After Paris: Getting our heads around ISIS



for blog
(EPA Landor – Ian Langsdon photo)


We have not defeated the idea. We do not even understand the idea.

— Major General Michael K. Nagata, Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, on the mysterious appeal of ISIS (December 2014)


The morning after the Paris attacks, a friend in Jakarta posted the following message on Facebook:

Fuck Isis, fuck Al Qaeda, fuck Boko haram, fuck Jemaah Islamiah. Fuck all terrorist[s] in this world. #prayforparis

My Indonesian friend, whom I’ve known from a distance for years but whose religious beliefs remain a mystery (I’ve never asked and he’s never volunteered), is a kind, gentle soul with the biggest smile in the world, a peaceful sort who gets along with everyone and is not known for public flights of profanity. By hinting with this post that the time for politically correct politeness is over, he was merely expressing what most people in the civilized world have been thinking ever since the jihadists first reared their ugly heads in the years surrounding 9/11.

By “civilized world,” I am referring to people who value human rights, education, history, and memory—regardless of whether they’re Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, of some other religious persuasion or none at all. People who are not racist, misogynistic or homophobic and are sympathetic to the plight of refugees. People who see the killings in Paris as no more or less tragic than the killings in Beirut but recognize the former’s significance as part of Islamic State’s strategy of goading the West. People who, notwithstanding their own religious beliefs, regard the separation of church and state as a prerequisite to any civil society based on equality and humanitarian values (and who, happily embracing such values when presented with the option, are puzzled by sniffing objections to said values as “Western” and “hegemonic”).

Being an optimist—even when our planet seems to be tearing apart at the seams and there isn’t a lot to be optimistic about—I believe that the civilized world includes the vast majority of human beings. Regardless of wealth, class, education, or location, most of us don’t want to be beaten, tortured, raped or killed for the sake of some fanatical religious cause. Most of us don’t want to live in a Caliphate under sharia law, and most of us don’t think women should be stoned to death for disobeying their husbands or homosexuals thrown off tall buildings because we exist. If Noam Chomsky suddenly found himself in an orange jumpsuit with a black bag over his head, kneeling in front of a video camera with his hands tied behind his back while a machete-wielding ISIS warrior stood beside him denouncing the West in a Cockney accent, I don’t think the darling of the North American Left would just shrug and say: “Show me no mercy. As an American hostage, I am merely a symbol of U.S. imperialism, the root cause of your problems. So, please—behead away.”

The civilized world includes a great number of Syrians, Iraqis, Afghans, Lebanese, and other regional neighbours who, through no fault of their own, have become pawns on the NATO-Russian chessboard and find themselves stuck in territories controlled by ISIS or one of their regional equivalents in the global Islamic jihadist network. What would these people say about ISIS if they felt they could venture an opinion without being executed? Unless they’re among its brainwashed recruits, the average person in these countries has the same opinion of ISIS that I do: that it’s a fascist fundamentalist death cult of deranged, barbaric, genocidal lunatics with no redeeming qualities whatsoever; a black hole of dystopian, apocalyptic, psychopathic zealotry; and a delusional, hate-filled band of Armageddon fetishists hell bent on destroying anyone who tries to resist their despicable agenda.

No civilized person anywhere—certainly no one who claims to belong to the progressive left—truly hopes for these sadistic and suicidal mass murderers to win. Because their sole reason for existence is to end all meaningful life, ISIS needs to be wiped off the face of the earth. The problem is, they’re a transnational network rather than a nation state (and one taking advantage of regional instability to conquer territories while constantly shifting their whereabouts while they do), so they will not be easy to destroy. That is what our world leaders need to figure out.

For the average person, I think it’s worthwhile revisiting a few common memes in the wake of the Paris and Beirut attacks:

  • We in the West need to recognize “our” role in creating ISIS. Well, yes. We do. And I think we already have: everyone knows that George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq, especially its disastrous aftermath, created the power vacuum that gave birth to ISIS. But such critiques around U.S. imperialism tend to be self-satisfied diagnoses; saying that ISIS is the Americans’ fault (i.e. stating the obvious) doesn’t get us any closer to ridding the world of this cancer.
  • Bombing raids will only create more ISIS recruits. That depends. While it’s true that ISIS wants more Muslims to be marginalized by their terrorist actions—and face more problems as a result of Western retaliation so that more recruits will be drawn to their cause—that argument will be harder to sustain if traditional rivals like the NATO powers and Russia decide to find common cause and coordinate their efforts to destroy ISIS. Especially if they share intelligence so that their missile strikes can isolate the terrorists and kill fewer civilians. If the New York Times and Vladimir Putin are singing from the same song sheet, as they were this weekend, things could get interesting.
  • All the attention’s going to Paris and none to Beirut. People who change their Facebook profiles to French flags don’t care about the Lebanese. Such finger wagging does not contribute to better understanding. First, there has been mainstream media coverage of the Beirut attacks, and it has been getting circulation on social media (I noticed quite a few shares on the arrest of nine suspects, and another about a man who jumped on a suicide bomber to save other people’s lives). Far less coverage than Paris, but with reason. Paris is an international cosmopolitan city and one of the most popular destinations in the world. Beirut is one of the most bullet-riddled, bomb cratered cities on the planet—a place that has suffered so much horrific violence for so long that a terrorist bombing there is the journalistic equivalent of a drop in the bucket. My heart goes out to all innocent victims of senseless violence in Beirut since the Sabra and Shatila massacres in 1982. The unfortunate reality is that suicide bombings there are not going to resonate like a massacre in Paris two days later, which will inevitably bump the former off the news cycle. Without acknowledging this reality, criticizing others for not investing equal interest in the two events is taking self-righteousness too far.
  • It is not up to every Muslim to speak out against the attacks in Paris as if every Muslim will somehow be implicated if they don’t. Fair enough, but you can’t have it both ways. If you are concerned about racist attacks on Muslims and want the bigotry to stop, wouldn’t you support any strategy to assist in achieving that? Of course Muslims are not obligated to respond to the Paris killings, and should never have been put in such a position by the jihadists in the first place. But if they voluntarily respond (like one Muslim friend did last night, sharing a photo of one of the Paris killers still at large, calling for his arrest), isn’t that a good thing? The more Muslims who are out there, standing up for civilization (i.e. Not in My Name: Muslims Against ISIS), the more education takes place. Having nowhere to go with their hate, bigots have less influence.
  • The terrorism issue is overblown and Islamophobic. There are two issues here. The first is a Bush/Harper meme: Right wing politicians exaggerate the threat of terrorism to advance their assault on civil liberties and do so with bigoted racial profiling that targets Muslims. This is true. But it fails to acknowledge terrorism as any kind of threat worth discussing, suggesting that one’s perception of “overblown” depends on one’s physical proximity to the carnage. The other issue is “Islamophobic.” Because “anti-Muslim” is a perfectly adequate term for describing all forms of bigotry that Muslim people face, you will never find me using the word “Islamophobia” without quotation marks. Its root word, “Islam,” refers to the Muslim faith, making it a truism: fear of religion is perfectly justified, even in the absence of bombs and bullets, when religion is used for political purposes. “Islamophobia” is an odiously political term because it privileges one particular religion over all others (try saying “Hebrewphobic” or “Christianophobic”), thus enabling the jihadists. Orwell would have detested its intellectual dishonesty and called for its deletion from the English language, so let’s stop using it. “Anti-Muslim” is a perfectly effective term, and it’s also better at isolating the jihadists: most Muslims agree that ISIS is itself anti-Muslim. (Note, by the way, that people who use the word “Islamophobia” never, ever use the word “Islamofascism,” which they would find, ahem, “Islamophobic”.)

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