The War Against ISIS, or Fight Fire With Water

17 11 2015

Once again, we find ourselves looking at imagery of shattered bodies, buildings, and lives and trying to figure out the best path forward. We continue fervent debates that have roiled our discourse for years, and we hear lots of absolutes tossed around. We’re at war with Islam (sometimes modified with “extremist” or “radical,” but all too often not). They hate us for our freedoms. This is a clash of civilizations. None of those are correct, but some are closer than others.

Let’s start with “We’re at war with Islam.” No, we’re not. If we were at war with the whole of Islam, all 1.6 billion adherents, the world would look a hell of a lot different than it does right now, and the attacks on Paris, as horrific and awful as they are, would be a flicker against the glare of a war taking place damn near everywhere at once. Adding “radical” or “extremist” gets closer to the truth, but it still makes the fight seem much larger and more all-encompassing than it is, and makes it difficult to maintain proper perspective. ISIS represents a tiny sliver of the global Muslim population, but we allow it (and al Qaeda before it) to define our perception of the entire faith. Large numbers of people in power in the US government are talking entirely seriously about turning away victims of ISIS violence, people who have lost everything they have and have fled across dangerous seas and miles of unfriendly terrain to get away from those monsters, because their tormentors claim the same faith. Supposedly serious-minded defenders of the Constitution are talking openly and proudly about making our compassion and humanity subject to a religious test, and it’s all because of a tiny sliver of a worldwide faith. ISIS isn’t Islam, but when we react to their monstrous brutality as though they are, we make it a whole lot easier for them to paint their struggle in the apocalyptic light they prefer.

“They hate our freedoms.” This one is closer to true. There’s one freedom in particular that they unquestionably hate – our freedom of conscience. They see the world as us vs. them, the forces of Decency vs. Decadence and Perversion. They fight for the right to impose their rigid, scripturally derived morality on everyone, removing anyone’s right to see the world differently or interpret even the same religious texts in another way. Wait, who am I describing with this? Oh, right – ISIS. You may be able to think of others who fit the mold, though. Unfortunately, many of those others seem to lack the self-awareness to see the parallels. That same lack of self-awareness leads them to think that the best way to combat ISIS’s hate of pluralism and tolerance is to do away with pluralism and tolerance. They frame the conflict in the same apocalyptic light as ISIS, and they a slightly different shade of the same solution. Sure, Kim Davis never beheaded anyone, but she didn’t have to – she knew she could rely on the entrenched power of the state to subjugate those her religion told her are inferior. Why deal with all that messy blood when you can just use ink (or the withholding of ink)? I’m sure she’d be apoplectic over the comparison – she’s not killing anyone, after all – but it’s all on a continuum, and I’d imagine she’s pretty fond of some of those in power who advocate a return to “biblical” law and punishments, and we’ve seen more than a few of her coreligionists turn to murder when people thought differently. It’s a strange thing to hear people who seem to differ from ISIS only in degrees of severity (in some cases) and the name of the god giving them marching orders saying “They hate us for our freedoms.” They hate the same freedoms.

“This is a clash of civilizations.” No, it’s not. This is a clash of the world against a very small number of disproportionately brutal fanatics. The vast majority of ISIS’s victims are other Muslims. There are very few people who, presented with ISIS’s blueprint for life in the greater caliphate, would say “Yeah, I want to be a part of that.” They grew to power in a Middle East we destabilized, violently taking opportunities created by huge power vacuums, not by pitching their ideas to a receptive public. Their success in recruiting outside of war-weary areas of Iraq and Syria is alarming, but in real numbers, it’s still small, and it’s probably pretty similar to the numbers put up by “Christian Identity” and “Christian Nationalist” organizations. Those groups just don’t have the luxury of an environment that wouldn’t swat them down in a heartbeat if they actually tried to pull any large-scale violence. They do like to boast of their “militias” and “armies,” though, and they’ll flock to anywhere they think they might have a chance to do some violence – Cliven Bundy’s ranch, for instance. They also love to talk about carving out parts of the country that will be governed entirely by their belief systems, which they often paint in opposition to the United States at large. We don’t consider their buffoonery a “civilization,” even when it boils over to deadly attacks. We see them as misguided, intolerant crackpots. But ISIS is different somehow.

Don’t get me wrong – we should be at war against these people. By “we,” I mean all decent, reasonable human beings, and by “these people,” I mean fanatics who seek to impose their backward, intolerant ideas via violence. I don’t claim to know how to beat ISIS in particular – it’s a hell of a tough question. The Middle East is a mess of ugly dictatorships that we’ve propped up for our own narrow ends, and our short-sightedness and fumbling in that arena played a huge role in creating ISIS and al Qaeda before them. Doing the same, but harder is likely to cause similar problems down the road. The major powers in the region have their own rivalries that make coalition-building next to impossible, so getting a significant fighting force together locally would be extremely difficult. That means putting foreign troops in place, and that is guaranteed to rub religious purists the wrong way (remember that US troops in Saudi Arabia were a large part of what animated Osama bin Laden against the US), which could cause further problems.

Yeah, I don’t know how to beat ISIS, but I do know how not to beat them. We can’t fight fire with fire here. We can’t win against fanatics who justify their twisted ideology with a religious identity by embracing the same twisted ideology and a different religion. You don’t beat someone advocating an end to pluralism by ending pluralism, and you don’t beat religious absolutists by declaring religious absolutes. We have the opportunity to show decency and kindness to their victims, and yet many of our leaders are chomping at the bit to turn them away. We have a tailor-made chance to show how much better than ISIS we are, how our way of life definitively trumps theirs, and we’re proving all too happy to turn it down. I can’t tell you how to win, but I am entirely certain that reducing our compassion and our humanity is how to lose.

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