It may sound perverse, but perhaps we owe a small note of thanks to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the head of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
Like a bullet whistling overhead, the ruthless rise of ISIS under al-Baghdadi has had the effect of concentrating the fretful and forgetful minds of Western leaders. Despite the various terrors inflicted by al-Qaida, the Taliban and other radical Muslim groups over the years, and despite the spreading regional war between Islam’s Sunni and Shia factions, America and Europe have been losing interest in what seems like an endless fratricidal slaughter.
It is too soon to tell how the Sunni-Shia wars will end, but it is clear that Americans are war weary, and so is the rest of the West. Dealing with IEDs and suicide bombers and ungrateful local populaces has grown thin, and a general retreat has been sounded.
But al-Baghdadi has reminded the world of the barbarian at its gates. How barbarian? Even al-Qaida disowns ISIS as too extreme. ISIS fighters have turned the regional conflicts of Syria and Iraq into charnel houses of death and destruction.
As a petition written by Robert George on the website iraqrescue.org puts it, ISIS “is conducting a campaign of genocide against Christians, Yazidis and others in Iraq. In its fanatical effort to establish a caliphate, ISIS/ISIL has engaged in crimes against humanity by deliberately causing mass starvation and dehydration, and by committing unconscionable acts of barbarism against noncombatants, including defenseless women, children and elderly persons.”
With its recent occupation of the ancient Iraqi city of Mosul, ISIS has magnified the much larger war against Christians in the Middle East that has been going on for years. For the first time in perhaps 1,700 years, the Mass is no longer celebrated in Mosul because the Catholic community has been forced to flee rather than choose between death and conversion to Islam.
While the plight of 100,000 Christian refugees may not have galvanized United States leaders, the plight of the Yazidis did. This obscure and ancient religious sect has been ruthlessly attacked because Yazidis are viewed as infidels by the Islamists. They are fair game for the most inhuman treatment, and thousands have fled a remorseless genocide.
In the midst of this horror, it must be noted that there are reports that some of the photos “documenting” the ISIS atrocities are of dubious legitimacy. Propagandists are at work for their own ends, including those who seek to provoke a greater rift between Christianity and Islam than already exists.
Religious leaders like Pope Francis have been relentless in praying for peace, mindful that stirring up interreligious hatred will only worsen a terrible situation. But at the same time, if the pope is reluctant to “bless the tanks,” he has urged the world to “stop these crimes” by ISIS. Indeed, Vatican officials have been pointing out that under just-war teaching, in cases like genocide it is legitimate to seek to “disarm the aggressor.” Islamic leaders like Egypt’s grand mufti are beginning to raise their voices as well.
For at least the time being, there seems to be a religious, political and military consensus that the West must act to stop ISIS, whether one’s primary concern is the growing number of victims of this fanaticism or the worry that ISIS will soon bring its terror home to the West.
Meanwhile al-Baghdadi has plans of his own, announcing that “ISIS would march on Rome in its quest to establish an Islamic State from the Middle East across Europe,” saying that he would “conquer both Rome and Spain in this endeavor.”
We can’t say we weren’t warned.
Greg Erlandson is OSV’s president and publisher.