“Luke, you’re going to find that the truths we cling to depend greatly upon our own point of view”
I was very hesitant to write on the recent attacks by ISIS in Paris; what could have been a watershed unifying moment for the western world has already devolved into partisan politics in the election cycle morass as well as vitriol across the internet on both sides. After some reflection, I figured doing so was the right thing. Like Luke at Dagobah, we are all in the middle of a swamp dealing with some very complicated issues, and as humans we draw upon our past experiences, knowledge, and beliefs to understand them. Having spent a week figuring out what I think about all this, I figure I would put to paper (paper?) some of my own conclusions about recent events, combined with a little historical allegory, in order to provide some perspective.
One of the key things about the attacks in Paris on 13 November 2015 is to recall they are actually the culmination of a series of attacks in France this year. Between 7 January and 9 January, 17 people (including one Muslim) were killed in the Charlie Hebdo attacks by Islamic militants; at least one of the attackers was convicted previously and jailed in 2008 with known prior militant activities.(1)
Subsequent to that on 26 June an Islamist extremist decapitated his boss just prior to driving a van into a chemical plant near Lyons, France in an apparent attempt to cause an explosion, and on 21 August a potential mass casualty attack was narrowly averted on a high speed French train by fate putting three incredibly brave and unarmed US service members in front of a heavily armed Moroccan jihadist.(2)
Bear in mind this is not an all inclusive list.
France, and by extension the West, is under attack. Simply and unequivocally.
As someone with some experience having to deal with insurgents and jihadists first hand, I have grown increasingly frustrated by some very well meaning people suggesting otherwise; that the situation we face is not as grave as it seems, or worse a fabrication by the ever evil “government” as an excuse to curtail civil liberties. No. This is real. Islamic extremism is not something we can ignore, it’s not something we can wish away, and its not something we can “wait out” for McDonald’s and western liberalism alone to conquer for us. It has to be dealt with, and it needs to be dealt with now.
With that in mind, we also need to remember it can be easy to overreact, particularly when we have politicians trying to one up each other throwing everything they can to the wall just to see if it sticks.
“No refugees, period.”
“Ok, refugees, but just the Christian ones???”
The ridiculous amount of knee jerking from these future wanna be future executives is not only bad for their joints, but makes it clear there is not a coherent understanding of underlying issues among the lot of them. This in turn attempts to force us into one camp or another, because we simply do not have good context or information. So, let’s dive in and try to provide some.
Islamic extremism has many roots, from the Shia-Sunni split to Sayyid Qutb’s “Milestones” (Qutb’s “Mein Kampf” for Islam), but for purposes of the western reader I am going to focus on Wahhabism and the European colonization of the Mideast. It’s important to understand Wahhabism in order to understand Islamic extremism, and it’s important to understand European colonization to understand the point of view of the Mideast towards the west.
So, for the definition of Wahhabism, I’m going to be intellectually lazy and go with the Wikipedia. Basically Wahhabism is a revivalist movement within Islam, the principle concepts of which are “steadfast fundamentalist interpretation of Islam in the tradition of (fundamentalist Ibn Hanbal)”(3)
Currently, there are approximately 5 million practitioners of Wahhabism, mostly in Saudi Arabia (a topic for a different time), that espouse a very rigid interpretation of the Qur’an.(3)
Hand in hand with Wahhabism, is Salafism; adherents of which believe in strict adherence to Sharia law and, importantly, social structures existing in the earliest days of Islam. You can think of Salafism as Orthodoxy, not something unusual to either the Christian or Jewish faiths. A salafist believes in a variety of ideologies contrary to western tradition; Women are to be subservient, ideas contrary to Islam (an open interpretation) are forbidden. This includes concepts of self determination and democracy. Finally, from Salafism we get the modern day extremist.
If you have trouble wrapping your head around all this (I know I do) think of it as a Venn Diagram: Not all Salafists are jihadist, but most jihadists are Salafists.
I say most, because it’s important to understand the make-up of ISIS as a fighting force. The foreign fighters, those that actually travel to Syria or travel to Europe to fight are true dyed in the wool jihadists. These individuals consititute the “core” of the ISIS movement.
You cannot compromise with a true jihadist, nor can you reason with them. They are not concerned with compromise, and reason is contrary to their belief system. The true jihadist is a self admitted “slave to Allah”; those are not my words, they are as commonly spoken in the religion as “born again” is to Christians. The Salafist-Jihadist rejects reason and free will – they hate the very concept of it, and they will actively work to take it from you. The only real difference between a Jihadi and a Salafi is that the Salafist will do this through social pressure while a jihadist does this through violence.
In addition, quite a large number of ISIS fighters are local Syrians or Iraqis who for a variety of reasons but mostly for money take up arms with ISIS. These are the same type of fighters that some of us faced in Iraq, and who would later be brought out of the extremist camp by signifigant efforts during the surge focusing on two basic principles:
1. Enrollment and pay with local militia groups (carrot)
2. Assured destruction by overwhelming US military superiority (stick)
Seperating these two elements will take the same level of committment on our part. I don’t mean re-occupiying Iraq, or any other mideast state, but it will take continuous and overwhelming pressure on both sides by a united and determined modern world. Kill the jihadist, but leave the door open for those that decide that if you can’t beat em, join em.
Islamic extremism isn’t going away anytime soon. Western Christianity has struggled with similar bouts of extremism in its own history. The Catholic Inquisitions of 1231, 1478 (Spanish),and 1542 (against Protestantism) targeted tens of thousands for heresy -a lack of orthodoxy – and killed or tortured many for dubious religious violations.(4) During the Black Death in Europe, bands of religious zealots would travel from town to town; partaking in self flagellation and looking for non-believers in attempt to appease what was thought to be God’s wrath for the sinfulness of man. It took Christiantiy hundreds of years, and the age of enlightenment before this truly began to change. That said, even as late as 1693 around 20 women were killed in Salem, Massachusetts, after being accused of witchcraft and consorting with the Devil.
In each of these cases, the religious fervor correlated with other external pressures. The Black Death was the single most deadly event if European history, with between 75 million and 200 million of Europe’s population being killed off. Most of the Inquisitions had political objectives behind them, and Salem was even in contemporary accounts considered a “quarrelsome” community with many issues revolving around land claims.
This isn’t to say that the religious zealots were not religiously motivated – they absolutely were – just that cataclysmic events tend to drive people to religious fervor.
Islam is in the midst of the same crises of faith that our ancestors experienced in the middle ages, with reasons that are simotaneously old and modern.
From that standpoint, its important to address European colonization of the Mideast and the effect that has had on the Arab psyche.
Historians can (and will) disagree, but the geopolitical high point for Islamic Empires was achieved in 1453. It was that year that the Ottoman Empire under Mehmet II captured Constantinople, the capitol of the failing Byzantium Empire and eastern headquarters of Christianity. Renamed Istanbul (variations exist), which loosely translated means “lots of Islam”, this was a military, moral, and religious victory that would never again be achieved by an Islamic State. Islamic armies came close, particulary in two seperate battles around Vienna. The Ottoman Empire would try in 1529 and again in 1683 to invade western Europe, and were stopped both times near Vienna. In 1529 Ottoman leader Suleiman the Maginificent failed to conquer Vienna after a protracted siege, and on September 11-12 1683 a combined European army crushed another invading Ottoman army with an 18,000 man cavalry charge of Poles and Germans. It was a very near thing.(5)
Subsequent to Vienna, the Islamic world began to experience a period of decline as Europe’s fortunes began to change. Western Europe moved ahead technologically and economically as it modernized and industrilized. This decline was a gradual event, and culminated in the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire following the end of World War I.
Then, Europeans, being Europeans, decided to draw some nice neat lines in the sand, insert some favorable monarchs, and divide the spoils of the Mideast – to include some soon to be discovered oil fields in Saudi Arabia (a topic for a different time). The Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916 divided the mid east, with France controlling places like Lebanon and Syria, while Great Britain claimed most of the Mesopotamian region.(6)
Seems simple enough, what could go wrong?
Well as it turns out, it’s pretty complicated, and quite a lot.
Wahhabism immediately took off after the Ottoman fall. Like western Europe during the black death, the fall of that last caliphate was viewed as resulting from a lack of faith in Islam itself, and the solution was that Islam required purification much like the Christian inquisitions “purified” Christianity . It is the zealotry resulting from this defeat that we are fighting today. Islamic purists look at the European colonial period not just as a shameful period, but as an affront to Islam. It’s one of the reasons they don’t like US troops in the mid east, especially in places like Saudi Arabia because of the religious importance of the land of Mecca and Medina (a topic for a different time).
While the colonial period led to Wahhabist extremism, it also shaped and continues to shape the consciousness of all Muslims today. Generations of Muslims in the mid east are educated to believe in the past glory of the Muslim empires, in the shame of defeat at the hands of the west, and a belief in the inevitable return of Islam to dominance on the world stage.
That brings me to the Syrian refugee problem. Clearly, the mass majority of the 4 million Syrian refugees are innocent people running from a shitty situation, and are just trying to do the best for themselves and their family. I appreciate that, and I think we should help these people as we are able. Understand the mindset of many of the people we will help however. While I’m sure many will express gratitude, the mindset is that you owe this assistance to them because they are a victim of policy from a 100 years ago.
It will not be considered charity but your obligation to them. They will not be truly grateful.
Further, understand this: This is not the Irish Potato Famine. These are not refugees that are going to arrive tired, poor, and huddled and embark immediately on the great promise of the land. These are people who are going to arrive without a common language, immediately go on government assistance, and this is the important part-have ISIS infiltrators along for the ride. Not might, not maybe, but will. There will be a terrorist attack on US soil if we allow this occur. I will let the reader decide if they are willing to stand on principle knowing this, and allow refugee entry regardless; just know what the stakes are.
Ideas are circulating that maybe we just let Christians in, or we need more extensive background checks. These are half measures that will change nothing. If you only allow Syrian Christians in, well suddenly you will have a lot of “Christians” or “converts.” Background investigations are already as good as they are going to get, and you simply can’t effectively vet everyone. So the choice in the end is a moral one. For my money, I would be more than willing to help contribute to a reputable aid program while keeping a potential threat off US soil.
I guess we will just have to see.
I began this article with a quote from the holy trilogy. The picture of Luke and Darth is a scene from the Degobah swamp where Luke, in essence, faces his demons. He faces his fear, his anger, and his doubts. From a historical and current perspective, Islam currently faces the same existential crises.
Some say Islam is a religion of conquest, while many of it’s adherents claim it is a religion of peace.
The truth, from my point of view, is that it is neither.
Islam is not a religion of war or peace; it is what it’s practitioners make it to be. There are a lot of people that are born into the religion with limited options to have a different viewpoint – coming out as unislamic or an atheist in an Islamic country is about as effective as coming out as homosexual in 1950’s America. Having spent time in a middle eastern country, I will tell you there a lot of regular people who would embrace the idea of liberty and equality if given a chance. There are a lot who would like a more liberal interpretation of Islam.
Right now, Islam has a cancer – one that is growing and needs to be dealt with. This cancer is an ideology stuck in the middle ages, that rejects reason, rejects free will, and rejects self determination. It rejects the equality of men and women. It rejects any other world view other than what is strictly written in the Qur’an.
Like any cancer, left ignored, it can consume the whole body, and it is a disease that only Muslims can cure.
In the west we can sometimes be a little too accepting of different viewpoints, despite what we see on Facebook. We do need to be accepting of people who share our ideals of Freedom, reason, and self determination. We should be accepting of other viewpoints and religions. That doesn’t mean we should not be true to our own, and to vocally express our ideas as the correct ones. If someone’s viewpoint is contrary to your own viewpoint as a society, you need to challenge that viewpoint, and not worry about someone getting butt hurt. Too bad, we believe in “Liberte’, Egalite’, and Fraternite” and we will fight for it.
This truly is a generational fight. I fought in Iraq in 2003 and in 2007, and sometime this month my nephew graduates from basic training. It’s a fight we cannot afford to lose, and it’s not something we can stick our head in the collective sand and wait until it blows over. Hope is not a method. We need to be as resolved as our enemy, and as patient, until Islam figures out what it wants to be.
I’m going to close today with one of my favorite quotes from John F. Kennedy, because I think it captures the type of determined, yet measured response as we move past Paris.
“Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and success of liberty.
This much we pledge-and more.
To those old allies whose cultural and spiritual origins we share, we pledge the loyalty of faithful friends. United there is little we cannot do in a host of cooperative ventures. Divided there is little we can do-for we dare not meet a powerful challenge at odds and split asunder.”
-President John F. Kennedy
Inaugural Address, 1961.
Vive la France.
(2) Washington Post “A change of seats for 3 Americans led to saved lives on a Paris-bound train; The Guardian “France beheading: suspect had Isis links and terrorist motive, says prosecutor”(3) Wikipedia (4) galileo.rice.edu (5) Wikipedia-Siege of Vienna (6)history.com/this-day-in-history/Britain-and-france-conclude-sykes-picot-agreement