ISIS: The New Rome and the Politics of Presence

by Paul L. Heck (September 22, 2014)

Violence is used to foster division between communities. This is the goal of ISIS: to create the impression that Muslims and non-Muslims have nothing in common as fellow human beings. The strategy has been successful. Many who only harbored the sentiment can now say it openly: “This is Islam.” But this is the very response ISIS wants to elicit because it puts Muslims on the defensive: “The world is against Islam our religion and way of life.” Do we want to allow ISIS to dictate the terms of our relations with one another? Or do we decide?

ISIS has been successful. People now look hither and thither. Who is to blame for this? Islam is to blame. How can it be said that Islam has nothing to do with ISIS? The US is to blame. They made a mess of things either due to their ignorance of the region’s history or self-consciously by arming their own terrorist enemies against their regime enemies (Syria); or their regime allies against their terrorist enemies, only ending by strengthening regimes against their peoples (Iraq). The region’s dictators are to blame, especially those who can make sense of their claim to rule in the name of Islam only by feeding their people a slave-mentality Islam (Saudi Arabia).

I have no doubt at all that the only way out of this morass in the long term is to affirm our loving commitment to one another. This is the only way to neutralize the message of ISIS. My fellow Christians and I need to affirm our loving commitment to our Muslim brothers and sisters, who will—I speak from experience—respond in kind. If we do not, ISIS wins.

Force may be needed to stop the brutality of ISIS in the short term. But the war on terror will be a war without end if we think force alone will put a stop to it. The opposite is true. Force alone will only make things worse—as the last decade and a half of the war on terror tragically demonstrates. And by loving commitment, I do not mean platitudes. I mean a readiness to go to the other end of the world if need be to affirm one’s loving commitment to others through a politics of presence.

What is a politics of presence? It means to affirm one’s desire to be in active relation with the other. It means friendship. And it’s not something that can be left to governments. It won’t work as state diplomacy: “I’m a state. I’ve come to be your friend.” States might facilitate the process, but a politics of presence will only work when individuals and communities pledge themselves to be with one another and then actually do whatever is needed to be with one another. And it can’t happen willy-nilly. The suspicions—let’s be honest and say hatreds—now run so deep that it’s no longer a simple matter of extending a friendly hand even if one has the good will to do so.

But there are ways to foster a politics of presence through projects that offer experience of cross-cultural friendship. All parties must have equal footing. In other words, the projects can’t be colonial in any way. If done well, such projects can display that our deepest desire is to know one another as friends not enemies—with tangible even if unquantifiable results. I’ve been involved in one such project between America and Morocco that seeks to build cross-cultural friendship through the joint study of religions (see here), and I’ve seen the possibilities. (And there are many other such examples.)Photo.Maroc.2009.Blog.jpg Participants on all sides don’t change their beliefs and principles (again, it can’t be a colonial endeavor), but they do see the other through a new prism of shared experience and positive cooperation, which they will bring with them when they return to their home institutions. So many across the globe are susceptible to lies about the other simply because they have had no experience of the other. We’ve spent trillions on war, and it doesn’t seem to have gotten us anywhere. Maybe we should start earmarking substantially more communal resources for experiences of friendship. It is the only way to make ISIS and its likes irrelevant, even silly, to all.

It may sound naïve on my part. I’m not suggesting some type of love fest. Indeed, too often such projects rely on public fanfare and self-congratulation in one-off events that only generate temporary enthusiasm—“look how we’re friends”—but are ultimately ineffective because there’s no long-term commitment: “We’re friends today, but tomorrow?” No, I’m speaking of projects that cultivate real and sustained experience of friendship without whistles and bells. This is something we should do not simply because it’s a good thing but because it’s the best means of dealing with the deep-seated suspicions and hatreds that inspire a few people here and there to take a walk on the wild side—and a few people here and there is all it needs. Your gated communities will not protect you. Friendship will. It is the best security. Are you willing to join me?

I hear too many saying, “See, we were right about them all the time.” I hear this here in my own communities, and I hear it over there. It seems like a harmless statement, but it masks a desire for dominion over the other. See, they’re barbarian, we’re civilized. See, we’re a peace-loving people, while all they want to do is use violence against us.

Check yourself here. Which side did you identify with? Know that there are people who have the very opposite perception. I remember when I was studying in the shari‘a department (where I was the sole non-Muslim) at Jordan University in 1995. A colleague invited me to visit him at his home after the day’s classes. As I was waiting for him outside the department, his mother, whom he had arranged to meet us, saw me and introduced herself. When she realized what my religion was, she queried, “What’s the use of this Christianity if you just kill people?” That was her perception, fostered by leaders who are themselves ignorant of other cultures and religions. Yet we find similar voices on our side: “Islam brought nothing but violence.” Of course, this mother’s perception (not her beliefs) changed once she got to know her son’s strange friend. The politics of presence works. And it must now become part and parcel of our understanding of international relations not simply because it’s a good thing but because it’s the only way to preserve our interests and our security.

ISIS is very bad news for the world and for Islam, and it needs to be stopped for the sake of the world and for the sake of Islam. But it also shows that we need a new way forward. The problem, as I see it, is that we all want to claim the mantle of Rome. What do I mean by this? Rome set the standard in the ancient world. It set the standard for power and civilization. But it was based on dominion and the desire for dominion over others. (Here, I’m following Augustine in The City of God.) And it was intimately connected to religion. The idea that all—ISIS included—want to be the new Rome raises questions about the concept of religion. Who has religion? And how is it promoted? I would maintain that all nations have what can be called a civil religion alongside the particular beliefs of individual citizens.

Umayyad coin (7th century) based on Roman (Byzantine) model

What is to be the civil religion? Under Rome, it was the pagan gods. Constantine changed it to Christianity, and Islam—seventh-century coins indicate—sought to present itself as the new Rome. Indeed, the conquests reached the walls of Constantinople: the new Rome! The idea is that Islam, its origins as a pietistic movement notwithstanding, took shape amidst the imperial heritage of its day. Over history, empire has been the vehicle by which to advance a people’s religion and expand the consensus that its ways are destined to bring about the welfare of humanity.

All of this is meant to shift perspective on what religion is. We all have civil religion. We all belong to nations. Civic piety is about the beliefs we have of ourselves as a nation. It could be Judaism, Christianity, or Islam. But it might also take on a secular veneer—faith in democracy and capitalism as god-given with the accompanying mandate to promote them on a global scale. Indeed, liberalism has its own mechanics of dominion and its soldiers who are willing to kill and to be killed for its cause. This is not to put all ideologies—liberalism and ISIS—on the same playing field. We need to have conversations about moral truths (although at time in history when morals are assumed to be but personal tastes, it can be difficult to have such conversations; we all need to be humble). The point here is that we all have religion, and empire, historically, has been the way to promote it.

Let me restate this. I am suggesting that religion of some kind is never separable from nationhood–and vice versa. Religion is not a separate category that the elite can scoff at as but a tool so easily used to dupe the masses for one political agenda or another. It’s simply what it means to be a nation. Religion is all of us. To be religious, then, is to be a nation, organized as a polity of some type (monarchy, democracy, etc.) that works to extend the nation’s religion as its manifest destiny. Indeed, Jefferson spoke of our empire of liberty.

ISIS, you might be surprised to learn, conceives of itself as the new Rome. It calls for the conquest of Rome (meaning the old Rome, in Italy, in contrast to the then new Rome in Constantinople that the first Muslims sought to conquer in the seventh century and that would fall to the Ottomans under Mehmet II in 1453, although, to be sure, ISIS might set its sights on Istanbul one day). This echoes wider rhetoric in Islamist groups that call for the conquest of the eternal city for Islam. But the point is not simply conquest. The idea of Rome continues to set the standard of civilization, and the idea of conquering it has symbolic value. Control Rome, you control civilization. Islam is to prevail as global civilization. “We’re #1.”

The point, again, is that we all have religion, and empire—whether through military conquest or market expansion—has been the way to promote it on the global stage. ISIS is now trying its hand at this game, and it won’t stop until it is stopped—with (hopefully restrained) force in the short run but in the long run only by reconsidering how we are all religious and what it means to promote religion—not through empire but by being in active relation with other peoples, and they with us, and all of us witnessing to our religion through our loving commitment to one another. But whose religion will prevail? Here, we have to trust that the truth will prevail even if it is not something we can define in advance or claim to possess for ourselves. As Muslims say, “God guides as He wills.” Truth, then, is something beyond us all. But we must pursue it in appropriate fashion through the politics of presence. And we must engage in fruitful conversation at that level. Again, the inter-religious must now be seen as part and parcel of the international. ISIS has unmasked the reality that the politics of dominion that all nations have pursued only ends in death and destruction. The benchmark of international relations must now be a politics of presence. Are you with the politics of dominion or… the politics of presence?

There’s more to be said. These issues will be with us for decades to come, and so I don’t want to be verbose. I admit I am swimming against the tide of history, the bulk of which is about the politics of dominion, east and west. Indeed, with the politics of presence, I’m suggesting we can redeem history. How naïve! The thing is, our own long-term security now depends on it. History is knocking at the door. What awaits us behind it? We can’t go backwards. Old models no longer work. We have to go forward. But how? Are we up to the task before us?

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