‘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.