The West must understand religion if it is to fight ISIS

ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi in 2014 (AP)

The murder of five women coming out of an Orthodox Cathedral in Dagestan, a Muslim-majority republic of the Russian Federation, earlier this month, only aroused passing media coverage.

Perhaps Dagestan and Russia are too far away to count much for us in this country; perhaps there were too few victims; or perhaps we have become used to terrorist attacks of this kind; but even so – it is shocking to think that people attending Church anywhere are now the targets of ISIS.

It is only right that we should remember our Orthodox brethren at this moment of mourning and personal difficulty. It is also right that we should remember that Russia has suffered much more than any other country from terrorism of this type. There have been over 4,000 deaths in terrorist incidents in recent decades. One should never forget the horrific Moscow theatre attack of 2002 which led to the deaths of 130 people or the Beslan school massacre of 2004 which led to the deaths of over 300 people, half of them children. The lasting traumatic impact of these events should not be underestimated.

Both these events happened long before Russia’s involvement in Syria, though they postdate Russia’s military intervention in Chechnya. It has been widely thought that Russia’s help for Assad would make Russia more of a target than heretofore in the eyes of ISIS – though it is hard to imagine that ISIS could hate Russia more than it already did, given the savagery of past Islamic attacks. And there is a counter-argument that points out that Russia must fight terror, and is wiser to do so in Syria, the land of the so-called Caliphate, than at home.

Now ISIS has produced a poster which threatens the murder of the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, and the Patriarch of Moscow, Kirill II. This could be dismissed as an empty threat, but that would be unwise. It is surely evidence that the standard bearers of jihadist terrorism would, if they could, assassinate both men. But far more interesting (if that is the term) is the way that the terrorist mind sees both men as similar targets, one the secular and one the religious leader of Russia – the design of the poster puts them on an equal footing and points to some form of equivalence. It is this equivalence that marks this threat to Patriarch Kirill as somewhat different to past threat aimed at Pope Francis.

As everyone should realise by now, ISIS and jihadi terrorists in general do not recognise secularity. The idea that the religious has its own sphere, and the secular its own sphere too, is not simply anathema to them, but something that makes no sense at all. Kirill and Putin for them are interchangeable – the leaders of Christian Russia. This is not simply a gross oversimplification, but a huge misunderstanding of the nature of Russian society, and the role of the Church in that society.

Ironically, there are many in Russia who subscribe to this alignment between Russia and Orthodoxy, but that is more a myth than reality. These Orthodox nationalists have something in common with ISIS in their inability to separate sacred and secular.

Of course, the secular and the sacred are never found separately, but represent two abstractions from reality. By targeting Patriarch Kirill, who has minimal responsibility for Russia’s policies in the Middle East or elsewhere, ISIS shows once more that it never sees the two categories as separable. Russia’s foreign policy is to them a religious foreign policy. That is absurd. But, just as the jihadis of ISIS do not understand secularity, so do their opponents by and large fail to understand religion. There have been numerous attempts to see the phenomenon of terrorism as having political and economic roots, but that is only half the picture at most, for it overlooks the fact that the main wellspring of jihadi terrorism is religious. As has been pointed out many times, the religious illiteracy of our governments is a serious handicap in dealing with enemies like ISIS.

The latest ISIS poster aimed at Putin and Kirill has a clear message; the West needs to listen to what ISIS is saying, and understand the nature of the enemy.