BreakPoint: Terrorists and Moral Discourse

“Losers” and the story of Creation, Fall, and Redemption

So what motivates radical Islamist terrorists? Like we say over and over again on BreakPoint, worldview matters.

The day after a suicide bomber killed 22 people and injured 50 more during an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, England, President Trump expressed both his condolences to the victims and their families, and his solidarity with the British people.

And then he expressed outrage at the perpetrators. “So many young beautiful innocent people living and enjoying their lives murdered by evil losers in life. I won’t call them monsters because they would like that term,” he said. “They would think that’s a great name. I will call them from now on losers because that’s what they are.”

Now the president’s choice of words didn’t come as a surprise. Trump’s communication style is, of course unorthodox and colorful in a way that some linguists believe reflect his New York upbringing. And it’s endeared him to millions, which is why I don’t suspect we’ll see it change anytime soon.

And there’s absolutely a sense in which the perpetrators could be called “losers.” A recent study by the International Center for the Study of Radicalization (ICSR) found that many ISIS recruits in Europe had criminal records. Twenty-seven percent of the jihadis studied were radicalized in prison.

As Newsweek put it, “Some prisoners also wish to redeem themselves for the behavior that landed them in prison, turning to religion and a cause they believe to be honorable, essentially another outlet for their violent nature.”

As if to emphasize this last point, an ISIS recruiting poster features a young man holding a gun with this caption, “Sometimes people with the worst past create the best futures.”

This potent mixture of ideology, false religion, and counterfeit redemption is why we shouldn’t, however, settle for calling the terrorists “losers.” When people hear the word “loser” it brings to mind a sort of incompetence or a failure to succeed in life.

But what drives ISIS and its recruits is something much more than the word “loser” suggests. They’re living out their deeply held beliefs about God, humanity, and history—beliefs that are not just mistaken or wrong but are, at root, evil in the rejection of God and truth.

As Graeme Wood chronicled in a must-read piece at the Atlantic, ISIS offers, like all worldviews do, an alternative to Christianity’s “creation-fall-redemption-restoration” story. Except in its version, restoration takes the form of seizing and holding territory, followed by the imposition of what it deems a more authentic form of Islam.

All of this is the prelude to its version of the battle of Armageddon and the revelation of the Mahdi, “a messianic figure destined to lead the Muslims to victory before the end of the world.”

Dismissing ISIS and its recruits as “losers” relieves us of the need to understand these beliefs. But without understanding these beliefs, we can’t hope to understand what drives people like Salman Abedi, a 22-year-old British subject turned suicide bomber, and others that are inspired by ISIS.

And even more importantly, it relieves us of the responsibility to offer the True story of creation, fall, redemption, and restoration—centered on Christ—that gives life instead of taking it and that gives people a reason to love instead of one to strap on a suicide vest.

Chuck Colson spent the last four decades of his life helping people with the “worst pasts” create “best futures” characterized by love, not hate, and forgiveness, not revenge. They may have been so-called “losers” when they entered prison, but they left being called something else: sons and daughters of God.

Now Christians of all people, who follow the Word made flesh, know that words matter. They shape the way that we see the world, and just as importantly, they give us insight as to what the world can become.

Further Reading and Information

Terrorists and Moral Discourse: “Losers” and the story of Creation, Fall, and Redemption

As John highlights, there’s a stark worldview difference between radical Islam and Christianity. So now more than ever, believers must offer the truth of redemption and restoration through Jesus Christ.


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Criminal Pasts, Terrorist Futures: European Jihadists and the New Crime-Terror Nexus
  • International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence | November 10, 2016
What ISIS Really Wants
  • Graeme Wood | The Atlantic | March 2015

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  • jason taylor

    It’s funny how we can use the word “loser” which can apply to anyone who loses but the far more applicable terms “savage” and “civilized” are not allowed. In any case I often think it is not so much that we do not understand them but that we have forgotten:

    Boh Da Thone was a warrior bold: His sword and his rifle were bossed with gold, And the Peacock Banner his henchmen bore Was stiff with bullion but stiffer with gore. He shot at the strong and slashed at the weak. From the Salween scrub to the Chindwin teak: He crucified noble, he sacrificed mean, He filled old ladies with kerosene: While over the waters the papers cried, “The patrot fights for his countryside!”
    Ballad of Boh Da Thone by Rudyard Kipling

    It seems like we have sealed ourselves in our nice little gilded cage for so long that we have forgotten that ISIS is nothing new-it has always been there. WE are the anomaly that needs to be explained. Especially the present generation of us that not only aspires to be not-like Isis but doesn’t understand Isis.

  • jason taylor

    As for “what motivates them” well anyone here should be able to understand that. Pride and envy and saving face are something we understand(read any political forum if you don’t believe that, to paraphrase Karate Kid, even in America, “honor VERY important”). Besides that, has anyone not felt the temptation of false piety? Of assuming it is the will of God to deny courtesy or justice or love to those different from us? I have felt that, I have even heard it in hymns. It is hard to reconcile being a gentleman and being a Christian. I doubt many of us intend to bomb or torture or anything like that. But to assume that because of that we really don’t understand those who do is absurdly naive sanctimoniousness.

  • Joseph

    If words and worldview truly matter, why is there an obsession with saying the magic words “radical Islamic terrorism,” while turning a blind eye to white supremacist terrorism in this country?

    If you read the numerous stories of young ISIS recruits — particularly from our country — you don’t see people “living out their deeply held beliefs about God, humanity, and history,” but rather lost, naive young people (often new converts or previously non-practicing), brainwashed by propaganda and a distorted version of their faith.

    It’s not that we can’t understand their motivations; it’s that we choose to ignore how our words and actions may indirectly lead to desperate people becoming radicalized.

    • fred2

      I disagree. A liberal will he applauded for accurately identifying church shooter Dylann Roof as a White supremacist terrorist. However, that same liberal will be attacked as “racist” by his peers for calling Pulse shooter Omar Mateen a radical Muslim terrorist. Why the double standard? The cause is political correctness which stifles honest and open speech. This in turn leads to a more dangerous society since people suspicious of terrorist activity are wary of speaking out and thus can’t help police thwart future carnage.

      • Joseph

        I don’t have a problem with calling someone a radical Muslim terrorist, if that is an accurate description, and IF we apply the same label (religion and/or race) to all terrorists. The double standard comes from conservatives what want to call Muslims terrorists while refusing to label non-Muslims who commit terrorist acts in the same way.

        What you call “political correctness” is a calculated decision that recognizes the need to fight terrorism by partnering with Muslim countries and communities, without acting needlessly provocative. President Bush understood that. Someone even got Trump to understand that, at least through his Saudi Arabia trip.

        What creates a dangerous society is devoting all our energy and resources on just one threat while recklessly stirring up anti-Muslim hate and ignoring the domestic terrorist threat from anti-government militias and white supremacists here at home.

  • jason taylor

    I would have to answer that white supremacism is not so much ignored as disdained so much that we do not even feel the need to be angry at it because our dislike of it is assumed. At the least in cop shows I have often semi-sympathy toward Muslim villains and when the villains are white supremacists they are treated with contempt. I haven’t the foggiest idea who makes up the spectrum of infamy or what criteria are used but it is hard to say that white supremacists somehow get off in a way that Muslims do not.

    As for that being a distorted version of their faith, well I am not an Imam. I am however a historian. I don’t know a time when Islam was not a rather belicose faith. And so what? The only real religion of peace is Jainism which takes that far beyond what any normal person would be prepared to practice. I am not concerned that some or even many Muslims are violent. I rather think it more to the point that many are both dastardly and atrocious. Like white supremacists come to think of it.

    • Joseph

      I don’t buy your argument that we don’t feel the need to be angry at white supremacy. We all agree that ISIS is evil, but that doesn’t stop us from being angry and discussing how to understand it. We just don’t devote the same energy (or even language) to acknowledging other radicalized groups (who may be a larger threat to our safety) because it’s easier to go after foreigners with a different worldview.

      In response to white supremacists getting off, they’re having a field day right now. Their guy is in the White House, their numbers are growing, and the most they’ll hear from Republicans in Washington is a tsk, tsk, don’t wanna talk about it (the same ones who rush to the cameras whenever there’s a Muslim terrorist attack to exploit).

      I appreciate you saying you are not an Imam. Too often I see Christians assert a right to dictate to Muslims (and others) what Islam truly means as if they are the real experts.

      I also appreciate your ability to see these issues through a spectrum of normal human emotion (pride, envy, temptation, etc.). When we are comfortable labeling people as monsters, it lets us off the hook from understanding them as people.

      And when we group all Muslim terrorists together as living out their faith, it ignores the political factors and the harm that our government has repeatedly inflicted on the Muslim world.