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What’s going on in the Muslim world?

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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The Sultan Ahmed Mosque, also known as The Blue Mosque for the blue tiles adorning the walls of its interior, built from 1609 to 1616, during the rule of Ahmed I, at sunset in Istanbul, Turkey, 2006 (Credit: Constantin Barbu via Flickr and

I was running recently in our neighborhood when I noticed a neighbor’s broken sprinkler head.  Water was shooting 10-12 feet into the air and cascading onto the driveway.  The owner clearly had not been outside during the few minutes each week the sprinkler was in use.  The fact that he didn’t know his sprinkler head was broken made its wasted water no less real.

We in the West are in something of a lull at present with regard to the Muslim world.  It’s been a while since jihadist aggression affected Americans or Western Europeans directly.  But our inattention makes the growing perils of militant Islam no less real.

Nigeria and Boko Haram

Nigeria is Africa’s most populous country and the seventh-most populous nation on earth, with 174 million residents.  Located on the western coast of central Africa, its oil reserves have played a significant role in its emergence on the world stage.  However, there is an enormous division between the wealthy south, where Christianity is the majority religion, and the impoverished north, dominated by Islam.  Many remember Nigeria’s days as a colony of Great Britain and resent Western intrusion.

“Boko Haram” means “Western education is forbidden.”  The group known by this name is officially Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad, Arabic for “People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad.”  Their organization was founded in 2002, setting up a mosque and Islamic school which have been used to recruit jihadists.  They began military operations in 2009.  Their founder, Mohammed Yusuf, was killed in 2009 and succeeded by Abubakar Shekau.

As a result of its militant activities over the last five years, thousands have been killed and an estimated 750,000 Nigerians have been driven from their homes.  In recent weeks the group has begun bombing bus stations and marketplaces, and attacks northeast villages daily.  They made global headlines on April 15, 2014 when they abducted more than 300 schoolgirls and young women.  Reportedly, 57 girls have escaped, leaving an estimated 272 still held captive.  On June 10, they kidnapped 20 more women in northern Nigeria.

What is their goal?  The Qur’an states, “Anyone who is not governed by what Allah has revealed is among the transgressors” (5:44).  Radical Muslims interpret this statement to mean that leaders who do not govern by strict Sharia law are not true Muslims and must be overthrown.  This doctrine, made popular by Sayyid Qutb’s Milestones (required reading by radical Muslims the world over), motivates militant jihadist groups.

As a result, Boko Haram wants to overthrow the government of Nigeria and establish an Islamic state there.  They forbid voting in elections, believing that democracy is heresy since we have the laws of God in the Qur’an.  They also forbid wearing Western clothing, secular education, and schooling for women (hence their kidnappings of girls to deprive them of education).  


On June 9, 2014, U.S. troops were on their way back to their base in the Gaza area of Arghandab District of Kabul province in Afghanistan.  They were ambushed by the Taliban and called in an airstrike.  The strike mistakenly killed them instead.  Five U.S. troops died, along with their Afghan interpreter and one Afghan National Army soldier.

Their deaths are just the latest example of ongoing unrest in this area where American and international troops have fought for so long.

On June 10, 2014, armed fighters seized the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, the second-largest city in the nation after Baghdad and an important center of the country’s petroleum industry.  The fighters are believed to be part of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).  Their victory is a major blow to Iraq’s government, which has called a state of emergency for the entire country.  Since the American military departure at the end of 2011, militant aggression has been on the increase.

That same day, ISIS fighters captured the Iraqi province of Nineveh, where they freed hundreds of prisoners.  Five days earlier, around 500 ISIS militants stormed the central Iraqi city of Samarra, where they took over several government buildings and at least two neighborhoods.  Iraqi security forces responded with helicopter strikes which killed around 80 insurgents and repelled the attack.  The same day, bombings in Baghdad left three dead.

ISIS was founded by al-Qaeda.  Like other militant Islamic groups, it is committed to the overthrow of the democratically-elected government and the imposition of rigid Sharia law over the nation.

Afghanistan and Bowe Bergdahl

Unrest continues in Afghanistan, where a second round of presidential elections is scheduled for June 14.  Insurgents have vowed to disrupt the vote.  Approximately 49,000 international troops are deployed there, of which 32,800 are American.  President Obama plans to keep a residual force of around 9,800 troops there after 2014, provided a bilateral security agreement with the Afghan government is concluded.

Afghanistan has especially been in the news because of the Bowe Bergdahl story.  Bergdahl grew up in Idaho, where he studied fencing, martial arts, and ballet, and spent time in a Buddhist monastery.  He graduated from infantry school in late 2008 and was stationed in Alaska in preparation for deployment in Afghanistan.  There he told a fellow soldier, “If this deployment is lame, I’m just going to walk off into the mountains of Pakistan.”

When sent to Afghanistan, he began learning Pashto and reportedly spent more time with Afghans than with his own platoon.  He lost a close friend who was killed in a roadside bomb blast on June 25, 2009.  Two days later, Bergdahl sent an email to his parents in which he stated, “I am ashamed to be an american. . . . The horror that is america is disgusting.”

On June 30, he reportedly left a note in his tent saying that he had become disillusioned with the Army, did not support the mission in Afghanistan, and was leaving to begin a new life.  He went missing that night.  In a video, he stated that he had been captured when he fell behind on a patrol.  However, a Pentagon investigation in 2010 concluded that he walked away from his unit.  Some soldiers who served with him have called him a deserter.

However, Bergdahl reportedly escaped from the Taliban on two occasions but was recaptured each time.  According to a senior U.S. leader, he told military officials he had been tortured, beaten, and held in a cage after one failed escape attempt.  He claims that he remained true to his Christian faith and that he celebrated Christmas and Easter while in captivity.

Critics believe that he was partly responsible for the deaths of six soldiers who were killed after he vanished.  Some say they were killed while searching for him; others claim that their operations changed as a result of his capture, leading to their deaths.  A U.S. official has disputed these claims.  His father, Bob Bergdahl, learned Pashto and has been studying Afghan culture and tradition.  To critics, this is evidence of sympathy with the Taliban; to supporters, it shows his fervent desire to help Bowe by equipping himself to appeal directly to his son’s captors.

On May 31, 2014, he was released and recovered by Delta Force in eastern Afghanistan.  In exchange, five Guantanamo Bay detainees were transferred to custody in Qatar for at least a year.  They were the Taliban army chief of staff, a Taliban deputy minister of intelligence, a former Taliban interior minister, and two other senior Taliban leaders.

This exchange has been much criticized.  U.S. federal law requires the president to inform Congress at least 30 days in advance of transfers at Guantanamo Bay, but no such notice was given.  The White House points to “unique and exigent circumstances” as justification for its action.  They claim that Bergdahl was in poor health and in danger, and that a leak of the exchange plan could have led to his death.

Others warn that the exchange could give our enemies greater incentive to take U.S. hostages in the future, and that it violates our commitment not to negotiate with terrorists.  The government claims that the Taliban is not a terrorist organization per se, and that our commitment to leave no soldier behind motivated its decision.

The Taliban

“Taliban” means “students.”  The organization was born in 1994 when 30 students joined their village cleric, Mullah Muhammad Omar, in rescuing two teenage girls who had been kidnapped and raped.  Their group grew in strength, eventually gaining the support of religious parties within Pakistan.  After the Soviets left Afghanistan, they began enforcing law and order in the country.  They conquered Kandahar, Afghanistan’s second largest city, in 1994 and captured the capital city of Kabul two years later.  By 1998 they occupied 90 percent of the nation.

Their goal is similar to Boko Haram’s: enforce a puritanical version of Islam.  They provided sanctuary to Osama bin Laden and helped him form his group, al-Qaeda.  After 9/11, they refused to expel bin Laden.  A U.S.-led coalition then removed them from power, leading to a parliamentary democracy in 2004.  Widespread charges of corruption have been leveled against this government.

Meanwhile, the Taliban continues its militant activities.  On June 8, 2014, 10 insurgents attacked the international airport in Karachi, Pakistan.  Their goal was to disrupt or destroy the nation’s aviation industry as revenge for recent military airstrikes targeting some of their supporters.  The resulting battle lasted six hours and left at least 36 dead, including the militants.

The Taliban has split into two factions, both of which are engaged in civil war intended to overthrow the Pakistani government.  Numerous other jihadist groups have joined their insurgency.

Iran and Turkey

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and a contingent of Cabinet ministers and other Iranian leaders met with Turkish leaders June 9-10, 2014.  The countries would like to strengthen their ties and thus their ability to transport Iranian natural gas to Turkey (where a pipeline from Iran already exists) and to Europe.

During the same days, bilateral talks between the U.S. and Iran regarding Iran’s nuclear program were conducted in Geneva.  Iran’s recently-elected president has worked to normalize relations with America and the West.  Last fall, negotiators in Geneva reached an accord that freezes Iran’s uranium enrichment program for six months in exchange for limited lifting of economic sanctions.  Negotiators are working toward a comprehensive agreement before a July 20 deadline.

Both Turkey and Iran remember their days as global empires.  The Turkish Ottoman Empire was the largest the world has ever seen, dominating much of Europe and the Middle East from the 16th to the 20th centuries.  The Iranian Persian Empire dominated much of the same geography before being defeated by Alexander the Great in 334 B.C.  The Iranian Revolution of 1979 led to the present-day Islamic Republic of Iran.

Tensions between Iran and the West persist.  For instance, imprisoned U.S. citizen and pastor Saeed Abedini continues to generate global headlines.  Abedini converted to Christianity in 2000.  He soon established 100 house churches in 30 Iranian cities with more than 2,000 members.  When Mahmoud Ahmedinejad was elected in 2005, the house church movement came under persecution and the Abedini family moved to the U.S. (his wife grew up in Idaho).

In July 2012, Abedini returned to Iran to visit his family and work on an orphanage.  He was arrested and charged with compromising national security.  In 2013 he was sentenced to eight years in prison.  Pastor Saeed recently spent two months in an Iranian hospital, where family members say he was severely beaten.  On May 20, 2014 it was reported that Pastor Saeed was taken from the hospital and returned to Rajai Shahr Prison.

Iranian tensions with Israel persist as well.  Iran’s Supreme Leader Khamenei recently called Israel the “sinister, unclean rabid dog of the region” and claimed that Jews “cannot be called human beings.”  On June 10, Israel’s Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon called Iran the “number one threat” to his country.

The status of women

Mariam  Ibrahim

Mariam Yahya Ibrahim is a 27-year-old woman living in the Sudan.  She was born to a Muslim father who abandoned her to be raised by her Ethiopian Orthodox Christian mother.  A lifelong Christian, she married a Christian man named Daniel Wani.  She was subsequently arrested and sentenced to death on May 15, 2014 for allegedly committing apostasy from Islam.  The court ruled that she should have followed her absentee father’s religion and ordered her to abandon her Christian faith.

Since she has refused, she has been held in prison with her 20-month-old son.  She gave birth to a girl on May 27, 2014, though Mariam’s legs were kept shackled to the prison floor during childbirth.  In response to international outrage, the Sudanese government initially stated that she would be released, but has subsequently denied this statement.

As her case now stands, two years after her girl’s birth, Mariam will receive 100 lashes and then hanged.  Her husband will be denied any contact with his children.

“Honor” killings

Farzana Iqbal’s Pakistani family arranged for her to be married to her cousin, but she chose to marry the man she loved instead.  For this decision she was stoned to death by her father and relatives on May 26, 2014.

In 2000, the United Nations estimated that there are 5,000 so-called “honor” killings around the world each year.  Most observers believe the number to be much higher.  Worldwide, more than half the victims are tortured before they are murdered, many by gang rape.  Globally, 58 percent of the victims are killed for being “too Western” (often for refusing to wear the hijab or choosing their own husbands); 42 percent are murdered for committing an alleged sexual impropriety (often as victims of rape).

Ninety-one percent of “honor” killings perpetrators are Muslims.  According to the Pew Forum, majorities of Muslims reject this practice in only 14 out of the 23 Muslim-majority nations.  Support for honor killings appears to be highest in Egypt, Iraq, Afghanistan and Jordan.

Prospects for peace

In April 2014, Hamas (which rules the Gaza Strip) and Fatah (which governs the West Bank) announced plans to form a unity government for the Palestinian people.  However, Hamas has consistently called for Israel’s destruction.  As a result, Israel suspended U.S.-sponsored peace talks with Palestinian leaders.

The next month, Pope Francis made his first visit to the Israel.  He prayed at the security wall surrounding Bethlehem, an act that was seen as support for Palestine.  He also placed a wreath at the grave of Theodor Herzl, the founder of the Zionist movement that led to the modern State of Israel.  And he visited Yad Vashem, the museum of the Shoah, where he met with Holocaust survivors and kissed their hands.

On June 8, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli President Shimon Peres met with Pope Francis at the Vatican.  They did not negotiate peace treaties.  Rather, they prayed for peace.  Figures from different religions read prayers in Arabic, Hebrew and Italian.  Then the two leaders offered their own invocations.  The meeting concluded as the two presidents exchanged kisses on the cheek and then broke ground to plant an olive tree.

The pope’s initiative is the ultimate answer to radical Islam.  Jihadists are convinced that the West has been oppressing Islam since the Crusades, and that they are required by the Qur’an to attack us in defense of their faith.  This is a spiritual battle that must ultimately be won with spiritual weapons.  As Paul reminds us, “our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:12).

Christians’ greatest contribution to this struggle is to pray for spiritual awakening in the Muslim world.  More Muslims have come to Christ in the last 15 years than in the previous 15 centuries, many after seeing visions and dreams of Jesus.  When we pray for Muslims to make Jesus their Lord, we are praying for that transformation which leads to true peace.

As our soldiers defend us on the physical battlefield, we must join them on the spiritual.  This battle will be won on our knees.