It was 1:00 am in Richmond, VA, 2015. I was sitting next to a young Middle Eastern immigrant, reminiscing about what we missed about his native region. This young man was in an enviable situation, one which many are in fact dying to achieve as they freeze to death in refrigerated lorries or drown in the waters of the Aegean. My friend had legal residency in the USA, was going to a good university, and had a steady job at his uncle’s Mediterranean restaurant. As we talked and sipped black tea (loaded with egregious amounts of sugar), the topic of ISIS came up. At that point they still controlled an area of the Middle East comparable to the size of many countries. While we spoke, this young man confessed to me that he watched ISIS propaganda videos and followed some of their accounts. And, in spite of everything, his heart was stirred. He still insisted that their violence did not represent true Islam, but it was clear that there was a powerful resonance in their message, one which at the very least caused some measure of internal doubt and wavering for a young Muslim with a promising future in the West.
There’s a good reason young men (and women) from all over the world joined ISIS, and continue to join it and similar groups. It has nothing to do with them being uneducated or from impoverished backgrounds, as is sometimes reported in the media. In fact, most who volunteer for jihadist groups are actually well-educated and from middle class or upper class families. Instead, many join because of a powerful understanding of history that goes like this: creation, fall, redemption, restoration.
No, I’m not speaking of that redemptive history, which begins with God’s creation of a good world, which then falls into a curse through man’s sin, a world that is redeemed through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, who is now restoring all things, culminating in a new creation. That’s the original and true metanarrative, wonderfully fleshed out in the recent wave of biblical theology texts and children’s story book bibles. I am instead speaking of a diabolical hijacking of that story. It goes something like this. Creation: Long ago there was a united and just society, the Islamic Ummah. This society, established by God and led by the caliph, ruled a huge empire and ushered in an unprecedented age of justice and enlightenment. Fall: Sadly, this world was undermined by the scheming of pagan Western nations, who finally divided the Islamic Ummah and ended the caliphate at the close of WWI. The Muslims of the world have been under the curse of foreign domination and internal division ever since. They have strayed far from the teachings and lifestyle of Mohammad. Redemption: This tragic situation can be redeemed if faithful Muslims from all over the world are willing to sacrificially return to the true teachings and lifestyle of early Islam, spilling their blood in noble jihad to restore the caliphate once again. Restoration: The blood of the martyrs will lead to victory and a renewed caliphate, which will once again rule the world in righteousness and usher in the day of judgment and the resurrection of the dead. Cue the epic music and visuals and you have a very moving propaganda video, especially for those who have felt any sense of inferiority as Muslims.
What exactly does the secular West have to combat a powerful metanarrative like this? Be true to yourself? Follow your heart? YOLO? Human rights because… Nazis are bad? Story after story of Western converts to Islam contain the same line, “I found my partying and my secularism to be empty. In Islam I found meaning and purpose.” Many young Muslims, like people everywhere, want to be part of something greater than themselves. When an individualistic pursuit of pleasure or success comes up empty (and it always does), when a community experiences oppression (real or perceived), the metanarratives beckon, promising purpose, redemption, and eternal life. This is bad news for a Western world too jaded to believe in metanarratives anymore. The West pumps trillions of dollars into stopping Islamic extremism and yet only succeeds in tripling the global number of jihadist fighters. Sure, the West has better physical weaponry, but when it comes to ideology, they’ve brought their Beyonce CDs to a gun fight – at least when it comes to the radical minority that is awake to the desire for glory, honor, and immortality (Rom 2:7).
Once or twice I have tongue-in-cheek explained my job as taking potential ISIS recruits and turning them instead into Southern Baptists. No, this is not exactly what is going on, but there is a grain of truth to this playful distortion. The scriptures reveal to us the one true account of redemptive history, the authentic story of Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Restoration. We have access to the only metanarrative that can cut deeper to the heart of a young radicalized Muslim than the sermons of the late Al-Baghdadi. Sadly, as things currently stand many will never hear this true account, but only the hijacked version. As much as it is up to us, then, let us resolve that every potential jihadi recruit has the chance to hear the gospel in a language he can understand, and from the mouth of a believing friend.