The Tragedy of Godly Wars

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The fusion of war and religion sparks a powerful human imagination of godly intervention in earthly wars, promising a rediscovery of self-worth tied to a mission and a community.  


Two Unlikely Warriors

Among the volunteers who heeded the call of the Islamic State to come to Syria and Iraq and join the army of the Caliphate were two brothers from the Ruhr region of Western Germany. They were identical twin brothers, Mark and Kevin K., who were not raised Muslim in an immigrant community, unlike many of the recruits from abroad. But after a year abroad in Turkey, Kevin became interested in the faith. Later, he persuaded his brother Mark to join him in attending a mosque in Northern Germany that had a reputation for soliciting radical recruits.

In August 2014, the twins told their mother they were going on vacation to Turkey. They were, in fact, going to Turkey, but not on vacation. They slipped over the border into Syria and joined the forces of ISIS. Letters that they sent home assured their parents of their well-being but were also filled with a heartfelt commitment to the cause of the Caliphate.

The twins were in Syria and Iraq for only a few months until Kevin was assigned a strategic mission. Kevin was given a command — now dubbed Abu Mas’ab al-Almani — to drive an explosive laden armored military vehicle carrying seven tons of highly explosive substances into a base guarding a critical supply line between Fallujah and Baghdad. He barreled through the gates into the heart of the military complex and blew up the vehicle, instantly destroying the base and incinerating everyone, including Kevin. Weeks later, his brother Mark also conducted a suicide mission. The ISIS online propaganda magazine, Dabiq, proclaimed the deaths of both of them to be shahid, martyrs, and devoted an article to praising their bravery and commitment to the faith.

The German twins were ready for war, it seemed, as soon as they completed their religious conversion — or perhaps because of it. Were they attracted to war or religion? Or could they have been attracted to both?

The Allure of Cosmic War

To most of us observing this tragic fidelity to what seemed to be a hopeless cause, the question was, why? Why would such typical young men as these twin brothers willingly give their lives to such a pointless mission?

Ordinarily, when people such as the German twins convert to a new religious belief, they are not motivated to go to war. But the German twins were ready for war, it seemed, as soon as they completed their religious conversion — or perhaps because of it. What made their situation different? Were they attracted to war or religion? Or could they have been attracted to both?

This is the point that some writers have made about the Islamic State. In an interesting book, ISIS Apocalypse, William McCants makes the argument that the worldview of ISIS is one that is by its nature a vision of sacred confrontation that is both religion and war.[1] Probing into the theological ideas of the ISIS leadership, McCants shows that these ideas are rooted in a marginal Muslim notion of extreme prophecy. In a process of thinking that is not entirely different from the end-times prophecies of pre-millenarian Evangelical Protestants, ISIS leaders imagine that history is moving towards a cataclysmic confrontation between the forces of good and evil that will result in a whole new era of righteous order. The main difference between the Christian end-time beliefs and the ISIS apocalypse is that the ISIS leaders think that before the savior comes—the Mahdi in prophetic Muslim apocalyptic thinking—a new caliphate has to be established in real battles that are conducted by righteous Muslim soldiers. In other words, their religious worldview is a world of war.

Not all the supporters of ISIS buy into this apocalyptic scenario, at least not with the same enthusiasm that many ISIS leaders have shown for it. My own interviews with Sunni Arabs in Iraq, including former ISIS fighters and refugees from ISIS-held territories, affirm that for most of the ISIS foot soldiers from the region their motivations are primarily for Sunni Arab empowerment.[2] And many of the foreigners who have flocked to the region have done so with the lure of war, any war, the excitement and thrill of a slightly sketchy, dangerous encounter without any apparent real knowledge of or interest in the theological aspects of the war worldview.

But there is no question that for some of the former ISIS fighters I interviewed and most of the movement’s leaders, the apocalyptic image of righteous religious war is what appeals to them. And it is what animates them. In his book, The Way of the Strangers, Graeme Wood, in reporting on this way of thinking in the Islamic State, says that for many of the followers of ISIS, “this war is the main event in human history — not a skirmish decades away from the end.”[3]

This is an instance where the two, religion and war, are fused. This fusion creates a powerful construct of human imagination that, in other writings, I have called “cosmic war.”[4] The term “cosmic war” refers to the idea of a divine intervention in human history, an existential battle between religion and irreligion, good and evil, order and chaos. It is a remarkable combination of the concept of religion and the idea of war that is often expressed in real war and not just in its literary and legendary representations. When it takes on a life of its own and is not contained within the symbolic language of religion, it can pose a whole new kind of alternative reality that is both religious and bellicose.

The leaders of the Islamic State imagined that they were entering into an apocalyptic struggle at the end of history. Some thought that although ultimately the cosmic war would be waged on a transcendent plane, the earthly skirmishes of the present are the harbingers of a more glorious confrontation to come. The ninth section of the Qur’an urges the faithful to stand up in righteous defense against “people who have violated their oaths and intended to expel the Messenger” and those who “attack you first” (Surah 9:13). Like the battles in the Christians’ New Testament and the Hebrew Bible of the Jewish tradition, it is ultimately not a human battle, but God’s war: “fight against them so that Allah will punish them by your hands and disgrace them and give you victory over them and heal the breasts of a believing people” (Surah 9:14).

These ideas of spiritual battle that are found in scripture are shadows of the war image that rebounds within the world views of many religious traditions on a symbolic level. In most traditions’ legends and stories, the image of cosmic war is a grand encounter between the forces of good and evil, religion and irreligion, order and chaos, played out on an epic scale.

Cosmic War in Real-Life Conflict

Ordinarily, images of cosmic war are confined to myth and symbol, but if they are implanted in real-world social and political confrontations, those who believe in them can be swept up into a grand warfare scenario. Conflicts over territory and political control are lifted into the high proscenium of sacred drama. Such extraordinary images of cosmic war are meta-justifications for religious violence. They not only explain why religious violence happens — why religious persons feel victimized by violence and why they need to take revenge for it — but also provide a large worldview, a template of meaning in which religious violence makes sense. In the context of cosmic war, righteous people are impressed into service as soldiers, and great confrontations occur in which noncombatants are killed. But ultimately, the righteous will prevail, for cosmic war is, after all, God’s war. And God cannot lose.

When cosmic war bursts from its confinement in myth and legend and is implanted in real earthly confrontations—such as the territorial raids of the Islamic State—it can change the nature of the conflict. For one thing, it expands the horizons of the confrontation. It expands them spatially in that cosmic war is thought to be larger than one region or location on Earth but rather a manifestation of a global tension between forces of good and forces of evil. It is also expansive in a temporal sense, for cosmic war can endure beyond one’s lifetime and still ultimately reign victorious.

The notion of cosmic war is also valuable in a real-life conflict in that it helps to recruit warriors. It promises them personal redemption and heavenly rewards. It can also promise heavenly rewards, but the importance of this has often been exaggerated. Others who have joined the jihadi mission have hoped for more earthly rewards. Their spiritual quests might be fused with hopes for earthly power, privilege and acceptance in the jihadi community. Many have seen in ISIS a glimmer of hope for their own sense of self worth, and the hope that the Caliphate will not only transform Syria and Iraq but also their own lives, and right a world gone askew.

Was this what animated the German twins, Kevin and Mark, to join the movement? Were they only seeking meaning in life and a profound sense of mission and community, or were they also seeking transcendent rewards? We will never know what aspect of these promises of cosmic war appealed to them or why they so willingly gave their lives to the Islamic State’s cause. We do not even know for certain whether their motivations were primarily to seek religious fulfilment, the thrill of war, or both in a fusion of religion and war that I have called cosmic war. My guess —and it is only a guess — was that it was some combination of these and that cosmic war was likely in their imaginations. If Kevin and Mark entered into that world, it was both thrilling and redemptive, engaging and ennobling. They likely fell into its black hole, a dark alternative world of cosmic war, from which they would not return.


[1] William McCants, The ISIS Apocalypse: The History, Strategy, and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State, New York: St Martin’s Press, 2015.

[2] See Mark Juergensmeyer, God at War: A Meditation on Religion and Warfare, New York: Oxford University Press, 2020, from which some sections of this essay, in revised form, are taken.

[3] Graeme Wood, The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State, New York: Random House, 2017, 264.

[4] Mark Juergensmeyer, God at War and Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence, Fourth Edition, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2017, chapter 8; and my article on “Cosmic War” in John Barton, editor in chief, Oxford Research Encyclopedias: Religion, New York: Oxford University Press Online, posted on May 2016.

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