ISIS, Terrorism and Refugees: A Teach In

In the days after the terrible news of attacks in Paris and Beirut, members of the history department looked at each other and asked “What can we do?” As we are inundated with stories of terror, violence, and hatred around the world, we struggle as individuals and as communities with how to respond. As historians, we also seek to understand what is happening and how we got here. In response to these recent events, the Calvin history department hosted an old-fashioned “teach in” on December 3, 2015. The idea was to provide a time for Calvin faculty to share their expertise in response to the recent terrorist attacks, the threat of ISIS, and the refugee crisis. We then opened the panel to questions and discussion with an audience of Calvin students, faculty, staff, and community members. The event is now available to watch on YouTube. See below for an excellent summary in the Calvin student newspaper.

ISIS, Terrorism and Refugees: history, medieval studies and middle east club host teach-in

By Juliana Ludema (Chimes Staff Writer)

(This article originally appeared in print in the Calvin Chimes on December 11, 2015)

With the increase in terrorist attacks in recent weeks, the Calvin history department hosted a teach-in titled “ISIS, Terrorism, and Refugees” last week. Professors overviewed the context and strategy of terrorism, described how this relates to Syrian refugees and offered advice for Christians in reacting to this crisis.

Professor Howard of the history department explained the ISIS situation, analyzing the Syrian war and how the lack and breakdown of Syria’s political structure allowed the Islamic state to gain political traction.

He explained that, for most parties involved in the Syrian conflict, ISIS isn’t the top of their agenda; the focus is on the Assad regime and its opponents. Partly because no one was paying attention, ISIS was able to gain so much traction.

Bert de Vries, professor of history and archeology, who had recently returned from his archeological dig site in Umm el-Jimal, Jordan, spoke on the refugee crisis. De Vries spends five months a year at the site, living in the same house as three refugee families and near a refugee camp.

In his talk, he showed pictures of his neighboring refugee children and emphasized how important it is for Christians to help refugees, explaining how many U.S. governors have refused to let in even 10,000 refugees.

Refugees, he argued, are the “irreversible damage of war.” He explained in a separate interview that “these refugees are fleeing from the violence and terrorism that they’re suffering from. … The victims are being blamed for the behavior of those who victimize them.”

This approach, he said, “is not only ignorant but very unjust and, from the point of view of Calvin College, very unchristian.”

He explained, “Refugees have rights as humans, and, as Christians, we have an obligation to help the people who are fleeing for their lives and for their beliefs and principals.”

Jason VanHorn, professor of geography, explained that it’s difficult to define terrorism, showing graphic visualizations of the incidence of terrorist acts as the global terrorism database defines it. With conservative estimates, he said, over 15,000 areas have been affected by terrorism since 9/11 and that there have been over 100,000 people killed and over 200,000 wounded.

In order to help, he said, we must pray and beseech the Lord for peace, learn — perhaps by taking his course on terrorism — and, he said, through learning, “be a person of action who brings renewal to thinking about real problems.”

Professor Joel Westra of political science offered explanation of the strategy of terrorism. Terrorism is not simply senseless violence, he said, but is an “asymmetric strategy” — a strategy used by weak actors to make strong actors vulnerable.

He said one of these strategies is compellence. By committing a violent act against society, the weaker actor compels the state to respond and, in doing so, shows the terrorists’ capability and resolve.

Although terrorist groups use this strategy primarily against democratic states, Westra explained, they also use it to intimidate citizens in the Middle East into siding with them.

Westra explained, “An event like Paris galvanizes attention, but it shouldn’t be the only thing that does. There is far more pervasive widespread suffering through terrorism locally and the effects it’s creating through migration.”

Because foreign policy involves many difficult decisions and often leaves people without clear answers, Westra said, we must “pray for these people who have to make these hard choices.”

Lastly, history professor Frans van Liere described Islam’s part in this, but emphasized that “religion can incite people to violence just as it can inspire them to acts of good.”

Both Christianity and Islam, according to him, have “been marked by periods of military conquest and peaceful periods.” He said, “You can’t compare peaceful times of Christianity to violent times of Islam.”

He questioned why we don’t often hear of the Muslim protests against terrorism. And, he said, “Millions of Muslims are protesting terrorism with their feet; we call them refugees.”

He explained, “Terrorism is a political tactic adopted by many different ideological groups,” not just Islam.

“We stand not as Christians against Muslims,” he said, “but as Christians and Muslims against terrorism.”

He then described factors such as the disillusionment of youth which have encouraged the growth of terrorist groups in the Middle East.

Between the speakers and following the teach-in, there were brief times of questions. Though this brought “a lively discussion,” according to van Liere, some in the audience felt respondents were there to get their points across instead of to listen.

Sophomore Maggie Fayes felt disheartened by how some audience members “had their own papers that they were reading off of that they brought in, so they weren’t even here to listen to what the teach-in was saying, they were just here to bring their point across.”

Hannah Mattson, co-president of the Middle East club, echoed this sentiment:

“I thought [the speakers] pointed out a lot of good things that don’t always get heard in the news and in the media but I wonder how many people actually heard anything that they said.”

Van Liere agreed: “I think some people in the audience came clearly with an agenda and wanted to draw attention to their view of the matter which is, of course good, as long as they don’t monopolize the event.”

Bill and Judy Parr, from Holland, learned about this event through the Grand Valley State Interfaith group. Bill said, “We didn’t want to miss this and we came running right over.”

Judy also felt there were some in the audience who had an agenda, but, she said, “It’s nevertheless a good thing to have this dialogue to increase understanding among ourselves.”

Fayes said she applauded how de Vries focused on the humanity of Arabs, demonstrating they are human through showing pictures. “They’re not just terrorists who are coming to invade the country, like a lot of the respondents seemed to say.”

According to van Liere, “there were a few students there of Arab descent who were clearly encouraged to hear that message because a lot of what they hear is ‘Well, you look Arabic so therefore you must be a terrorist,’ so I think to hear that publicly denied at Calvin sends the message ‘we affirm you, we don’t ostracize you,’ and I think it’s important to hear that message.”

Recent grad Audrey Hughey said she commended van Liere’s remarks “on the importance of really humanizing the situation and humanizing the refugees and the entire world of Islam and to not make the extremists the norm of how we view the religion of Islam.”

Junior Anneke Kapteyn said she “appreciated how they moderated with compassion and insight.”

Mattson agreed. “I think it was a great opportunity to get very knowledgeable, well-thought-out news.”

Lydia Cupery, a junior, said she enjoyed how the teach-in didn’t just focus on an emotional response but offered an educated explanation:

“I think it’s also important to ask the questions of why it happened,” she said, “and not only create a space for the emotions but create a space to learn more about it.”

Van Liere organized this teach-in because, he said, “especially after the Paris attacks, one of the things that I found striking was there was not much public discussion about it at Calvin, while at the same time, in the public media, you can see a lot of anti-Muslim rhetoric, a lot of talk that came out of a fear, and maybe even hatred, so we decided to put this event together as a teach-in … in order to counter those kind of opinions.”

A teach-in, he explained, is different from a forum in how it allows invited speakers to share their expertise instead of mainly revolving around discussion. He explained, “You look at one particular issue from the expertise of the people who are there without actually trying to achieve a variety of political opinions.”

Although, according to van Liere, the panelists hold a variety of viewpoints on what the US response to ISIS should be, they all agree that “ostracizing the Muslim community is not the answer.”

Thanks to Juliana Ludema for her excellent reporting on the event. Thanks also to the many who attended this event, both on campus and via our live stream. 

13 thoughts on “ISIS, Terrorism and Refugees: A Teach In

  1. Caleb Lagerwey

    Thank you for putting this together! Responses from rational, Christian scholars are sorely lacking in today’s discourse, and I was proud to show this to my students.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I can appreciate the article. And, the effort to make sense of some controversial issues. However when the author says that Muslims are protesting Islamic terrorism by “becoming refugees”, (paraphrasing), I do not find this convincing. I am not saying they “don’t exist”-but show me the refugees already in America that condemn Islamic terrorism? and burn ISIS and other terror group flags. If there is anyone that knows how to protest, its Middle Eastern people-they riot, burn American flags, they march, yelling “death to America” (not all do)-but do we see Muslims in America this angry at Islamic radicals? It does not seem so to me. Also, refugees have become an issue as well. In the United States, France and Germany. (all over the world refugees have acted out violence in the “name of Islam”. This is the whole problem. Due to what the Koran teaches about Christians, Jews and all Non-Muslims, it makes the issue more complex. Instead of comparing ‘acts of violence’ to ‘peaceful times of Christianity’ as an “unfair” assessment (as the author may have merit)- why not compare the teachings of the Bible with that of the Koran? (on equal topic)?”But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you (Matt 5:44) – this is what the Christian is to do, now, what is the Muslim to do? read the following Koran message: p.s. if this is the type of theology and worldview that has influenced Muslims, how do we secure our families, the U.S. and the world?…then you have the Koran——– Koran 5:51 – “O you who believe! do not take the Jews and the Christians for friends; they are friends of each other; and whoever amongst you takes them for a friend, then surely he is one of them; surely Allah does not guide the unjust people.”
    Koran 8:12 – “I will cast terror into the hearts of those who disbelieve. Therefore strike off their heads and strike off every fingertip of them”
    Koran 9:29- Fight those who believe not in God nor the Last Day, nor hold that forbidden which has been forbidden by God and His Apostle, nor acknowledge the religion of truth
    Koran 2:244 – “Then fight in the cause of Allah, and know that Allah Heareth and knoweth all things.
    Koran 2:216 – “Fighting is prescribed for you, and ye dislike it. But it is possible that ye dislike a thing which is good for you”
    Koran 4:76 – “Those who believe fight in the cause of Allah…”
    Muslim 1:30 – “The Messenger of Allah said: I have been commanded to fight against people so long as they do not declare that there is no god but Allah.”
    Koran 8:65 – “O Prophet, exhort the believers to fight…”
    Koran 9:123 – “O you who believe! fight those of the unbelievers who are near to you and let them find in you hardness.” So, then, really, what is the answer? I am not saying “war”, I am not saying “peace” either.. How do we reply to this? Well…..Jesus said “pray”… what are your thoughts?…..


    1. Caleb Lagerwey

      If you’re not finding American Muslims condemning terrorist attacks, I would politely suggest that you’re not looking hard enough. For example, see

      But if you’re still looking for what you called “Middle Eastern people” responses, I would suggest two things. First, consider the level of acculturation that most Islamic or Middle Eastern Americans exhibit in this country: many might be just as likely to find flag burning and “death to” chanting unhelpful in our pluralistic democracy as other Americans. That may be a cultural practice for _some_ people who live in some areas, but you cannot require Middle Eastern Americans to respond in the stereotypical way you think their culture or county of origin would dictate. There may be an analogous situation here in which someone expects United States citizens to throw tea overboard in response to everything that offends them, for example. Second, painting “Middle Eastern people” with a broad brush is glossing over enormous historical, cultural, and religious diversity in a way that encourages stereotyping, Islamophobia, and shallow solutions to complex problems.

      I’ll leave the Koran quotes to the experts–I suggest you watch the associated video–with the exception of one small comment. True Islam is not following the Qur’an the way you or I think Muslims should be, but is rather, by definition, following the Qur’an according to the global consensus of Islamic scholars. If they say true Islam does not mean violent jihad, then it does not. Those who claim otherwise and assume the mantle of Islam are usurpers and deceivers.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thank you for your reply. In my comment, I was careful to use words that expressed a lack of knowledge in some areas For example, I said: I am not saying they “don’t exist”-but show me the refugees already in America that condemn Islamic terrorism?” So, your comment, that “I am not looking hard enough”-is offensive, although I do appreciate the reference, and I will look into it. I actually replied to the author of the article with questions that you did not answer, as to why the refugees coming to America, should be considered a ‘protest’-you only said that my view of a protest might not be “universal”-which might be true, nonetheless, you still only say that I am ‘stereotyping” in a way that some people protest. In fact, my argument was the exact same thing-I challenged the speakers view of protest as “authentic”. On the Koran, how do you know that I am not an expert? whether I am or not- we can both read and understand plain English. Those verses in the Koran that I quoted can be “understood” “interpreted” or “exegeted” in how many ways? They seem to not require an interpretation at all, they seem pretty easy to understand. However, I take your point, if “true Islam”, does not mean violent Jihad, because some scholars say so-and “therefore, its not”, I will leave you to take their word for it. At this time, I will take the Koran at its word, and remain with other scholars that think of Islam as not peaceful. Thanks for the open chat, I can appreciate that. Ben


        1. Caleb Lagerwey

          To attempt to address your questions and concerns:

          1. My apologies if I was offensive earlier. What I was trying to politely suggest is that examples of Muslims condemning terrorism are quite widespread. I actually found the aforementioned example via a simple Google search.1

          2. I do not want to speak for the author, but I can see refugees as protestors because where one lives often speaks volumes about one’s values–assuming one has the choice and ability to migrate, of course. If all Syrian and Iraqis supported ISIS and all it stands for, then ISIS’ alleged caliphate would be a dream come true for them: the refugees coming to Europe and the US would, in that scenario, rather stay within Syria and Iraq under ISIS. Since they are not staying there–they are leaving by the millions–I think it is fair to say they do not approve of ISIS’ ideology, thus demonstrating the “protesting terrorism with their feet” mentioned in the article. An analogous situation might be Americans who fled to Canada during Vietnam: they opposed the war and thus “protested with their feet” by moving to a country without a draft for the Vietnam War.

          3. As for the Qur’an, I again will state that larger scholarly interpretation needs to be included in judging its content. Perhaps another analogy will be helpful: there are verses in the NT of the Bible that seem fairly straight-forward and clear in their acceptance of slavery (Ephesian 6, Colossian 4, 1 Timothy 6, etc.) in a manner similar to how your quotations from the Qur’an seem to be quite clear in encouraging violence against non-Muslims. It was only after many years of bitter scholarly fighting that Christians began to see slavery as a morally abhorrent institution according to the larger narrative arch of the Bible (See Mark A Noll’s Civil War as Theological Crisis for more on that).2 Modern scholarly consensus is important, and no matter how clear a particular passage from a sacred text appears, we must read them within scholarship, within history, and within community.

          4. Lastly, I think your question of how to deal with these difficult issues as American Christians is great question, and one with which it is worth struggling. I will not pretend to have all the answers, but here are a couple of suggestions I have come across. One, address problems of poverty in places that breed extremists. Two, increase religious and secular education in those areas as well so people are not easily manipulated. Three, continue to shape US foreign policy in a way that is diplomatic and non-hostile to Muslims–there is lots to that, but that is for another time. Fourth, encourage and assist American Muslim communities in reaching all of their members in a manner similar to my first point that assures community accountability and reduces the risk of isolated members getting radicalized, especially online. Fifth, address the corruption in governments that again breed resentment and extremism. Sixth, counter the narrative of extremists both on religious and socio-political grounds. Seventh, taking carefully-screened refugees into the US as a sign of our compassion in this humanitarian crisis and as a way to assist the protesting with feet. Finally, we as Christians know that the Gospel is Truth and Life, so we should continue to support missionaries and dialogue with the Islamic world as well as to pray for peace and conversions.

          1 I Googled: examples of american muslims condemning terrorism


  3. Kate van Liere

    Ben, there are actually a lot of western Muslims speaking out against the horrors committed by ISIS. In addition to the example Caleb cited, see the social media campaign (British in origin but now spreading worldwide) and this post last week by Egyptian-American columnist Mona Shadia: These seem to me healthy evidence that more and more western Muslims are starting to appreciate the importance of publicly denouncing ISIS and its ideology. As for citing scriptural injunctions to violence and intolerance, that seems a pretty dangerous road for Christians to go down. As Philip Jenkins argues here, the OT can easily match the Qur’an for injunctions to merciless destruction of one’s enemies. Shouldn’t we judge believers for how they interpret their scriptures and apply them today, rather than for the intolerable literal commands those scriptures contain? I agree with you that there are far too Muslims today who find justification for violence in the Qur’an—perhaps a larger percentage of the total Muslim population than the percentage of Christians who do so, although I don’t know how to measure that—and that is a huge political problem. But Christians and other peace-loving people aren’t likely to be able to defeat those violent radicals if they alienate the millions of peace-loving Muslims who are just as horrified (and much more immediately threatened) by ISIS.


  4. benji1978

    The main reason that I posted was to find out how (as Christian Americans), reply to the current issues that we are dealing with? How do we resolve the issue of Islamic terrorism in our world?….


    1. Frans

      I think the last paragraph of my contribution spoke to that question. Also, I did not suggest refugees coming to America specifically can be considered a protest against isis; I merely suggested that the number of refugees from isis controlled areas suggests that these people do not agree with this regime.


  5. Ben

    Kate, I take your point. And, thank you for replying, but there is a logical fallacy, called the ‘strawman’-I did not compare OT theology to the Koran. I compared “how to treat others” or “enemies” per comparative religion. I made that argument from the article as motif. My question was how are Muslims to treat those that are not Muslims? I believe that the Koran is quite clear-, I also quoted Jesus. Your OT argument may compare Jewish theology, to the Koran, or, perhaps, old covenant theology with the Koran-I would be willing to argue biblical ontology or religious metaphysics, or a ‘comparative religious epistemology problem” as well. Nonetheless, what about my argument? And what are your thoughts on the Koran verses that I quoted? (I will say that not all Muslims are the same-and that some are seeking to protect themselves from the evils of ISIS. Nonetheless, its an issue that I think we should be discussing. I can appreciate open chat. Thanks!


  6. Here’s another source with a list of Muslim leaders in the US and around the world speaking out against Islamism:

    Ben: If you’d like to think about what Christians, and others, including Muslims, can do, you might check out one of Calvin’s January Series speakers this year, Eboo Patel, a Muslim who founded an organization to encourage interfaith understanding and cooperation. Here’s the link:

    The link gives you his background and mentions his books. You can also listen to his lecture.


  7. Ben

    Caleb, Will, Kate, I appreciate the discussion. Its an election year, plus, Radical Muslims are on the attack and doing this more frequently around the world, rather, than doing less. From the beginning, I decided to quote the Koran for several reasons. Of course, not all Muslims are the same, I also think that some, if not most refugees of the Middle Eastern world are fleeing from Radical groups, such as ISIS. And, I hope that they can get away for the safety of their families. However, we (generally) cannot pretend that some radicals have come to the U.S. (and other places of the world) as “refugees” and have not attacked, when they clearly have, on the other hand, we cannot pretend that some have come to the U.S. (and other places) and have lived peacefully, either. That’s why, my argument is not that “Muslims are not peaceful”-I argue the point “How are Christians supposed to treat Non-Christians from the bible” vs “How are Muslims supposed to treat non-Muslims from the Koran”, therefore, each religion judged on its own terms. In regard to the Koran verses that i quoted, again, I think that we can all see what Muslims are to do (however, I admit, that I am not an Islamic scholar, nor are Muslims Studies my area of expertise. So, interpreting those verses should be inductive, and applied to the exegetical rules of Islamic theology and thought. Nonetheless, as it stands, those Koran verses seem clear for whatever hermeneutic method is applied, but to what relevancy?-here is where we are. Caleb, I can appreciate your response and reference to Mark Noll’s work on ‘The Civil War as a Theological Crisis”- I enjoyed that, and wrote an annotated bibliography on it while doing my M.A. History. I would only suggest that the point of Noll’s book is to show that “an univocal answer in Scripture (the Bible), to the pressing question of slavery troubled Americans for more than thirty years-from, that is, at least, the early 1830’s, when the rise of a more radical abolitionism precipitated a responding defense of slavery as a ‘positive good’, to the end of the war in 1865, when the success of Union arms rendered further exegetical debate pointless” (pg.6). Some argued that the bible supported slavery, of course some did not, and some (as Noll points out on page 4 that some believed that the bible supported slavery, but they were against how it was practiced in the United States. (chattel race-based slavery). I think that a consensus is important- but the end of ‘exegesis as the bible ‘supporting’ slavery was successful on two major counts: 1, As a reaction to the Northern/Union win of the Civil War, and 2), the racism, and evils of antebellum slavery in the U.S.- I think that one could defend slavery from the bible, (today, these people are usually a small, and racist southern group, to my knowledge)- (and I personally would not agree with their conclusions, as I am an Indiana Yankee!) However, I do think (as you state), that “Modern scholarly consensus is important, and no matter how clear a particular passage from a sacred text appears, we must read them within scholarship, within history, and within community.” Even, here, with these healthy assets, Islam can still be deemed, “evil”, and “non”-peaceful”. I should also note that I adjudicate between “Islam” and “Muslims”- and not all Muslims have the same level of knowledge about their theology, nor do they all believe ‘exactly’ the same things. Nonetheless, I think that dialogue is good. I will say this, if it was abolitionism that helped end the ‘evils of slavery’ and the ‘bible interpretations that support slavery’ in the U.S.- and we are “equating” that with the “apparent” verses of the Koran and the ‘evils of Islam”-then, this would only help in becoming a “modern abolitionist” against the “wrong views of Islam”-then, again are radical Jihadists’ really wrong considering those verses in the Koran, is the point of my concern? I do think that peace is the fist step, and also acting within legal means. Again, thanks. It seems that all agree that we must stop ‘radical Islamic terrorism’-it also seems that we are ‘struggling for a method’ considering the fact that ISIS and groups like them do not want peace. Again, as a Christian American, I am keeping all in prayer, hoping for peace.


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