I don’t suppose he could help himself. ISIS was always going to be in the Archbishop of Canterbury’s direct line of sight. How could he not mention the great scourge of our time and how could he do so without referring to the very thing that makes his slippers squeak with excitement every morning?
Consider: you’re the head of Church of England. Christmas is approaching and there you are, chewing on your pencil with a blank piece of paper resting on your knee. You sigh. A mote of dust dances in a ray of winter sunlight. Lambeth Palace is silent save for Cliff Richard yodelling about bells faintly in the distance. You know you have to address the problem of IS in your yearly sermon. So what do you write?
Well, you’d want something with a religious yet political vibe. You need plenty of Jesus Christ Superstar and just a pinch of Evita. At the same time, you don’t want to empower the villains of ISIS by saying anything they might agree with. You lick you pencil and write ‘beastly rotters’ before you scribble it out. You’ve had a better idea! You’ll take the usual approach and say they don’t represent any religion and they do not express the will of God. Perhaps note some commonality between Islam and Christianity but, otherwise, condemn their barbarity and say that they are doomed to fail. Now turn to hymn 129. Thy Lord Is Thy Hotpot. Job done.
What you probably should not do is give them the full-on biblical with evangelical sideburns. You do not go defining ISIS’s actions in language that makes them all go weak at the beards.
Yet, of course, that’s precisely what the Archbishop did. By talking about their actions in the context of the ‘apocalypse’, well meaning Welby put them into the very quasi-historical timeline that they are constantly seeking to affirm. He might as well given them a certified ‘100% Old Testament barbarity’ sticker with a thumbs up and Colgate smile to camera.
The Archbishop’s statement failed to recognise what this battle is essentially about. From the beginning, the war against ISIS has been one of ideas, thoughts, words and definitions as much as it has been about the bombing. Not describing them as a ‘state’ was a good place to start. Using the phrase ‘Daesh’ was even better, devaluing their cause in their own language even if the word doesn’t grace English prose particularly well. (It always feels like it needs ‘the’ stuck in front of it.)
Islamic fundamentalists are highly attuned to the language of the apocalypse because the apocalypse is precisely what they hope they’re bringing about. If you take a look at the eschatology of Islam you’ll quickly spot how deeply ingrained jihadists are in the most doom-laden rot: earthquakes, thunderbolts, people doing it in the streets like donkeys (they’ve no doubt been to Blackpool). The flag they raise over every captured town, hill, and latrine is meant to be fulfilling one of the conditions of end days, which is that the black standard will spread until they are planted in Jerusalem.
I don’t suppose the onanistic butchers of ISIS are taking a break from their drugs and West Coast American porn in order to give themselves pats on the back because the Archbishop of Canterbury has just given them a namecheck in his Christmas message. Yet it certainly doesn’t challenge the way these barbarians and their supporters think of themselves as engaged in a spiritual mission. If the Archbishop did need to quote scripture, couldn’t he have found one of the juicer passages in the Old Testament involving poultry, pigs, or oxen? Comparing them to Herod, one of the most prolific and cruel butchers in the Bible, is like giving them a tick by their name and a ‘excellent progress’ at the bottom of their end of year report. Certainly, the war with ISIS needs more religion about as much as an archbishop needs a bigger hat.