Now that we’ve had a little time to shift our grieving into a quest for understanding, as “information” arises and politicians search for ultimatums, I feel compelled to address something I believe is very simple, but strikingly fundamental to the future of peace in Lebanon, France, Kenya—America. The situation, in the broadest of terms last Friday in Paris, can be understood as follows: disillusioned, Muslim, French citizens and Belgian nationals carried out a majority of the atrocities. The key words here are disillusioned and citizens/nationals. The very fact that these Muslims (who for the majority were raised in relegated arrondissements, and the infamous banlieues of Paris—economically poor and socially marginalized districts) were disillusioned, portrays the fact that there is a significant problem regarding these generations who grow up in banlieues—gray areas; they find themselves not really Muslim, and certainly not French. So what do they come to espouse? What do they find rationale to embrace? As George Packer so eloquently states: extremism, a “terrifying example of the modern person’s quest to fill the empty space of the soul with a total solution.” They become “martyrs” because at least in that way, they’ll matter to someone—even more, they’ll matter to themselves.
Yes, the Friday plots were seemingly coordinated by ISIS, not solely personal rationale; nonetheless, this sheds light on the importance of understanding these gray areas. Such psychological and socio-economic conditions foster Muslims to become not only vulnerable to ISIS’ recruitment, but also seek it.
Of course, the blame is not entirely structural, but perhaps one of the clearest strategies to address such problem lies in reforming and studying these very structures (which are not exclusively physical), ensuring individuals are not fundamentally marginalized economically and socially, coupled with improved intelligence gathering, and security.
Individuals aren’t born with an ideology, whether they’re born into French citizenship (like most of the Parisian extremists) or not. Ideology (especially considering European jihadists) is largely chosen and accepted, attractive and inspiring. In Audrey Cronin’s words: an attractive yearning for “adventure, personal power, and a sense of self and community.”
Is it hard to imagine other grey areas? No. The world is full of them; some more concretely politicized (such as recruiting grounds for Hezbollah in Lebanon, or al-Shabab, affiliates to al Qaeda in Kenya) than others, but the espousal of ideology is largely concurrent. That is, the appeal for an individual to enlist his existence into a life of serving terror is often stronger than anything else, because they can’t see, or simply because there are very few options within their worlds. Of course we can’t dismiss the myriad of recruiting techniques (which should be adeptly studied, emphasized and countered—especially online recruiting), however, such aspects do not erase the fact that even the most devout extremist maintains an order of incentives throughout his jihad; he is still a “rational” human being despite the atrocities and barbarism. The very fact that he is “rational” allows him to join these organizations, or pseudo-states, in the first place (given that he finds himself in a gray zone). Furthermore and most importantly, the warped espousal of religion to subjugate others provides these individuals the ideological, physical, and socio-economic belonging that every one of us seeks.
In no way are their committed atrocities and infringements on the very dignity of human life correct or justifiable, they are however “rational” in their eyes, to maintain the warped sense of belonging and life they’ve come to embrace, in a flag drenched with blood for a “greater cause” —unfortunately Islam.
Sun Tzu, a Chinese military general, strategist and philosopher from the Chou dynasty, once wrote more than two thousand years ago:
“If you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles”
To really know is to understand.
We can’t understand a beast, a monster, or a savage. It might be more reassuring and satisfactory to label extremists as such, but we’re only limiting our own understanding, and any comprehensive hopes of effectively reducing global terrorism. Hitler… Stalin… they were “rational” individuals, committing atrocities that make ISIS’ seem child’s play. Some of the darkest history in our world often tends to have an irrationally rational pattern. The key, and I repeat—the key to ending such atrocities is to understand the rationality. Because 28,000 bombs and 8,000 airstrikes later… where are we (America)? Think of the geopolitical, economical, and assumptive damage a war on terror without understanding has left us.
Boots on the ground provide only temporary solutions. We could end the physicality of ISIS through sweeping annihilation, but this will not de-rationalize their ideology. Rather, such policy would carry repercussions of tremendous weight, fueling global calls for jihad in the form of widespread terrorism. Already such actions are occurring in Lebanon, Paris, Kenya, America… global radicalization is an issue we cannot afford to exacerbate. Militarily ISIS is weak, but their ideology is stronger than ours; by blindly exercising our military might and superiority, we strengthen their rationale and give weight to such ideology. Analyzing extremist terrorism, I would argue psychological beliefs hold greater value over physical structures. Such structures can and will rebuild themselves (especially within fertile soil of Western democracies) as long as the rationale for such ideologies cannot be broken, or at least challenged. Furthermore, we must remember ISIS is not an organization but a pseudo state. ISIS’ daily oil revenues amount to an estimated $1 to $3 million a day. Perhaps, this is news? Expanding on the economics of the situation, targeting ISIS’ financial channels might offer a more tactical approach to diminish its functionality and reach. However, while such strategy could be effective, it cannot be absolute; where there’s still a strong enough rationale and ideology, financing will find a way.
Do we really want to live in a future of constant fear (global terrorism)?
This brings me to perhaps my most important point: we know and hopefully seek to understand who our enemies are… but do we know our allies?
Muslims. Refugees. Victims. Islam.
To begin to know our allies, we have to know ourselves (the Western tradition). That’s rather self-explanatory—we need only refer to our constitutions. What is not so clear, and written on no paper, is our rationale to detrimental sentiments. In fact, not unlike a Muslim’s reasoning for turning to extremism, we could rationalize our own context for detrimental simplification, assumption, and discrimination; but we are also in the position to alter such misinformed rationale. Muslims and extremists are fundamentally different. Do we understand extremists are threatening the very lives of Muslims? Does it take 14 million refugees to realize that? Does it take the bombings in Beirut? —Perhaps it does; popular media is also part of the problem. If Muslims and extremists were one and the same, why do ISIS, Hezbollah, or al-Shabah rule Muslim populations predominantly through oppressive violence?
Do we know that in the past 20 years there hasn’t been a single, major, terrorist attack in Paris where an innocent Muslim wasn’t slain? Do we know that a large part of the French armed forces are Muslims?
But rejecting to step into a cab driven by a Muslim man in New York is not going to alter the war on terror, right? —No, I would steadfastly argue that such assumptive, ignorant sentiment is essentially undermining any hope for assimilation, not to mention allies in such conflict. This war requires allies; allies in the suburbs of western cities, allies in the rubbles of Aleppo, allies in the hearts of Lebanese youths. ISIS proclaims a clash of cultures; their survival depends on it—why are we feeding into their rationale? Imagine what a Muslim feels and thinks when he or she is unjustly discriminated. To disillusioned individuals, ISIS would make a lot more sense; at least there they might find anything from a mere sense of belonging, to a “total solution for their soul.”
If we shut our doors to Syrians, Muslims who are being persecuted by extremists while our bombs level their homes, their lives, and their memories, what kind of rationale do we expect for them to foster? How can we forget what still makes America one of the greatest beacons of light in these troubling times?
Imagine the break in rationale of a would be “terrorist refugee” arriving in America, realizing that the very enemies he was willing to end his existence in order to hurt, were accepting, even kind, providing more opportunities for living, shattering all the conceptions he was taught? —An extremist is still a human being; he is largely rational within his own context.
Rationales can be broken; by breaking ours, we break theirs.
That’s why accepting Syrian refugees, defeating cultural tensions between Muslims and Westerners in Europe and America, and understanding the socio-economic constructs which build rationale through disillusionment, must be coupled to our military intervention and security tactics—not to mention, pursued with the same urgency. Such policy is vital in the hopes of restoring peace, and effectively containing global terrorism.