After the barbaric beheading of 21 Coptic Christians last month, the Islamic State murderers brayed their threat to the West. Saying they would fill the oceans with the blood of “crusaders,” they also warned, “We will conquer Rome.” To understand what they mean by their threat, it is important to understand more about the Islamic State group and what motivates the Muslim madmen.

Graeme Wood, in a strong article at The Atlantic, explains the historical, theological and political background of ISIS. The jihadists follow a radically fundamentalist and apocalyptic version of Islam. Wood explains that to understand the ISIS dream is to envision “a dystopian alternate reality in which David Koresh or Jim Jones survived to wield absolute power over not just a few hundred people, but some 8 million.”

Wood says the fanatics are imbued with the Quran. Everything they do is driven by an unthinking adherence to the text. He quotes Islamic scholar Bernard Haykel, “Even the foot soldiers spout this stuff constantly. … They mug for their cameras and repeat their basic doctrines in formulaic fashion, and they do it all the time.” 

Furthermore, Haykel rejects the idea that the Islamic State extremists are no more than the lunatic fringe of Islam. “People want to absolve Islam,” he said. “It’s this ‘Islam is a religion of peace’ mantra. As if there is such a thing as ‘Islam’! It’s what Muslims do and how they interpret their texts. Those texts are shared by all Sunni Muslims, not just the Islamic State.”

ISIS’ unbending interpretation of the Quran leads their soldiers to crucify and behead their enemies. Wood reports, “Leaders of the Islamic State have taken emulation of Muhammad as strict duty and have revived traditions that have been dormant for hundreds of years.” Heykel adds, “What’s striking about them is not just the literalism, but also the seriousness with which they read these texts. Slavery, crucifixion and beheadings are not something that freakish [jihadists] are cherry-picking from the medieval tradition. Islamic State fighters are smack in the middle of the medieval tradition and are bringing it wholesale into the present day.”

Furthermore, the literalism of their interpretation of the Quran is fused with a frightening apocalyptic mindset. To the uninitiated, Muslim end-times prophecies seem just as complicated as the predictions in the Book of Revelation and the complex explanations given by apocalyptically minded Christians and Jews. Islamic prophecies envision that the armies of Rome will meet the armies of Islam in northern Syria, and after a near defeat, the stragglers of the Islamic army will go to Jerusalem to meet their messiah.

As some Christians see Armageddon as the plain where the final battle takes place, the Muslims see the Syrian city of Dabiq near Aleppo. Wood explains, “It is here, the Prophet reportedly said, ‘that the armies of Rome will set up their camp.’ The armies of Islam will meet them, and Dabiq will be Rome’s Waterloo or its Antietam.”

This is the conquest of Rome that the Muslim fundamentalists anticipate. Having taken Dabiq, the ISIS leadership has proclaimed, “The spark has been lit here in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify … until it burns the crusader armies in Dabiq.”

The prophecies say that the enemy is “Rome,” but as Rome has no army, interpreters have different ideas of who “Rome” is. Some think it refers to the Eastern capital of the ancient Roman Empire, meaning Istanbul. Neighboring Turkey, then, is the “Rome” the ISIS murderers plan to conquer.

Other Islamic commentators suggest that “Rome” is shorthand for any infidel army, which could be made up of apostate Muslims allied with Christians and Jews. Others believe “Rome” is a synecdoche for any Christian power or alliance. Therefore, when the terrorists say they will “conquer Rome,” it is unlikely that they are referring to a literal attack on the capital of Italy and the Vatican.

Nevertheless, the secular political leaders in the West need to understand the deeply religious nature of the Islamic State group and take stock. The strength and the weakness of any religiously motivated movement is that the fanatics would rather die than compromise. In many ways, they would rather die than win.

There is a sick kamikaze mentality to the religiously insane. They believe they are persecuted, and then they behave as if they are persecuted — and before long, their wish comes true. Sadly, their wish is a death wish, and if the madmen of ISIS continue their present apocalyptic path, the powers of civilization and sanity will rise up and crush them.

Father Dwight Longenecker is a priest of

the Diocese of Charleston, South Carolina.

His latest book is Slubgrip Instructs.