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Why 'Islamic State' is terrorizing Christians

Kersten Knipp / ccFebruary 28, 2015

News of the abduction of more than 200 Syrian Christians by the "Islamic State" has spread throughout the world. This was precisely IS's intention. Its acts of terrorism are part of a cynical media strategy.

Islamischer Staat / Flagge auf Berg / Syrien
Image: AP

It is still unclear what the terrorist organization "Islamic State" (IS) will do with approximately 220 Christians it has abducted from several villages in northern Syria in recent days. The best-case scenario is that they may try to exchange them for jihadists held in Syrian prisons. The worst-case scenario is that they may become victims of IS's politics of symbolism, to demonstrate once again that the group has declared war on Christians and Christianity worldwide. The most recent people to find out what this means were the Copts in Libya, who were abducted by jihadists and beheaded on camera shortly afterwards.

If we take the jihadists at their word, these beheadings are merely the prelude to a much bigger fight. At the moment this is still being fought along the southern edge of the Mediterranean, but the threat is that sooner or later it will also reach its northern shores. That has long been the plan, anyway. "We will conquer Rome," said one of the hooded executioners on that Libyan beach, gesturing, knife in hand, in the direction of Europe.

Theological justifications

This wasn't just a spontaneous remark. In late summer 2014, IS published the fourth edition of its magazine Dabiq. The name refers to a town in northern Syria that is also mentioned in the Islamic hadiths. According to tradition, this is where the decisive battle between Muslims and Christians will be fought shortly before the end of the world.

The magazine's editors chose a suitably striking cover for the fourth edition. It shows St Peter's Square in Rome with the black jihadist flag flying above it. In December, the leader of IS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, declared that, "with Allah's blessing," his organization intended to conquer Rome.

Irak Mossul Jesiden Flüchtlinge Frauen
Yazidis have been forced to flee IraqImage: picture-alliance/AA/E. Yorulmaz

The religious justification for the group's anti-Christian policy was provided by one of IS's predecessors, the "Islamic State of Iraq" (ISI), when it published its founding document back in 2007, entitled, "Notification of the faithful of the birth of the Islamic State." The authors were referring to a traditional saying from the founder of the Islamic religion, Mohammad, to explain that Muslims must be governed by Muslims. If three Muslims lived in one place, they said, they had to nominate a commander.

Furthermore, the document continued, it was imperative for Muslims' well-being that they live in an area governed by Sharia law. As the canonical texts make no reference to the size of the area in which Sunnis live, this is not restricted by any guidelines. If one considers that Muslims are present all over the world, the suggestion is that IS harbors claims to worldwide Sunni dominion. The document also says that, just as in the early days of Islam, the new religion's territory kept on growing, IS's territory will also continually expand, and this area will automatically become the territory of the caliphate.

The expansion will, the document says, take place based on three tactical principles: "nikayah" (terror and destruction), "tawwahush" (merciless brutality), and lastly "tamkin" (establishment of the caliphate). IS leaves us in no doubt that this is precisely what it intends.

The objectives of terrorism

The Iranian-American historian and cultural philosopher Hamid Dabashi writes on Al-Jazeera's website that IS is pursuing four objectives with its targeted attacks on Christians.

Christen in Syrien
Christians in Syria have been fighting the militantsImage: DW/K. Sheikho

Firstly, he writes, the Christian communities in Egypt, Iraq, and Syria are among the oldest in the Arab and Muslim world. As such, they are one of the most conspicuous symbols of the region's multicultural and multi-confessional diversity, which IS wants to eradicate.

Secondly, he continues, the attacks on religious minorities like Christians, Shiites, and Yazidis aim to incite the different religious groups against one another, and thus to undermine stability in the individual states.

Thirdly, the attacks are intended to provoke the Western powers - the EU and the US - to intervene. In doing so they would lend apparent plausibility to IS's assertion that Islam is at war with the West. By the same token, Dabashi suggests, the West is inclined to interpret attacks on Christians as attacks on itself. This, however, overlooks the fact that the vast majority of the terrorist organization's victims are Arab Christians.

Fourthly, he writes that these attacks on religious minorities are an attempt to restore IS's aura of invincibility, which was badly damaged by its defeat in Kobane. They also help to keep IS present in the Western media.

A fifth point could also be added, namely: that in the West there is also the danger that the terrorist attacks on Christians could fuel diffuse Islamophobia. That in turn could result in some Muslims inclining towards radicalization and becoming receptive to jihadist thinking - a vicious circle which would keep perpetuating itself as long as people fail to see through IS's strategy.