ISIS: Ask the right questions

Many are contemplating the question ‘Is ISIS really Islam?’  In my own research about ISIS, if i am honest, my questions and ponderings are far more motivated by fear than  a theological curiosity about Islam.  Graeme Wood recently wrote a comprehensive article on ISIS (“What ISIS really wants” The Atlantic, March 2015), as have others describing the apocalyptic theology of these extremists. 

In talking with everyday Muslims however, I learn that most are embarrassed by ISIS. 

Further, they’re tired of people asking questions prompted by fear and media frenzy.  A recent dialogue with a Syrian refugee who fled from ISIS got me thinking… we’re asking the wrong questions. Worse yet, we’re not answering the right questions.

As gospel loving Christians we should not be concerned about the inter-Islamic debate or ISIS theology at the expense of a focus on Jesus and the good news of the gospel.  Many times our questions stray far from center, and we seek to confirm our own fear, rather than build bridges.  We need to ask the right questions.

For nearly 1000 years Islamic culture has not had much worthwhile to celebrate, nor has the gospel had significant influence in the Middle East. After the flourishing of world renowned culture, art, medicine and Algebra, (I wish they’d left that one alone) the Middle East spiraled. Abbasid, Omayyad defeat, withdrawal from territory won in Spain, conquering and border drawing by colonial powers, humiliation by the Israeli state, brutal dictators, Arab Spring…the list could go on… Islamic cultural identity has been broken, poor and shameful.

Witnessing Jordanians celebrate a World Cup victory over a European nation just a couple years ago I was taken aback by the intensity of joy in a normally stoic culture. One of my Arab friends pointed out “We really don’t have much to celebrate.”  The region is asking, ‘what will restore our honor?’  ‘How will we cover our shame?’  These are the questions that need answering.

Into this vacuum moved opportunistic dictators, Al Qaeda, and now ISIS with the convincing argument that the reason for shame is the lack of adherence to true Islam. In the absence of an alternative narrative, this answer is convincing.

Western Christians have not historically been successful in reaching the Middle East with the Gospel.  I suspect, as do others*, it is because our good news has been presented along with much cultural and political baggage.

We are concerned about many things in the Middle East… and the gospel seems very far down the list.

Are we asking the right questions?  It is nearly impossible for a Muslim to hear the good news, when it is packaged with a mix of the democratic system, Western patriotism, Zionism, and an end-times caricature that demonizes his tribe and ethnic group.  Murray says “Arabs and Jews are looking for answers to their own questions of sorrow, justice and love.  Sadly they have not turned to the church for those answers.  Why?

Because the church is not shouting answers to their questions.

Instead evangelicals are shouting to Arabs and Jews that they are merely pawns in and end-times chess game.”  I do not intend to make a stand here on any of these issues, or minimize the importance of these debates, but we need to ask poignant, focused questions that lance through the myriad important issues in the region, and slice open the core.

What is the hope for humanity that could cover the shame felt in the Middle East? What is the story that will counter ISIS’ powerful pull?  What, rather who, is the hope and desire of the nations?  We need to join with Paul in saying: “For what we proclaim is not ourselves (nor our political system, or doctrinal preferences), but Jesus Christ as Lord” (2Cor 4:5)  Are we indeed satisfied that the answer is in the historical Jesus, the proof in his resurrection? Will he come again and restore all things?  All other questions should pale, all other answers fade in the brilliance of this truth.

Let us ask the right questions, that lead to the Answer.

*For more reading on this subject, see: Abdu Murray, Apocalypse Later: Why the Gospel of Peace must trump the Politics of Prophecy in the Middle East

About Scott Gustafson

Scott Gustafson has extensive experience in ministry and business in the Middle East, having lived or worked in the region for 20 years. He is a PhD candidate at Vrije Universiteit working with the Extreme Beliefs Project. He is a guest lecturer and is also the Managing Partner of Purpose Global Strategies, an International Business and non-profit consulting firm. He advises large funding agencies as well as indigenous businesses and ministries in Sudan, Jordan, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. He has an MA in Intercultural Communication from Moody Graduate School, and a BA in Nursing and Biology from Western Michigan University. Scott and his wife have 2 children and they live in Grand Rapids, MI.