The Ishmael Factor:

Seeing the Heart of the Middle East Conflict


Jerry L. Sherman, PhD

The book begins at 9-11 with the question, "What are the terrorists trying to say?" Is this attack the fault of the Islamists, or is it indirectly the fault of the West? I turn first to a promising diagnosis, that the Islamists blame others and do not take responsibility for their welfare; but immediately I have to ask, What is the source of that point of view? That is, what is the agenda of the person diagnosing this dysfunction? In real life this thought led into two years of reading and thinking, before I began the written search for a point of view that is not just someone's agenda.  Is every point of view nothing but someoneís assertion of power? Or is there a Master Narrative that will give us wisdom on the Middle East conflict?

My conclusion is that the biblical story of Isaac and Ishmael describes the religious process at the root of this conflict. It describes the dynamics of self-acceptance and guilt, manifested politically in the Middle East, where the Isaac and Ishmael exist in the identities of the parties. But this kind of conflict has roots in the entire human experience, as a result of human consciousness and its troubled relationship with transcendent power. So the Middle East conflict is forcing upon us knowledge of this root conflict.

Chapter 1, "Explaining the Blame Game," and Chapter 2, "The Hidden Player," present the question about finding a transcendent point of view, and we find that one of the points of view, known here as Zionism, does see itself as based in the transcendent wisdom of biblical revelation. But as such, Zionism is held in great suspicion, because the other points of view believe there cannot be a Master Narrative, especially not this one that expresses the power of Israel and the West. Or some believe in it half-heartedly, in a compromise with their faith in human autonomy. This resistance to transcendent truth is itself part of the Middle East conflict, and it interferes with attempts to understand it.

Chapters 1 and 2 together list seven points of view that attempt to explain the Middle East conflict. Each one is satisfying to those within it, and I call them "self-justifying explanations," because they work as religions, making us feel we are on the right side. They are Zionists, Attackers (the Islamists), Defenders (patriotic Americans and others targeted in the war on the West), Correctors (the Westerners who critically apply Enlightenment values to the Islamists), Excusers (Liberals and the New Left, who support Islamism), Pluralists (religious pluralism), and Postmodernists (relativism and amoralism). These last are closely related philosophical positions, not people groups, but they are important to the intellectual environment in which we are trying to get wisdom on the Middle East.

Chapters 3 through 8 then make up the remainder of Part One, The Players. "Postmodernists and Pluralists" studies the issues of relativism, amoralism, religious pluralism, and political pluralism, as these appear in the discussions about the West and the Middle East. We see how Europe is losing faith in its grounding principles and joining the attack upon itself.

"The Excusers" is a study of liberal-progressivism and Marxism, attempting to show why the Left is critical of Israel and quick to excuse the Arab Muslims and Islamists in their failure to take responsibility for themselves. The common ground of liberals and the Left with the Islamists is that both resist transcendent power, one through secular humanism and the other through human religion.

"The Correctors" looks at the conservatives and shows why their Enlightenment principles, primarily the emphasis on individual responsibility, cannot solve the Middle East problem. They believe in transcendence, but in a compromise with human autonomy. They have no way to understand the Islamists but to lay an ineffective "should" upon them. Most of this chapter considers different views of the two-state solution and of why it has not been achieved, and this issue helps to contrast the Correcters, who blame the Arabs, with the Excusers, who blame the Jews.

"The Defenders" looks at the moderates of the West who are under attack and considers an argument in which Power, whether gained legitimately or not, becomes the new norm, so that those who attack it are wrong and mainly hurting themselves. It also considers the risk in the Defender position of demonizing the other side in order to justify oneself.

"The Attackers" studies Islam and compares it to Judaism and Christianity, and it looks at the Islamic ummah and how it operates in this conflict. A main thesis of my book is that the religious differences in these three religions, especially regarding law and grace, are crucial to understanding the Middle East. A religion of law, which I call "human religion" is unable to remove guilt, and guilt is the motivator for terrorism and the war on the West, as well as for anti-Semitism and attacks on Christians.

Chapter 8, on Zionism, splits into three sub-chapters, dealing with Anti-Semitism, Christian Zionism, and the Settlements. In "Anti-Semitism and Zionism,"  I browse among treatments of anti-Semitism and develop the theory that guilt for violation of transcendent law (Torah) is projected onto others as blame, but especially onto the Jews as representatives of Torah. Also, Israel is an offense to the nations because its "stranger" identity has always set it apart from the nations, hearkening to a Source that judges the earthly values of the nations.

"Christian Zionism" shows how the Church has come to the side of Israel, despite having been an enemy for most of history, and it brings its idea of Godís sovereignty to bear on the question of Palestine. Israel may have a divine right to the Promised Land, based on historical precedent, prophecy, or scriptural covenant, but even if one rejects all of that, Israel did return. It happened, and thus it was allowed by the sovereign God. The argument from the Defenders chapter also applies: the return of the Jews did happen, and now it is the norm, the good, such that resistance to it is wrong. In fact, the sufferings of the Palestinians are primarily the result of their resistance, not of the presence of the Jews. A similar thing is true of their resistance to the power of the West.

"The Settlers" looks at how the settlements in the disputed territories are taken to be the obstacle to a two-state peace.  There is no reason they should be unless it is required that there be no Jews in what becomes Palestine. Some settlers reflect the radical kind of Zionism in which the Land is given to Israel by God, but even though most parties find the two-state solution fair, it may never happen because the resistance of the Palestinians to the existence of Israel is preventing them from forming a peaceful state. As a result, Israel may end up with the entire land as a fulfillment of divine promise, not because it is the fair solution, but because it is what happened, given the forces that are at work there.

The transition into Part Two, Skirmishes and Scrimmages, restates the overall picture of how the seven justifying explanations relate to each other, and chapters 9 and 10, "Facts and their Stories" and "Interpretations and Facts," present current events and commentary, looking for the stories within the conflicting points of view, searching for a Master Narrative. The main result of these chapters is that we cannot gather facts that will decisively tell us who is right or wrong in the Middle East, but we can examine the narratives at work and see the psychological forces at work in these expressed positions, and we can discover a logic in the narratives. The Master Narrative shows how our many conflicting narratives fit into the big picture.

By the end of Parts One and Two the Ishmael Factor thesis is in plain view: Islamism is a fight against the idea that God has chosen the Jews to inherit the Land, and against the fact that human religion has been judged insufficient and supplanted by the Gospel. The fight is against the essential message of Torah: that humans are dependent upon a transcendent goodness and have no goodness in themselves. This struggle has its roots in fallen humanity, which has always complained against God. Now the Islamists are making that complaint visible as they aim their rebellion toward Israel, Christianity, and the power of the West. The liberals are aligned with the Islamists because they, too, are opposed to transcendence and to Power.

The transition into Part Three takes up several "Biting the Bullet" issues, which are things we must face if we are to get any insight into the conflict. One of them is my claim that religious truths are not subjective, but based on actual facts about human nature and the human predicament. Thus I give in Part Three a naturalistic theory of the origin of human consciousness, based on the Genesis account treated as revelation through myth. The nature of consciousness determines certain objective conditions of human life, and religious claims about guilt and its solution are based on these facts.

Chapter 11, "Departments of Self Defense," is the theory of consciousness with its results, primarily that humans are defensively alienated from God and genuine goodness, because our consciousness was built upon the natural programming that is devoted to our own survival. The biological need to survive translates into a consciousness that necessarily trusts in human strengths and needs to see humanity as good. But having become conscious, we now have a different need than bodily survival, the need to be right, to be accepted, which makes us secure in the world of consciousness or subjectivity. But we cannot embrace this revised value system, because it requires the condemnation of our natural values. The religion that really works is the one that can penetrate these defenses of ours. And the Master Narrative is the set of beliefs that are not based on any of our fallen, defensive agendas, but that transcends them and intends to deliver us from them.

Chapter 12, "The Cain Factor" looks at how human defensiveness is now on display in the special protectionism that surrounds Islam. It is politically incorrect to point out the problems with Islam, and this is a continuation of the human defensiveness that is reflected through religion, art, literature, and social theory for all of history. But the power of this prohibition is new to our time and shows the true battle lines emerging.

Chapter 13, "Abrahamís Plan B," returns to the religious question of whether salvation is by grace or by human effort. Ishmael was Abrahamís back-up plan, his attempt to do through human power what can only be done by the power of God. It produced Ishmael and the entire future experience of Islam. One might prefer to say that the story illustrates the process that has led to the current travail of the Muslims in their fight against the West.

Chapter 14, "Hagarís New Religion," is the climax of the book. For if the Muslims are fighting the power of God, as I am claiming, then how are we to understand their theism and their fundamentalism? How can they be so theistic and yet be partners in crime with the liberals and the Left? I look very closely at the Hagar-Ishmael story and find within it a diagnostic analysis of Islam, in which we see that the Islamists have set up for themselves an "alternative transcendence," a god who sanctifies their fight against the Israel, the Gospel, and the West.

In Chapter 15, "Meanwhile, Back at the . . . Coliseum?" I look again at the conservative commentators, the Correctors, who were diagnosing Islamism as the book began. I have claimed that everyone is ultimately turned against the Master Narrative idea, although the Correctors and Defenders and Zionists all seem to be on its side. They are in a compromised relationship, and this compromise will break down. Thus I do a little prognosis and speculate loosely on what comes next in the world conflict we are studying. Global humanism is trying to undo the "scattering" prefigured at the tower of Babel, which is to reunite itself in opposition to God. Only genuine Christians will stand against this, and their views will be unacceptable, causing Christians to be persecuted. Where Israel will stand in the consummation of this conflict is difficult to know, but familiar end times theory indicates that the fragile world peaceóabsent the Christiansówill be broken, and then Israel will be supernaturally rescued.

My epilogue, "God Hears," takes a more friendly position toward Ishmael. These are real people, and some of them are responding to the Gospel and being converted. That is the real meaning of their name, that God will hear them in their present situation; he will hear their pain, but without sanctifying their resistance to his will.