Now that the immediate shock of the massacres by ISIS in Paris and Beirut, plus the bringing down of the Russian airliner, is easing somewhat, it may be possible to step back and ask oneself: Why now? Why were these horrific attacks unleashed at this point in time?
After all, it has always been the case that if you have people willing to die, it is easy to kill large numbers of people. Attacks on ‘soft’ targets, public spaces where people predictably gather in large numbers like markets, sports and concert venues, public transport, and so on and have always been possible. People who are loyal to ISIS have presumably been lurking around for a while. So why was this attack unleashed now? It is important to try and understand the reasons so as to avoid compounding the problem.
First of all, we need to dismiss as the reason that ‘they hate us for we are and our values’. Not only is it overly simplistic, whether that is true or not is largely irrelevant because even if true, it does not answer the ‘Why now?’ question since they have presumably always felt that way. Secondly, we need to not think of ISIS’s leaders as irrational actors in the grip of religious fanaticism. While the individuals who actually carried out the attacks and were willing to die doing so may have had religious motivations, the leadership of ISIS has to be seen as having done a cold-blooded cost-benefit calculation.
Understanding ISIS’s actions require appreciating what their goal is and their progress towards achieving it. ISIS is seeking to actually carve out a large new state from the ruins of several failed or failing states in the region. This ambitious project requires a lot of people to join them voluntarily. While ISIS was gaining territory and sweeping across the region, the idea that a new caliphate was imminent was a sufficiently exciting and realistic prospect that it was able to attract many young people to come and join them. People like to join winning movements and ISIS’s success must have been seductive, like an exciting adventure, for the right kind of impressionable mind.
But lately that progress has stalled. Not only has ISIS not been able to gain new territory, it has even lost ground and one has to suspect that this has had a negative effect on its ability to attract the kinds of numbers of new recruits it needs to further its goals.
Viewed in this light, the recent attacks have to be seen as signs of weakness and not strength because attacks on innocent people in soft target areas are not things that inspire confidence that one is achieving one’s goals.
So why do it?
I think the purpose of the attacks is to provoke countries like France and the US and Russia and the UK into extremely violent reactions. In doing so, many more innocent people will be killed. Furthermore, if the western countries turn against all Muslims living in their midst and treat them as suspect and further marginalize them, then it will increase the chances that some Muslims among them will feel that if the West does not want them, they might as well join the only alternative. If ISIS cannot recruit people voluntarily, then their only hope is to get people who feel further marginalized and rejected by the countries they live in.
So those politicians in the west who are taking the occasion of these attacks to indulge in anti-Muslim rhetoric and stopping the acceptance of refugees fleeing from the devastated countries in the Middle East are playing right into ISIS’s hands. If the refugees are not re-settled, they will end up in camps for extended periods and these places are notorious breeding grounds for disaffected young people who form the pool of potential ISIS recruits.
Creating a ‘War on Islam’ will benefit ISIS because it will only serve to nudge more people into thinking that if they do not have a future in the West, they might as well go under the umbrella of a group that claims to represent their interests. Almost all Muslims in the west will reject this option because they are like you and me, concerned about living our ordinary lives, would not dream of hurting innocent people, and do not have grand geopolitical goals. But it only takes a small percentage of people to buy into the idea that the west is at war with Islam for ISIS’s strategy to be successful
Some in the media are not helping. Take this extraordinary interview with a French Muslim where two CNN anchors seem to lump all Muslims together. They seem to imply that the entire Muslim community was aware of the impending attacks and said and did nothing about them.
Lydia Wilson has written an article based on interviews she has had with captured ISIS prisoners and says that the idea that these people are deeply committed to an ISIS-inspired particular religious ideology is false and that even the idea of fighting for the caliphate is not the main moitvating factor.
Why did he do all these things? Many assume that these fighters are motivated by a belief in the Islamic State, a caliphate ruled by a caliph with the traditional title Emir al-Muminiini, “Commander of the faithful,” a role currently held by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi; that fighters all over the world are flocking to the area for a chance to fight for this dream. But this just doesn’t hold for the prisoners we are interviewing. They are woefully ignorant about Islam and have difficulty answering questions about Sharia law, militant jihad, and the caliphate. But a detailed, or even superficial, knowledge of Islam isn’t necessarily relevant to the ideal of fighting for an Islamic State, as we have seen from the Amazon order of Islam for Dummies by one British fighter bound for ISIS.
There is no question that these prisoners I am interviewing are committed to Islam; it is just their own brand of Islam, only distantly related to that of the Islamic State. Similarly, Western fighters traveling to the Islamic State are also deeply committed, but it’s to their own idea of jihad rather than one based on sound theological arguments or even evidence from the Qur’an. As Saltman said, “Recruitment [of ISIS] plays upon desires of adventure, activism, romance, power, belonging, along with spiritual fulfillment.” That is, Islam plays a part, but not necessarily in the rigid, Salafi form demanded by the leadership of the Islamic State.
More pertinent than Islamic theology is that there are other, much more convincing, explanations as to why they’ve fought for the side they did. At the end of the interview with the first prisoner we ask, “Do you have any questions for us?” For the first time since he came into the room he smiles—in surprise—and finally tells us what really motivated him, without any prompting. He knows there is an American in the room, and can perhaps guess, from his demeanor and his questions, that this American is ex-military, and directs his “question,” in the form of an enraged statement, straight at him. “The Americans came,” he said. “They took away Saddam, but they also took away our security. I didn’t like Saddam, we were starving then, but at least we didn’t have war. When you came here, the civil war started.”
Bernie Sanders was right in the last debate. This whole mess started with the criminal decision to invade Iraq that has resulted in a cascade of failed states that have spawned the breeding ground for ISIS. He was also right that there is a war on for the soul of Islam and it is taking place within the Islamic community both here and in the west and among Muslims globally. We have to aid those in that community who are seeking to make the religion compatible with democratic values so that we and they become allies. Demonizing the entire group will only result in driving some of them into the arms of those who hold the most reactionary and dangerous views.
To their credit, president Obama and the Democratic candidates have resisted the call to demonize all Muslims and stop the intake of refugees or to only limit them to Christians. But such subtleties are lost on the pundit class in the US that is playing its usual role of feeding the anti-Muslim frenzy and thus reacting just as ISIS wants them to. The usual chorus of right-wingers in the US has predictably fallen right into ISIS’s trap, painting all Muslims with a broad terrorist brush and calling for a violent reaction.