By Ralph H. Sidway
The Islamic State has named many targets, including the “lands of al-Haramein” (two holy places), i.e. Saudi Arabia. But its most significant goal seems to be Rome.
When the Islamic State released its video in February of the beheading of 21 Coptic Christian Egyptians on the coast of Libya, they titled it, “A Message Signed with Blood to the Nation of the Cross.” After the slaughter, the speaker says, “And we will conquer Rome, by Allah’s permission…”
Italian officials immediately reacted, warning “ISIS is at the door.” The Washington Post reports that,
Our Italian allies… are responding with the correct initial steps, including placing portions of both their military and the capable Carabinieri paramilitary forces on higher alert, adding more nautical patrols between Libya and their southern islands; sharing intelligence throughout NATO and European Union/Interpol channels; and publicizing these measures to appear a more hardened target.
The Libyan coastal area which the Islamic State used for its bloody “Message” is only 109 miles from the island of Lampedusa, and just 300 miles from Sicily; from there it’s just a short jump to mainland Italy. But it may not take an actual invasion force from the Islamic State in Libya to launch a terrorist attack. The enemy may already be taking up positions inside Italy.
Barbie Latza Nadeau of The Daily Beast reports that Italy saw “a 64 percent increase in illegal migrant arrivals by sea since last year. In all of 2014, more than 170,000 people arrived from Libya and Turkey, the highest number ever recorded.” Even worse, defense analysts warn that Italy has never been so exposed to an attack, due in large measure to heavily armed sea-based smugglers melding with those illegal migrants. Nadeau adds that “The Office of Migration in Rome says there could be as many as half a million people in camps waiting to come to Italy and the unrest will push them out faster.”
In short, an ISIS attack on Rome is by no means far fetched, and if attempted, would be a symbolic attack on Global Christianity.
ISIS certainly understands the importance of symbolism. The Islamic State has demonstrated by the frequency and magnitude of their heinous atrocities as well as through their slick magazine ‘Dabiq’ and their savvy social media proselytizing that they are masters of the Big Symbol. Tens of thousands of Muslims from Western nations are not leaving their relatively easy lives to join up with just any jihadist group. And they do so knowing they may be engaging in a generational struggle, an ‘Islamic Hundred Years War’, a concept the Islamic State embraces in its issue of ‘Dabiq’ titled ‘The Failed Crusade’:
“We will conquer your Rome, break your crosses, and enslave your women… If we do not reach that time, then our children and grandchildren will reach it, and they will sell your sons as slaves at the slave market… The Islamic State will remain until its banner flies over Rome.”
Through targeting such Big Symbols, caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and the Islamic State are winning the ideological war and drawing large numbers of new recruits, because they are convincing. ISIS has the courage of its convictions, and in each new issue of ‘Dabiq’ and each video, each Tweet, it further makes its case that the Islamic State is not just pointing to a future apocalypse, but that it is ushering in that apocalypse right now, today, and for observant Muslims that means each day brings them closer to Islam’s ultimate victory.
This is heady, intoxicating stuff, as Graeme Wood pointed out in his landmark article in The Atlantic. Joel Rosenberg phrased it even more directly, stating “The biggest threat now is not Radical Islam. It is ‘Apocalyptic Islam’.” For more in depth theological underpinnings of both Sunni and Shia eschatological dreams, you may wish to plunge into Timothy Furnish’s Mahdi Watch archives, as he has been warning about this like a voice in the wilderness for years now. What Raymond Ibrahim does for demonstrating historical continuity in Islam’s treatment of non-Muslims over the centuries regardless of geography, epoch, language and race, Tim Furnish does in assessing the chiliastic hopes of this manic, totalitarian religion.
All these watchtower voices are crying the same alarm: It’s not just about jihad, it’s about the times we live in, in which Muslim expectation is rapidly being whipped into a distorted Islamic parousia frenzy, with anticipations of the rise of the Dajjal, the return of Isa (the Muslim Jesus), the revealing of the Mahdi, and the eventual ushering in of an Islamic paradise on earth.
Just as a prairie fire sweeps across the acres ever more rapidly, so Muslims are being swept up in this sense of living in apocalyptic times. Even the ordinary Muslim working his job or raising her children may become instilled with a sense of Divine Purpose beyond their humdrum daily grind, a Manifest Destiny for the End of the Ages, and a thrilling anticipation of the ultimate triumph of Islam over all the world, and over all the unbelievers.
The proof of this Muslim ‘Apocalyptic Fever’ is in the demographics: the Muslims flocking from Western countries to join the Islamic State include not just testosterone-jacked young men, but “straight-A, normal” teenage girls, and even young Muslimas with their school-age children. The very demographic swaths of the Western Muslim community we had hoped were most “moderate” — affluent, professional, second generation children of immigrants as well as converts — are proving to be every bit as susceptible to the Jihadi Apocalyptic Virus as the front-line ISIS mujahideen.
The Islamic world hasn’t had such a feeling since 1979 and the Islamic revolution in Iran, if even then. More likely one would have to go back to the period leading up to the Muslim defeat of Constantinople in 1453 to sense this same pent up fervor and taste of impending victory. When the Imperial City fell to its Islamic invaders, that pent up fervor exploded in an orgy of raping and pillaging which lasted for days. Islam’s capture of the Big Symbol of Eastern Christendom launched a new epoch of Muslim supremacy.
Which leads us back to Rome.
The Eastern Christians did not think of themselves as “Byzantines”. That is a later appellation applied by historians using the older, pre-Constantinian name of the Imperial City. Rather, the Eastern Christians thought of and called themselves “Romans.” Constantinople was the capitol of the Roman Empire, eastern though it was. Even the Ottomans called their Orthodox Christian subjects the “Rom”.
The city of Rome and the city of Constantinople were always linked in Islamic thought and targeting beginning from the days of Muhammad himself, as seen in a hadith cited by Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, one of Islam’s most prominent contemporary imams:
“The Prophet Muhammad was asked: ‘What city will be conquered first, Constantinople or Romiyya [i.e., Rome]?’ He answered: ‘The city of Hirqil [the Byzantine emperor Heraclius] will be conquered first’ – that is, Constantinople’.”
The aforementioned scholar of Islamic history and eschatology, Timothy Furnish, cites some of the many eschatological hadiths which serve as the fountainhead for Islamic State’s apocalyptic dynamo:
The relevant hadiths (too long to reproduce here) are explicated thusly:
“Muslims will be at war with the Roman Christians….the Christians of Europe and their colonies….There will be a pause in this war due to a truce….During this time the Muslims and Romans will fight a common enemy [presumably the “Safawis,” or Twelver Shi`is of Iran and Iraq]….These events all lead up to the final, greatest, and bloodiest battle—al-Malhamah al-Kubra—between the Muslims and the Romans prior to the appearance of the Dajjal and the descent of al-Masih [Jesus]. This battle ends the era of the Roman Christians, as the Muslims will then advance upon Constantinople and thereafter Rome, to conquer the two cities and raise the flag of the Khilafah over them.”
Constantinople was attacked and laid siege to by Muslim armies in 674-678, barely more than forty years after Muhammad’s death, and again in 717-718, but she successfully fought off both. Rome herself was sacked and the Vatican defiled in 846 by Muslim brigands; Sicily was conquered by the Muslims in 902, and was held for over 150 years until the Norman incursions began in 1061. Europe’s long memory recalls Italy’s struggles against Muslim forces during the first few centuries of the Islamic era.
Furnish continues his analysis of ISIS’ goals:
But according to IS exegesis, they won’t stop there. The new caliphate, either before the Mahdi comes or, perhaps, after his arrival, also will conquer Jerusalem and eventually “destroy the filthy house called the White House.” Along the way the armies of jihad will “break your crosses and enslave your women.”
The Islamic State’s vow to “break the crosses” is a direct quote from a primary apocalyptic hadith where Muhammad is said to have prophesied Isa’s (the Muslim Jesus) return:
Isa will “fight the people for the cause of Islam. He will break the cross, kill the swine and abolish jizya” and establish the rule of Allah throughout the world.” (Hadith from Sunan Abu Dawud, Book of Battles, 37:4310)
“Breaking the crosses” means destroying Christianity and its global influence, one city, one village, one church, and even one believer at a time if necessary. The Islamic State seeks ultimately to crush the hearts of Christians everywhere, to break the Power of the Cross in the hearts of the Followers of Jesus.
To this end, ISIS keeps the Big Symbol, the Big Cross — Rome and the Vatican — squarely in their sights.
If you think their recruiting has been successful thus far, imagine what a large scale Islamic State terrorist attack on Rome and the Vatican would do.
Ralph Sidway is an Orthodox Christian researcher and writer, and author of Facing Islam: What the Ancient Church has to say about the Religion of Muhammad. He operates the Facing Islam blog.