Getting to the Root of ISIS and the Syrian Refugee Crisis

A Response to Russell Moore’s “Why Christians Must Speak Out Against Donald Trump’s Muslim Remarks”.

The least courageous act in American politics right now has got to be denouncing Donald Trump. Who hasn’t taken their turn explaining why Trump is supposed to be The Worst Person in the World™? President of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, Russell Moore, weighed in with his “Me Too!” this week with the twist of positioning his denouncement as a defense of religious liberty. Moore doesn’t want the state to curtail the liberties of Muslims because then the state may infringe on the liberties of Christians next. He wants the state to provide security and order “but we must not trade soul freedom for an illusion of winning.”

I first have to give an obligatory statement since there are some who think that anything less than a full-throated attack on Trump must imply support for him: this post is not a defense of Trump or any of his pronouncements. I’m more interested in what religious leaders like Moore choose to spend their personal influence and political capital on.

In pronouncements like these, Moore seems to be at least partially motivated by his long-term project of giving the SBC a public relations makeover. We may be conservative Christians, but we’re not that kind of conservative Christian! I suppose denouncing Trump assists Moore in continuing to pivot away from the old Religious Right/Moral Majority movement with which the ERLC was associated under its predecessor, and towards a more Millennial-friendly form of engagement.

Another aside before I address my main concern, Mark Krikorian at National Review points out that under 8 USC §1182:

Whenever the President finds that the entry of any aliens or of any class of aliens into the United States would be detrimental to the interests of the United States, he may by proclamation, and for such period as he shall deem necessary, suspend the entry of all aliens or any class of aliens as immigrants or nonimmigrants, or impose on the entry of aliens any restrictions he may deem to be appropriate.

Legality does not equate to morality. However, if Moore is concerned that Trump’s proposal is such a detriment to “soul freedom,” perhaps he should call for the repeal of this provision of the law.

One last aside: other candidates such as Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, or Rand Paul will likely call for some sort of temporary restriction on individuals coming from “high-risk” or “war-torn” regions – but not all Muslims. If those restricted regions are places like Syria, Iraq, Libya, etc., then such a measure would have the effect of banning law-abiding Muslims from entry into the United States. Will Dr. Moore also denounce these candidates, or will the rhetorical emphasis on “high-risk” rather than “Muslim” be enough to satisfy Dr. Moore’s concerns about religious liberty?

My main concern is that Dr. Moore is merely denouncing one particular possible solution to one particular consequence of a much larger catastrophe.

Why is there a Syrian refugee crisis? People are fleeing to Europe and America because ISIS is terrorizing the region and causing these individuals to escape and seek safe refuge. Why is ISIS doing this? According the 2014 statement of, A Plea on Behalf of Victims of ISIS/ISIL Barbarism in Iraq, a statement endorsed by Dr. Moore,

The so-called Islamic State of Iraq (ISIS/ISIL) 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.

So, ISIS wants to establish a caliphate, but why is this happening now? Why had we never heard of ISIS prior to the last couple of years? The statement from hints at the answer:

It is also worth bearing in mind that our own nation is not without responsibility for the plight of victims of ISIS/ISIL genocide. What is happening to these people now, and the further threats they face, would not be happening but for errors and failures of our nation’s own in Iraq. This can and should be acknowledged by all, despite disagreements we may have among ourselves as to precisely what these errors and failures were, and which political and military leaders are mainly responsible for them. The point is not to point fingers or apportion blame, but to recognize that justice as well as compassion demands that we take the steps necessary to end the ISIL/ISIS campaign of genocide and protect those who are its victims.

The cited “errors and failures” occurred, obviously, during the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the subsequent withdrawal in 2011. The authors of the statement acknowledge that the rise of ISIS can at least partially be attributed to U.S. intervention in Iraq. Why did the U.S. invade Iraq to begin with? Depending on who you ask, the answers range from “WMDs” to “blood for oil” to “9-11.” Generally speaking, the Americans who supported the war in Iraq were convinced of the importance of “hitting them over there before they hit us over here” despite whatever official reasons were cited for invading Iraq.

But why would “they” hit “us” over here? Why did al-Qaeda attack the United States on 9-11-2001? None of these events occurred in a vacuum. A common reason cited at the time, and is still believed today, is that the extremists “hate us for our freedoms.” They hate us for our western values. They won’t stop until Shariah law and a global caliphate are fully established worldwide. But American freedoms and western values have been established for centuries, so why would Islamic extremists choose that particular moment in history to strike?

A useful summary of known motives for 9-11 is noted on Wikipedia:

“In Osama Bin Laden’s November 2002 ‘Letter to America’, he explicitly stated that al-Qaeda’s motives for their attacks include: Western support for attacking Muslims in Somalia, supporting Russian atrocities against Muslims in Chechnya, supporting the Indian oppression against Muslims in Kashmir, the Jewish aggression against Muslims in Lebanon, the presence of US troops in Saudi Arabia, US support of Israel, and sanctions against Iraq.” [see page for various citations]

One phrase arguably captures Bin Laden’s stated reasons for attack: America’s foreign intervention.

America was “hitting them over there” long before 9-11. The First Gulf War began in 1990 after Saddam Hussein invaded and annexed Kuwait, placing the Iraqi military within striking distance of the oil fields of Saudi Arabia. President George H.W. Bush deployed U.S. troops to Saudi Arabia, along with others from a 34-nation coalition. President Bush promised Saudi Arabia’s King Fahd that the troops would be withdrawn once the war to free Kuwait was ended. That promise was not kept. In 1990 the United Nations Security Council also adopted Resolution 661 which imposed economic sanctions on Iraq that lasted for over a decade. American intervention in the Middle East stretches much further back including, for example, the U.S.’s admitted role in the assassination of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeq in 1953.

When an average American says we’re “fighting them over there,” “them” means terrorists, Islamic radicals, religious zealots. However, the record of what the U.S. is actually doing “over there” suggests something quite different. The United States has actually been opposing secular, non-Islamist regimes in Iraq, Egypt, Libya, and Syria resulting in the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003, Hosni Mubarak and Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, and the ongoing efforts to overthrow Bashar al-Assad in Syria.

During these campaigns the United States has actually found common cause with various groups of “rebels” in the regions, sometimes consisting of al-Qaeda affiliates and, of course, Islamic extremists. The U.S. has armed, trained, and financed various “rebel” groups in order to bring about regime change in these nations. The rise of ISIS itself came about largely because of American intervention in the region, as the signers of “Iraq Rescue” admit. Among America’s allies, wealthy financiers in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Qatar are funding ISIS and the Al Nusra Front in order to help Sunni Muslims “suffering under the atrocities of the Assad regime.” Another American ally, Turkey, is suspected of being complicit in the sale of ISIS oil which provides millions of dollars to the organization. And going back to the Soviet-Afghan War of 1979-89, American support of the Mujahideen and Osama Bin Laden is well-known.

What’s the point of the history lesson? And what does this have to do with Russell Moore’s call to denounce Donald Trump’s proposal to close the borders to Muslims? All of this is important because the issue of what to do with refugees and other migrants from the Middle East and beyond is not an isolated problem. Only so much good can be accomplished by deciding how best to handle the refugees apart from understanding what’s causing the refugees in the first place. The rise of ISIS (including “homegrown” sympathizers) and the subsequent Syrian refugee crisis are directly related to the U.S.’s foreign policy commitment of interventionism.

“Fighting them over there” is a myth. The U.S. has repeatedly sided with Islamist extremists in order to carry out its policy of regime change. Once regime change is accomplished, everything changes and the temporary allies become enemies. Rebels become terrorists. The people we financed, armed, and trained are now using all of this against us. This dynamic has directly led to the rise of ISIS which has caused the mass exodus of refugees from Iraq and Syria. The answer to these related challenges is not more war and more intervention. The interventionist policies of the Unites States government is directly related to all of these problems in the first place.

A final word concerning liberty. Dr. Moore rightly champions the cause of religious liberty for all people, but what about the rest of our liberties? Moore makes two contradictory statements regarding freedom and liberty:

The U.S. government should fight, and fight hard, against radical Islamic jihadism. The government should close the borders to anyone suspected of even a passing involvement with any radical cell or terrorist network. But the government should not penalize law-abiding people, especially those who are U.S. citizens, for holding their religious convictions.

Moore also states,

We are in a time of war, and we should respond as those in a time of war. But we must never lose in a time of war precious freedoms purchased through the blood of patriots in years past. We must have security, and we must have order. But we must not trade soul freedom for an illusion of winning.

“But the government should not penalize law-abiding people.” That’s a big “but.” Surely Dr. Moore can see that the entire War on Terror has been one long exercise in penalizing law-abiding people with warrantless wiretapping, torture, kidnapping, detention, the expansion of the surveillance state, seemingly random no-fly lists, the Patriot Act itself along with the abuses of the act, the end of habeas corpus rights, and more.

All of this has been done in the name of fighting radical Islamic jihadism. All of this has been done in the name of responding as those in a time of war. Civil liberties are being lost in the name of security and order. Preserving religious liberty is much easier to accomplish when we protect all of our liberties.

I encourage Christian leaders such as Dr. Moore along with all Christians to examine the root causes of our present challenges with ISIS and the Syrian refugee crisis. These are not isolated incidents and cannot be treated as such. More war is not the answer. More intervention consistently makes things worse, not better. Denounce reckless, demagogic rhetoric if you want. But don’t stop there. Denounce the actual actions, not just rhetoric, of the politicians whose policies have resulted not only in the loss of religious liberty but also in the wanton destruction of innumerable lives in Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere in the Middle East.

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