storm night skyAs we saw in the previous post, the religious dimension of violence in the Middle East among Muslims is becoming analogous to the Thirty Years’ War between Catholics and Protestants in first half of seventeenth-century Europe. That religious war included shifting alliances, blood-soaked fields, incredible suffering especially of the German peasantry, slow and halting diplomatic initiatives at peace, and the breakup of the Holy Roman Empire. It left much of Europe socially, economically, and politically devastated, as well as an aversion to religion that eventually entailed its removal as an official role in political power. “There are obvious differences,” Richard Haass wrote, “between the events of 1618-1648 in Europe and those of 2011-2014 in the Middle East. But the similarities are many and sobering. [And] as bad as things are, they could get worse.”

Yes, it could get worse. During the past decade in the Middle East, however, there were times when things seemed to be getting better. I am thinking here of the Taliban’s loss of political rule in Afghanistan, a shattered al Qaeda network, the promise of the Arab Spring, and the death of Osama bin Laden. But then the Arab Spring in Egypt was quashed by the Muslim Brotherhood and the military now runs the country. The Arab Spring in Syria was crushed by President Assad and the country plunged into a vicious civil war fueled also by militant Sunni groups from Iraq, including ISIS (an al Qaeda offshoot), entering Syria to fight against the Syrian government, which is supported by Iran.

When U.S. troops left Iraq in 2011, al Qaeda emerged in the country and bloodshed between Iraq’s Sunni and Shia populations escalated and has not ebbed. (Only a small percentage of Sunni – Shia violence in Iraq is reported on our evening news stations.) In 2013 Hezbollah militants (Shiites supported by Iran) entered Syria to fight the Sunnis. And in 2014, the religious militancy of ISIS, which now calls itself simply the Islamic State (IS), has made that of al Qaeda, which has disavowed IS, seem tame by comparison. (ISIS and al Qaeda are Sunni.)

So, yes, it may get worse. Beginning with the next post, and running for several more, I am going to offer a reader’s digest version of my research on the modern history of this religious militancy, and also share my conclusions, some of which may be surprising to many Americans.

One of the things that really puzzled me in the days following September 11, 2001 was the religious belief behind that day’s terrorist attack on the United States. I was born and raised just down the road from Dearborn, Michigan, the world headquarters of the Ford Motor Company. But Dearborn, one of Michigan’s largest cities, is also home to one of the largest Muslim populations in the U.S., and even though I grew up nearby, I never had much contact with Muslims. And because Dearborn was a quiet, middle class community, including its large Muslim population, I did not “get” the notion of Islamic militancy and 9/11. So in the aftermath, I began researching why people were saying that Islam was implicated in 9/11. Honestly, I was shocked at what I eventually discovered about what Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda operatives believed. But having learned that, the social and political goals of ISIS, and its brutal violence, do not surprise me.

But let me add this caveat, which is so rarely reported by the American media that many Americans are ignorant of it. There is an ideological war occurring in Islam between scholars and imams of the Muslim reform movement (broadly so-called) and extremists such as al Qaeda and ISIS, who promote militant interpretations of Islam, and this is an internal struggle within Islam for the hearts and minds of Muslims in the Middle East.

There are many kinds of reformers, and I am only generalizing, but as I have written elsewhere (here and here), the reformers see Islam as a flexible, nondogmatic religion adaptable to the contemporary world while remaining faithful to Islam – not unlike many Western Christians feel about their faith. Some reformers even call for the separation of mosque and state. This growing Muslim reform movement must be kept continually in mind, and I may talk about it at times, as we work our way through the following posts on the nature and goals of radical militants such as ISIS, who see the reformers as apostates and enemies who must be killed.

The next post begins discussion on core beliefs of al Qaeda and ISIS.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Image by blainecourts (permission via Creative Commons)


sunsetOkay. I promised a post about the post-9/11 big picture. This is not an exact science. If you ask several artists to paint the same landscape, you will get several perspectives of it. Ask several analysts to describe the post-9/11 world and they will paint different pictures of it for you. And, as everyone knows, the picture has been changing dramatically many times, sometimes shockingly, over the past thirteen years, since the Taliban and al Qaeda were booted out of Afghanistan at the end of 2001. So approaching this topic with some humility of mind is, I think, required. The past is history and only novelists know the future. Today’s picture may not be tomorrow’s reality.

In broad brush strokes, then, the current picture includes at least the following: the Middle East policies of the United States, European states, Russia, and Israel; diplomatic initiatives; military interventions; widespread internecine Sunni/Shia violence in Iraq; the “civil” war in Syria; the unresolved Israel/Hamas dilemma; heightening tensions between Arab states and Persian Iran; fears about Iran’s nuclear intentions; the rise and geographic spread of ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria); the plight of millions of refugees who have fled Iraq and Syria; and the forming of unbelievable political alliances to deal with threats such as ISIS.

The picture has become so bleak and is now running with so much blood that respected senior statesmen and military advisers have publicly alluded that social and political chaos in the Middle East is the new normal. There has, of course, been chaos in the world in previous eras, but this time, they say, it’s chaos with a difference. For instance, Zbigniew Brzezinski, a former U.S. National Security Advisor, said in Foreign Policy magazine that the chaos that has broken out is the kind that governments are less capable of handling than they were, say, during the aftermaths of the two world wars of the twentieth century.

Statements like Brzezinsi’s have been alarmingly heightened in meaning by statements from Chuck Hagel, U.S. Secretary of Defense, and General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. With the rampaging hellhounds of ISIS having carved out for themselves large swaths of Iraq and Syria, holding key cites in both countries and continuing their savagery, a consensus has emerged in Western and Middle Eastern capitals that ISIS has become everyone’s archenemy.

sunset 2 (mikelehen)Referring to ISIS (it now calls itself simply the Islamic State, or IS), Hagel recently said that “this is beyond anything we have seen.” ISIS is “beyond just a terrorist group.” They are an “imminent threat to every interest we have, whether it’s in Iraq or anywhere else.” (Joshua White, formerly a senior adviser in the Secretary of Defense’s office, and now at the Stimson Center, pointed out that the word “imminent,” as used here by Hagel, probably “signals justification of military force.”) Major General Paul Eaton, a senior adviser at the National Security Network, has said that the “ISIS foreign policy problem trumps other American interests in the world,” and so the Obama administration needs “to assign as its main foreign policy effort, the defeat of ISIS.”

ISIS may not be the main foreign policy effort of the United States but the defeat of ISIS is now a top priority. President Obama, John Kerry, the U.S. Secretary of State, and Hagel just spent time in Wales drumming up EU support to deal with ISIS. This includes, significantly, an anti-ISIS coalition of ten NATO states. In Wales, President Obama stated that the object is to “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS. Apparently, a plan will be forthcoming by the time the U.N. General Assembly convenes on September 14 in New York City.

Policy aside, General Dempsey’s recent language is quite revealing. ISIS, Dempsey said, has “an apocalyptic, end-of-days strategic vision [that] will eventually have to be defeated.” The word “apocalyptic,” of course, has a strong, ominous religious connotation. Coming closer to the religious mark, in my view, is no less a foreign policy heavyweight than Richard Haass, the President of the Council on Foreign Relations, who titled a recent article “The New Thirty Years’ War,” in which he explains that the conflict between extremist Sunni and Shia in the Middle East has now reached such a pitch of violence that it has become analogous to the devastating religious war between Catholics and Protestants in first half of seventeenth century Europe. Haass is the first high-level foreign policy expert I know of to publicly argue this, although in the article he does not ponder the implications very much.

The big picture in the region, then, is also a modern-day religious war between extremist Sunni and Shia in the region. It is a huge factor in what a secularized media and many politicians typically portray – employing a less volatile image – as a “sectarian conflict.” The implications are huge, and I want us to spend some time with this beginning in the next post.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Images by Fr Antunes & mikelehen respectively (permission via Creative Commons)

A Meditation on the Legacy of Wisdom

flower blooming in water

                                       A Meditation on the Legacy of Wisdom

                                “Teach us to number our days, that we may apply
                                        our hearts to wisdom.”  Psalm 90:12

Like all legacies, the legacy of wisdom is bequeathed by narrative. According to the Bible, there are ultimately two narratives of wisdom. One, and it came first, is traced to the wisdom of God that conceived of and gave birth to a world originally a place of peaceable, flourishing creational and human diversity (Ps. 104:24; Prov. 8:22-31).

The other, the Bible calls the wisdom of the world (1 Cor. 1-2). It is traced to the narrative of self-centered human wisdom (Gen. 3:6; James 3:14-18). Handed down to us from our original forebearers, it subjected creation to futility and decay (Rom. 8:20-21) and then spilled its own blood. Then, incredibly, it went as far as it is humanly possible to go. It spilled the blood of Jesus Christ, the agent of God’s wisdom.

Today we despair at the sight of our sophisticated, Olympian practice of worldly wisdom. Increasingly the brokenness and violence of its grossly distorted heroism bedims signs of the persistent narrative of God’s peaceable wisdom astir in our midst.

Yet look! There it is. Here it is. Over there, too. Christ active in the world with his gospel-shaped wisdom repairing human brokenness. The Savior alive among us with his redeeming, renewing, and restoring grace. And those participating in it – if only in some poor way and often against great odds – look closely at them. In them you will see narratives true to the legacy of God’s peaceable wisdom.

Prayer: O Lord, help us in our weakness. Strengthen me with grace to choose your peaceable wisdom for the decisions I will make today, that I may transmit a legacy to others that pleases you in the end.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Image by -Reji (permission via Creative Commons)


I forgive youWhile I am finishing preparing the menu items for the post-9/11 “big picture” posts (nearly there), I thought I would share this utterly amazing story out of the Middle East with you, on forgiveness and redemption. It takes place in a small roomful of very damaged people.

The context in which they say they are sorry shamed me for hugely lesser offenses that I find difficult to forgive. And kudos must go to the interviewer – she kept probing and got this story out, perhaps despite how she hoped the interview would go.

This is no ordinary extraordinary story for forgiveness, so I think I should say that you need 40 minutes of quiet time – alone or with others – if you want to experience it as a redemptive moment, which starts building momentum about 14-15 minutes into the story. The next 20 minutes are stunning. A holy moment, really. So if you are just going to have the story playing in the background while you’re busy doing other stuff, well, you’re certainly free to do that, and I don’t want to sound tetchy, but why insult to the people in the room?

Maybe more of us should say we are sorry. Here’s the story.

Image by quantumlars (permission via Creative Commons)