In 2014, a rag-tag band of Islamic radicals conquered large portions of Iraq and Syria, renamed themselves the Islamic State, and declared themselves an Islamic caliphate under Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Their methods have been brutal and shockingly cruel. They broadcasted the beheadings of several American and British captives; they have slaughtered Christians refused to convert to Islam; and they have set up “rape camps” for captive women—all justified, according to them, by Islamic law.
The news media reported on this, but they have not reported on the immense historical significance of a new caliphate. In Islam, the caliph is considered to be the successor to the Prophet Mohammed so he is the leader of all the world’s Muslims, not just the ones who happen to live in his country. The Islamic world, or Ummah, has not had a caliph for a very long time: the Islamic State is the first serious contender for the caliphate since the Ottoman Caliphate was abolished in 1924. No nation has recognized the Islamic State or the new, self-proclaimed caliph. However, what really matters is what the majority of the world’s Muslims think.
Our politicians would like us to think otherwise, but at least some Muslims have accepted the authority of the Islamic State caliphate. We see young men—and even some young women—who were raised in Western countries streaming to fight for the Islamic State. They are rejecting the Enlightenment values and licentiousness of Western civilization for the chance to risk their lives in establishing a traditional society. The longer the Islamic State is permitted to exist, the more likely it will be that other Muslims will start to view it as the legitimate authority for Muslims.
Western democracies have proven themselves to be impotent against the Islamic State. While there is no doubt that the US military could easily crush the Islamic State, the only thing the US has done so far is to harass and degrade the militants.
The Iraq War and The War in Afghanistan
There is no question that the Islamic State is a miserable, barbaric movement, so why is the US doing so little? The biggest reason is that the US public is war weary after the long, seemingly pointless, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
At the beginning of those wars, we were led to believe that what the inhabitants of Iraq and Afghanistan wanted was western-style democracy. We were told that once democracy and liberal capitalism flowered in these countries, the inhabitants would abandon religious extremism and get on the hamster wheel of consumerism.
Of course, it didn’t happen that way. These regions are immensely more complex than our political elites believed. Our elites also underestimated the role of religion and tribalism in the lives of the populace. Once the existing power structure of those countries was removed, the old religious and tribal animosities were allowed to run rampant and chaos emerged.
The American populace may not be very educated about the Middle East and Afghanistan, but they are keen enough to know that our Iraq and Afghanistan adventures have turned out to be failures. Hence, it is politically unpopular to put American boots on the ground to fight the Islamic State.
The other reason that the US is doing so little to crush the Islamic State is that it does not (yet) pose an immediate threat to the US. The Islamic State does not possess weapons of mass destruction. Even if they did, they lack any effective method of delivering an attack apart from the usual terrorist method of human smart bombs.
A Weakness of Secular Nation-States
While it is true that the Islamic State currently poses no immediate threat to the US, or even to Europe, our current approach is shortsighted. If the Islamic State is allowed to consolidate power, it might be a gigantic threat in the future.
What the Islamic State, and militant Islam in general, really points up is that Western democracies are not effective against a religious war. We lack the concept. For Western nations, war is something that happens when one nation rises against another as happened during World War II. Thus, when a terrorist attack happens, the natural inclination is to look for a state connection. If the attack was not initiated by another nation state, the attack is treated as a criminal act perpetrated by a few individuals, not an act of war.
Creating a Transnational Force to Battle Groups like ISIS
Andrew Peek discusses this blind spot that secular nation-states have in dealing with a sectarian threat in a Fiscal Times article. Professor Peek suggests that since the Islamic State and other radical Islamic organizations are transnational, we need something similar to fight it. His suggestion is that this organization would be something like the Knights Templar.
The Knights Templar was a Catholic religious military order that was created during in 1099 to protect Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land from being attacked by Muslims. As with any religious order, the warrior monks took vows of celibacy and poverty.
The Templars were amazingly fierce fighters with a long record of victories over difficult odds. However, after Jerusalem fell back into Islamic hands, the Templars were left without a military mission. Eventually, they became the target of the greed of the French King Philip the Fair which lead to their being disbanded in 1307.
Professor Peek doesn’t suggest that we need to revive the Templars. Instead, he thinks that some other type of sectarian force, such as the Christians of Iraq, would be required to repel the Islamic State and the other forces of radical Islam.
It is probably too late for the Christians of Iraq to form a defensive force—their numbers are too few at this point and they lack funding. However, it does raise an interesting question: What are the chances that we could see a revival of a Christian military force like the Knights Templar?
At this point, it seems very unlikely. Even when confronted with the atrocities committed by the Islamic State, Pope Francis suggested that military action against it should only be considered as a last resort. Apart from that, the Holy Father suggests that Christians need to commit to more “dialog” with Muslims. At this point, it appears that all predominantly Muslim nations are going to rid themselves of their Christian populations—and no one is going to lift a finger to stop it.
But it is possible to imagine a situation where some sort of Christian military force might be necessary. For example, the Islamic State has made it very clear that once they are established, they mean to make war on the nominally Christian population of Europe. Back in September 2014, they promised, “We will conquer your Rome, break your crosses, and enslave your women, by the permission of Allah, the Exalted.”
It seems that everyone, including the Pope, is treating this as mere bravado, but I happen to believe that the Islamic State is deadly serious about it. This could become a reality if three things happen:
- The Islamic State continues to gain power.
- The Muslim population of Europe continues to grow, and they start to gain political clout. There is reason to believe that this is already well underway.
- The European Muslims begin to view the Islamic State as being the authoritative voice of the Ummah.
If these three conditions are fulfilled it might become difficult for secular European nations to effectively defend minority Christian populations against attacks by Muslims.
In times past, Christians had Christian monarchs and the Emperor who could defend their interests. None of these entities exist anymore. The surviving monarchies lack any real authority and they are no longer overtly Christian. The only other institution that could potentially mount any sort of systematic defense is the Catholic Church.
If the Church wanted to recreate a defensive force, it would not have to revive the Knights Templar. It already recognizes several chivalric orders, including the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, which dates back to the time of the Templars. At this time, these chivalric orders are merely charitable organizations. However, the leadership framework and the institutional memory of a military organization are still there.
If the Church did send out a call for a revived military order, there would be an overwhelming response from men all over the world. I doubt a revived order would lack for funds or members.
Of course, this is all highly unlikely. But then again, I never thought I would see the rise of a new caliphate in my lifetime either.