Defeating ISIS (editorial)

The UK settled with the IRA. Part of the thinking here was the acknowledgement that it is not possible to defeat an ideology. You can imprison (or kill) a terrorist, but the ideology cannot be silenced in this way.

The bombing of ISIS may or may not be a good thing. Certainly they are pretty bloodthirsty. And if you value any kind of a life other than one lived according to their strict interpretation of Islam then they are a threat.

But it only takes a handful of terrorists to take down an airliner or massacre hundreds of civilians enjoying an evening out. You can kill 600 terrorists in a bombing raid (as the Russians recently boasted they have done) but if 5 sneaked away you still have a problem.

And even if you killed all 600 then the ideology doesn’t die. It exists in the pamphlets, web sites, preachings of those who preach it but don’t take part etc. The death of the 600 will be presented as martyrdom and more will step into their shoes.

There is a lot of talk amongst world leaders about bombing ISIS. They is amazingly little about tackling the ideology.

The ideology has not popped out of nowhere. It has antecedents in certain strict forms of Islam in the Sunni tradition. Notably the sect of Wahhabism. (Though the extent of the direct connection between the official form of Wahhabism promoted in Saudi Arabia and international jihad is contested the readiness of Wahhabism to designate Muslims who do not follow its interpretation as apostates rather than sinners certainly contributes to a sectarian divide). Nor should we be blind to the conflict between the values of the modern world and conservative interpretations of Islam. These interpretations place restrictions on alcohol consumption, on relations between the sexes, on what forms of play and entertainment are allowed, on what roles are assigned to the genders, and so on. All of this is a moral code which is at variance with Western liberal values which grant huge freedom of lifestyle choice to the individual. These codes are also in conflict with any system of values which treats men and women as equal, which permits even moderate alcohol consumption, which doesn’t accept harsh physical punishments for crimes. The ideology of ISIS is thus opposed to the values of Russia. This value conflict is real. It is at the root of the problem. The expansion of the West and its values into ‘Muslim lands’ is creating this value conflict.

It is worth pointing out that many of the values of ISIS are those of Saudi Arabia. The despotic monarchy in Saudi Arabia leads the world in beheading people for non-capital crimes – including drug dealing. Blasphemy is punishable by death. Women are restricted in what they can do. Homosexuals may not be chucked off roof-tops but they are still imprisoned and/or flogged.

Yet the UK still lowered it flags as a mark of honor when one of these despots recently died.

In some ways ISIS can be understood as a counter-culture movement. The young men who join ISIS have not invented this strict form of Islam. They got it from their parents. But (and this is how youth counter-culture movements work) they were shocked that their parents made so many compromises and didn’t really practice what they preached. Like counter-culture movements world-wide they are putting into practice what their parents preach – in a more hard-line way and without the compromises.

The conflict in values between the ideology of ISIS and the West – and indeed Russia – is a real one. The value conflict exists between the West and Saudi Arabia but it is smoothed over and obscured by, one the one hand, the cynical commercial interests of the West, and on the other hand, by the cynical commercial interests of the despots in Saudi Arabia. In this situation ISIS can naturally feel that they are the only ones telling the truth. To a large extent they are the only ones acting in good faith.

There is a real conflict of values here. Unless this is spoken about and discussed ISIS (or whoever replaces them) will not be defeated. And, should we even want to defeat them? The narrative may be too simple. Is it not possible to permit some people to live according to a strict moral code if that is what they want? What is the US trying to defeat? Terrorism or the desire to live by a strict moral code unpolluted by Western decadence?

One possible ‘solution’, or at least something which would help is this: there needs to be a voice in the Sunni world which speaks out in favour of the strict moral code of the more conservative implementations of Sunni Islam, a voice which says openly that this means no comprises with Western decadence, but which at the same time urges a non-violent confrontation. (Rastafarianism is an example of just such a non-violent opposition to the cultural values of the West). This voice can attract young Muslims sick of the hypocrisy of their parents while diverting them away from the savagery into which ISIS has descended. This could be seen perhaps as a more mystical version of conservative Sunni Islam. At the same time the West (especially the US) needs to stop this idea that its way of life and its value system is the only valid one for the whole world. (This too has its roots in religious fundamentalism). The US needs to pull back on its programme of imposing ‘freedom’ (i.e. its business model) on the whole world. The US needs to accept that there are different cultures and that some cultures have moral codes which are incompatible with ‘freedom’. And living by a moral code is a valid thing to do.

The obstacle to the solution to this crisis is the same obstacle to the solutions to most world crises: commercial interests. Man needs to learn that he cannot live by bread alone.


Author: justinwyllie

EFL Teacher and Photographer