I am a part of all that I have met; Yet all experience is an arch wherethro'
Gleams that untravell'd world, whose margin fades For ever and for ever when I move.

Month: December 2015

Loving the Islamic State

One of the notable things about the Islamic State is that they have a positive vision for an Islamic society. Unlike a group like al-Qaeda, for instance, which  never controlled territory, the Islamic State is trying to implement their understanding of ideal Islamic society. (Lest there be any confusion, I mean “positive” in the sense of “not just negative,” not as in “What a great vision!”) A recent cover story in The Atlantic argued that, far from being a collection of lunatics, the Islamic State is actually pursuing a logical course of action, granted the assumptions of a specific variety of eschatologically-oriented Islam. Acknowledging a logic to their actions is a good beginning as we move toward understanding them and (for Christians) as we move toward loving them.

Of course the most salient feature of the Islamic State’s rise is not its theology or its governance model, but its atrocities. These are particularly sadistic, and are (at least partially) calculated to attract international attention. In some sense, the Islamic State seems to be terrorism come of age in the media climate of the 21st century, terrorism with its full potential realized through the internet and social media.

And the propaganda is not peripheral to the campaign. That is the really frightening thing. The Islamic State’s explicit intention is to eliminate the possibility of a Western-Islamic accommodation—the ability of Muslims living in the West to integrate into the wider society, while maintaining their religious allegiance and identity. This accommodation can be destroyed two ways. They can woo Muslims (and presumably, new converts) with the shining example of their society. Or, they can do it by creating anti-Muslim sentiment in the West by perpetrating atrocities in the name of Islam. This will create a hostile environment in the West for Muslims, who will then be less susceptible to Western cultural assimilation. Western behavior itself then becomes a sounding board for the Islamic State’s message: “They’ll never accept you for who you are; join with us and live out your faith properly.” (In politics, it’s called a wedge issue, though I’m not quite prepared to call terrorism a continuation of diplomacy by other means.)

I call this the really frightening thing, not because it’s wicked or devious (though it is), but because it’s very hard for me to see how it will fail. My own recollection is that the September 11 attacks did not instill anywhere near as much hostility to Islam as the situation with the Islamic State has produced in the last year and a half. There is no excuse for bigotry, but a fourteen-year drumbeat of negative news coverage of Muslims has an effect. My feeble, “Don’t let the terrorists win,” is, in long form, “Ignore everything that the television and the internet present to you as representing reality, and instead give the benefit of the doubt to the religious intentions of people who look different from you, talk different from you, having very different-looking customs from you, and for the most part live apart from you.” That is a hard message to deliver, even if it is the imperative message of our time.

Combatting propaganda is never easy, I suppose. But it’s one thing to combat the propaganda of an enemy who says, “We’re doing great and our cause is righteous, whereas your government is corrupt and ineffective; join our side!” It’s quite another to combat propaganda that says, “Look, we’re bloodthirsty madmen looking to fight an end-times battle”—and of course with the subtext, “We’re the real Islam, and your neighbors would endorse us openly if they dared.”

These reflections formed the backdrop when I decided to have a read through an issue of Dabiq, the Islamic State’s famous “glossy magazine.” I got the most recent edition, issue 12, here. A few preliminary thoughts: Although I was reading from a PDF, the glossiness came through. The typography is good, if not creative. The transliteration of Arabic words was consistent, with long vowels marked consistently throughout the text (see below). (Many Arabic words are transliterated rather than transcribed. That would be a study in itself. Suffice it to say that I googled a lot of terms.) There were no spelling or grammatical mistakes. I read a lot of text written by non-native speakers of English, so this made a big impression of me. And finally, while showing pictures of one’s dead soldiers is about the worst thing one could do in the West, it is evidently effective propaganda for the target audience of Dabiq.

Perhaps a fourth or a third of the magazine was devoted to the political rivalries between the various jihadi groups, and I skimmed those parts. There were also reports of various attacks, which was sort of average propaganda stuff. What was interesting to me was the hortatory and theological passages. This is the one that made the biggest impression.

Amīrul-Mu’minīn Abū Bakr al-Husaynī al-Baghdādī (hafidhahullāh) said, “By Allah, we will take revenge! By Allah, we will take revenge! Even if it takes a while, we will take revenge, and every amount of harm against the Ummah will be responded to with multitudes more against the perpetrator. {And those who, when tyranny strikes them, they defend themselves} [Ash-Shūrā: 39]. Soon, by Allah’s permission, a day will come when the Muslim will walk everywhere as a master, having honor, being revered, with his head raised high, and his dignity preserved. Anyone who dares to offend him will be disciplined, and any hand that reaches out to harm him will be cut off. So let the world know that we are living today in a new era. Whoever was heedless must now be alert. Whoever was sleeping must now awaken. Whoever was shocked and awed must comprehend. The Muslims today have a loud, thundering statement, and possess heavy boots. They have a statement that will cause the world to hear and understand the meaning of terrorism, and boots that will trample the idol of nationalism, destroy the idol of democracy, and uncover its deviant nature” [A Message to the Mujahidin and the Muslim Ummah in the Month of Ramadan].

(Dabiq 12, pg. 2; emphasis mine)

I’ve developed a certain sensitivity to the importance of honor in this part of the world, and so it stings when I hear the implied realities for Muslims today: that they walk about as servants, that they have no honor, that they are not revered, that their heads are held down, and that their dignity is shattered. That is a lamentable state for any group of people; in the context of an honor-shame society, it’s tragic.

I think of the way that Muslims were portrayed in Captain Phillips. Who were they? What was there background? What were there struggles? From the movie’s perspective, those are irrelevant questions. (And the book was actually less sympathetic than the movie.) This is a story about an American victim and American rescuers. Some thugs pop up from out of nowhere, cause a problem, and then a competent, highly trained group of American soldiers kills them. If you were to create a movie about a fly that disturbed a meal and was then swatted, you would get a movie with the same narrative structure as Captain Phillips. What does it do to people, to see themselves portrayed thusly?

The quoted passage seems more specifically, however, to reflect the experience of the Islamic diaspora, particularly in Europe. It brings to mind Ka, the protagonist of Orhan Pamuk’s novel Snow. In Turkey, Ka was a poet, a leftist, a politically important (if bourgeois) member of society. He flees political persecution and ends up living a disgusting, isolated, and dissolute life in Frankfurt, unable to write poetry. When he returns to eastern Turkey for the events of the novel, the muse returns. Even though the presence of radical Islamic elements in the city are repelling to him, they are enticing to the people of the town, and there is no denying the overall impression on Ka as a person. I won’t ruin the ending; but throughout, Ka is presented as a barely-amiable, compromised Turk. Western freedoms are enticing, but the result is spiritually toxic. The unanswered question, of course, is: What place is there for a Muslim in the West?

And there are theological implications as well. John Lewis Gaddis, in interpreting the significance of the collapse of the U.S.S.R. in his book The Cold War, observed that the collapse effectively ended communism as an intellectual movement, because communism was not just a political program, it was also a scientific theory of history. It predicted continual revolution, and when that failed to happen, communism was through. I wonder whether Islam contains an analogous internal requirement. I wonder, for instance, about the frustrations expressed in this passage, drawn from an article that advocates polygyny:

Indeed, when the Sharī’ah of our Lord was eliminated, the laws and rulings of the kuffār gained power in the lands of the Muslims, Islam was shamefully abandoned, and faces turned towards promiscuous Europe, the voice of falsehood rose and with it the voices of those hostile towards the people of the religion, and the cancer of those who legislate besides Allah ﷺ ate away at the Ummah’s body. They prohibited what He permitted, and permitted what He prohibited, and one of the most manifest things that they ruined and defamed in defense of women and their rights – as they claimed – was polygyny. They utilized their podiums to that end, including the podiums of the kufrī parliaments and the secular TV channels, and placed on these podiums howling dogs, fools who do not perceive nor know their foolishness. Their poisoned words crept into the hearts of women from the lands of the Muslims, to the point that we almost couldn’t find a single woman that is accepting of this issue, except for those whom Allah protected.

(Dabiq 12, pg. 19)

In the paragraph above, I sense the frustration of watching a culture drifting away from a consensus that had been based on religion. There is bluster in the above paragraph about “fools who do not perceive nor know their foolishness,” but surely there is a more fundamental shame at not having carried the debate of a controversial social issue. “Why isn’t this working?”

As an evangelical Christian, that is a familiar feeling for me. The difference is that in Christianity, there is no expectation of success. We are a sect of Judaism, and even in the first century Judaism had an identity as an insurgent minority, struggling to maintain its identity in a broader culture that was going the other way. Christians have the promise that the gates of Hell will not prevail against it, but (so far as I can tell) that promise can really only be said to have been broken if we were exterminated entirely. There is no expectation that Christians will even become a majority before Christ’s return, for instance, or that we would be a significant influence in any society. The Bible has a lot to say about Christian behavior, but doesn’t really have a prescription for people outside the church. If the world goes to hell in a handbasket, that’s not really a theological problem for me.

As adults, and perhaps for some of us even as kids, we realize that the school bully, jerk though he was, probably had a pretty bad home situation. It doesn’t make him any less of a jerk, or justify his actions, but it gives you a sliver of pity. That sliver of pity is not Christian love, because it doesn’t necessarily engage with the individual as an individual and as a fellow sinner. But it is an entry point. I hope that, personally, I can begin to love and understand the Islamic State by appreciating where they’re coming from: a place of profound shame, and of frustration with the world for failing to match what their theology says it should be.

When Helping Hurts

I decided to read When Helping Hurts, by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert, because it had been recommended by several evangelical sources. The praise for the book has been lavish… but then again, it was for Walking with the Poor by Bryant Meyers as well, and as my previous reviews indicate, I was pretty thoroughly displeased with it. I approached When Helping Hurts, then, with both hopes and fears. I am pleased, though, to be able to write a positive review of it.

Since I’ve drawn a comparison between When Helping Hurts and Walking with the Poor already, it’s necessary to point out that these are very different books. When Helping Hurts is written for laypeople and churches. The assumption is that the audience will want to do something about poverty, and in fact that they are trying to do something about poverty already; the focus of the book is to tell them how to engage productively. Walking with the Poor, on the other hand, is oriented rather to the development professional (or the serious layperson), who is perhaps looking for a spiritual grounding for her professional work, or perhaps a way to integrate her religious beliefs into her project activities. Walking with the Poor presupposes development as an activity, and indeed the existence of the entire development industry (semi-pejorative use of “industry” there, on my part). When Helping Hurts presupposes the local church. I suspect that that difference in sequence goes a long way to explaining why I found When Helping Hurts so much more valuable.

Corbett & Fikkert actually adopt Myers’s definition of poverty, which is that poverty is a condition caused by a breakdown of relationships: between God and the individual, between the individual and self, between the individual and the community, and between the individual and creation. (This goes a bit further back than Myers of course, but they credit him.) So basically, poverty is the result of the Fall. We’re on solid Christian ground here.

The books diverge, however, in their definitions of poverty alleviation—in fact, the two definitions, because the authors quite rightly distinguish between poverty alleviation in general and material poverty alleviation. This is an excellent start, since as I noted in my first review of Walking with the Poor, assuming the idea of “poverty” and then trying to shoehorn “spiritual poverty” into the definition is a sloppy and offensive way to talk about people who have less money than we do. Here is how Corbett & Fikkert define poverty alleviation:

POVERTY ALLEVIATION: Poverty alleviation is the ministry of reconciliation: moving people closer to glorifying God by living in right relationship with God, with self, with others, and with the rest of creation.

Reconciliation of relationships is the guiding compass for our poverty-alleviation efforts, profoundly shaping both the goals that we pursue and the methods we use. The goal is not to make the materially poor all over the world into middle-to-upper-class North Americans, a group characterized by high rates of divorce, sexual addiction, substance abuse, and mental illness. Nor is the goal to make sure that the materially poor have enough money. …. Rather, the goal is to restore people to a full expression of humanness, to being what God created us all to be, people who glorify God by living in right relationship with God, with self, with others, and with the rest of creation. One of the many manifestations of these relationships being reconciled is material poverty alleviation[.]

So then, basically the whole Christian enterprise is oriented toward poverty alleviation. We have all manner of fractured relationships as a result of the Fall, and the whole ministry of reconciliation is oriented at restoring those. That is a very broad definition, of course, and this is a book about the poor, so of course the authors are going to get more specific.

MATERIAL POVERTY ALLEVIATION: Material poverty alleviation is working to reconcile the four foundational relationships so that people can fulfill their callings of glorifying God by working and supporting themselves and their families with the fruit of that work.

So, we get the contrast between the general spiritual poverty that affects all of us, and the specific circumstances that prevent people for providing for themselves and their families. The authors unpack this a little:

There are two key things to note in this definition. First, material poverty alleviation involves more than ensuring that people have sufficient material things; rather, it involves the much harder task of empowering people to earn sufficient material things through their own labor, for in so doing we move people closer to being what God created them to be. (Of course, we recognize that this is impossible for some people because of disability or other factors.) Second, work is an act of worship. When people seek to fulfill their callings by glorifying God in their work, praising Him for their gifts and abilities, and seeing both their efforts and its products as an offering to Him, then work is an act of worship to God. On the other hand, when work is done to glorify oneself or merely to achieve more wealth, it becomes worship of false gods. How we work and for whom we work really matters.

(I’m reading from a Kindle, but the Kindle tells me that all of these quotations are from page 74.)

I am so pleased with these definitions, which (to my thinking) correct so much of the wrong-headedness of Walking with the Poor, that I could really almost stop there. A few other comments, however.

I appreciate that Corbett & Fikkert devote equal space to overseas poverty and poverty in North America. These seem like guys who are genuinely engaged where they are. There is also a certain arrogance in development work, in which it is sort of implied that Westerners (or people funded by them) know how to fix poverty. Keeping one eye firmly on the poverty in our own cities, and now in our suburbs, provides a measure of humility. (A friend told me about an American NGO that was working for prison reform in this country. “Wow, that’s bold,” I said. American prisons are notoriously bad.)

Along those same lines, I think the authors graciously address the relationship between poverty and racism in the United States, which is an unentangleable mess of structural inequality, unfortunate personal decisions, happenstance, and history.

Evangelicals are certainly correct that the Bible never allows one’s circumstances to be an excuse for one’s sin. Yes Alisa [previously introduced as a prototypical inner city poor woman] sinned by having extramarital sex, and this was a major contributor to her poverty. But many people commit the same sin without plunging into decades of poverty. Why? Part of the answer is that for a variety of historic and contemporary reasons, ghetto residents are embedded in systems that are distinctly different from that of mainstream society. Some of these systems are of their own making, but many of them are not.

That is a pretty good paragraph. I can’t think of a lot of people who avoid of Scylla of equating wealth with virtue and poverty with vice, and the Charybdis of attributing everything to society, effectively denying the moral agency of people at lower socioeconomic levels.

The authors have some concrete suggestions, none of which is revolutionary, but which consistently reflect a concern to respect people’s dignity, and to deal sensitively with power disparities. For overseas work, the recommendation is basically to partner with agencies with a proven track record of helping, and to be very cautious about short-term trips. For local work, the recommendation is for more personally costly involvement with poor people who come for help. These are tall orders for the evangelical church, as I perceive it today, but I hope that the book will have its intended effect on its readers.

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