There is a very strong case for calling ISIS a terrorist organization. However, unlike Al Qaeda, the people who founded ISIS built it on a foundation that is rooted on every last tenet of Islam. In fact, if we can accuse ISIS of anything, it is of being too punctilious in applying Islamic canon. In this sense, ISIS is no different than the extreme of any religion. While Christianity ended its crusades a few hundred years ago, it isn’t implausible for Islam to now wage its own version. It is, after all, the youngest of the major religions.
President Obama spoke at the Summit on Countering Violent Extremism in Washington, DC, today. A portion of his remarks included:
“Al Qaeda and ISIL and groups like it are desperate for legitimacy. They try to portray themselves as religious leaders — holy warriors in defense of Islam. That’s why ISIL presumes to declare itself the “Islamic State.” And they propagate the notion that America — and the West, generally — is at war with Islam. That’s how they recruit. That’s how they try to radicalize young people. We must never accept the premise that they put forward, because it is a lie. Nor should we grant these terrorists the religious legitimacy that they seek. They are not religious leaders — they’re terrorists.
ISIS’ worldwide appeal shouldn’t surprise anyone. In these times of economic decline and, in places, collapse, radical ideologies find fertile ground for recruitment. This is a time-proven phenomenon. There are, however, additional layers that need to be peeled away and examined.
Contrary to what some of our leaders are now telling us, ISIS is no mere hate group that some of the disaffected and Europe’s idle idealists are joining. They have an appeal that is deep and familiar in Muslim societies throughout the old Levant, North Africa, Arabia Asia Minor, and beyond. Any Muslim state whose populations saw deliverance from the oppression of colonialism only to be replaced by a different oppressor, a general or a king, having had no chance to experience democratic rule, is fertile ground for the promise of a new Caliphate. Any Muslim nation that saw the rise and fall of the Muslim Brotherhood and the supremacy of brutal regimes whether in Egypt, Syria or Libya, provide fertile ground for an organization such as ISIS. ISIS speaks to those who have nothing to lose in the familiar language of Prophet Muhammad. Anyone who was born in the house of Saud or is familiar with its inner workings, will instantly recognize what ISIS is trying to establish.
“The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse.”
To the poor, disenfranchised Arabs, to people who’ve not experienced even a day’s worth of Western Democracy or who’ve lived in one as a Muslim minority, the appeal of living in a true caliphate is as strong as a devout amillennialist Christian’s desire to see the end of days. To a Muslim whose entire life has consisted of eking out a meager existence while watching the privileged live a life of excess, engaging in all of the behaviors specifically forbidden in the Quran, ISIS appeals. To a Muslim who was born and raised in France or Belgium, told he is a full citizen with equal rights but was never able to exercise them because they eluded him each time he put his name forward, ISIS definitely appeals. To a young man on the Southside of Chicago who has only experienced the hardship and violence of the projects, how appealing would a life in which income, healthcare, food, and a home are guaranteed in return for one’s faith? Could it be appealing enough to fight for it? How about a young man in Pakistan or Afghanistan? What more alluring thing is there than the adherence to purity in a state in which every one of the prophet’s rules are followed to the letter and every earthly need is met?
It is a grave mistake to look at ISIS from a Western perspective and dismiss it. ISIS has had obvious successes. In spite of what we, Westerners, view as atrocities, ISIS continues to attract followers. Relative to its recent and humble beginnings, it continues to take vast territories.
Ridiculing ISIS for what it stands for, even if it is just a cover, plays right into its narrative. Dismissing ISIS as a terrorist organization and trying to foil it only based on that, also plays into its narrative. Cutting ISIS off from the world, at this juncture, is not a goal that is likely to be achieved. Medger Evers once said: “You can kill a man, but you can’t kill an idea.” He is still right. As President Obama has rightly pointed out previously, ISIS will not be bombed out of existence.
So, what then? First, America and its partners, especially those whose populations include a large contingent of Muslim citizens and residents, should look inward at their own vulnerabilities. What kind of person is most most likely to find appeal in the ideas of the Islamic State? What kind of person is likely to find their ideal in Islam practiced in its purest form? Would that person fit a middle class background? Would that person fit the profile of an upwardly mobile young person who, for economic or social reasons find themselves at an impasse? Say, a student who graduated from a university who hasn’t been able to find employment? Then, there are those James Baldwin described as: “The most dangerous creation of any society is the man who has nothing to lose.”
The world, post-Great Recession, is the most fertile ground for organizations such as ISIS. Europe is in the throes of deflation and long-term unemployment. America, even though there hasn’t been a robust economic debate in two years, is teetering on the brink of deflation itself. Just today, the discussions at the Fed were on America’s current low inflation rates. While unemployment has improved, it isn’t due to the return of “good jobs.” Wages have been falling. Jobs for new graduates are still in very short supply. Millions among those who were caught in the initial layoff waves at the start of the Great Recession never were able to replace the jobs they lost in 2007-2009. Many gave up looking for jobs and are no longer counted in the monthly jobs numbers, but they are a part of what Paul Krugman coined a “lost generation.” The young and older workers most often hold down two and three part time jobs in order to make ends meet. Among minorities, unemployment has, in certain cases, been almost double what it is for white Americans. The return of jobs has not yet made its way to them. In theory, the vulnerability is there.
The picture in Europe is bleaker still. Europe chose to try and climb its way out of America’s Great Recession through austerity policies they implemented at home and forced on client nations like Greece and Spain. The chickens of German-dictated austerity have now come home to roost. Race-based violence and unrest has erupted in France and and is now spreading to other nations. Far-right organizations that had long been shunned are now expanding their membership. In the midst of all this, ISIS is successfully recruiting from among Europe’s immigrant communities and the disaffected European youth. While it may be far more difficult to complete the recruiting process from America, for a variety of reasons, ISIS seems to have no great problem doing the job in Europe.
So far, the Gulf states have done very little to combat an enemy they have, at least, tacitly allowed to grow. An ISIS that is dominant in Iraq and Syria serves Gulf nations that are weary of Shia dominance. But the myth, out of the ashes rises the phoenix, is just a myth. There is no such thing as controlled chaos. Jordan, which has been absorbing Syrian refugees by the hundreds of thousands, saw one of its own savagely executed. In an understandable effort to encourage Arab states to deal with their own issues, the US has been providing operational military support. But, by itself, Jordan is not capable of putting down ISIS.
Until this week, what to do about ISIS was a conversation that centered mainly around how to contain it within Iraq and Syria. Then, suddenly, we awoke to 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians being beheaded by ISIS in Libya. While there is much truth behind the rationalization that Libya, post-Qaddafi, is really a lawless no man’s land, Algeria, to its west, and Tunisia to the east, are not all that much stabler as nations go. Egypt vowed to take its revenge against ISIS for the beheadings of its citizens. It made good by carrying out air strikes in Libya the very next day. But, as Medger Evers said, you can kill a man…
While waging some battles will undoubtedly be inevitable, in the end, the best way to defeat ISIS will consist of many parts. The center piece will be the most difficult to attain but the longest lasting: restoring world economic health. In the long term, the best way to win against ISIS is to asphyxiate its supply of disenfranchised youth in Europe, the Americas, North Africa, Africa, and central Asia by reducing economic inequality and growing economies.
We must resist the temptation to arm any and all groups that we hope may do the job of defeating the enemy. We must, at all cost, resist the temptation to fall back on the familiar and continue to prop regimes we know are corrupt and anti-democratic. They are the reason why ISIS exists in the first place. We must stand firmly and resolutely not to repeat the mistakes of the recent past. We must keep the following simple logic uppermost in our thoughts: without legions of young men and women with nothing to lose, ISIS is nothing.
Read the full text of President Obama’s remarks here.