In my last View from the Centre I commented on the crisis in Iraq in which radical Sunni Islamists are attempting to purge the region of those not aligned with their vision of an Islamic state. Since then the humanitarian situation has worsened. Outside governments, including ours, wrestle with the vexed question of how to respond.
I pray that any response will be a wise one. However, based on recent public commentary, I fear that it might not be. It appears that very few people really have a handle on just what is going on. In just the last week mainstream in-depth opinion pieces have told me variously that the situation is: all about religion and not at all about religion; inherent to Islam and a perversion of Islam; all about power vacuums; all about the caliphate; and all about tribalism. Politicians – our own prime minister and Barack Obama included – merely offer echoing sound-bites.
My hunch is that what is happening in northern Iraq is driven by a complex mixture of all these things and more besides. My conviction is that, whatever really is going on, it is happening within a paradigm that the prevailing contemporary Western mindset has little hope of handling effectively. By ludicrously parodying religious worldviews as necessarily stupid and evil the prophets of secular humanism have paved the way for public forums to be similarly lazy. Despite claiming sophistication, too many secularists appear to me to be refusing to walk the tricky road of trying to comprehend just how ISIS leadership might be operating within a political framework that is driven by a theological conception of the good. Of course ISIS has its thugs, but it is also fuelled by privileged imports that are highly educated in both secular and theological terms. How this dynamic works within terrorism has never been grasped by Western pundits beyond superficial and inaccurate appeals to social alienation.
I genuinely appreciate that the West still desires to assist those suffering in Iraq, and potentially at great cost. But by turning away from religion Westerners are not simply losing faith, they are rapidly losing the willingness and capacity to comprehend, and engage with, any profoundly theological worldview. In a world that is trending in the opposite direction, this will leave our diplomatic and/or military contributions increasingly shallow and ineffective.
Dr Richard Shumack is a part-time Research Fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity. He is also on the faculty at the Centre for the Study of Islam and Other Faiths at Melbourne School of Theology. His recently published book, 'The Wisdom of Islam and the Foolishness of Christianity', can be purchased here.