Should we fear radical Islam?

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Recent events in the Middle East have reminded the West of a truth we may have forgotten far too soon: radical Islam continues to pose an existential threat that is unlikely to go away in the near future. 

While radical Islam may not look exactly the same today as it did twenty years ago, when the attacks on September 11, 2001, seared our vulnerabilities and mortality into the collective consciousness of America, many of the same basic hallmarks remain. 

As such, it is worth revisiting the subject of radical Islam to better understand what has changed and what has remained the same. Doing so will help us better understand how we can best pray for and protect against those who remain committed to its radicalized ideologies. 

This survey of radical Islam will answer these questions:

The first step to that end is examining the differences between radical and orthodox Muslims. 

When a Muslim saved my life

Dr. Jim Denison tells the following story in his book Radical Islam: What You Need to Know to reinforce the urgency of remembering that when we talk about Muslims, we’re talking about people first and a religion second:

I am alive today because of a Muslim I have never met.

During the summer of 1979, I lived in East Malaysia, on the western coast of the island of Borneo in Southeast Asia. My job was to visit jungle villages and coastal cities, working as a missionary on behalf of Baptist churches. Because the dense rainforest made roads from town to town virtually impassable, transportation was via Malaysia Air Services (MAS). The locals explained that the letters stood for “May Arrive Sometime.” 

One time, we nearly didn’t.

In those days, MAS flew twin-prop airplanes functioning as buses for the masses. On various occasions, I sat next to a goat, a chicken in a coop, and a mother with three small children in her lap. Nearly all of our very brief flights were uneventful. Then came the day we tried to land in a thunderstorm. 

Our ancient aircraft bucked and strained in the gale-force winds. Lightning flashed outside our windows. Roiling clouds hid the jungles beneath us. Even the seasoned travelers around me winced in fear.

Suddenly, the clouds broke and the ground rushed up at us. 

Our pilot gracefully glided our airplane to the runway with a gentle thud. When his grateful passengers began to deplane, he stood beside the door and thanked each one for flying with his airline. As I passed by him, I noted the prayer callus on his forehead and knew that he was a zealous Muslim, bowing his head frequently to his prayer rug as he prayed five times each day.

Since that day, I have met and befriended Muslims the world over. From Australia to Turkey, from Bangladesh to Egypt and Israel, from São Paulo to Dallas, I have been privileged to know Muslims on six continents. With few exceptions, every encounter has been a privilege. While I have taught world religions for more than thirty-five years, I have learned more about Islam from its followers than from all the textbooks I have studied.

What do Muslims believe?

Islam can mean “peace,” “submission,” or “surrender.” 

“Muslims” are followers of Islam. (Muslim is the participle of the verb for which “Islam” is the infinitive.) 

Islam is the religion of more than 1.8 billion people on our planet, and most all of them share a devotion to the “Five Pillars of Islam.” Those Pillars, briefly, are as follows:

  • Shahadah (Creed): La ilaha illa Allah, Muhammad rasul Allah (“There is no God but God, and Muhammad is his prophet.”) This statement is always recited in Arabic and is the Islamic profession of faith. 
  • Salat (Prayers): Five times a day, Muslims stop what they are doing, face the city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia, and recite prayers to Allah.
  • Sawm (Fasting): During the month of Ramadan, the ninth month on the Muslim lunar calendar, followers of Islam fast from dawn to dusk to focus more fervently on prayer and in remembrance of Muhammad receiving his first revelation. 
  • Hajj (Pilgrimage): At some point during their lives, all Muslims are expected to make a pilgrimage to Mecca during the twelfth month of the Muslim year to reenact important moments from their history. If they are physically unable to go, they are to pay for someone to go in their place. 
  • Zakat (Alms): All Muslims are called to give alms to the poor and needy. Some Muslim-majority countries collect the zakat from their citizens while in other places it is dependent upon individuals to donate voluntarily. The expectation to give remains the same for every follower of the faith. 

While the Five Pillars are common to all Muslims and form the foundation of the Sharia code of conduct by which they must earn their place in heaven, radical Muslims add a sixth pillar that sets them apart from the Orthodox members of their faith: Jihad (Holy War)

What do radical Muslims believe?

For radicalized Muslims, Jihad is just as important as any of the Five Pillars, and it continues to define their view of the West—and, by extension, Christianity—in two very important ways.

1. The West has been attacking Muslims for centuries.

The first is that radical Muslims argue that the West has been attacking Islam since the Crusades and the continued interference of such countries, particularly the United States, in the affairs of Muslim-majority nations constitutes a continuation of that hostility. As such, they believe that any attacks on Western powers are not acts of aggression as much as they are acts of retaliation in defense of Islam. 

2. All who live in a democratic country are complicit.

The second way in which radical Muslims justify their Jihad against the West is through an appeal to democracy. Because we elect our leaders through a democratic process, they argue that every civilian shares in the responsibility of our government’s actions. For example, they believe there were no innocent victims in the 9/11 attacks because every American who died was equally responsible for the perceived crimes for which the country as a whole stood accused. 

Because of these two factors, radical Muslims feel that the Qur’an sanctions their attacks on Western powers as well as their violence against civilians. 

However, the vast majority of Muslims around the world—and especially those residing outside of the Middle East and certain parts of Africa—do not share these radicalized views. 

Recognizing that basic truth is essential to engaging with Islam as a whole and to understanding the reasons why radical Islam persists in its present form. 

Are the Taliban and al-Qaeda the same?

Prior to the attacks on 9/11, radical Islam was barely on the collective radar for most people in the West. To the extent that it was known, relatively little thought was given to truly understanding it or its place within the larger structure of the world. For most, radical Islam was seen as a fringe element confined to a region halfway across the globe that only became relevant when something happened that led to military intervention. 

While our awareness may have improved across the last two decades, our understanding still often lags in some key areas. Far too often, we settle for simplistic views that assign the same motivations and goals to every radical Islamist group when the reality is quite different. 

The Taliban and al-Qaeda, for example, are closely linked because of their shared history and geographical proximity. While both subscribe to a similar understanding of the Muslim faith, their goals are not always the same. They offer two different visions for the future of Islam.

What motivates the Taliban?

As recent events have demonstrated, the Taliban envision a scenario in which they are the dominant force within Afghanistan and its representatives to the rest of the world. The speed with which they took over the country following the withdrawal of American support and the degree to which they began setting the stage for a more permanent role through diplomatic meetings with ChinaIran, Russia, and others demonstrates a desire to function as a legitimate government entity rather than a radicalized fringe group. 

Their promise to prevent any terrorist groups, including and especially al-Qaeda, from launching attacks against America and its allies from Afghan soil further demonstrates that their goals include a future in which they will work alongside other world powers. Time will tell just how sincere they are in offering such assurances. (Their history gives ample reason to doubt that they will uphold their end of the bargain.) For now, however, such actions demonstrate that their preferred end is a cessation of hostilities with America and the West. 

What motivates al-Qaeda?

While the Taliban seem content to have Afghanistan and rule it according to their radicalized understanding of Islamic law, al-Qaeda seems far more focused on their mission of removing any Western influence from Muslim-controlled regions. 

After America began to remove its forces from Afghanistan, the group warned that the “war against the US will be continuing on all other fronts unless they are expelled from the rest of the Islamic World.” Moreover, it is possible, if not probable, that part of the reason the Taliban appears content with controlling Afghanistan is that they can continue to work with al-Qaeda to advance their cause in other regions. As such, many warn that al-Qaeda is likely to regain much of its former strength in the months and years to come. 

As Nathan Sales, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, warns, “The terrorist group responsible for 9/11 will soon find itself flush with cash looted from Afghanistan’s central bank, with weapons seized from the defeated Afghan army, and with fighters freed from prison.” Were their goals similar to that of the Taliban, then such a result would still be troubling. That al-Qaeda envisions a future in which its forces reach well beyond the borders of Afghanistan, however, escalates the threat to new levels. 

And therein lies the distinction that we must remember when trying to understand the nature of the threat posed by radical Islam. Not everyone who subscribes to that understanding of the Muslim faith will apply its teachings in the same way. Key differences exist, and treating the various groups as if they are the same will necessarily lead to ample mistakes that can carry profound consequences.

That is not to say, however, that any of these terrorist organizations fail to pose threat, even if it is not necessarily the same threat. Just because they may have different goals in mind does not mean that those goals are compatible with any version of Islam or other world orders that do not conform to their strict, radicalized understanding. 

The same is true for other such groups as well. 

Is ISIS still active?

While al-Qaeda and the Taliban served as the preeminent threat to the West directly following the September 11 attacks, ISIS took on that mantle for much of the last decade. ISIS is likely still the first name that comes to mind when many think of radical Islam. 

ISIS may pose less of a threat following the loss of its caliphate in 2019. But the bombing they perpetrated in late August outside of an airport in Afghanistan that resulted in the deaths of forty individuals—including thirteen American service members—and injured 120 more served as a stark reminder that they have no plans of fading quietly. That attack was carried out by the organization’s ISIS-K branch, short for Islamic State-Khorasan. ISIS-K started around six years ago when former members of the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan split away to join ISIS. ISIS-K has been at odds with the Taliban ever since, and it is likely the attack was as much a message to their fellow jihadists as it was to America.

In addition to a presence in Afghanistan, ISIS is still active in Iraq, Syria, and other regions of the Muslim world while also working to expand to Southeast Asia and parts of Africa.

The nature of their activity has changed quite a bit from the peak of their influence, however, and that change illustrates another important lesson for understanding the dangers of radical Islam today.

Whereas ISIS once operated more as a unified force, their threat is now often felt more through small groups of supporters that remain scattered throughout the world. Some of these groups are directly affiliated with the terrorist organization. Many others simply sympathize with their goals and beliefs. The attempted assassination of former Maldives President Mohamed Nasheed in May of 2021, for example, was carried out by a small group of individuals influenced by ISIS ideals and rhetoric but was not directly affiliated with the terrorist organization. 

Such a tenuous connection reminds us that one of the chief dangers associated with radical Islam is the devotion it can inspire among like-minded individuals. 

Defeating an organization does not guarantee victory because the ideals can continue long after the structure that previously employed them ceases to exist. Such ideals can instill hope and purpose among those who often seem to lack both. This ability means that even when military victories limit the degree to which radicalized Muslims can advance their cause through force, they will still be able to find new recruits. 

The spiritual war is just as important as the one waged with bullets and bombs, and that is a battle to which all Christians are called to engage. 

As we do so, we must also remember that radical Muslims view our faith as a threat for reasons beyond its association with the West and often respond accordingly. That truth is made clear throughout the Muslim world but is perhaps best evidenced through the actions of the various terrorist organizations that target Christians in Nigeria.

Who is Boko Haram? Who are the Fulani herdsmen?

Arguably, Boko Haram first came to international notoriety when they abducted 276 mostly Christian female students in Chibok, Nigeria. Since then, Boko Haram is the jihadist group that has often received the most headlines, and for good reason. They were the largest jihadist group in Nigeria for much of the last decade. 

Their name comes from the Hausa language and was ascribed to them by northern Nigerians because it roughly translates to “western education is a sin.” Boko Haram promotes “a version of Islam which makes it ‘haram,’ or forbidden, for Muslims to take part in any political or social activity associated with Western society,” including voting in elections, wearing shirts and pants, or getting a secular education. 

While the violent steps they have taken have earned them global infamy, they are far from the only terrorist organization active in Nigeria. Such groups make Nigeria one of the more dangerous places on the planet to be a follower of Christ. And it’s getting worse. 

According to a report by the International Society for Civil Liberties and Rule of Law, more than three thousand Nigerian Christians were killed in the first half of 2021. That is nearly as many as in all of 2020 and does not account for roughly the same amount who have been abducted.

The reason why Christians are targeted is a bit more complicated, however. The Fulani herdsmen, for example, have become the most dominant and vicious jihadist group in the region, but their attacks on Christians often have as much to do with economics as with religion

As their name suggests, the herdsmen sustain their nomadic way of life by raising cattle and other livestock. However, in recent years their traditional pasture lands have become less fertile, so they have ventured south to graze on the lusher farmlands in that area. These farms, however, are mostly run by Christians of various ethnicities. The resulting conflict often falls along religious lines even if it is not primarily motivated by their spiritual differences. 

That said, what started as a land dispute has since morphed into something else. These radicalized groups have learned that it is often far easier to find support for their cause when they can claim it is motivated by religion. Moreover, they receive less pushback by targeting Christians than they would by attacking those who shared their spiritual perspectives. As a result, while Nigeria is divided about evenly between Muslims and Christians, the latter have experienced the vast majority of the persecution at the hands of these radicalized groups. 

To be a follower of Christ in an area under the influence of radical Muslims means to give up any rights or protections enjoyed by those who adhere to their religious views. It means to live with a target on your back for no other reason than you have decided that Jesus, rather than Allah, is Lord. 

And, for those who subscribe to a radicalized version of Islam, that reality is exactly as it should be. 

There is no room within the framework of radical Islam for competing religious beliefs because their system is predicated on a strict adherence to a narrow and dogmatic spiritual framework. Moreover, their defense of that framework is seen as a defense of Islam and thus divinely sanctioned since they believe that jihad is just as important as the Five Pillars. 

What that means for Christians—and often any orthodox Muslims who stand in opposition to the efforts of these radicalized groups—is that a benign coexistence is unlikely to ever be a sustainable option while any efforts to share the gospel are seen as a direct attack. 

The Christian and radical Muslim worldviews cannot coexist because each will eventually seek to change the other. That is why Christianity poses a threat that extends beyond its connection with the West and why followers of Jesus will always be easy and urgent targets for jihadist groups in Nigeria, Afghanistan, and anywhere else dominated by a radicalized understanding of the Muslim faith.

How should Christians pray for radical Muslims?

While much has changed in the last twenty years regarding our understanding of radical Islam and its continued impact on the world, the need to pray for those who stand in agreement with its ideologies and those trapped in their wake remains as powerful and pertinent now as at any point in recent history. 

To that end, how should we intercede on their behalf before God? 

1. Ask God to help you know how to pray. 

The purpose of this survey is to help you better understand both the complex nature of radical Islam and the diversity of goals and priorities that exist among its adherents. However, no amount of knowledge can replace the Lord’s guidance. 

The God who knows and loves every individual involved with radical Islam—both those perpetrating violence and oppression and those suffering at their hands—longs to help us know how to better pray for them. So start by seeking his help.

2. Pray with purpose.

True intercession is not a box we check to make ourselves feel like we’ve done our spiritual duty. Rather, it must come from a heart aligned with God’s, sharing his burdens and desires for the people for whom we pray. 

Whether those prayers are eloquent and flow easily from the depths of your soul or are so laden with the weight of the Lord’s concern that they come out as “groanings too deep for words,” know that he hears them and understands (Romans 8:26–27). 

3. Pray expectantly. 

It is entirely understandable if, after everything that has gone on since the 9/11 attacks, you have begun to doubt the extent to which real and lasting progress can be made in the fight against radical Islam. 

At times, it can feel like battling the mythical hydra, where every time one head is removed, two more take its place. While some sense of discouragement may be natural, let the Lord redeem it by using it to remind you that this is not a battle that can ever be won through our own strength. 

As Dr. Jim Denison notes:

In this spiritual conflict (Ephesians 6:12), we must continue praying for God’s protection for those endangered by this threat. And we should pray passionately for radicalized leaders and their followers to meet Jesus in visions and dreams, a miraculous phenomenon now reaching Muslims around the world. 

To this end, let’s make Paul’s prayer for his fellow Jews our intercession for radical Muslims: “My heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved. For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. For, being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes” (Romans 10:1–4).

If you question whether God can answer such a prayer, consider the man who first prayed it. If Saul the persecutor could become Paul the apostle, this fact is clear: it is always too soon to give up on God.

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