This past Sunday, Elton Simpson and Nadir Soofi of Phoenix drove to Garland, TX, a suburb of Dallas, with the goal of opening fire at an exhibit held inside the Curtis Culwell Center. The exhibit was a contest put on by the American Freedom Defense Initiative (AFDI) featuring depictions of the Prophet Mohammed. Such images are considered sacrilege by many Muslims and were also the motivation behind the attack at Charlie Hebdo in France this past January.
Towards the end of the event, Simpson and Soofi drove up to the parking lot and opened fire on the police car barring their entrance. A Garland police officer and an unarmed security guard were in the car at the time. The police officer returned fire and killed both men before they could enter the Center and attack the estimated 200 people in attendance. The security guard was shot in the leg but otherwise unharmed.
While ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack on Tuesday, it is still unclear what connection, if any, the two gunmen had with the terrorist organization. As David Schwartz notes, it is not unusual for groups like ISIS to take credit for such attacks, even if they did not have a direct hand in their planning. Former FBI agent Tim Clemente suspects that Simpson and Soofi “were kind of applying for membership into ISIS” rather than following their orders.
With ISIS’s social network presence, there is perhaps little difference between coordinating an attack and suggesting that someone else carry it out. Mohamed Abdullahi Hassan, a Somali-American that frequently promotes the Islamic State, linked to the event in Texas 10 days before it took place before tweeting “The brothers from the Charlie Hebdo attack did their part. It’s time for brothers in the #US to do their part.”
Whatever ISIS’s level of involvement in this past Sunday’s shooting may have been, they were quick to promise that the attack in Garland would not be the end. The announcement in which they claimed responsibility for the shooting ended with this warning: “We say to the defenders of the cross, the U.S., that future attacks are going to be harsher and worse. The Islamic State soldiers will inflict harm on you with the grace of God. The future is just around the corner.”
Given the Crusade-era undertones of that statement, some might conclude that the war between ISIS and those who oppose them is simply a microcosm of a larger war between Islam and Christianity. Following the attack in Garland, a local resident went so far as to say “This is the next thing that is going to be happening here a lot. We are going to be seeing more of these attacks by Islamists on our soil.”
Such fears are, to an extent, natural given the circumstances. However, it is vital we remember that the actions of a few do not necessarily define the larger group. The Council on American Islamic Relations demonstrates that truth in the statement it released following the attack: “We also reiterate our view that violence in response to anti-Islam programs like the one in Garland is more insulting to our faith than any cartoon, however defamatory. Bigoted speech can never be an excuse for violence.”5
Islam is not the enemy. Those who misinterpret and misuse its teachings for selfish and misguided reasons are. However, even they are not beyond the love and grace of God. That is part of why Jesus instructs us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us (Matthew 5:44). This side of heaven, we may never know what impact those prayers and acts of love might have on those who would seek to do us harm. That impact might be felt in the lives of those we are praying for. However, it just as easily could be felt in the lives of those who look on as we live out that teaching.
Anger at Simpson and Soofi is understandable. Disgust for the members of ISIS and their sympathizers who celebrate these attacks is natural. But prayer for those who delight in such violence is Christian. What will your response to this tragedy, as well as the next one whenever it comes, say about your faith? God’s instruction is clear. Will you follow it?