Christian Science Monitor wants to know: Why is ISIS threatening Twitter employees with ‘lions’? Of course, CSM also has the answer:
Supporters of the extremist militant group called for the death of company employees in response to Twitter’s blocking of social media accounts associated with the Islamic State.
That much, I could have guessed. But I clicked on the headline not to find out why ISIS was threatening Twitter employees — after all, does ISIS really need a cause? — but because I was curious: Why lions? And since CSM appears to have been uninterested by that zoological choice, I decided to delve into the question for myself — and now, for you. You’re welcome.
It’s impossible to answer this question without first acknowledging that ISIS actually alludes to lions regularly. Indeed, the lions in question actually represent members of ISIS. Here’s what the organization said after capturing the battlefield that will supposedly host an apocalyptic showdown between Islam and the West: “The lions of Islam have raised the banner of the Caliphate in Dabiq. Now they await the arrival of the Crusader army.” And here’s how ISIS boasted after the Charlie Hebdo massacre: “The lions of Islam have taken revenge on the heretics in the name of our prophet.”
So I reiterate: Lions and lions and lions, oh why…
First, there’s a basic, straightforward explanation: ISIS takes this whole Islam thing really seriously. As Graeme Wood explained in his widely-shared piece about what ISIS wants, “They often speak in codes and allusions that sound odd or old-fashioned to non-Muslims, but refer to specific traditions and texts of early Islam.”
By way of illustration, Wood describes one incident in which the Islamic State’s chief spokesman exhorts his fellow Muslims to attack the infidel by destroying his crops. He explains that this “exhortation to attack crops directly echoed orders from Muhammad to leave well water and crops alone—unless the armies of Islam were in a defensive position, in which case Muslims in the lands of kuffar, or infidels, should be unmerciful, and poison away.” In other words, threats that seem to better belong in a Roman coliseum or the Middle Ages are actually deployed with loving care.
So, too, when ISIS threatens Twitter employees with lions,* they didn’t just go to the zoo and pick out a random big and scary animal: As it turns out, lions are something of a big deal in Islam. Hamzah, Muhammad’s uncle, is called “Lion of God” and “Lion of Paradise”. Lions appear numerous times in the hadith. (And though they don’t support ISIS — to put it mildly — Shiites call Ali Ibn Abu Talib “Lion of God”, while one major emblem of Iran is the “Lion and Sun“.) Or if not a big deal, at least a deal of reasonable size. A feline of unusual size. You get the idea…
*Here’s what they actually had to say: “We told you from the beginning it’s not your war, but you didn’t get it and kept closing our accounts on Twitter, but we always come back. But when our lions come and take your breath, you will never come back to life.”
So all that’s good to know, but we’ve really only addressed my original question on the most superficial level. Lions are great, sure, but — and here’s I’m really curious — there are no lions in the Middle East (outside a zoo). So why have lions been adopted as something of a mascot for Islam, and more specifically, for ISIS?
Well, you probably won’t be surprised to learn that the Middle East was once lousy with lions. And if you are surprised, grab your closest Bible and take a look into the book: In Daniel’s den. Samson killed one, and featured it in a riddle.* All over Psalms. “Lion of Judah”. By one count, 150 references in total. And just as those references to the King of Beasts came from direct experience, the lion became a major metaphor in Islam because its founders and practitioners enjoyed their company as neighbors.
*I’m using the term loosely, kind of like Bilbo’s “riddle” about what has it got in its pocketses.
Today, the last handful of Asiatic lions survive in a single Indian forest preserve, after having disappeared across the rest of their range because, well, people. And considering what the Middle East has turned into, I hardly blame them for hightailing (pun intended) the hell out.
The fact that their memory lives on in the region rather strongly gives me some hope that, like the wolves of North America, it’s not too late to bring them back. With dedicated effort, lion populations might be reestablished across significant portions of their former range.
Of course, conservation efforts are most effective under conditions of peace and stability. So for constructive change of the kind that can bring back lions, the Middle East is first going to have to rid itself of those “Lions” who are hardly deserving of the name. Be prepared.