"Again, the devil took Him up on an exceedingly high mountain, and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. And he said to Him, “All these things I will give You if You will fall down and worship me.” Then Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and Him only you shall serve.’" (Matthew 4:8)
"Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour." (1 Peter 5:8)
"Verily Satan is an enemy to you: so treat him as an enemy. He only invites his adherents, that they may become Companions of the Blazing Fire." (Koran 35:6)
The news coming in on Tuesday night confirmed a fear I had privately held for some time. That the serial beheadings in Iraq and Syria committed by the Daesh group - alongside stonings of women accused of adultery, crucifixion of alleged bandits and spies, and the throwing off from buildings of alleged homosexuals - was simply not enough. As TV and social media audiences increasingly became numb to such horrors, it felt inevitable something even more horrific would be distributed to invoke renewed indignation, fear - and for some - morbid fascination.
For those confused, the Daesh group is otherwise known as 'Islamic State' or as I have heard BBC and Sky reporters recently call it, 'The Islamic State'. Daesh (or Da'ish) is the preferred term used most commonly by Muslims in the Middle East - they refuse to adhere to the presumptuous title this 'deviant cult' has given themselves, instead using an Arabic acronym derived from one of their many vain name changes. A term that reportedly lacks the 'Islamic' element and has similarity to other words in the Arabic dictionary that variously mean 'dischord', 'darkness' and 'trampled underfoot'. In refusing to use the term, in a small way we can affirm with our Muslim brothers and sisters that we recognise this is not a Islamic movement.
This is a start but we must also go further than this and attempt a more cutting analysis of the Daesh problem. For there are still those politicians and media commentators in the West, primarily on the populist right, who unabatedly make loud demands on Muslims to condemn Daesh, reading the emergence of Daesh through a distorted lens that frames their horror as primarily a 'Muslim problem'. The flipside to this are those, primarily on the hard-left, who continue to make convoluted arguments that Daesh and other Islamic militants are essentially anti-imperialists, borne out of decades of Western oppression. Whilst the scale and callous nature of their myriad of atrocities perhaps lessens the romance of the 'Muslim Che' narrative, this viewpoint still exists. But rather than defending Muslims - as the proponents of this take on things intends - it inadvertently does the majority of Muslims a disservice by once again tying the likes of Daesh firmly to Islam.
I do not seek to totally disconnect Daesh from the religion they proclaim to represent - nor am I burying my head in the sand in the face of the uncomfortable truth that the country I live, the politicians I helped elect, the ancestors I sometimes look to with admiration have all had a hand in creating the political and economic conditions in the Middle East that have resulted in today's latest bloody chapter. Any analysis requires us to follow multiple lines of inquiry.
Yet as I have watched Daesh emerge, the lens through which I have looked upon them has increasingly focused on the psychological and spiritual condition of those involved - particularly so those foreign fighters who have gone over there to fight for this group. The quote that has rolled over in my mind constantly is that by William Ellery Channing who says, "We look forward to the time when the power to love will replace the love of power. Then will our world know the blessings of peace.” It seems to me that this poisonous love of power is what is driving much of the more sadistic violence in Iraq and Syria.
When I see the choreographed clips of the inappropriately named 'Jihadi John' stood next to hostages kneeling passively, compliantly awaiting their brutal fate as he gesticulates boastfully to the camera, I do not see a devout Muslim, I do not see a brave-if-misguided rebel, I see just another wannabe colonialist, just another tyrant in the making, just another psychologically and spiritually broken individual intoxicated by satanical power.
We liberal Christians have largely abandoned 'Satan' but it seems to me this term provides a fitting metaphor for the state some of our fellow humans beings have entered into. Rather than being viewed as a literal being, Satan can be viewed as the negative potential of our God-given free will, as the power we hold to act on the world according to our vision and will used destructively rather than creatively.
I'm pretty sure if 'Jihadi John' was given the Newsnight couch to explain the reasons for his actions, he could intelligibly cite a raft of injustices (alongside some soundbites from the Koran) to justify his taking of a knife to the necks of Western journalists and aid workers. However, just like Heath Ledger's Joker character in Christopher Nolan's 'The Dark Knight', the repeated uttering of "Do you know how I got these scars?" followed by a compelling story of victimhood (which tellingly differs each time) belies the true-to-life observation from the film, uttered in turn by Bruce Wayne's butler and mentor Alfred, "Some men just want to watch the world burn."
And, in the latest installment of 'torture porn' from Daesh - the sad, sickening burning of a Jordanian pilot in a cage - we see further this demonic lust for and exertion of power taken to a new level (though not dissimilar to episodes in European history). We may take different views on the morality of the recent military intervention the pilot was involved in, but truly no human being deserves such treatment. I have not watched the video, nor will I, but I have seen stills in the newspapers and what I have noticed most strikingly is how in the face of the roaring flames ignited by Daesh, in spite of the row of Daesh men in balaclavas with rifles stood in regimental formation to project military might, Moaz al-Kasasbeh appears to be praying in a traditional Islamic way, bowing his head and cupping his hands in reverence to God, acknowledging the one true source and bestower of power.
Let the soul of Moaz, and all other souls taken by Daesh, find peace.
Let us not, in fighting the dragon, the ancient serpent, be seduced into its evil ways.
And please, let those fallen into mortal sin, repent and turn to God.