Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité

Deeming the fight between the Western world and ISIS terrorists a "clash of civilizations" distorts what is just a power struggle in the Middle East. Still, as this fight is waged, the West must cling stronger than ever before to its loftier values.

The predictable but nonetheless distressing reaction of many in the aftermath of the heartbreaking weekend Paris terrorist attacks has been to twist the event to fit biased viewpoints. A recurring, deeply erroneous refrain is that the incident represents a clash of civilizations (the West vs. Islam) or a battle of ideologies (freedom vs. terror). This view, undoubtedly appealing to some for drawing ostensibly tidy battle lines, is misleading and dangerous.

The truth of the matter is that the Islamic State (aka ISIS or Daesh), like any geopolitical entity, is motivated by something far simpler: the desire to gain and maintain power. Anything more is a convenient ex post facto justification of actions for a group that bombed Beirut one day before Paris, has killed thousands of Muslims, and is involved in a convoluted civil war against a repressive dictator (Syria's Bashar Assad). Russia's support for Assad is allegedly why Daesh blew up a Russian passenger plane earlier this month.

We repeatedly hear that Daesh and its ilk "hate our freedom" but, with the exception of al-Qaeda Yemen's attack on Charlie Hebdo -- a direct (but insane) response to provocative cartoonists exercising their free speech right -- that hasn't usually been the explanation for terrorist attacks, on 9/11 and ever since. The Atlantic's Peter Beinart states the obvious:
"The Islamic State may hate tolerance, liberty, and women’s rights.  But that’s not why its cadres attacked Paris... Women drive in Costa Rica too, but the Islamic State is unlikely to attack it, because Costa Rica is not contesting ISIS’s control of the Middle East."
It all comes back to a power struggle, a calculus employed by murderous terrorist regimes and the West alike. After all, we prop up illiberal and repressive regimes across the globe, from Saudi Arabia to Equatorial Guinea to Uzbekistan. This runs counter to our pure ideological motivations ("freedom!"), yet has been deemed necessary to maintaining our power. Nonetheless, the U.S. (and like-minded countries) derives its moral authority in this equation because, despite lapses in living up to our values, what they represent is far better than the demonstrated alternative of genocide and oppression. Notes Gawker's Hamilton Nolan:
"Our national mythology [is that we are] the land of the free; a welcoming spot for the tired, poor, huddled masses; a nation ruled by constitutional rights; and the beacon of civility in a harsh and dangerous world. Our mythology has never been true. But as an ideal, it sure beats cruelty, hatred, and demonization."
It beats cruelty, hatred, and demonization. That's why, symbolically at least, there can be no worse reaction than that of 27 (and counting) U.S. states voicing their opposition to Syrian refugees (keep in mind: folks fleeing Daesh's reign of terror) settling in this country. I say symbolically because, while we like to think of ourselves as a refuge for the world's troubled, the U.S. is only taking in ~70,000 refugees a year -- compared to 1.5 million in Germany this year. (As for trumped-up security concerns, note that 745,000 refugees have settled in the U.S. since 9/11/2001 and none have been involved in domestic terrorism.)

It is exhausting to have to keep reiterating that we live in a world where perfect security cannot ever be guaranteed. That is our reality, and we must choose how we adapt to it, knowing that no matter what we do there will be more attacks like Paris. Over the past decade and a half, futile attempts to pursue an illusory guarantee led to an erosion of our civil liberties, a disastrous military misadventure, and the empowerment of a host of new enemies. Now, the West will have to (continue to) engage militarily with Daesh, since the latter's control of a huge swath of territory in the Levant is a global security problem. And as with any war, no matter how this is carried out there will be left an alienated population radicalized for another generation at least.

Sadly that can't be helped, but in the meantime America can at least mitigate the allure that the voices of hate have to potential recruits. This is done by being true to our ideals: welcoming refugees to this country and working hard to integrate them, demonstrating to the world the value of tolerance and multiculturalism; encouraging more dialogue and inter-faith interaction, as a two-way street, emphasizing both respect for Islam as well as our freedom of expression and diversity of thought; and most importantly of all, not spending the next decade like the previous one elevating terrorism over all other issues, ignoring the continued need to address inequality, education, healthcare, criminal justice, environmental issues, and economic competitiveness. Terror doesn't deserve that response from us.


Anonymous said...

Word. It literally makes me feel sick to think we might reduce our intake of refugees. Reviewing security protocols and procedures to minimize threats makes sense. But immigrating as a refugee in the US is not the same as entering as a refugee in the EU, and even though there will always be some risk, we're talking about people fleeing monsters. For goodness sakes. -Neha

nj said...

I was listening to NPR the other day and heard that a certain politician had voiced an opinion that only Christian refugees should be allowed from Syria. I laughed, thinking this could only be the misguided, polemical, irrational thought of a far-right fascist in a state legislature or on Fox News. But later I found out that this was the opinion of not one but two people ostensibly vying to be President! How ignorant can people be to their own evil?

Philip Ries said...

Has somebody explained how ISIS sees doing murder abroad as empowering them? Perhaps more people fear them now, but the military retaliation seems worse for them, no?

I can't believe the number of governors who would turn their backs on Syrians. Do note, though, that the US permanently resettles more refugees than all other countries combined, the key word being, "permanently." You're right that the number itself is low.

Jay said...

Apologies for the delayed response, Phil. With regards to your question as to how ISIS benefits from this terrorist attack, don't forget that it comes after they've already been facing the West's military in the form of airstrikes and drones for months. In that limited context, there's no upside for them, they can't compete -- but if they were to drag the U.S. and its allies into a ground war, they might be able to kill many more Americans and rally more radicalized Muslims to their side in a defense of "Muslim land" (like what happened in the aftermath of the Iraq invasion). Also, anything that makes the West's conflict with ISIS seem more like a fight against Islam will attract more on-the-fence supporters to their side, so I'd hypothesize that it's a recruiting ploy as well.