The “gods” know nothing, they understand nothing. They walk about in darkness; all the foundations of the earth are shaken. Psalm 82:5
The sound of the suicide bomber’s vest exploding reverberates through the crowded football stadium in Paris. The players on the field slowly come to a halt, and the cheering dissipates. Every heart in the crowd sinks. Panic rises. No one saw what happened, no one has any idea what is going on. But the sound still echoes in their ears.
Another scene, this one five years ago, in Quetta, Pakistan: the market square is covered in blood. The Taliban have just bombed a Shi’ite Muslim neighborhood, killing 42 people. Above a burning shop filled with scraps of charred human flesh hangs an advertisement paid for by the Australian government, warning the persecuted people of the neighborhood not to try to flee to Australia. They will not be welcome, the billboard says.
We live in an age of international terror, and an age of refugees. Countries that used to be safe from terrorism, like Kenya, France, Lebanon, and Nigeria, have seen massacres that take the breath away – and are meant to be played on CNN and YouTube, over and over again. Meanwhile, a series of savage wars have sent 60 million people fleeing their home countries – the highest number since World War II. The foundations of our world seem to be shaking; the “gods” of our world – our leaders, our media, our universities – seem to have no answer.
What is behind these catastrophes? And how should American Christians respond to the overwhelming tide of refugees and the terrorists some believe to be hiding amongst them?
The causes for these twin crises are many, but the cause least understood – and most important to understand – is this: for 70 years, the United States has been willing to use Islamic jihadist ideologies as a tool of its foreign policy.
President Roosevelt began the U.S. alliance with Saudi Arabia in 1945. At the time, it was a new country ruled by a single family, the Saudis, who built their army and the country on Wahhabism, a minority version of Islam dating to the 1700s that considers Christians infidels, Jews and Shi’ites worthy of death, women little better than property, and jihad (holy war to spread Islamic law) a religious obligation. The Islamic Ottoman Empire regarded it with horror and tried to crush it. Even today, the vast majority of Muslims are appalled by the Saudi regime’s public beheadings, crucifixions, and amputations. Nevertheless, Roosevelt knew that in the coming Cold War with Russia, he would need the Saudis’ oil and their strategic position in the Middle East.
For decades, the strategy worked perfectly. Saudi Arabia helped beat back radical Arab nationalism in the 50s and 60s. After Russia invaded Afghanistan in 1979, the U.S. asked the Saudi regime and the new Islamic extremist government in Pakistan to help raise an international army of jihadists to head to Afghanistan to fight. Among them was Osama bin Laden. Afghanistan has not seen a day’s peace since. In the 1990s, the Saudi regime continued as a useful bulwark for the U.S. against our allies-turned-enemies Iran and Saddam Hussein.
Then 9/11 came – carried out by the international army Saudi Arabia and Pakistan helped create, paid for with Saudi money, planned under the protection of the Taliban regime Saudi Arabia and Pakistan propped up. The weapon the U.S. had fashioned to wield against the Soviets had turned. Call it the ultimate unintended consequence.
But in the wake of al Qaeda’s attacks, the U.S. made a fateful choice. In the words of a veteran journalist of the Middle East, Patrick Cockburn, “The first moves from Washington made it clear that the anti-terror war would be waged without any confrontation with Saudi Arabia or Pakistan, two close US allies, despite the fact that without the involvement of these two countries 9/11 was unlikely to have happened.” Because it ignored the root of the problem, the “war on terror” was doomed to failure.
By 2009, it was still true that, in the words of Hillary Clinton, “Donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide.” In the five years after those words were written, the U.S. agreed to sell a total of $90 billion worth of advanced weaponry to the Saudis. The economic and strategic ties binding these governments together, it seems, were too strong to be broken by the terrorism threat.
The exiled Saudi Arabian scholar Madawi al-Rasheed explains it this way: “Today, many Western powers perhaps feel that if jihadism is inevitable, it is better that it is performed far away from them, and even better if it can be used to serve Western interests, exactly as it did in Afghanistan.” Or, as the prophets might say, “They boast: ‘We have entered into a covenant with death. When the overwhelming scourge passes by, it will not touch us'” (Isaiah 28:15).
Soon, another opportunity arose to make use of jihadism. When the uprising in Syria began in 2011, the U.S. saw a chance to get rid of Iran and Russia’s only ally in the Arab world. As if 9/11 had never happened, our government did exactly what they did in Afghanistan in the 1980s: partnered with the Saudis (and Qatar and Turkey) to fund and arm the uprising. Foreign fighters, including members of al Qaeda, followed the money and flocked to Syria to join the fight and were rewarded by the Saudis for their efforts. Eventually, the most radical of these fighters declared an “Islamic State” (ISIS) in the region, breaking away from al Qaeda and beginning a genocidal campaign against Christians, Yazidis, and Shi’ite Muslims. With Friday’s attacks in Paris, the cycle is complete once again.
The problem is not limited to Syria. Saudi oil money has fueled the rise of Wahhabism across the Muslim world. Cockburn again: “One of the most important trends in the Muslim world… is the way in which Wahhabism has influenced and to some extent taken over mainstream Sunni Islam… If you wanted to build a mosque in Bangladesh or some other poor country and you need $20,000, the only place you can get it easily is from Saudi Arabia or some Saudi charity.” Countries where religious violence used to be minimal – Bangladesh, Nigeria, Mali, Malaysia, Uganda, Pakistan – are now hotbeds of extremism and anti-Christian violence.
These developments are shocking and frightening to vast numbers of Muslims (to say nothing of Middle Eastern Christians), who are watching their countries being transformed and destroyed in front of their eyes – but they are not the ones with the funding and weapons to press their case. Many have chosen, instead, to flee.
The list of countries most of the refugees come from is almost entirely a list of countries the U.S. and the Saudi regime have made war on together: Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen. In Syria alone, twelve million people have fled their homes to escape fighting between the brutal Assad dictatorship and Islamist rebels backed by the United States and its allies – one of the largest movements of refugees in history. Four million of them have left the country since 2011. This year, that great mass of people finally began arriving in Europe.
And now, the United States is also being forced to choose: will we let these people in or not?
The history I’ve written here is grim, and all the more so because, while all of these facts are public knowledge, our national leadership seems bound and determined to resist talking about it. (Just one example: The Pentagon reacted to the death of Saudi Arabia’s tyrannical King Abdullah this spring by announcing an essay contest to honor the king’s “powerful voice for tolerance, moderation and peace.” Muslim American groups protested vehemently, but almost no one else did.)
Nevertheless, I think it is crucial for us to understand this history – not only as we participate as citizens in debates and elections, but especially now, as the controversy over whether to accept Syrian refugees rages. We need to understand that these refugees are not the cause of the violence roiling their home country, or the terror that has repeatedly shocked the world in the last few months. In reality, one of the main causes of the violence and terror is our own government’s alliance with some of the world’s most extreme theocracies, an alliance that has given terroristic, genocidal strains of Islam unprecedented power. The refugees, Muslim and Christian alike, are the victims of that alliance.
As of this writing, 30 American governors have announced that, because of the Paris attacks, they will refuse to take in any of the 10,000 Syrian refugees scheduled for resettlement in the U.S. this year. On my Facebook feed, many of the loudest voices calling for these moves are Christians. Like the Australian billboard in Quetta, they want to turn away these refugees who face a terrorism threat more close and deadly than any terrorism Americans or French people currently face, or are likely to in our lifetimes.
It’s worth noting a few facts at this stage: Only one of the ten Paris attackers is believed to have been a Syrian refugee. The rest were born French or Belgian citizens. Similarly, scores, maybe hundreds, of Americans have traveled to Iraq and Syria to join the Islamic State, and, as in Texas this May, some Americans have already committed ISIS-inspired acts right here at home. It’s also reasonable to guess that most terrorists bent on infiltrating the U.S. probably aren’t waiting for years in UN camps in Turkey and Jordan to be resettled here – they’re making their way here on their own. Shutting our borders to refugees may help stave off a similar attack in the U.S., but probably not for long.
But in the end, the problem remains, doesn’t it? We cannot guarantee that no Syrian refugee will kill any Americans. 2.6 million Americans will die this year, no matter what we do. 35,000 of us will die in car accidents. 17,000 of us will be murdered. 1,000 of us will be killed in run-ins with the police. 41,000 of us will kill ourselves. If the next twelve months are anything like the last twelve, dozens of us will be killed in schools, churches or movie theaters by lost, hate-filled teenagers wielding their parents’ guns. And yes, some of us – probably not more than ten, but possibly thousands – will be killed by terrorists.
If this is a record-breaking year for terrorism, you will have a greater than 0.001% chance of being killed by a terrorist. Letting in Syrian refugees elevates that risk by some infinitesimal, incalculable amount.
Fear is a strong motivator. It’s why Americans supported the invasion of Iraq. It’s why Russia, seeing the U.S encroach on its traditional security zone in Ukraine and Syria, has invaded those countries. And it’s why lifelong Christians can look at an exhausted mother stumbling off a life raft onto the coast of Greece, wailing for her five-year-old son whose grip she lost in the storm, and whose tiny corpse is now rolling in the surf a few miles away, and say, “Send them back.” That bomb exploding outside the Parisian soccer stadium rings in our ears far more loudly than any of the car accidents and gunfire happening in our cities every day.
Fear is the Islamic State’s favorite weapon, and the trademark of their master, the prince of this world. Fear of death is the strongest fear of all. But we serve a God who conquers death. Our God chose to be tortured to death rather than be separated from us. Jesus died to “free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death” (Hebrews 2:14-15).
The Bible is full of verses that say, “Do not be afraid.” Usually, we take them as a comfort. In the wake of the Paris massacres, we need to read them differently. “Do not call conspiracy everything this people calls a conspiracy; do not fear what they fear, and do not dread it. The Lord Almighty is the one you are to regard as holy, he is the one you are to fear, he is the one you are to dread.” (Isaiah 8:12-13). “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both body and soul in hell” (Matthew 10:28). These verses are not merely for comfort; they point us to a different way of thinking about the world. Christians are not supposed to fear the same things that other people fear, and that should set us free to do what God asks of us.
What does he ask?
“You are to consider the foreigners residing among you as native-born” (Ezekiel 47:22).
“Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers” (Hebrews 13:2).
“I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, and I was sick and you looked after me” (Matthew 24:35-36).
This is actually really important. Frankly, there’s not much ordinary citizens can do about this crisis. I don’t expect the U.S.-Saudi-Pakistan alliance to go away anytime soon. But public pressure from American Christians – the wrong kind of pressure – could sink the U.S.’ current plans to let in 10,000 Syrian refugees (a measly 0.08% of the total).
What a miserable testimony that would be when the history of this world crisis is written. “But where was the church in all this?” our descendants will ask. What will we tell them? What will Syrians tell their grandchildren about us? “Your grandfather almost escaped, but the people of the cross turned him away, and then the Islamic State killed him.” Or: “The people of the cross welcomed your grandfather when the people of the sword had driven him from his home. And that’s how our family learned about Jesus.”
Not much in this terrible world is up to us. This is.
Let’s do what we were called to do.
- Steve Coll, Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001
- Charles Glass, Syria Burning: ISIS and the Death of the Arab Spring
- Madawi Al-Rasheed, A History of Saudi Arabia
- Patrick Cockburn, The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution
- William Stringfellow, An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land