As our nation falls silent at midday on Friday we will mourn with those who mourn and hold in our thoughts and prayers those who lost their lives in Tunisia for no justifiable reason whatsoever. Life can be cruel beyond measure and there is no greater example of this than when evil men shed innocent blood.
Reading through the list of known causalities and learning just a little about whom they were is a heart-wrenching reminder that these were ordinary people just like you or I who happened to have been on the wrong beach at just the wrong moment. It was nothing short of an atrocity and it is hard not to respond with anger against the agents of ISIS who revel in this indiscriminate terrorism.
Much as we may want to rid the world of this abhorrent cancer, it is all too clear that here in the West, we are largely powerless to bring an end to aggression with such deep seated roots. We are finally finding ourselves caught up in a war that has simmered and raged over the centuries between the differing factions of Islam. ISIS is just the latest manifestation, holding as much contempt for Shia Muslims as it does for apostates and unbelievers.
Bombing ISIS may slow their physical progress, but it will not dampen their ideological resolve. It is only when their support is cut off and they become even more isolated that they will begin to finally wither. Governments united in their loathing of ISIS can step up their game sharing resources and countering the onslaught of internet propaganda, but we will only see significant progress when Muslims lead the fight against it with real conviction. At present there is simply too much sympathy towards ISIS’ cause and too little condemnation. Even in this country where moderates have spoken up, the Prime Minister has understandably grown increasingly frustrated that Muslim communities are not doing enough to challenge sympathy towards extremist views or stop their young people succumbing to the draw of jihad.
The hope is that Islam can regulate itself as a religion; to question and challenge the extremism that lies within, but it is a faint hope. Islam is grounded in submission; the word itself means submission or surrender to the will of Allah and obedience to his law. ISIS have taken this concept to a bloodthirsty and corrupt extreme. It is not the place of Muslims to question Allah’s will and ISIS prey on ignorance. If more Muslims and their imams were willing to debate and argue the interpretations of the words and laws of the Quran then we would be able to make progress. In the meantime we have a generation of young Muslims struggling to assimilate their religion and culture with the predominantly Western secular world with very different values that they experience every day. They see their religious leaders and parents as out of touch and unable or unwilling to give them a purpose that overcomes these tensions. For a small minority ISIS offers them a chance to give their lives meaning and a cause to fight for.
It is always easier to seek to preserve your traditions and ways of thinking, rather than open your eyes to a bigger world around you. It is easier to withdraw into a ghetto that reinforces what you believe rather than weighing it up against other paradigms that question your basic understanding of life. To do so involves the risk that the outcomes may profoundly alter your perception of reality.
I once became friends with an imam, or at least an ex-imam. He was Iranian and several years before I met him he was so sure of his religion and so dismissive of what he had heard about Christianity that he decided he would write a book that disproved the fundamentals of the Christian faith in order to glorify his own. As he studied and researched this other religion, beginning to read the Bible for the first time, he soon realised that much of what he had previously learnt about it was wrong. He never did finish his book. Through his investigations he came to the point of concluding that he needed to give his life to Jesus and renounce Islam. Following his conversion he managed to flee his country and move to Britain in order to escape the resulting death threats. Islam is a religion of law, ritual and works whereas Christianity is built on salvation through grace. It was God’s grace that transformed my friend’s heart and it is grace that offers the greatest hope for the Middle East.
There is no place in grace for hatred. Grace heals wounds and leads to forgiveness and restoration. We only have to look to the Charleston shooting and the response by the members of the church, the surrounding community and even President Obama as he sang Amazing Grace at the funeral to see how grace changes everything.
Inevitably some young Muslims in this country will be planning to travel abroad this summer. So are a number of young people from my church. They too have been driven to this decision after seeing and hearing news that has stirred them to action. They have put in considerable time and effort raising the funds needed to pay for their flights and support the work they will be part of. It will be a trip that will leave a mark on them forever. This is no journey to fight for a brutal regime, but rather a trip to work at an orphanage in Romania with children with profound needs. It is a mission birthed through their faith and the love and compassion it produces. Their desire is to change lives for the better instead of leaving them devastated.
Jesus talked about the truth setting us free. Too few have heeded his words over the centuries, but our best chance to defeat ISIS and all of the other Islamist terror groups around the world, will not come through weapons, but through truth and grace. It is a grand and improbable hope, but one we have the opportunity to display as a country on Friday on behalf of those we have lost. It will prove to ISIS and the rest of the world that it is not violence and force that will conquer all, but something far more powerful.