Middle East Chaos: What's Happening and Why

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Middle East Chaos

What's Happening and Why

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What news items have dominated international headlines the last several years? Consider this quick recap:

• Four years ago the Arab Spring uprising began to reshape the Middle East. Several Arab governments were overthrown in what was widely hailed at the time as a popular and progressive democracy movement. However, subsequent events showed this view to be naïve and far from reality, with violence, bloodshed and harsher forms of oppression spreading through the region.

• The Syrian civil war, an outgrowth of the Arab Spring, has claimed some 200,000 lives as various groups have competed—so far unsuccessfully—to overthrow Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad. The war has also created millions of refugees, many of whom have fled into neighboring Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq.

• In the background over the last few years we've seen Iran determinedly pursuing nuclear arms, while endless rounds of negotiations with Western nations accomplished little other than allowing Iran to buy time to pursue its goals of developing nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them. Recent news reports indicate that Iran now appears to have mastered most of the design challenges involved in creating a nuclear warhead that can be fitted on its Shahab-3 missiles.

• In recent months we've witnessed history being made as a new national entity arose on the world scene—the Islamic State (also referred to as ISIS and ISIL), spanning about a third of what was formerly Syria and Iraq. And as this new state has arisen, Iraq and Syria have fragmented to the point of no longer existing as we have known them.

• Part of the declaration of the Islamic State was the simultaneous proclamation of the reestablishment of an Islamic caliphate—an Islamic religious-political empire uniting Muslims under the rule of a single leader and governed by Islamic sharia law.

• The newly proclaimed Islamic State/caliphate has also shocked the world with its brutality—proudly beheading Western hostages and distributing videos of the murders, executing prisoners in the thousands, capturing women and selling them as sex slaves, and instilling fear in millions of people in the region.

• This last summer saw yet another war between Hamas and Israel, with Hamas and other terror groups in Gaza indiscriminately launching rockets and mortars at Israeli cities and towns until Israel retaliated with a devastating ground invasion to destroy and degrade terror capabilities. And as I write this, we may be seeing the beginning of a new intifada, or uprising, among Arabs living in Israel, with several Israelis murdered in car and knife assaults, including an appalling attack in which four rabbis were shot, knifed and hacked to death during morning prayers at a Jerusalem synagogue.

Why are we seeing such chaos and violence in the Middle East? What's behind it, and where is it going?

These are crucial questions, because we cannot understand so much of what's happening in the world if we don't understand what's taking place in the Middle East—and more importantly, why it's taking place. And you can be sure that the Middle East isn't the only area affected by these trends. They're increasingly affecting the rest of the world.

What do all of these things have in common? If you're an astute follower of the news, you probably recognize that all of these events have a key factor in common—and that's Islam. They're all driven by beliefs spelled out in Islam's holy book, the Quran, and the Hadith, the traditions of the prophet Muhammad.

Prophecy of characteristics and conflict

However, the story doesn't begin with today's headlines. It begins far earlier, about 4,000 years ago in the first book of the Bible, Genesis. It begins with a man named Abraham and a foolish decision to have a son by his wife Sarah's Egyptian servant girl Hagar after Sarah wasn't able to conceive—a decision that has had consequences lasting all the way down to our day.

Sarah became jealous of the now-pregnant Hagar and dealt harshly with her to the point that Hagar fled into the desert. Picking up the story where Hagar is about to die of thirst, a divine messenger appears and assures her that she and her unborn son will not die, and then this messenger of God tells her something about the son she will bear: "I will so increase your descendants that they will be too numerous to count."

So the descendants of Hagar's son by Abraham, and other children she would bear later, were to become a large nation. The messenger then revealed more information to Hagar about her son: "You are now with child and you will have a son. You shall name him Ishmael, for the Lord has heard of your misery. He will be a wild donkey of a man; his hand will be against everyone and everyone's hand against him, and he will live in hostility towards all his brothers" (Genesis 16:10-12, New International Version).

Although it's not politically correct to say so, this is an apt description of the descendants of Ishmael—the Arab peoples, who proudly proclaim their descent from Ishmael to this day. History shows us that they have seldom been able to get along, as attested by the near-endless cycles of violence and war in the Middle East. The rare times they have been mostly unified were when they were forced to live at peace under dictatorships and/or were allies in arms against someone else.

A longer form of an old Arab proverb states: "Me against my brother. Me and my brother against our cousin. Me, my brother, and my cousin against the neighbors. All of us against the stranger." The last clause is sometimes given as "Me, my brother and my cousin against the world."

As foretold in that prophecy in the book of Genesis almost 4,000 years ago, the history of the descendants of Ishmael is a chronicle of conflict and fighting. It was Arabs, mostly from Saudi Arabia, who flew passenger jets into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, and changed our world forever. It was fighters from Arab nations who took over Afghanistan and made it a terrorist haven.

It is no coincidence that al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden was from Saudi Arabia, that his successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, is Egyptian and that many of the warriors still holding out and fighting in Afghanistan are Arabs. Nor is it a coincidence that Arab fighters form the backbone of the newly declared Islamic State.

It's also not surprising that the most stable Arab governments have been those ruled by dictators or kings with near-dictatorial powers to suppress unrest or discord. Their peoples have not been united or at peace for very long except when forced into it by strongmen like Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Muammar Gaddafi in Libya. And we have seen how those nations degenerated into chaos when those leaders were taken out of the way.

Prophecy of conquest and empire

Genesis 16 isn't the only prophecy of the Arab peoples in the Bible. In the next chapter we find another revealing prophecy of Abraham's descendants through Ishmael. Here God, speaking to Abraham, says: "As for Ishmael . . . I have blessed him, and will make him fruitful, and will multiply him exceedingly . . . and I will make him a great nation" (Genesis 17:20).

Was this promise that the Arab peoples would become a great nation ever fulfilled? It was indeed—beginning more than 13 centuries ago. From the Arabian Peninsula sprang the religion of Islam in the 600s A.D. The Arabs spread this new religion by force of arms outward in all directions across the Middle East, spanning North Africa and well into Europe, conquering most of Spain and Portugal and advancing as far as Paris before being turned back.

After its initial early expansion, the spreading wave of Islam lost momentum and stalled for several centuries. The end of this period was marked by the Crusades, a reaction to these Muslim conquests. Islam and Catholic Europe had already clashed when Muslims captured the Holy Land, including Jerusalem, in A.D. 635-638. The conflict grew deeper when Muslims invaded Spain and Portugal, then threatened to take France before being defeated near Paris in 732. With papal backing and encouragement, Europe's kings and nobles mounted a counteroffensive to retake the Holy Land for Christianity.

Finally successful in 1099, Crusaders held Jerusalem for almost a century until driven out by the armies of Saladin in 1187. Later Crusaders briefly retook the city from 1229 to 1239 and 1243 to 1244 before being driven out for the final time—after which Muslims would rule Jerusalem until World War I, when British forces captured it from the Ottoman Empire in 1917.

In the 12th century Islam launched a second great wave of expansion, building on earlier gains. This second wave more than doubled the territory under its domination.

From North Africa, Islam spread south into sub-Saharan Africa and along the eastern coast of the continent. From the Middle East it spread far to the east across southern Asia, encompassing much of India and the islands of Southeast Asia, and north across the whole of Asia Minor, the areas around the Black and Caspian Seas, and into southeastern Europe as far as Vienna before Muslim forces were again prevented from sweeping over Europe.

While Europe was in the Dark Ages—due in no small part to being cut off by hostile Muslim forces along its borders—the Arab-led Islamic empire became one of the world's most highly developed civilizations. The Arabs made notable advances in geography, mathematics, medicine, chemistry, architecture and astronomy—all in fulfillment of God's promise many centuries earlier that they would be a great civilization.

Resentment directed toward the West—and America in particular

An underlying reason for today's conflict between the Arab world and the West is that the Arab peoples well remember that they once had a great empire, but it decayed and collapsed long ago. Their worldview is powerfully shaped by their holy book, the Quran, which tells them that Muslims are destined to rule over all other nations: "It is He [Allah] who has sent for His apostle [Muhammad] with guidance and the true faith [Islam], so that he may exalt it above all religions" (Surah 61:9, Dawood translation, 1999, emphasis added throughout).

This dichotomy between the promises of the Quran and the reality of the Muslim world creates a great deal of humiliation and resentment—the Western world today enjoying such material success while Arab civilization has declined in comparison by virtually every key measure.

Thus, in the minds of many Muslims, Western powers like the United States must be brought down so that Islam will be vindicated and Muslims may attain their rightful place as rulers of the world. This is why, after the terror attacks on the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, city streets across the Arab world were filled with joyous revelers celebrating the fact that America had been struck such a devastating blow.

This is why some Islamic leaders speak of America as "the Great Satan" and Britain and Israel as "little Satans." In their view these nations are tools of the devil preventing Islam from attaining its rightful destiny as the world-ruling power.

But how did we get to this point that much of the world, and nearly all of the Middle East, is in chaos due to Islam?

Key facts about unrest caused by terrorism

The Global Terrorism Index 2014, published by the Institute for Economics and Peace, an Australian think tank, points out these key facts about global terrorism:

• "In 2013 terrorist activity increased substantially with the total number of deaths rising from 11,133 in 2012 to 17,958 in 2013, a 61 per cent increase . . . The number of countries that experienced more than 50 deaths rose from 15 to 24. This highlights that not only is the intensity of terrorism increasing, its breadth is increasing as well.

• "Over 80 per cent of the lives lost to terrorist activity in 2013 occurred in only five countries—Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria and Syria. However, another 55 countries recorded one or more deaths from terrorist activity.

• "Since 2000 there has been over a five-fold increase in the number of deaths from terrorism, rising from 3,361 in 2000 to 17,958 in 2013.

• "The threat of terrorist activity is a major if not the major national security risk for many countries. The recent rise of ultra-violent groups such as ISIL [or ISIS] in Syria and Iraq is underpinned by greater territorial ambitions . . . thereby increasing the risk of further destabilisation in the Middle East region.

• "The majority of claimed deaths from terrorist attacks, 66 per cent in 2013, are claimed by only four terrorist organisations: ISIL, Boko Haram, the Taliban and al-Qa'ida and its affiliates. Variations of religious ideologies based on extreme interpretations of Wahhabi Islam are the key commonality for all four groups . . ."

Painful truths and conclusions

Notice several truths from these facts:

• The number of deaths from terrorism is increasing dramatically—up 61 percent from 2012 to 2013, the last year for which statistics are available.

• The number of deaths from terrorism has increased 500 percent from 2000 to 2013.

• The number of countries affected by terrorism is also increasing dramatically, with the number of countries experiencing more than 50 deaths from terrorism growing from 15 to 24 from 2012 to 2013, and 60 countries recording at least one death from terrorism.

• The vast majority of the world's deaths by terrorism—two out of three—are attributable to just four terror groups, all of them Islamic.

• The "territorial ambitions"—i.e., desire for conquest—of these Islamic groups threaten to further destabilize the Middle East.

• More than 80 percent of deaths due to terrorism took place in only five countries. Four of the countries listed are overwhelmingly Muslim, meaning Muslims there are slaughtering other Muslims. The exception is Nigeria, about 50 percent Muslim, where most of the deaths from terrorism are from Muslims slaughtering those of other religions, primarily Christians (who make up 40 percent of the Nigerian population).

Third wave of Islamic conquest

What are we to conclude from these facts?

Although not explained in these raw numbers, why are Muslims killing so many other Muslims? In their own words, they consider more moderate Muslims, or Muslims of other sects, infidels who must be converted or face the sword so that "pure" Islam (as they define it) can be revived and spread.

This also goes for Muslim-ruled governments throughout the region, where fundamentalist groups are determined to topple rulers—whom they view as apostate or Westernized—so they can convert the nations to their vision of Islam. Such groups have openly boasted of their intent to bring down Bashar al-Assad in Syria (where a bloody civil war is raging) and the ruling royal families of such kingdoms as Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Kuwait.

Meanwhile, in Nigeria, the Boko Haram terror group, notorious for its bloody massacres at churches and kidnapping hundreds of schoolgirls, is following the original method used to spread Islam—by converting as many as possible to Islam and killing those who resist, all while trying to topple the government so they can take over and convert the entire nation to Islam.

What does it all mean?

The answer is both simple and profound: Islam is awakening from its long slumber and beginning its third wave of expansion. And as with the first two waves that started in the 600s and 1200s, this resurgence is creating violence, instability and fear both within the Muslim world and all along its borders.

As we saw earlier, the Quran tells Muslims that they are destined to rule a world converted to Islam. They are also told that many will resist, so Muslims are to wage jihad so that the world will be united under Islam: "Fight against them until idolatry is no more and [Allah's] religion reigns supreme" (Surah 2:193). This is spelled out in greater detail in "The Jihadist Worldview: What's Behind the Mideast Brutality?".

Caliphate and conquest

Many Muslims have long dreamed of an Islamic empire, a caliphate, united under the leadership of a single Muslim ruler or caliph, as it was in the days of Islam's founder Muhammad and his immediate successors. They see this as promised and commanded in the Quran because they are Allah's chosen people: "You are the noblest community ever raised up [as an example] for mankind. You enjoin justice and forbid evil. You believe in [Allah]" (Surah 3:110). 

And for this they are promised rulership in a land where Allah alone is worshipped and all peoples submit to him (Islam means "submission," and Muslim "one who submits"): "[Allah] has promised those of you who believe and do good works to make them masters in the land as He made those who went before them, to strengthen the Faith He chose for them [Islam], and to change their fears to safety. Let them worship Me and serve none beside Me" (Surah 24:55).

When the head of the terror group ISIS or ISIL (the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, i.e., Greater Syria or the Levant), Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, declared the establishment of the Islamic State on territory captured from Syria and Iraq, he declared himself caliph, ruler of a new Islamic caliphate. In a written statement announcing this dramatic step, he quoted the two Quranic verses above plus many other similar ones.

He recited early Islamic history and its great conquests, including the toppling of the empires that stood in Islam's way, and called on Muslims worldwide to join him: "The time has come for the [worldwide community of Muslim believers] to wake up from its sleep, remove the garments of dishonor, and shake off the dust of humiliation and disgrace . . . The sun of jihad has risen. The glad tidings of good are shining. Triumph looms on the horizon. The signs of victory have appeared . . .

"So fear Allah, O slaves of Allah. Listen to your caliph and obey him. Support your state, which grows everyday—by Allah's grace—with honor and loftiness, while its enemy increases in retreat and defeat. So rush O Muslims and gather around your caliph, so that you may return as you once were for ages, kings of the earth and knights of war. Come so that you may be honored and esteemed, living as masters with dignity.

"Know that we fight over a religion that Allah promised to support. We fight for [a worldwide Muslim community] to which Allah has given honor, esteem, and leadership, promising it with empowerment and strength on the earth. Come O Muslims to your honor, to your victory . . . rush to your religion and creed, then by Allah, you will own the earth, and the east and west will submit to you. This is the promise of Allah to you."

Al-Baghdadi and the Islamic State are merely the latest to proclaim their desire for the reestablishment of the caliphate, which last existed in the Ottoman Empire and was dissolved shortly after World War I. Islamist groups ever since, including such terror groups as the Muslim Brotherhood, the Taliban, al-Qaeda, Islamic Jihad and Hamas "all profess the revival of the caliphate, the regime that was installed by Muhammed's righteous successors, the caliphs, and has become the iconic model to be emulated by all future generations of Muslims" (Raphael Israeli, From Arab Spring to Islamic Winter, 2013, p. xiii).

To be blunt, the Islamic State is so brutal and bloodthirsty that it seems doubtful that it will offer broad appeal across the Muslim world—even though other groups such as the Taliban, Boko Haram and terror groups in Libya, Egypt, Algeria, Yemen and the Philippines have announced their support for it. It is also attracting fighters from all over the Muslim world and has drawn hundreds of jihadists from Western countries including Britain, France, Belgium, Italy, Germany, the United States and Canada.

"You will conquer Rome and own the world"

In his speech announcing the revival of the caliphate, Al-Baghdadi admonished believers worldwide to rally to the cause. "Rush O Muslims to your state," he urged. ". . . This is my advice to you. If you hold to it you will conquer Rome and own the world, if Allah wills."

Promises to capture Rome crop up regularly in Islamist speeches and sermons. Why Rome? The answer is twofold. First, Rome is the seat of Roman Catholicism, seen as the mortal enemy of Islam. And second, Rome is symbolic of Europe as a whole, because it was Roman Catholicism coupled with Europe's armies that launched the Crusades that fought back against Islam.

To this day Muslim jihadists regularly refer to Western military forces as "Crusaders"—because in their minds the Crusades never ended. To them that conflict merely went into a temporary lull, and now the fight to the death has resumed.

Bible prophecy foretells further conflict

Can we know where these trends are leading the world? There is only one sure source that tells us what the future holds, and that is the Word of God, the Bible. It does not give us all of the details, but it does give broad outlines of major trends leading up to the return of Jesus Christ to rule the world when He establishes the long-awaited Kingdom of God here on the earth.

Daniel 11 contains the Bible's longest continuous prophecy, giving us an overview of trends affecting the Middle East from Daniel's time in the 500s B.C. up to and including Jesus Christ's return. This remarkable prophecy describes what will happen "at the time of the end" (Daniel 11:40), when an end-time "king of the South"—likely the leader of an alliance of Muslim nations or a restored caliphate, an Islamic empire—will initiate a new round of warfare with a power to the North, apparently centered in Europe.

This begins a chain of events leading to warfare of unprecedented scale and destruction, bringing the human race to the verge of extinction if not for Jesus Christ's return to save mankind from that end. 

Could the Islamic State be the final power of the South? It seems highly doubtful, because this regime's callous brutality and cruelty make it unlikely that it will gain widespread support among other Muslim nations of the region.

However, the Middle East always has the capacity to surprise—just as four years ago few could've foreseen that a few scattered protests in the early days of the Arab Spring would lead to chaos sweeping across and destabilizing virtually the entire Middle East.

Most significant of all, however, is that these events sweeping the Middle East and other areas of the world show that Islam's dream of domination has reawakened, kindling the cries of jihad and conquest—with deadly implications for all those who stand in its way. Clearly millions of Muslims long for a caliphate, and the desire for Islamic conquest and the defeat of Rome shows that dangerous times lie ahead.

Never has it been more important for you to dig deeply into God's Word to understand the times in which we live. Never has it been more important for you to forge a close relationship with your Creator that will see you through the perilous times facing our world!