a few cross-border attacks and several acts of sabotage against the Egypt-Israeli gas pipeline.

President Mohamed Morsi authorised military action against ABM after it killed 16 border guards in August 2012. But he is also understood to have preferred negotiation and tried to limit their influence through dialogue with other Sinai parties.

After Morsi’s removal from office on 3 July, 2013, ABM shifted focus and deliberately targeted Egyptian security forces.

Abu Osama al-Masry deemed Morsi an apostate and equated democracy with atheism – a typical militant Islamist trope.

But ABM sought to take advantage of the military-versus-Muslim Brotherhood conflict to paint itself as the defender of Muslims.


A leaked Egyptian security document from February 2015 accused the Muslim Brotherhood of working with Al-Qa’eda to send three thousand fighters to the Sinai.

Morsi, like the transitional military council before him, released jihadis from prison.

But an Egyptian researcher says that while he permitted militants a degree of operation, he did not nurture them as a ‘last resort’ to protect his office.

In addition to the acts of terrorism listed above, ABM has been a leading force in a long list of attacks in Sinai and the Egyptian mainland.

The small Christian population of roughly 650 families in the Sinai have also suffered at their hands. Many have relocated, though local Muslims have promised to protect them.

Wilayat Sinai
Logo of Wilayat Sinai


Four hundred attacks killing seven hundred soldiers: Wilayat Sinai. Photo: SITE Intel Group

Targeting Christians is only one of the ways Wilayat Sinai is imitating the Islamic State.

Mixing terror and piety, they have beheaded opponents and moved against drug trafficking. They have appealed to the sympathy of Bedouin tribes and distributed money to those whose homes have been destroyed in the conflict.

But Wilayat Sinai has so far failed to reproduce the primary marker of the Islamic State – territorial acquisition. They hide out in the desert, mix with the people, plant roadside bombs, and adopt guerilla tactics, but have failed to claim and hold land.

It has not been for want of trying.

Wilayat Sinai has led over four hundred attacks on security forces between 2012 and 2015, killing an estimated seven hundred soldiers.

On 1 July, 2015 militants led a full-day assault on the city of Sheikh Zuweid, following multiple coordinated attacks on surrounding checkpoints. The effort failed when the military employed F-16s in the city’s defense.

Reporting on Sinai is difficult as the government has criminalised publication of information that contradicts official statements.

One month ago on 22 October, an army spokesman declared ‘full control’ over the Sinai, but terror attacks continue.

An anonymous officer said failings stemmed from unfamiliar terrain and a scorched-earth policy that alienated the population. There are also conflicting reports as to whether local tribes are joining the fight or just watching idly by.

But an anonymous militant admitted the military have severely restricted their operations, and the closing of tunnels on the Gaza border has dried up the weapon supply.


Human Rights Watch has criticised the government over the creation of a buffer zone meant to destroy the network of tunnels long exploited by traffickers and terrorists alike. Between July 2013 and August 2015 HRW reported the destruction of at least 3,255 homes and properties.

Israel claims that Hamas is aiding Wilayat Sinai, though leaders deny any connection to this ‘black extremism’.

But on Egypt’s Western border the Islamic State has been more successful in setting up a franchise. They call Libya ‘the strategic gateway’, noting its proximity to Egypt, Tunisia, African nations of the Sahel, and Europe.

In spring 2014 Libyans in Syria returned to Derna near Benghazi and pledged allegiance to the Islamic State. Fledgling states have been created for each of Libya’s three traditional regions: Cyrenaica, Tripoli, and the Fezzan.

This has sparked terrorist activity in Egypt’s Western Desert as well. In July 2014 ABM claimed responsibility for an attack in Farafra that killed 22 soldiers. Last month in pursuit of terrorist targets, the military accidentally killed eight Mexican tourists in the Bahariya oasis.


The terrorism network in Egypt is fluid. Abu Osama al-Masry indicated his support for the Islamic State as early as 30 June, 2014, praying for them to conquer Baghdad. By September reports of co-operation and training emerged.

But by November the eventual pledge of allegiance was disputed, with veterans said to support Al-Qa’eda, yet with the youth vote winning out.

Since then splinter groups have formed, though there is no evidence of direct conflict. Jihadi Ribat was created in December 2014, eschewing support for Islamic State claims to the caliphate. The aforementioned former military officer Ashmawi split with others in July 2015 to formal-Murabitoon.

Ajnad Misr declared its intention to focus on attacks against security personnel in Cairo, in January 2014. It has been implicated in over 25 attacks, but focuses on Egypt rather than a global cause.

There even appears to be diversity within the Islamic State network. Recent attacks on the Italian Consulate in Cairo and on a security directorate in Shubra el-Kheima were claimed by Islamic State in Egypt, not Wilayat Sinai.

The Egyptian government claims progress in the fight against terrorism, and last week killed Ashraf el-Gharably, reportedly a top commander in Wilayat Sinai. The UK has offered the support of special forces to help kill or capture Abu Osama al-Masry.

The British government declared Wilayat Sinai, then ABM, a terrorist entity in April 2014.

‘Egypt deserves support, not punishment,’ Anglican Bishop of Egypt Mouneer Hanna Anis told Lapido Media, critical of Russian and British decisions to restrict air travel to Egypt estimated to cost the nation nearly £185 million per month.

‘My prayer is to see the international community working together to fight terrorism.’

This article was first published at Lapido Media.


Friday Prayers for Egypt: Probable Cause

Flag Cross QuranGod,

A week later, still not enough is known. What caused the Russian airliner to fall from the sky?

A joint Egyptian-Russian team has been studying debris and black boxes, but has yet to issue a final report.

But ISIS’s affiliate in the Sinai claimed – twice – that it brought down the plane, though it will withhold specifics until a time of its choosing.

And officials in the US and UK have stated that an onboard bomb is the most likely cause, garnished from intelligence gained in online chatter.

Since then tourists are being evacuated, airlines are changing flight paths, vacationers are being warned, and Egypt is growing angry. The damage to her tourist industry is immeasurable, already in a climate of economic stress.

God, make sense of it all soon.

May the truth be known. May precautions be taken. May all stay safe. May they vacation in peace.

But God, why are nations not cooperating? Are Egypt and Russia dragging their feet, afraid to confirm a terrorist act? Are the US and UK leaking suspicion for political pressure?

Comfort the families of those who have died. Facilitate the return of tourists who wish. Help experts share intel and information. Keep a bad situation from becoming worse.

God, responsible or not for this tragedy, root out the terrorism that claims and rejoices.

But God, settle everyone’s spirits. Let neither fear nor frustration influence sound judgment. Grant Egypt wisdom and leadership to guide through this crisis.

May all be known transparently. May all be safer in the end.

God, bless Egypt and all who visit.



Exploiting Saudi Arabia’s Tension of Identity

Damage in a Shia Mosque in Saudi Arabia after a terrorist attack by the Islamic State
Damage in a Shia Mosque in Saudi Arabia after a terrorist attack by the Islamic State

The Washington Institute interprets the targeting of Shiites in Saudi Arabia as hitting at a vulnerable point in their religio-political ideology:

Over the past two weeks, the so-called “Islamic State” (IS) has claimed two attacks on Shiite mosques in Saudi Arabia’s Shiite-majority Eastern Province, one in Dammam and the other in Qatif. While the incidents might not have an immediate impact on the kingdom’s overall security, they are relevant to long-term IS strategy of weakening the Saudi government by exposing its alleged hypocrisy.

A nation-state is home to all its citizens. But …

By attacking the Eastern Province, IS seeks to place Riyadh in the position of defending or appeasing Shiites, at the expense of a Saudi Wahhabist state ideology that does not tread too far from that of IS (e.g., Saudi schools teach students that Shiites are unbelievers and not Muslims).

The article describes how official government response has been to condemn the attack and offer condolences to its victims. By international standards this is the absolute minimum requirement. Not mentioned is the bounty Saudi Arabia offered for information leading to the criminals.

But The Islamic State is not interested in the international standards:

From the Islamic State’s perspective, such actions highlight Riyadh’s rank hypocrisy, showing “true” believers in the “land of the two holy places” how the Saudi state is contravening both God and its own founding standards. By casting themselves as the true bearers of Islam, IS leaders hope to draw more recruits and supporters.

The Saudi government is in a tricky spot. A long time ago they made a deal with you know who. Is it now coming due?

Lapido Media Middle East Published Articles

There is no ‘Nation of the Cross’

Message Signed Blood ‘To the nation of the cross, we are back again.’

So boasted the black-clad narrator of the latest ISIS video, this time chronicling their slaughter of 30 Ethiopian Christians captured in Libya. Two months earlier, the victims were Coptic Christians, whose beheadings came entitled: A message signed with blood to the nation of the cross.

But what is the ‘nation of the cross’?

Some have embraced the terminology. The Christ Church United Methodist of the Woodlands, Texas, posted a Je Suis Charlie inspired message of support: ‘Here am I, I too, am a member of the nation of the cross.’

But Bishop Angaelos of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the UK thinks they are making a grave mistake.

‘This divisive terminology implies that we as a “nation” of Christians are at war with the “nation of Islam”,’ he wrote to the youth of his church.‘Of course this is not the case, and we must not be coerced into a state of enmity.’

ISIS labeled the ancient Ethiopian Orthodox Church an ‘enemy’, likely for the ongoing Ethiopian military response against the Islamist terrorist group al-Shabab in Somalia. Likewise, the Coptic Orthodox Church is targeted to a great degree for the Egyptian government’s crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood.

But ISIS is not just after these churches. ‘Our battle is between faith and blasphemy,’ the narrator declared. ‘We swear to Allah: You will not have safety, even in your dreams, until you embrace Islam.’

In seeing itself as a caliphate, Angaelos told Lapido Media, ISIS wants to put itself at war with Christianity.


‘Because there is a Muslim ummah, there must be in their eyes a Christian ummah, the nation of the cross,’ he said, using the Arabic word that can be translated as ‘nation’.

‘This is why I am very alarmed when people use it naively, because they are buying into a rhetoric that is not ours.’

And according to Muslim scholars, ‘nation of the cross’ is not part of Islamic rhetoric either.

The word ummah is used 62 times in the Qur’an, sometimes referring to ‘peoples’ in general. But over time it becomes more specific to the Muslim community, according to Frederick Denny’s chapter, ‘The meaning of ‘ummah’ in the Qur’an’, in The History of Religions.

Christians and Jews are viewed as an ummah as recipients of divine revelation, but Christians are labeled ahl al-kitab, or ‘people of the book’.

‘This phrase [nation of the cross] is unknown, ISIS has invented it to divide people,’ Muhga Ghalib, dean of Islamic Studies at al-Azhar University told Lapido Media. ‘We have the three religions: Islam, Christianity, and Judaism, and we are brothers in humanity.’

The editor-in-chief of the Muslim Brotherhood’s official English website agreed. ‘I cannot really make any reference of “nation of cross” to Islamic heritage, or history, and I’m not sure what the origin is,’ Hazem Malky told Lapido. ‘It looks like something they use in their own literature to serve their needs and ideology.’

But even where the rhetoric turns negative in Islamic history, terms like ahl al-dhimmah or kuffar are employed, to refer either to a protected community paying jizya tax, or to infidels.

ISIS’ video also highlights the fact that Syria’s Christians admit paying the tax, having been brought to the point of submission. Rejecting the nation-state system, ISIS sees the caliphate at war with distinct religious communities with the aim of subjugating them.


Its extremist scholars have made a science out of reviving obscure concepts in Islamic history, like the selling of sex slaves and the burning of captives. These are rejected by the vast majority of Muslims today.

But even a group with traditional animosity against Christians finds the term ‘nation of the cross’ unfamiliar. Hany Nour Eddin, a member of Egypt’s dissolved parliament with the formerly militant al-Gama’a al-Islamiya, told Lapido Media ISIS tries to invoke the Crusades in its effort to pit East against West.

‘ISIS uses the logic of power and jihad in order to create conflict,’ he said. ‘They are trying specifically to recruit the Islamist current to their side, telling them the democratic experiment has failed.’

Bishop Angaelos, on the other hand, interprets it as the recruitment of an enemy.

He says ISIS wants a military response motivated by Christian sentiment. ‘The West must not give in. This ideology must fall, otherwise those killed will be replaced by others,’ he says.

Instead, those motivated by Christian sentiment have a responsibility to exhibit their faith.

After the beheading of the Copts by ISIS, Angelos tweeted #fatherforgive, and it quickly went viral. When BBC and CNN reported it, the popular discourse shifted.

Angaelos is calling for his own redefinition of terms to be taken up more broadly, to prevent the world being sucked into a false dichotomy.

‘When we disengage from this language, we move away from the simplicity of Christian West versus Muslim East, because it’s wrong,’ he said. ‘I find this concept of the Muslim world quite offensive. Do I not have a place? For millions of Christians, this is our world also, plus Baha’is and non-believers beside.’

He adds that ‘the nation of the cross’ does not fit the West in its religious diversity. Coining a phrase foreign to Islam, Christianity, and modern civilization, ISIS is threatening to set the terms.

‘They are killing Muslims not just Christians’ says Angaelos. ‘This ideology considers everything unlike itself an enemy.’

This article was first published at Lapido Media.

Diocese of Egypt (Anglican) Middle East Published Articles

The Archbishop of Canterbury in Cairo: Offering Condolence, Bearing Witness

Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby
Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby

Archbishop of Canterbury Rev. Justin Welby visited the Anglican All Saints Cathedral in Cairo and opened his sermon with a surprising comparison. Earlier he visited Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Grand Sheikh of al-Azhar Ahmad al-Tayyeb, and Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II.

“It has been an interesting and useful day,” the archbishop told the packed cathedral of his high profile itinerary, “but worshipping with you is the most important part.

“Here we meet with Jesus Christ and become his witnesses.”

Welby’s visit was to offer condolences for Egypt’s most recent witnesses, the twenty Coptic Christians and one Ghanaian martyred in Libya in February. The word ‘martyr’ is derived from a Greek word meaning ‘witness.’

Symbolically, Welby delivered to Pope Tawadros twenty-one letters written by grieving British families. One is believed to have been related to David Haines, the aid worker captured in Syria and beheaded last year.

“Why have the martyrs of Libya spoken so powerfully to the world?” Welby asked. “The way these brothers lived and died communicated that their testimony is trustworthy.”

The Most Rev. Dr. Mouneer Hanna Anis, archbishop of the Anglican diocese of Egypt, North Africa, and the Horn of Africa, hosted Welby and welcomed him warmly.

But an unfortunate symbolism coincided his visit with the release of another video from the Islamic State in Libya, this time of Ethiopian Christians. Two groups totaling twenty-eight people were martyred, one beheaded and the other shot in the head.

Welby paid tribute to them, along with others killed for their faith in Kenya and Nigeria.

He noted the certainty of their resurrection, but stated, “We must grieve for them, support their families, and seek to change the circumstances that lead to their deaths.”

Welby’s sermon did not go into specifics, but he has earlier defended military strikes against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, while urging local governments to exercise their mandated use of force to restore order.

And concerning the flood of refugees to the region, “Europe as a whole must stand up and do what is right,” he told the BBC, and share the burden of accepting them.

According to the UN High Commission for Refugees, over 125,000 Syrians have fled to Egypt. Refuge Egypt, a social service arm of the Anglican Church in Egypt, extends food and medical care to those the UNHCR designates as of particular concern.

Welby praised the Christians of the Middle East for their trustworthy witness. But in order to be communicated, it must be acted out.

“If the church hears the world’s cries for help, but turns its back,” he said, “they will not believe in the love of Christ.”

Visiting with President Sisi, the archbishop heard him emphasize that Egyptian Christians are not a minority, but enjoy their full rights as all other Egyptian citizens.

Visiting with Grand Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayyib, he heard that love and mercy are the two elements that must characterize both international and human relations, and that the true picture of Islam and Christianity must be presented to the world.

“When a community is full of light,” Welby said in his sermon, “people will see through it and perceive God, and know they are loved by Christ.”

During communion, he sought to demonstrate this. Aware the Coptic Orthodox and Catholic bishops present could not share in full fellowship, Welby went to them and knelt down, asking for a blessing. In response, the two reciprocated and each prayed for the other in turn.

So many are having hard times in this region, Welby said, he wanted to come and offer condolences. Finishing his sermon, hepromised the audience that he was praying for them in the Middle East, but closed with a request of his own, for the West.

“Please pray for us, that in our comfort we do not forget to be faithful witnesses.”

This article was first published at the Anglican Diocese of Egypt website.

Christianity Today Middle East Published Articles

More Martyrs: ISIS Executes Dozens of Ethiopian Christians in Libya

Ethiopian Christians LibyaA few excerpts from my article for Christianity Today, published April 20:

Once again, ISIS has orchestrated and filmed the dramatic mass killing of African Christians who refuse to deny their faith.

This time, the approximately 28 men targeted by the Libya affiliate of the self-proclaimed Islamic State (also known as Daesh) were Ethiopian Christians. In February, the killing of 21 mostly Egyptian Christians drew widespread horror and fears of future massacres, but also led to Egypt’s largest Bible outreach.

The video was released the same day the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, arrived in Cairo to offer condolences for the previous martyrs in Libya: 20 Coptic Orthodox Christians and a sub-Saharan African. (CT reported how their deaths were unifying Egypt and inspiring Muslims throughout the Arab world, as well as honored in the Coptic calendar.)

“Why has Libya spoken so powerfully to the world?” asked Welby during a public sermon. “The way these brothers lived and died testified that their faith was trustworthy.”

The Ethiopian government has not yet been able to confirm the video, or certify the victims are its citizens.

But Grant LeMarquand, the Anglican bishop of the Horn of Africa, says they certainly appear to be.

“If they were given the chance to convert and did not,” he told CT, “they should be considered what ISIS calls them: ‘People of the Cross’, and therefore true followers of the crucified one.”

Bishop Angaelos, the general bishop of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the United Kingdom, underscored the Ethiopians’ testimony.

“Once again we see innocent Christians murdered purely for refusing to renounce their faith,” he said in a statement.

“As Christians, we remain committed to our initial instinct following the murder of our 21 Coptic brothers in Libya, that it is not only for our own good, but indeed our duty to ourselves, the world, and even those who see themselves as our enemies, to forgive and pray for the perpetrators of this and similar crimes,” he said. “We pray for these men and women, self-confessed religious people, that they may be reminded of the sacred and precious nature of every life created by God.”

Please click here to read the full article at Christianity Today.


Escaping ISIS in Libya

From the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
Osama Mansour (L), from the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Consider the horrible ordeal of Coptic Christians in Libya, as the Islamic State stormed their compound. The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review tells how one escaped, helped by his Muslim friend:

Hani Mahrouf awakened at 2:30 in the morning when fists pounded on the door of his housing compound in Sirte, Libya.

It was Islamic State gunmen, searching for Egyptian Christians.

“They had a lot of weapons,” said Mahrouf, 33, a Muslim construction worker. “They asked if we were Muslim or Christian.

“We told them we were Muslim. Then they asked for the rooms of the Christians.

“They threatened us with their guns.”

The article describes how fighters scaled the compound walls, but the story centers on one who got away:

Osama Mansour, a Christian, was sleeping in a room of the first compound when ISIS burst in. Warned of what was happening, he slipped outside and “jumped from fence to fence just ahead of the gunmen,” he said.

He escaped but was left on his own in the dangerous city, separated from his friends.

“I stayed (in Sirte) for 30 days, but I didn’t stay in the same room” from night to night, said the 26-year-old tile worker.

A man he called “Sheikh Ali,” a Muslim from his home province of Assuit, helped Mansour hide and constantly change locations. Eventually, he grew a beard in order to leave Sirte.

“ISIS had two checkpoints that they would move around. I heard they were checking for tattoos” — he pointed to the bluish-black cross that he and many Coptic Christians ink on the insides of their wrists — “and we put a plaster cast on my hand and wrist. Sheikh Ali gave me a Quran and a prayer rug for the trip.

“I had to do this — I can’t have my mother wearing black” for mourning, Mansour said.

The article says most of his companions also eventually returned home, but it does not specify Sheikh Ali. Maybe he is still in Libya, able to work. If so, Osama may be using a pseudonym to protect his friend’s identity there.

One would hope it is not to protect his identity in Egypt. Recent news has some in the village protesting the church President Sisi promised to build in the name of the martyrs.

But in Libya, in this instance, the bonds of relationship and homeland proved stronger than the militant call of extremist religion. Amid constant news of chaos and atrocity, stories like this are precious reminders of humanity.

Unfortunately, guns and ideology can change the equation.

Christianity Today Middle East Published Articles

Forgiving ISIS: Christian ‘Resistance’ Videos Go Viral in the Arab World

Myriam, photo from SAT-7
Myriam, photo from SAT-7

From my new article at Christianity Today, published March 17, 2015:

A prime example of Ghalab’s wish for loving children: 10-year-old Myriam from Mosul, Iraq.

Her family fled their home last July with hundreds of thousands of other Christians, finding safety in Kurdistan’s Irbil. Essam Nagy of SAT-7 Kids visited the refugee camps and connected with Myriam, a faithful viewer who praised God for not allowing ISIS to kill them.

Asked about her feelings toward those who drove her from her home, Myriam wondered why they did this. Then she said: “I will only ask God to forgive them. Why should they be killed?”

To date, more than 1 million people have seen her witness online. [Full video at the bottom]

SAT-7’s five channels reach an audience of 15 million in North Africa and the Middle East, though it’s impossible to measure how many people watched Myriam. However, numbers can be tracked through the social media campaign, which has reached 25 times its normal audience, with subtitles of the video provided in English, Spanish, Turkish, and Chinese. Word spread not only through SAT-7 affiliates, but also in the local secular press.

Pan-Arabic al-Arabia praised Myriam for confronting ISIS with love. “Everyone who listens to her is astounded,” echoed the Egyptian Youm 7. Leading Lebanese daily al-Nahar called for the clip to be shown in the nation’s schools as a lesson in humanity.

Please click here to read the full article at Christianity Today.

Here is the link directly to the YouTube video of Myriam.

And here is the second video featured, of a brother to two of the Coptic martyrs in Libya, calling in to SAT-7 to both thank and pray for the murderers of ISIS.


Podcast: On the Middle East, Christians, and ISIS

The Way Home - Dan DarlingThis week I had the opportunity to appear on ‘The Way Home‘ podcast, hosted by Dan Darling. Darling is the Vice President for Communications at the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and he invited me to share about current events in the Middle East and in particular how they are impacting Christians. Here is his introduction:

All of us have reacted with horror at the atrocities committed by the terrorist group ISIS upon Christians in the Middle East. How can Christians pray? How should we think about ISIS?

Today on The Way Home I talk with Jayson Casper, a Christianity Today journalist who has been covering this story. He called me from Cairo to discuss how Christians in places like Egypt, Jordan, and other countries are reacting to the atrocities of their brothers and sisters in Syria and Iraq and Libya. He also gives a thorough analysis of ISIS and Islamic extremism.

Our conversation lasted about half an hour, touching on various questions. Is ISIS Islamic? How are Christians responding? How should Western Christians pray?

Please click here to open a new window and listen to the podcast.


Researching the Islamic State

Researching ISIS

I confess to not having kept up well with the so-called Islamic State. My focus has always been on Egypt, with peripheral attention given to the region. If Egypt has been difficult to understand – living here – the rest of the region seemed near impossible. And fortunately, the complicating factor of the Islamic State had stayed distant from Egypt, until recently.

I am afraid a partial reason for my inattention is a success of their strategy. The Islamic State has its roots in Iraq, where it was one of many groups blowing up lots of stuff. Amid the moral ambiguity of the US occupation, yet another suicide bombing had a numbing effect. Why read one more template of the same story?

As they expanded into Syria the tale changed slightly, but with the same effect. The Islamic State was just one of many groups with unclear origins and less clear funding sources. Whatever nobility the original uprising may have had, it was quickly lost in a devastating civil war and the international hand-wringing that talked much and did little – which may have been for the best except for all the accumulated ‘little’ done behind the scenes.

And late last summer when the Islamic State drove out the historic Christian community and enslaved other religious minorities, it just accelerated a pattern recently established but seemingly inevitable. Palpitations of horror stimulated some writing, but what could be done to stem the tide? For every sympathetic Arabic letter ن placed on a Facebook page in solidarity, the futility of a hashtag campaign just became more apparent.

Finally, the Islamic State became another tool in the tool belt of conspiracy theorists, so abundant in the Arab world. For some their leader was a Mosad operative. Others saw the dirty hand of America looking for an excuse to reoccupy the region. Turkey and Qatar were blamed. As the US-led coalition rained more bombs upon the region in an effort to ‘degrade’ their capabilities, sorting through the conspiracies was far too daunting to contemplate.

All this is said to my detriment, for as noted it fits well with Islamic State strategy. They wish to wear down the morale of their enemy and give the appearance of the inevitability of their victory. Conspiracies aside, this is a key reason why the Iraqi army fled before them. Though greatly outnumbered ISIS believed in their fight. And their fight included years of kidnapping, assassinations, and suicide bombings that convinced the American-trained military it just wasn’t worth it.

My responsibility is Egypt, so I don’t believe I have run from a fight. But allowing myself to fall behind in the scholarship on the Islamic State is a dereliction of duty all the same, for Egypt is part of the on-edge region. The emergence of the Islamic State is one of the most important developments in a long time. Far more than a radical insurgency or religious revolution, their gains are a direct challenge to the nation-state system. That they have been successful relates directly to the weakness of this system in the region.

In the past few days I have finally taken time to remedy my negligence. This has come through reading some of the journalism and research on where the Islamic State stands today, in addition to fabulous video obtained by a journalist given a unique tour of their operations. I hope this brief summary will serve to compensate any deficiency in your knowledge, with less time investment.

But if you have the time to view this 45 minute feature from Vice News, I would recommend it. Published on August 15, it predates the beheading of foreigners and represents a moment in time the Islamic State was more open to outside eyes. They have allegedly issued a set of guidelines for journalists more recently, but I suspect few would be willing to trust their hospitality, let alone agree to the stipulations therein.

The footage is from Raqqa, the 500,000 population city now known as the capital of the caliphate. Familiar with cities in the Arab world, it was surprising to witness the normalcy of the environment mixed with the normalcy of atrocity. Familiar looking desert landscapes were cut with unfamiliar trenches, filled by familiar looking men carrying unfamiliar weapons.

Far worse was the familiar looking city square filled with familiar Arab facial features severed from their bodies. The Islamic State shows no pangs of conscience in its displays of brutality, but as will be remarked later, it all fits into a code that allows, even facilitates the rule of law.

For familiar scenes abounded in roadside shops and government installations, where the Islamic State has assumed the responsibility for service provision and justice. But unfamiliar morality police roam the streets, curbing the unfortunately familiar practices of bribery and corruption. And whereas it is normal to watch fathers and sons playing in a depleted riverbed, it is less common to hear preteens spew the vilest hatred of infidels and eagerly anticipate killing them.

For as Mara Revkin has detailed in Syria Comment, the conventional wisdom about jihadists being agents of chaos is ill-founded. Supported by Sarah Birke in the New York Review of Books, she shows that the chaos inducing practices of insurgency are quickly replaced by law and order once territory is seized. Patterns of governance, she remarks, are actually quite similar to those practiced by Europeans in the dawn of their industrial nation-state building efforts.

In pattern, that is, not necessarily in practice. The task of a state is win a monopoly on violence. To do so in contemporary Syria and Iraq requires quite a bit of violence at the outset. To secure an area the Islamic State uses a combination of fighting and buying loyalty. Upon submission of either kind they first demand repentance, and then disarmament. The Sheitat tribe in Deir Ezzor chose resistance, failed, and then had 700 men slaughtered, and 1,800 disappear. When none rose to their aid surrounding tribes learned a lesson. At the least they made common cause against a common enemy in Shia-led Baghdad. Several top leaders of the Islamic State are former ranking officers in the Baathist Iraqi military.

But once an area is in submission they work to restore functionality. Employees are left in their administrative positions. Zakat is collected and social service established for the poor. Police officers are well paid, enforcing a strict code based on sharia. This includes the cutting off of hands, whipping, and crucifixion. But it is not simply a code of deterrence. The Islamic State has punished, even executed its own members who transgress. This has been key to win at least the tacit acceptance of the population, who see a measure of justice at work. Used to the corruption of the previous regime, if people lie low and stay out of trouble it seems they can get on quite well.

In theory this applies even for Christians, some of whom have agreed to pay the dhimmi jizia tax. But most have fled when given the opportunity, leaving their churches behind which have been ransacked or converted to mosques. The video depicted one interior re-designer who took particular joy in destroying the crosses worshiped by the infidels.

But even in the far worse treatment for Shia and Yazidis, the Islamic State operates according to code. Guidelines have been issued for the treatment of enemy combatants and female slaves that horrify many modern Muslims. They meticulously draw from historic sources and practice, but the point is the importance of law. They are trying to build something that will last, and expand, in imitation of the earliest centuries of Islam.

But the question is, where do they get the money to do so? Long reports by Charles Lister in Brookings Doha, and Martin Chulov in the Guardian describe the history and funding sources of the Islamic State. And the conclusion is they largely earn it themselves. This flies in the face of the conspiracy theories, though it demands investigation of different ones altogether.

The original progenitor of the Islamic State is actually from Jordan, from whence Abu Musab al-Zarqawi hailed. But he made his name in Iraq, stoking sectarian tension to enflame the conflict against the Americans. After his death leadership of then-al-Qaeda in Iraq passed to Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, who led the incarnation of the first Islamic State effort from 2006-2008, defeated by the Sahwa tribal uprisings supported by the United States. But when Abu Omar was killed in 2010, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi assumed leadership, and in 2014 he declared himself caliph. Intelligence sources say many of these jihadis passed through Syria first, given free conduct by President Assad.

Origins of this movement, however, trace all the way back to 2004 in a US prison in Iraq. Research indicates 17 of the top 25 Islamic State leaders spent time incarcerated, which actually helped their efforts. Outside of prison insurgents and jihadis operated independently; prison put them all in contact with one another. They even wrote contact information on the elastic lining in their underwear. When released or freed in jailbreak, they reconnected to put strategies in motion. Boxers helped us win the war, said one leader in an interview.

But the new leadership was at odds with their former worldwide partners in terrorism, and even their own disciples. Baghdadi sent his deputy to Syria when the Arab Spring began. Eventually he created Jabhat al-Nusra and chose not to submit, maintaining allegiance to Ayman al-Zawahiri of al-Qaeda. The two groups have clashed several times since, including in Raqqa before the Islamic State took control.

But once in control, and in expansion to other regions, revenues skyrocketed through the sale of smuggled oil. Additional sources included extortion money, ransom payments, and general taxation. At its height before the coalition bombing campaign, revenue equaled $2 million per day. No conspiratorial funding relationship with Saudi Arabia or Qatar is needed, but still conspiracies exist. Who purchases the oil, and from where? Who lets the foreign jihadists, now numbering 18,000 of the 31,000 fighting force, across the borders?

Indications point strongly to Turkey, though regime controlled areas in Syria also have a role. But all articles indicated the Islamic State is indeed becoming a state, though fully outside the nation-state system. What is to be done?

Going further than just this collection of articles, suggestions have included American reengagement on the ground, US support to Arab nation engagement on the ground, arming ‘moderate’ rebels against the Islamic State and the Assad government in some order, or supporting Assad in his position while negotiating a better political situation. Drying up revenue sources by pressuring regional allies to clamp down on the black markets has also been demanded, but with limited success.

It should be stated that I have heard Islamic State-type rhetoric the Arab world over, long before this current emergency. Rarely have I encountered an inclination to mete out such violence in implementation, but the goals of the new caliphate resonate with many a Muslim. It connects to their glorious past, claiming fidelity to the honored scriptures and righteous ancestors. And psychologically it allows non-introspection about current woes, finding refuge in the simpler hope of ‘if only we were more faithful Muslims, God would honor us.’

Of course, Muslims the world over have condemned the Islamic State, though in various fashion. The modern world is far different than the Ottoman Empire, or any other caliphate before it. Islam can get on very reasonably as a spiritual faith, disembodied from political power. Many Muslims are quite happy here.

But there is that something in Islam that clamors for power. It is not enough to live righteously and call others also to do so. Living righteously calls for stopping evil. Stopping evil requires power. Power resides best in governance. But, oh so unfortunately, power in governance tends to corrupt.

The Islamic State is doing its best to root out corruption. They are not after personal gain (presumably), but divine principle. Their horrors are obvious, but not random. They enact a code as they understand it. But at the same time, they issue contracts of sale for their black market partners who purchase the smuggled oil. The Arab world has suffered much evil, and they are fighting back. But so easily are compromises made.

And so wretched when moral horrors find justification in religious texts, rightly or wrongly. Sharia law has a place detailing the legal uses of spoils of war. It is from this heritage the Islamic State draws its regulations on proper conduct toward female slaves.

But war is human, as is power and governance. Muslims have long defended this aspect of their revelation as divine elevation of primal realities. Many state the norms of the past must be updated with the times, but they see it as a credit to their faith that it details all aspects of human existence, even unseemly ones.

So then, what to do with this catch up reading on the Islamic State? I hope this essay is at least partial fruit, that you as well may be better informed. But what good is information in the light of atrocities? Is not more demanded?

I confess I am not well placed to offer policy analysis on what to do in Syria and Iraq. With respect to all those placed in positions of influence, I wish them wisdom, discernment, and a pure heart. The current troubles are built upon compounded errors stretching back decades, from local and foreigner alike. It is far easier to criticize than find solution, especially from the outside. I tend to wish we would leave bad enough alone, and give up policing the world. But then so much would fall apart. It is hard to be on top, responsible to defend the stability of a world order upon which one’s prosperity depends. It is also hard to stomach the interventions at times necessary to maintain it.

But these are idealistic wishes of justice and responsible economy, not the workings of realpolitik. I would like to trust American leadership cares for our prosperity in good conscience with the prosperity of others. Alas, I fear this is not always so. Interest often trumps principle, especially when in power.

I have more confidence, perhaps, in weighing religious response in interaction with the rhetoric of the Islamic State. I see how their conduct is drawn from religion, and I see how rebuttal is drawn from the same. Islam is not monolithic, it is a flexible heritage. It must be, to have been so influential across time and geography.

Therefore, on this front, both groups must be challenged from their own sources. Jihadists and those of similar thought must realize Islam has torn itself apart in history, and created mechanisms to prevent reoccurrence. One many not call a Muslim an infidel, no matter how much he sins. And preventing evil has a rich heritage of interpretation, so that a zealot in his effort to forbid wrong does not wind up creating even more. These are basic lessons of civilization, and they have a religious root.

But for those who are quick to condemn the Islamic State and demonstrate Islam is a religion of peace, this is fine rhetoric but poor research. This group also, both Muslim and non-, must struggle with sources that mirror the practices witnessed today. Many Muslims try, and their efforts have been controversial. Some have looked to find modern ethics in their own heritage, rightly reinterpreted. Others have relegated the heritage to a bygone era, however superior it was to the ethics of the time. This effort is ongoing, but few will dare to condemn, for example, the early wars of Islamic expansion.

In both instances, though, care must be taken to win people and not arguments. The goal is a better vision for peace in this world, and for those who believe, also in the next. The goal is not to demonstrate the superiority of one faith or civilization over another. It is not to tear down a beloved heritage or corrupt sincerely held doctrine. It is to challenge each and every person to live up to higher ideals of truth and love, even as these ideals are debated. It goes without saying one must subject him or herself to the same process.

This will do little to change the Islamic State, but it may do well in conversation about it.


The Sharia of ISIS and Azhar

Sharia Azhar ISISDoes the so-called Islamic State represent the essence of Islam, or its perversion? The answer supplied often closely aligns with one’s ideology.

But what does ISIS say for itself? Here is testimony gathered by the Guardian on what is taught in the training camps:

Unlike previous incidents of stoning adulterers and crucifixion, throwing people from high buildings [for homosexuality] did not even inspire criticism of sharia in the Middle East because many did not realise it was a sharia penalty in the first place.

But it is the obscurity of the punishment that makes it particularly valuable for Isis. The purpose is not to increase the volume of violence but also to raise eyebrows and trigger questions about such practices, which Isis is more capable of answering than mainstream clerics, who prefer to conceal teachings that propound such punishments.

Many Isis members were eager to emphasise they were impressed by such obscure teachings, and were drawn to the group by the way Isis presents Islam with absolute lucidity.

Similar is the question of whether or not Islam spread by the sword:

We spread our message by proselytisation and sword. Ibn Taymiyyah said ‘the foundation of this religion is a book that guides and a sword that brings victory’. We guide and the sword brings victory.

“If someone opposes the message of the prophet, he faces nothing but the sword. As the prophet spread the message across the Earth, we are doing the same.”

Another member echoed Abu Moussa’s reasoning. “The prophet said: ‘I have been given victory by means of terror.’ As for slaughter, beheading and crucifixion, this is in the Qu’ran and Sunna [oral sayings attributed to prophet Muhammad].

“In the videos we produce, you see the sentence ‘deal with them in a way that strikes fear in those behind them’, and that verse speaks for itself. One more thing: the prophet told the people of Quraish, ‘with slaughter I came to you’.”

The article claims that mainstream clerics prefer not to address these more sordid matters. But here is very thorough counter-tract, called an Open Letter to Baghdadi, with a 24-point refutation of the Islamic State and its practices.

It is signed by Muslim leaders around the world, exposing either the ignorance or agenda of those who rail against ‘moderate Muslims’ for not condemning ISIS. The punishment of throwing from the rooftops is not mentioned, but here is an excerpt from their section on jihad:

The reason behind jihad for Muslims is to fight those who fight them, not to fight anyone who does not fight them, nor to transgress against anyone who has not transgressed against them. God’s words in permitting jihad are: ‘Permission is granted to those who fight because they have been wronged. And God is truly able to help them; those who were expelled from their homes without right, only because they said: “Our Lord is God”. Were it not for God’s causing some people to drive back others, destruction would have befallen the monasteries, and churches, and synagogues, and mosques in which God’s Name is mentioned greatly. Assuredly God will help those who help Him. God is truly Strong, Mighty.’ (Al-Hajj, 22: 39-40).

Thus, jihad is tied to safety, freedom of religion, having been wronged, and eviction from one’s land. These two verses were revealed after the Prophet ﷺ and his companions suffered torture, murder, and persecution for thirteen years at the hands of the idolaters. Hence, there is no such thing as offensive, aggressive jihad just because people have different religions or opinions. This is the position of Abu Hanifa, the Imams Malik and Ahmad and all other scholars including Ibn Taymiyyah, with the exception of some scholars of the Shafi’i school.

And for the benefit of Egypt’s reputation, here is a list of her signatories, many of whom are affiliated with the Azhar:

4. Prof. Salim Abdul-Jalil, Former Undersecretary for da’wah at the Awqaf Ministry, and Professor of Islamic Civilization at Misr University for Science & Technology

5. Sheikh Wahid Abdul-Jawad, Fatwa Council (Dar al-Ifta’)

6. Dr. Mustafa Abdul-Kareem, Fatwa Council (Dar al-Ifta’)

7. Prof. Ibrahim Abdul-Rahim, Professor of Shari’ah, Dar al-Ulum College, Cairo University

8. Prof. Jafar Abdul-Salam, Secretary-General of the League of Islamic Universities

11. HE Prof. Sheikh Shawqi Allam, The Grand Mufti of Egypt

13. Prof. Mohammad Mahmoud Abu-Hashem, Vice-President of Al-Azhar University and member of the Centre for Islamic Research at Al-Azhar Al-Sharif

16. Prof. Mohammad Al-Amir, Dean of the Faculty of Islamic Studies for Girls, Al-Mansoura University

17. Dr. Majdi Ashour, Fatwa Council (Dar al-Ifta’)

18. Prof. Dr. Abdul-Hai Azab, Dean of the Faculty of Shari’ah and Law, Al-Azhar University

21. Prof. Bakr Zaki Awad, Dean of the Faculty of Theology, Al-Azhar University, Egypt

23. Dr. Sheikh Osama Mahmoud Al-Azhari, Islamic Preacher

35. Dr. Mohammad Abdul Sam’i Budair, Fatwa Council (Dar al-Ifta’)

41. Prof. Jamal Farouq Al-Daqqaq, Professor at Al-Azhar University

44. Prof. Mohammad Nabil Ghanayim, Professor of Shari’ah, Dar al-Ulum College, Cairo University

45. Sheikh Dr. Ali Gomaa, Former Grand Mufti of Egypt

55. HE Prof. Mohammad Al-Hifnawi, Professor of Usul al-Fiqh at the Faculty of Shari’ah and Law at Al-Azhar University, Tanta branch

56. Prof. Sami Hilal, Dean of the College of the Holy Qur’an, Tanta University

57. Prof. Sa’d al-Din Al-Hilali, Head of the Department of Comparative Jurisprudence at Al-Azhar University

63. Dr. Khaled Imran, Fatwa Council (Dar al-Ifta’)

71. Sheikh Ahmad Wisam Khadhr, Fatwa Council (Dar al-Ifta’)

72. Sheikh Muhammad Wisam Khadhr, Fatwa Council (Dar al-Ifta’)

74. Sheikh Mohammad Yahya Al-Kittani, Preacher & Imam

76. Sheikh Amr Mohamed Helmi Khaled, Islamic Preacher and Founder and President of the Right Start Global Foundation

81. Prof. Dr. Abdul Hamid Madkour, Professor of Islamic Philosophy, Dar al-Ulum College, Cairo University

83. Prof. Mohammad Mukhtar Al-Mahdi, Professor of Islamic Studies, Al-Azhar University and President of the Shari’ah Society

85. Sheikh Ahmad Mamdouh, Fatwa Council (Dar al-Ifta’)

89. Prof. Mohammad Abdul Samad Muhanna, Advisor to the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Al-Sharif

90. Sheikh Mukhtar Muhsen, Fatwa Council (Dar al-Ifta’)

91. Professor Fathi Awad Al-Mulla, Pundit and consultant for the Association of Islamic Universities

96. Mr. Abdul Hadi Al-Qasabi, Grand Sheikh of the Sufi Tariqahs in Egypt

97. Prof. Saif Rajab Qazamil, Professor of Comparative Jurisprudence, Al-Azhar University

99. Sheikh Ashraf Sa’ad, Muslim Scholar

102. Sheikh Mahmoud Al-Sharif, Head of the Association of Sherifs in Egypt

107. Prof. Ismail Abdul-Nabi Shaheen, Vice President Al-Azhar University and Deputy Secretary-General of the League of Islamic Universities

113. Prof. Nabil Al-Smalouti, Professor of Sociology and former Dean of the Department of Humanities, Al-Azhar University

121. Dr. Amr Wardani, Fatwa Council (Dar al-Ifta’)

126. Prof. Zaki Zaidan, Professor of Shari’ah, Faculty of Law, Tanta University

At the time of this writing, Prof. Zaidan is the last of 126 signatories. I am not aware of why it is arranged in this order, but high-ranking Egyptians are listed throughout.

Deeper analysis and further study is needed to either rebut or prove the claim that ISIS is Islam, but these scholars are certain it is far from the religion.


Sisi, ISIS, Tunisia, and Arab Spring Values

Sisi - ISIS

In a recent article at Foreign Policy, Iyad el-Baghdadi described the near-eternal and present dichotomy hoisted upon the Middle East: Support a dictator, or his overthrow via violent Islamism. He finds an ironic symbolism in that the names of Sisi and ISIS are spelled backwards, and describes their evils as parallel.

Near the end of the article he reasserts the hope that motivated many in early 2011:

The Arab Spring is about believing that we don’t have to eternally choose between these two evils, and that we can present a real alternative. Arab Spring activists come from across the political spectrum, but they share a belief in fundamental individual rights, coexistence within one political system, and an open marketplace for ideas. These are the people who represent me — and whom I hope to have successfully, if briefly, represented in a public forum.

These are worthy values, and the author was briefly critical of others beside Sisi and ISIS in his critique:

Both extremes are born out of the same twentieth-century political culture that gave us authoritarian interpretations of just about every ideology: authoritarian Islamism, authoritarian nationalism, authoritarian socialism, and even, yes, authoritarian liberalism. Both view human rights not as inviolable or inherent, but as granted by the state, which can then reduce or suspend them at will. And both envision a state in which some people have less rights than others.


Both sides have a deeply exclusionary, “with us or against us” worldview that manifests itself in a profound refusal to coexist with others. In the run-up to the 2012 elections, we saw the Mubarak-associated figure Shafik hint at banning Islamist parties should he get elected; during Morsi’s term we then watched Islamist discourse squeeze the space for civil society.

It would be worthy to dialogue with Baghdadi (the author, not the caliph!) about his opinion of the Muslim Brotherhood, for his criticism of them is far less severe, at least in this article. Indeed, he has tweeted and written prolifically, so his analysis is available.

But within the opening quote and listing of values comes a very poignant highlight: the open marketplace of ideas. Egypt did experience this open marketplace during its revolutionary period. With full respect to the diverse forces influencing public opinion, Egyptians overwhelmingly chose the Brotherhood and Salafis over the vision Baghdadi presents. Then, perhaps over and against his vision again, they overwhelming rejected Morsi.

The system that could tolerate this pendulum was never established, and perhaps this is Baghdadi’s lament. If left alone, would the Brotherhood have helped its establishment? Or are they just a milder version of ISIS, focused on a long term Islamization inconsistent with Baghdadi’s vision?

One problem is that the system the Brotherhood helped establish through their 2012 constitution enshrined an illiberalism antithetical to this vision. Shadi Hamid has explored this theme in his writing. Islamist organizations tend to moderate while in opposition, but then revert to their extremes when in power. But if such an illiberalism is what people vote for, if it wins the marketplace of ideas, how does it square with Baghdadi’s desire for fundamental individual rights?

He does not want to be forced back into a dichotomy, and this is noble. But would his vision have been able to triumph over time, allowing the people to reject Morsi four years later? Or eight? Or…

Perhaps, though the argument of urgency on the part of anti-Islamists is well known. To summarize, the Brotherhood would do all it could to sink its teeth into the existing system, to gain control of its levers and use it to their own advantage.

Fair or unfair, there is a distinction between the two current camps in the Egyptian struggle. The ideology of the Brotherhood — at its end goal, not necessarily through its stages or current rhetoric — does not support Baghdadi’s vision.

  • Fundamental individual rights: These are curbed by sharia, however variously defined.
  • Open marketplace of ideas: There are religious norms not allowed to be touched.
  • Coexistence within one political system: …

Here is the rub, and am I trying to find a comparison. A socialist versus capitalist vision of the economy can be very divergent. But European nations have navigated a path that has allowed various governments to traverse the path in different directions.

But how much allowance can there be for a democratic versus communistic approach to the state? Should the open marketplace of ideas, ostensibly welcomed in a democracy, allow momentum to build that would overthrow the system that enshrines it?

This later comparison seems closer to the struggle in Egypt. Liberal forces in Egypt have enshrined liberal values (to a degree) in the constitution, however much they recognize the violations used in putting down pro-Morsi protests, understanding also the violations on the part of certain protestors.

The question for this camp is if it will tolerate, or be able to resist, the continual violation. That is, will they accept reversion to Baghdadi’s dichotomy? The Mubarak regime held forward liberal values for thirty years — and all the while implemented a state of emergency that made it easy to circumvent them.

In all this, perhaps Baghdadi, like many, will find hope in Tunisia. The United States, two centuries ago, began a political experiment that removed religion from the sphere of the state, setting up a system meant to guard liberty and freedom. It has endured numerous contradictions along the years, but has been largely successful.

Now, Tunisia is beginning a political experiment that is seeking to integrate a religious, Islamist element. Will it be successful? Many Tunisians are worried, for in creating a system that allowed coexistence they had to beat back Islamist efforts to encode religion into the constitution. Efforts to do so in 2012 with the Brotherhood were not successful – the Brotherhood chose even more conservative Salafis as their partner. But the Brotherhood and the Tunisian Nahda come from the same family tree.

Is Nahda simply postponing a greater Islamizing goal? But more to the point, perhaps, of Baghdadi’s hope: Will the system created allow for the emergence and entrenchment of his Arab Spring values?

Consider the recent anti-liberal political moves of Turkey’s Islamist Erdogan, after an extended period of winning democratic elections. Will Tunisian Islamists consistently nudge and needle against values they have temporarily accepted? Will fear of a similar Islamist agenda lead to preemptive crackdown against them? Time will tell.

But the experiment is on, and perhaps Baghdadi and other activists frustrated with the dichotomy have a fledgling example of a third way.


Baghdadi, the Prince of Criminals

Abu Bakr Bagdadi

In traditional Islamic terminology the caliph is known as amir al-mu’mineen, or, the prince of the believers. In this new music video, Shaban Abdel Rahim adjusts the Arabic slightly to call him amir al-mugrimeen, the prince of criminals.

The video blasts the Islamic State for its conduct, and declares Islam to be innocent of their crimes. But there is political commentary also. Baghdadi is asked how much money he is receiving from Qatar, and the world is asked why Egypt is being left to fight its local terrorism alone.

These concerns are not unique to Egypt but certainly reflect much popular sentiment about the group. The video also hails the Egyptian army for its role in fighting terrorism in Sinai, where Ansar Bait al-Maqdis (Supporters of Jerusalem) has pledged its allegiance to ISIS. Egypt, however, has committed no troops to the coalition effort in Syria or Iraq.

In my opinion neither the song nor the satire is all that good, but the message is not missed by Baghdadi. According to Paul Attallah, to whom thanks are given for sharing the video and adding English subtitles, Abdel Rahim has already received death threats for his mocking.

Here is another humorous offering, from the Lebanese band, the Great Departed. It is called ‘The moulid of Sidi Baghdadi’, using phrases that laud him as a Sufi saint, an interpretation of Islam he vigorously opposes. The crowd laughs in delight.

Thanks to Arabist for this link, as well as a partial translation:

The song starts out showering traditional blessings and titles on Baghdadi, but quickly takes a turn into mockery. It has lines like this:

علشان الإسلام رحمة، رح ندبح ونوزع لحمة، وعلشان نخفف زحمة، حنفجر في خلق الله

عشان لا إكراه في الدين فلنقض عالمرتدين والشيعةوالسنيين والنصارى يا خسارة

(In Arabic it rhymes. My awkward translation is “Because Islam is merciful… we’ll butcher and hand out meat/To make it less crowded/We’ll blow folks up/Because there’s no compulsion in religion/we’ll kill unbelievers..and Shia and Sunnis and Christians, what a loss!”)

Arabist makes an interesting point. There is no doubting the cruelty of the group and its desire to be feared. Perhaps the best remedy, therefore, is not to take it seriously. Deny ISIS the strength it seeks.

Surely there are other more practical responses, but the response of humor to crisis is a particularly characteristic Egyptian trait. Military and religious efforts have their place, perhaps, but the cultural struggle may be paramount. It is here these two videos offer their contribution.



Friday Prayers for Egypt: Allegiances

Flag Cross Quran


Two declarations were issued this week, at complete opposite ends of the spectrum. From Sinai, Ansar Bait al-Maqdis pledged to obey the caliph of the Islamic State. From the Chamber of Commerce, a business delegation pledged to recruit other American companies to invest in Egypt.

One allegiance is to you, God, the other is to mammon. Both may be confused.

Therefore, guide them both.

A few days after the pledge to ISIS, terrorists struck at the Egyptian navy. Four boats in the Mediterranean targeted a naval vessel, opening a new chapter in the insurrection.

A few days before the pledge of investment, a UN hearing blasted the Egyptian record on human rights. But sixty-six companies targeted the private sector, opening a new chapter in the transition.

God, help Egypt to rebuild. Bring investment from abroad and from within, that a creative entrepreneurship might employ many. From a stronger economy build a stronger middle class. From a stronger middle class build a stronger civil society. And from a stronger civil society build a stronger respect for human rights.

But do not let it take that long. Amid the many troubles, hold the government accountable in treating people justly. And within these coming companies, may their corporate culture model good governance in the economic sphere.

And God, help Egypt to repel. Bring support from abroad and from within, that a humane determination might resist terrorism. From a deeper respect for human rights build a deeper sense of patriotism. From a deeper sense of patriotism build a deeper commitment to neighbor. And from a deeper commitment to neighbor build a deeper understanding of religion.

God, set the single-minded idealists of the Islamic State on the right path. Set the single-minded capitalists of the United States on the right path.

Once there, may their respective zeal and wealth benefit Egypt, the region, and the world. For without your guidance, God, they may trample it all.

Declare your goodness to Egypt, and recruit many to her aid. From abroad and from within, may all demonstrate allegiance to your principles.