This book is not available in Indian bookshops. I had been surfing channels some months ago when I stopped to watch a documentary film called Holy Wars on National Geographic. In it, Canadian filmmaker Stephen Marshall follows the lives of two individuals: Khalid Kelly and Aaron D. Taylor. Kelly was an Irish nurse-turned-Islamic jihadist, once leader of the al-Mujahiroun in Ireland, living in London. Taylor is a Christian preacher from the US heartland and founder of the Great Commission Society denomination.
The film explores their political and religious journeys over about three years and, in the end, Marshall gets the two to meet in an abandoned warehouse in London. Their discussion of their respective religious persuasions becomes a heated debate, often around the themes of freedom and democracy. Kelly is the more forceful speaker, putting forth his views in a calm, controlled and relentless manner and getting the better of Taylor with his quiet eloquence and aggression.
However, the story continues beyond the film. The fallout of the face-off was that Taylor ended up ‘listening’ to Kelly’s arguments, which then prompted him to ask himself some fundamental questions about his own religious beliefs, his political affiliations, the place and role of the US in the world, its interventions in Vietnam and Iraq, and very much more.
Taylor believes he changed after this meeting with Kelly. The changed but recharged perspective of his faith and a reversal of his political position is what he offers in Alone with a Jihadist: A biblical response to holy war. But mostly, he begins to read the lessons of the Bible in new, more expanded ways.
The version of the book I read was self-published and, as a result, suffers some inherent flaws, one of them being the lack of a careful editorial hand. It is also not a new book — it’s at least three years old. But, make no mistake — it is compelling, not least because it is unpretentious. Importantly, it examines one of the most important issues confronting the world today: war.
Although the book specifically and critically looks at the phenomenon of war in relation to a United States that is majority Christian persuasion, whose mostly Christian politicians view the role of their nation to fight ‘God’s war’, many of the insights Taylor articulates point an open-minded reader to possible ways to approach and understand religious fundamentalism and disengage its consequences.
As the leader of a Christian evangelical mission, Taylor is at pains to clarify that although he moved away from what he had grown up with, his faith in Christianity is not shaken but strengthened in a different way. He arrives at the conclusion that all the wars his country has waged in the name of God contradict Jesus’s message of peace towards all mankind. His questioning throws light on Zionism, the politics of foreign-policy making, the Bible, freedom and democracy, and, more importantly, our own selves as individuals and members of society.
Free of the rhetoric usually associated with such discourse, Alone with a Jihadist is a religious individual’s considered, researched, examined work that clearly advocates peace as it concludes that, no, Jesus did not leave the world a socio-political system to solve its problems; Jesus taught that “it’s better to die than to kill”. As the author writes, “…aspiring to lead and develop the strongest military forces on the face of the earth is a strange way for a follower of Jesus to live out the calling to be a harmless dove or a defenseless lamb.” Return to your conscience, Taylor says, that’s what the Bible says, that’s what Jesus said, that’s the Christian way.
Openly criticising US politics, acknowledging his own doubts and misconceptions, and conceding that some things are hard to understand, this young, rightwing evangelist’s postulations are extraordinary and useful, even for the most sceptical reader. And even though it is a ‘Christian’ examination, many of the insights are useful for all readers.
We may not all be equally convinced by Taylor’s arguments, but we do ‘see’ better for his having started to ‘listen’ to what Kelly was saying. For instance, ask yourself this question he asks in the book: “Why do we call an action criminal when perpetrated by an individual but courageous when perpetrated by a group?” What do you begin to ‘see’?
For those curious about what happened to the former Irish nurse: well, he returned disappointed to Ireland after the Pakistani government quashed his dreams of living as a taliban there. He discovered there was little sympathy either in Pakistan or London or Dublin for his extreme views which included, apparently, threats to the life of the US president.