Most Westerners consider the excessive violence of ISIS (the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) to be a product of Islamic extremism, a sign of how uniquely inhumane the Muslim faith can be. Unfortunately, the ex cesses of ISIS are part of a tradition that goes back thousands of years and is supported not only by Islam but by the other two religions of Abraham, Judaism and Christianity.
In chapter 31 of the Old Testament’s book of Numbers, Moses orders the men of Israel to attack the Midianites, although the Midianites had not attacked them. The Israelite soldiers killed all the men and boys and nubile women among the Midianites, saving only virgin girls, whom they took as slaves. They also burned all the Midianite dwellings. And what had the Midianites done to bring down such fury? Their crime was to invite some followers of Moses to share their faiths.
According to the Old Testament book of Joshua, when the children of Israel entered the promised land, they exterminated the local populations. They did not drive them into exile or enslave them; still less did they try to convert them. They killed everyone. The historical accuracy of this invasion is questionable; the book of Judges, which comes immediately after the book of Joshua, tells about Hebrews continuing to fight with some of the peoples Joshua had supposedly annihilated and sometimes living with some of them, as the tribe of Benjamin lived with the Jebusites in Jerusalem. Also, it is not clear how Gideon, in the book of Judges chapters 6 and 7, managed to defeat the Midianites if they had been annihilated at the time of Moses.
Whatever actually happened, the attitude of the Bible is clear. Living in the land God had assigned to the Hebrews was a sin worthy of the death penalty, not just for individuals but for entire communities. God’s miracles affirmed this. He caused the walls of Jericho to fall and caused the sun to remain still in the heavens in order to give Joshua time to make the slaughter complete. God was decisively on the side of genocide.
Christ was not violent, but many Christians have been. After Pope Urban II called for the first Crusade, the Crusaders (while crossing Eastern Europe on the way to the Holy Land) massacred thousands (most likely tens of thousands) of Jews. These Jews were in no way linked to the Muslims who ruled Jerusalem, but they were non-Christians and they were in the Crusaders’ path, so they were killed. News of these deaths reached Jerusalem before the Christian soldiers; Jerusalem’s Jews fought as allies of the Muslims, resisting the Crusaders. The intensity of the battle led to corpses being piled up in the holy city—they were so numerous that it took weeks to bury them all and presented a serious health problem.
Even more people died during the wars of the Protestant Reformation. Within one hundred years of Luther posting his Protests upon a cathedral door, one-third of the population of what is now Germany was wiped out, not to mention millions of other people elsewhere in Europe. Religious belief was not the only motivation for these atrocities, but without a faith supporting persecution and death, the atrocities would not have been accomplished.
War: An Abrahamic Universal
In all of these events, military victory was taken as a sign of God’s favor. The victory was proof of God’s support. It did not matter what tricks were used or even how many people were unnecessarily put to death. The fact of victory justified the conflict. The book of Joshua portrayed the Israelites’ conquest of the promised land as absolute because God’s favor had to be undeniable. The Emperor Constantine accepted Christianity because of his vision assuring him that if his soldiers wore the sign of the cross they would be victorious. This vision spurred him to attack and conquer Rome. Muhammad was accepted as a prophet because he was the first man in all of history to unite the Arab world and because his beliefs spread rapidly after his death. While all three religions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—preach peace, all three accept military triumph as justification of their principles.
The founders of the three faiths had no such assurances. The pharaoh’s armies were defeated by a miracle of God, not by Moses or the men of Israel. Christ blessed those who make peace and healed the ear of the soldier who had been attacked by Peter. The great majority of Muhammad’s converts accepted Islam willingly, without threat of war. The founders of the faiths were persuaders. Militants such as Joshua and Constantine—and ISIS—have seen themselves as enforcers.
The militants’ intent is to create a state that enforces the laws revealed to the founders. Individual belief has to be backed up by community power. The law once articulated must be applied, and its application implies the use of force. To the militants, this does not make the state unjust. On the contrary, a state that imposes divine law is holy to them. It is worth fighting for, worth killing and dying for. It is the expression of God’s will on Earth, be it Jerusalem or Rome or Mecca. The people who support these states are not just citizens. They are saints. The people who oppose these states are not just outsiders. They are infidels. These states are so valuable that ordinary morality, which forbids killing, is suspended. Acts that normally would demand punishment, when performed under the aegis of the state, garner rewards.
The promise that Pope Urban II made to the Crusaders—that if they died they would be either martyrs or heroes—is almost identical to the promises made by Muslim jihadists today. It is not very different from the promise made by God to the followers of Moses to encourage them to enter the promised land. Violence against those who follow the laws of the state is criminal. Violence against those who oppose the state is seen as evidence of faith.
The advantage to the leader of the sacred state is obvious. Because he supports the word of God, anyone who opposes him opposes that word and perhaps even opposes God himself. This has been a means of demanding loyalty through much of human history. The pharaoh was believed to be a descendant of the god Horus; the Japanese emperor was believed to be descended from the sun goddess; the Chinese emperor supposedly held a mandate from heaven; it was said that the Roman emperor would become a god at his death. The claimed root of their authority resembles David’s monarchy in Israel and the Donation of Constantine claimed by medieval popes. They echo the claim of the head of ISIS, Abu Bakr Al-Bagdadi, that he is the caliph of the present age. The caliph is the political leader in charge of enforcing the laws of Islam within the Muslim state.
When Al-Bagdadi proclaimed ISIS a caliphate, he proclaimed himself not just the leader of a rebel community in the Middle East but the leader of the Muslim world. Of course, very few Muslims agree with him, and his declaration threatens the leaders of the Muslim nations around him. Clearly, he does not hesitate to violate Islamic law when it suits his military or political purposes. But there is a perennial desire in human nature to identify and follow such a leader. These leaders are a grave danger for those who follow them and for those who do not.
The religions of Abraham claim that man is created in the image of the divine but also insist that men are divided into those who have faith and those who do not. At times during the histories of all three faiths, this division has been a matter of life and death. Religious warfare in the West declined not so much because Westerners are so compassionate to each other but rather because the religious wars they fought were so bloody yet produced no political or theological victory on either side.
ISIS may seem an anachronism to us, but it is an anachronism based in our own tr
aditions. Let us hope it dies the way violent religious movements of our past have died, and let us hope it dies quickly.
Steve Sklar earned degrees in Oriental Studies and Western Philosophy from Columbia College. For twelve years, he studied Asiatic faiths with native adherents overseas. Presently, he lives and works in Florida.