July 12, 2015
Alex, a 23-year-old Sunday school teacher and babysitter, was trembling with excitement the day she told her Twitter followers that she had converted to Islam.[i]
That is how the New York Times story begins. It ends with her secretly logging on to Skype to receive this message from Faisal, a man she had never met in person.
I told [your grandmother] I would never communicate with you again. But I lied.
Between that opening and closing we get to know Alex, an isolated young woman in a rural community in the state of Washington. She lived an isolated, lonely life, sharing a home with her grandparents. Mabin Shaikh said this is exactly the type of person recruiters seek out online.
Mr. Shaikh was himself a member of an extremist Islamic group. After leaving that group he went on to testify before the United State congress about the mechanics of radicalization. He said of extremist recruiters, “We look for people who are isolated.”
They can pick up on someone’s loneliness by following their twitter account, trolling them on Skype, and paying attention to their Facebook “likes,” their posts, and their comments in chatrooms and forums. Mr. Shaikh identified this method of seeking out those Americans who lived isolated lives. He said, “If they are not isolated already, then we isolate them.”
Illustrating this point, Faisal, the man who reached out to Alex, surprised her when she told him she had convert to Islam. She excitedly told home she had found a Mosque near her home. His tone went cold. He told her to stay away from the Mosque. She did not know any Muslims, not in person anyway. He warned, Muslims in the United States are persecuted and she would be branded a terrorist. She should keep her new identity a secret and live a double life. She complied.
By the way, he lied. I recently attended a dinner Muslims have to break the fast during Ramadan. It was an invitation to Christians to come and see what non-radicalized Islam is about. It was a lovely time where they offered us generous hospitality. I do not think Islam and Christianity are compatible, but we can be friends. We can show generosity to one another. I was treated with great respect by these Muslims and everything about the evening was transparent. Faisal did not want Alex to discover this peaceful, open version of Islam that does exist in American and other places. She listened to Faisal.
So, if she could not associate with other Muslims or go to the Mosque, how could she (a) become a Muslim and (b) grow in her faith? He told her to become Muslim, in the presence of witnesses she needed to repeat the phrase, “There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his messenger.” So she tweeted the phrase, and Faisal acted as her witness along with another Twitter follower, one of Faisal’s associates, Hallie Sheikh.
Within hours, her number of followers on Twitter doubled. That night she tweeted, “I actually have brothers and sisters. I am crying.” Of course these ‘brothers and sisters’ were names and twitter accounts, not people Alex ever met or touched or looked in the eye.
At some point, she suspected Faisal may not be telling her everything. She looked him up online to discover that he had twice been arrested in England for possession of massive amounts of illegal firearms and explosives. He was in his 50’s, married, and had children – he had not shared any of this with her.
Moreover, her grandmother discovered the secret life she led online. She, called the FBI who came to the house and downloaded her entire electronic communication history. Alex handed over control of all her online accounts to her grandparents who shut them all down. But they forgot to close the Skype account. On family vacation, while her grandparents were out on the beach, she logged on and Faisal contacted her immediately.
Why is this story important? To whom are we listening? Fox News? NPR? A preacher on TV? What angle is the person to whom you listen closely taking? What is that person trying to get you to do?
Consider Rehoboam, the king who followed Solomon. His story is found in Second Kings chapter 12. Solomon’s reign was Israel’s Golden Age. Nations around the world admired the greatness of Solomon and Israel under Solomon. But, he also had his own failings, most specifically, adultery which led him into unfaithfulness to God. He died and his son Rehoboam took over.
As soon as his took the throne, he inherited the pressures of leadership and it came in the form of complaints that Solomon had been too tough on the 10 Northern tribes. Led by Jereboam this is how the exchange went.
Jeroboam and all the assembly of Israel came and said to Rehoboam, 4 “Your father made our yoke heavy. Now therefore lighten the hard service of your father and his heavy yoke that he placed on us, and we will serve you.” 5 He said to them, “Go away for three days, then come again to me.” So the people went away.
6 Then King Rehoboam took counsel with the older men who had attended his father Solomon while he was still alive, saying, “How do you advise me to answer this people?” 7 They answered him, “If you will be a servant to this people today and serve them, and speak good words to them when you answer them, then they will be your servants forever.” 8 But he disregarded the advice that the older men gave him, and consulted with the young men who had grown up with him and now attended him. 9 He said to them, “What do you advise that we answer this people who have said to me, ‘Lighten the yoke that your father put on us’?” 10 The young men who had grown up with him said to him, “Thus you should say to this people who spoke to you, ‘Your father made our yoke heavy, but you must lighten it for us’; thus you should say to them, ‘My little finger is thicker than my father’s loins. 11 Now, whereas my father laid on you a heavy yoke, I will add to your yoke. My father disciplined you with whips, but I will discipline you with scorpions.’”
King Rehoboam listened to the advice of men with no more experience that himself. If he did what they recommended and ruled with an iron fist, it might make him and his court wealthy, but it would continue to weaken and emasculate the rest of the country. The people whom he counted on for support would come to hate him. But those advisors around him told him what he wanted to hear.
To whom are we listening? Who has my ear or yours? Are they telling us things we want to hear? If we follow their advice will it greatly benefit them? Are they leading us down a path that will needlessly create enmity as we help them and maybe ourselves but hurt others?
Alex, the 23-year-old recruit into radical Islam, was told to hide her new life from the people she had always lived with, her family.
To whom are we listening? Are they telling us to keep secrets? Are they telling us to pretend to be one thing? Are they turning us against our own family? Are they secretive about who they are?
If your family or your circle of friend is into hard core drug use or pornography, separate from them. Don’t stop loving them but remove yourself from their influence because the things they are into are destructive and deadly.
But if someone from a religious group or a new circle of friends or a new life philosophy is actively paying attention to you in order to get you to follow the path they walk, ask why? Why do they want you to keep things secret from your parents or your spouse or your friends? Why do they get uncomfortable when you ask “why?”
I encourage you to question everything I teach. Hold the words I share up to scripture. Talk to trusted friends in our church or people you trust outside out community.
We have no secrets. We believe Jesus is Lord, salvation is found in Him, and the way to joy and eternal life is through Him, his cross and resurrection. We believe all people need him. We say this openly and we try to be transparent in our presentation of the Gospel. We want all people to become passionately devoted followers of Jesus. Tell everyone you know that this is what we are about.
And test everyone who tries to influence you.
That’s the bottom line this morning. Identify the most powerful influences in your life. It could be a parent, a TV personality, an author, a friend, a pastor, a spouse, a sibling, or a boss or role model. Take a moment, step outside yourself, and identify to whom you listen. Who is it you respect the most?
Now critically assess what that person is sharing with you. I know you aren’t necessarily like Alex whose feelings of isolation made her vulnerable. But you and I – we have other vulnerabilities. We have blind spots and in those blind spots, the enemy, the devil, will draw us away from our devotion and loyalty to Christ. We will find ourselves led down a path we never imagined we’d travel, a path rife with snares.
How do we guard against being deceived? First, look to Solomon. Early in his reign as king, the Lord spoke to him and offered him anything he might desire. He said to God,
“9 Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people?”
10 It pleased the Lord that Solomon had asked this. 11 God said to him, “Because you have asked this, and have not asked for yourself long life or riches, or for the life of your enemies, but have asked for yourself understanding to discern what is right, 12 I now do according to your word. Indeed I give you a wise and discerning mind.”
Ask God for wisdom, as Solomon did.
Second, pay attention to advisors who are looking out for your best interests and are pointing you to Christ. First John chapter 4 begins this way:
Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world. 2 By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, 3 and every spirit that does not confess Jesus[a]is not from God. And this is the spirit of the antichrist, of which you have heard that it is coming; and now it is already in the world. 4 Little children, you are from God, and have conquered them; for the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world.
Finally, seek God in prayer. Hebrews 4:16 says we can “approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” We are invited to bring all our concerns into God’s presence. Why would we ever not take advantage of such a generous divine invitation?
I pray God will rescue Alex from the allure of the seductions that have latched onto her. And I pray you and I can live in wisdom and share the truth of the Gospel as we live our lives.