A Syrian Kurdish militia fighter at Shahid Khabour hill in June. © James Harkin

Justin Welby: what should we do about ISIS?

We may have to use force in the Middle East, but we should not relinquish our values
October 14, 2014

One hundred years ago, the first casualty reports from the Battle of Mons were received. Although the war had been declared on 4th August, the first British casualty was on the 21st. He is buried opposite the last one, who fell in the same area four years and millions of dead later.

The front line was back where it had started. I saw their graves at the service in August to remember the outbreak of the war at the St Symphorien cemetery in Belgium. Seventeen-year-old John Parr lay near 40-year-old George Elison, who had also fought at Mons in 1914, served in all the major battles of the war and was killed a few minutes before the armistice. Laid to rest together by chance, their graves seemed to cry out against the miscalculations and stupidities that led to more than 10m deaths in those years.

Historians will argue the causes and errors forever. Yet the world risks the same errors of blind and pointless conflict now as leaders respond to ISIS and other groups like it who call themselves “jihadists,” although in much of Islam the term “jihad” means the peaceful, internal struggle for spiritual life and obedience. Whatever is done to face these groups must be global, holistic, and determined over the long term with a clear intention of building a just peace. Above all there needs to be a new and compelling alternative narrative to that of the self-styled jihadists.

Strategy must be global. The emergence of ISIS has been a wake-up call. The attacks on religious and ethnic minorities, Christian and others, have been getting rapidly more severe. In many cases where there are such attacks, they come from extremist groups whom courageous Muslim leaders have rejected while often being overwhelmed and unable to hold the line. Although the fighting in Nigeria has ceased to grab headlines, the killings are running at a high level, and are every bit as savage as in Iraq or Syria. Kenya is constantly under attack. The ancient Christian communities of the Levant are more threatened with extinction than at any time since the Mongol invasions of the 13th century. And the list could go on.

Even where there is no violent conflict there is struggle and persecution. In September a group of Indian Christians meeting privately in Saudi Arabia, simply to worship, were raided and arrested. In the United Kingdom, mosques and synagogues have been attacked. Freedom to worship, or to hold no faith, must be upheld. It has been international law since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The road is short from intolerance and hostility to persecution and atrocity.

Every conflict is individual, and a global narrative by itself does not address the particularity of each region or country. However, the reality of jihadist terror, and the related elements common to conflicts, have become more global since the second invasion of Iraq in 2003. Strategy must be holistic. This conflict embraces a whole range of complex causes, demonstrated in the huge number of Muslim deaths, often forgotten in the west. Nor is it restricted to the Middle East. The Central African Republic has descended into utter barbarism, with a religious edge, seen by many Muslims as religious cleansing of their followers. Somalia is chaos, Libya is in meltdown.

This struggle is not simply a religious conflict, but a terrible mix of ethnicity, economics, social unrest, injustice between rich and poor, limited access to resources, historic hatreds, post-colonial conflict and more. It is impossible to simplify accurately. We cannot tolerate the complexities and so we seek to hang the whole confusion on the hook of religious conflict. And because even to do that on a global scale is complicated, we focus on one area, at present Iraq and Syria, while others—Sudan, Nigeria and most recently Israel and Gaza—are forgotten. Or, equally dangerously, we deny it is religious, in the illusion that religion makes it unfixable.

The clear religious and ideological aspects of the conflicts have to be tackled ideologically, including through the leadership of those who see the world in religious terms. Religious leaders must up their game and engage jihadism in religious, philosophical and ethical space. Religious justifications of violence must be robustly refuted. That is, in part, a theological task, as well as being a task that recognises the false stimulation, evil sense of purpose and illusory fulfilment that deceive young men and women into becoming religious warriors. As we have seen recently, many religious leaders have the necessary (and very great) moral and physical courage to see the need for an effective response to something that they have condemned. It is essential that Christians are clear about the aim of peace and the need for joint working and that Muslim leaders continue explicitly to reject extremism, violent and otherwise. Any response must bring together all those capable of responding to the challenge.

It is hard to exaggerate this point, and it is one that was picked up recently by Richard Dannatt, former Chief of the General Staff of the British army. We should be quite hesitant about considering this only as a war of self-defence. The justification for our use of military force rests principally in the extreme humanitarian need of the local communities. It was striking, during a meeting in early September at Lambeth Palace, to hear an Oriental Christian Orthodox leader refer with admiration to the safe havens for the Kurds of 1991, set up by John Major. The aim of our violence must be to prevent the alteration of facts on the ground, and to establish safe space. Defending ourselves through air power is both unlikely to succeed and questionable in its long-term effect.

Furthermore, in the Islamic world, state and religion are often (but not always) one. However, in the historically Christian countries, whatever the depth and breadth of their Christian heritage, Church and state are usually separated, either in law, as in France or the United States, or more or less in practice as here in the UK, notwithstanding the presence of bishops in the House of Lords. The over-simplifications stem from these different cultural and historical perspectives.

The result is an asymmetrical and intermittent response. We pick and choose areas that go in and out of fashion, corresponding with the latest news report (when did you last hear mention of the girls taken by Boko Haram on the news?) Yet at the same time the actions we take are often perceived in the Islamic world as those of Christian countries, a renewal of the Crusades. Our own responses need to be calibrated with immense care.

Over-simplification may give us obvious enemies and thus a simpler task, resolvable by force, but it results in mutual destruction. Christians speak of the plain of Nineveh and Muslims may answer, “What about Srebrenica or Chechnya?” To simplify is to deceive ourselves, and deceit leads to the same nightmares that engulfed the world after 1914.

Strategy must aim for a just peace, not only our stability and prosperity. The creation of international structures that promote peaceful confrontation is one of the greatest achievements since 1945. Yet too often they break down. An effective strategy requires as its foundation the ideals which were so influential after 1945 in Europe and Japan. We are not fighting for economic prosperity and a second overseas holiday every year. That weighs little against an ideal, however perverted, of eternal salvation through jihadist killing. Our struggle is for the ideas of human flourishing both now and eternally, of mutual love and respect, of diversity handled in amity not enmity. There is a need for practical precision on what that means. What does the end of this struggle look like? It must include a review of those aspects of our own culture and lives that rest in power and self advancement and not in love for neighbour. That touches on systems of trade, international finance, and the exercise of power.

Our strategy must be long term. There have been a number of calls for an international and coordinated approach to the threat of jihadism. They are right. However, to be effective we must not look for quick fixes.

Does a long-term strategy always include armed force? No one should imagine the solution is obvious. Used only in the Levant and despite the involvement of five Islamic countries in the current US-led coalition, military force is inevitably seen as yet more “crusader” violence and increases support for what it seeks to subvert.

Within Christian teaching there is a strong and brave tradition of absolute pacifism. Yet there are calls from Christian leaders in the Middle East for armed help. They seek temporary support while their own governments get their act together. They do not want the Middle East emptied of its Christian populations, essential to its culture, critical in many areas of life and there since before the time of St Paul.

International action of a quasi-policing nature is a very recent development of the ideas of just war that have existed in Christian thinking for 1,500 years. In addition to the classic tests (including last resort, clear aims, probability of success, proportionate means, protection of non-combatants, and prevention of aggression), in the 21st century international lawyers have begun to develop at least three further requirements. A war must be legal in terms of the United Nations charter, its goal must be to preserve the framework of values set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and it must be of limited duration. All experience of war demonstrates that the longer it lasts the more violent and savage it becomes.

We permit the police to use violence domestically to preserve order. The impact of the larger scale violence involved in war means that there should be even more careful deliberation about its deployment. The outcomes are always unpredictable. The second Iraq war showed us that by effectively creating new networks of international terror. When necessary it needs to be integrated as a temporary aspect into the global response, playing a part in preventing groups such as ISIS or Boko Haram from changing the facts on the ground so drastically that all help to terrorised populations becomes impossible.

Nobody should be calling for a “war on terror”—we tried that and it fed what we feared. Nor are we in a conflict of civilisations. That is exactly the over-simplification that brings catastrophe. But there is a need to struggle for the values that our own centuries of insane conflict have taught us to treasure. Sometimes this may temporarily include armed force on an international scale.

Yet for Christians there is one simplicity. All our futures are in the hands of God, who is Lord of history. We are called by Jesus Christ to trust God, and to love each other, our neighbours and our enemies. We are to value the lives of others and hold our own cheap. Bringing God into the calculation is a call to discipleship, to hope and not to fear. Followers of Jesus Christ must not be faithless addicts to self-defensive violence. History bears this out. In the first three centuries of the church it had no armies, no kings and no pitched battles. Yet it overcame the greatest power of the age. Christians serve the Prince of Peace who never wielded a sword.

We all know that violence by itself resolves nothing. Any global struggle with aims of human growth and development, of a just peace and not only on the terms of the rich and powerful, requires a different spirit. For Christians it is ultimately through following the example of Christ’s self-giving love that we may save ourselves and others.

It may be that we cannot avoid some use of force, but that must be done in the context of a greater and more selfless ideal that renews the vision that rebuilt our own continent after the long wars that began in 1914. This struggle is for the heart and the spirit, not only for our security and undisturbed wealth. It is a winnable struggle, but the victory requires us to reshape our values, as much as to overcome those of ISIS. If we respond as we should, if we take this challenge as we should, then the future is a hopeful one for us, and for those areas currently so terribly afflicted.