During the past week, Daesh (grandly called “the Islamic State in the Levant” by its supporters) captured the Iraqi city of Ramadi and the Syrian city of Palmyra. The imperial elite are ringing alarm bells over these developments and their propagandists are again hyping people’s fear of Muslim terror.
Thursday morning, the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee hastily convened a hearing to discuss Daesh’s latest successes. Witnesses praised the military prowess of Daesh, predicted a deluge of new Muslim recruits rushing to join its ranks, described Daesh as an evil as great as any to have ever appeared on Earth, and emphasized its capacity to strike Europe and the United States.
Yikes! It all sounded terribly serious until, that is, the conversation turned to the military forces already directly engaged in fighting Daesh: the Syrian Army and Iraqi militias composed of Shia soldiers and backed by Iranian advisors. Then—remarkably—the concern about Daesh’s success receded into the background as a more important concern emerged: the defeat of the Syrian army and the severing of Iranian-Iraqi cooperation.
Absent entirely from the conversation was the most obvious step the U.S. could take if it were serious about defeating Daesh: cutting off its supply lines from Turkey, Jordan, and the Gulf States (Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates). These are close U.S. allies and yet their continued support of the dreadful Daesh received nary a mention.
In short, the rising angst about Daesh within the political class and their propagandists in the media is as phony as a three-dollar bill. They hype the Daesh threat not because they fear Daesh, but because they want us to fear it. Our fear enables the empire to confidently play the great power game and install compliant governments in Syria and Iran.
This scheme has been long in the making. Seymour Hersh wrote about it in 2007 when he reported that the second Bush Administration had decided to work with Sunni Arab extremist groups (Salafists) to remove the governments of Syria and Iran. In 2011, the Obama Administration put the plan into operation in Syria via so-called Arab Spring demonstrations that turned violent. After NATO military attacks brought down the Libyan government in August of that year, the U.S. ambassador to Libya arranged for Libyan arms to be shipped to Syria to support an armed insurrection there. The brutal war that resulted is now nearing its fourth anniversary.
Already in 2012, a U.S. intelligence report predicted that the fall of the Syrian government would likely lead to a radical Salafist entity taking control of eastern Syria. According to the intelligence report, that was exactly the result the powers supporting the Salafist extremists wanted. It identifies these "powers" as Western nations, the Gulf States and Turkey.
In short, Daesh is not a defect in a project gone awry, but a feature of the U.S.-led plan from the very start.
On Thursday, I also read Benjamin Corey’s post, “How Christian Behavior Online Might Fuel a New Kind of Terrorism.” Corey perceives “an unchallenged fear in the Christian community, one that is being watered instead of weeded: the fear of Muslims. Sadly, we are not beyond becoming terrorists ourselves, and after many years of heavy consumption of anti-Muslim fear, I think we’re seeing that happening.”
Corey appeals to his readers to resist this “watering” of the fear weed and I fully agree. But in contrast to Corey, I do not expect appeals like his to help much. The message from those who are using Daesh as the prod for more fear and more violence is pervasive. Sure, we can try not to amplify the fear through our own emotional reactions, but the impact of the empire's propaganda on our friends and neighbors will remain, as will its power to shape public support for more violence abroad.
So along with Corey’s appeal, we need to proactively debunk the empire’s powerful salvation story. It has very deliberately developed a strategy that exploits and manipulates human weakness (our fears, the rivalries in the Middle East) for the purposes of imperial conquest. It's a mistake to focus only on keeping on own emotions under control; we also must proactively rebut the empire’s deception.
The realization that our leaders are deceiving us is hardly a comfort. Yet it does point to ways we can helpfully engage. After all, we still can talk freely to one another, we can still vote, and we still can weaken the imperial project by publicly branding it to be an illegitimate fraud.
That’s what Second Testament writers did. Look at how Paul describes the political elite in Romans 1:24-25, how he describes their wisdom and their prospects for success in 1 Corinthians 1:6-8, how he calls the empire “the power of darkness” in Colossians 1:13 and how he mocks imperial pretensions to provide “peace and security” in 1 Thessalonians 5:3. Notice the description of the imperial project in Ephesians 2:1-3 and the description of the Jesus project in 6:12. Notice how 1 Peter uses images of “a roaring lion . . . looking for someone to devour” and “Babylon” to depict the empire (5:3, 5:13).
This is a subversive discourse, carried on by early church leaders. We need to hear the same from our church leaders too.