Over the past few days, Western media has focused on one main topic: ISIS’ terror attacks on Paris, France. Social media has also pointed to attacks of similar severity in Beirut, Lebanon, Baghdad, Iraq and other affected areas in the Middle East. Unequal media coverage often sensationalizes ISIS’ power and reinforces the divide between the West and the East. Globalized flow of information in theory suggests spaces for global activism and greater awareness of issues around the world. Using those spaces would mean to feel, think or act even before Western media attention has chosen its subject for compassion. However, if we assume that one cares for all of humanity, and realize our privilege and potential to access global spaces, one still (and quickly) risks resting in a state of hopelessness.
In order to combat the issues we see in our globalized world, specifically in preventing further attacks from ISIS, we can’t limit our actions to prayers and silent marches; we must take concrete political action. If peaceful societies in which individuals and communities can live freely and under the protection of their rights is the goal, then an improvident bombing to eradicate ISIS, as suggested by some US Republicans, won’t lead to anything. To tackle ISIS, we need an understanding of the intricate web of power interests. Some consequences that are emerging now pose a danger to peace, namely ISIS terror, Western military response and right-wing extremism.
Spread and increase of ISIS terror. The most apparent threat is the violent expansion of the Islamic State. Showing its dominance through cruel methods, ISIS suppresses domestic populations in Iraq and Syria by targeting Shiites and Kurdish minorities and everyone else who dissent their fundamentalist ideals. Its stated goal is to erect a caliphate, a theocratic world government under a single ruler. The caliphate represents a time in Muslim history called the ‘Islamic Golden Age’ in which cultural and intellectual life thrived. It was a time when conflicts did exist – but only through colonialism has ethnic nationalism become the source of a primary identity.
Later, increased exploitation by Western economic (oil) interests would further destabilize regions and displace people. However, apart from religious authority, ISIS also claims statehood, although it is often perceived as a terrorist organization. When thinking about appropriate responses to the brutal attacks, it is valuable to define ISIS by its characteristics of statehood and motives.
In its classic definition a state includes a defined territory, a permanent population, an effective government and the capacity to enter into relations with other states. With globalization, these categories become blurry. While ISIS claimed territory and population illegitimately and through direct violence, the ‘government’ can’t be labelled effective as it is unable to provide infrastructure and protection to its population. The capacity to enter into relations with other states, however, is present through economic connections. After taking over the Iraqi central bank in Mosul in 2014 and gaining financial autonomy by claiming oil fields all over Syria, ISIS soon had control over 15% of Iraq’s GDP (February 2015). Recently Putin revealed that about 40 countries, among them several G20 countries, are financing ISIS. The self-declared state makes 50 million dollars a month alone through crude oil sales according to Iraqi and US officials, much of which is smuggled illegally into Turkey. Only after the Paris attacks has the US targeted oil convoys to weaken the source of revenue. This hadn’t been done earlier because of concerns of civilian casualties, ‘a dubious assertion at best’ (Syrmopoulos). International transactions kept flowing in and out of the occupied banks without any sign of sanctions. Politicians closed their eyes, letting the market play politics.
All of this makes the IS look like a multinational corporation with specific power interests, an economic network, and strong hierarchies within. Clearly, ISIS’s motives can’t be confined to either one of the baseline ‘greed versus grievance’ arguments, but rather a combination of the two. Greed implies economic interests and motivations, grievance implies political dissatisfaction. While ISIS’ religious goals are more on the latter side, its complex apparatus and strategic sophistication with which it upholds its power (economically, territorial acquisition…) is a sign of the former. ISIS can’t be said to represent a group of people that gives voice to popular grievance. Recent statistics from eleven Middle Eastern countries with a Muslim majority show that in no country surveyed has ISIS had more than 15% of the population on its side (Poushter, PEW Reseach Center, US). Rather, it recruits people, and thus might be a group of individuals in a criminal organization instead of being understood as a movement which would be satisfied by a simple rule-change. ISIS split off from al Nusra which connects to al Qaeda and is part of a history of toxic sectarianism that has been troubled for centuries. They are certainly not representing Sunni Muslims.
ISIS is a mix between state and terror organization motivated by partly religious grievance but also by economic power and it has to be fought as such. And because ISIS is a new form of violent actor, it can’t be tackled by old concepts of war and terror.
That is the reason the ‘War on Terror’ is a danger in itself. When George W. Bush declared the war on terror after the 9/11 attacks, battling the terror of Al Qaeda was secondary to bringing oil reserves of the Middle East under US control. The neoconservative agenda of ‘imposing democracy’, covered by good-intentioned liberal language led to decades of conflict and occupation setting up the ground for even more violence. Bush tried to polarize the world with a similar diction that ISIS uses now, ‘either you’re with us or against us’. Both are assuming a ‘clash of civilization’ set-up, in which a nation’s development is isolated from other countries and identities are singular. A discourse led by men (!) with power, confining an individual’s identity singularly to religion or culture (or, in fact, any other category) creates artificial differences that become real conflicts. As ever so often, they shift the attention to a demarcation of nations/cultures instead of class or power.
George Orwell said that ‘thought corrupts language but language also corrupts thought’. Thus, when French president Hollande talked about ‘war’ and a ‘merciless response’, they became thinkable. Another war in the region is the last thing that’s needed. History has shown that war can’t fight terror. Sustainable development from within the Middle East is the best way to combat its growth. Foreign military forces might be helpful in supporting local groups, such as the Kurdish militia in Syria, which has been a more effective group in fighting ISIS, or Sunni rebel groups. Security advisor of Obama, Ben Rhodes said that ‘Local people themselves need to, with our support, reclaim their communities. […] Sometime the circle of conflict has to be interrupted.’ Speaking of war also implies an increase in the military budget and once a war has started, it will be difficult for citizens in the affected countries to exert control over their governments. Hollande is thinking about invoking the NATO, which would mean that all member states have to support France’s action by their possible means. This is creating an ‘us’ against ‘them’ dichotomy. It has an air of ‘West’ against ‘East’, instead of effective worldwide coalitions for peace.
Furthermore, the hyperbolic expression of war shows fear. Terror’s aim is to spread fear and from this a perceived threat of the ‘Western lifestyle’ has emerged. However, as Paul Krugman already pointed out, there is no real threat to ‘life as we know it’ in the West. Most countries, including France, have solid economies and greater military means. Only fear can changes people’s lifestyle in Western countries. As minister of home affairs of Germany, De Mazière has stated so thoughtfully, ‘a part of the answer [to the cancellation of a soccer game] would only unsettle the population’. One also has to notice that life in Iraq and Syria isn’t ‘normal’ as it is currently Western perception to understand war, terror and destruction as a given in the Middle East, which is another reason why empathy after Paris was focused on the country closer to Western understanding. It is important for Western people to realize that in these regions, lifestyles have been suppressed, including the practice of certain religious and cultural traditions.
The view that a ‘Western lifestyle’ is endangered fuels sentiments not against ISIS solely but also against Muslim refugees, which is then further generalized to all refugees, giving rise to right-wing extremism. After the Paris attacks, Marine Le Pen’s Front National in France has gained popularity, building on an irrational fear of being overrun by refugees and/or Muslims and being able to say ‘I’ve told you so.’ Hollande has closed France’s borders, Merkel and the German government are about to implement more restrictions on asylum seekers. Right-wing movements have been on the rise especially during the last years when the ‘refugee crisis’ became a central topic. As they are often represented by a surprisingly large middle class, like PEGIDA (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the Occident), they are not immediately perceived as a real danger. PEGIDA protests have been a weekly event for more than a year in Germany now, using a racist rhetoric that is more than frightening. In the US as well, Republicans, including presidential candidates, have spoken out for containing immigration of Syrian refugees.
The simple thought that refugees are the first victims of ISIS seems to still not have reached many on the right front. Maybe it’s just blatant racism that rejects recognizing refugees as humans.
A popular concern though, is that trained terrorists cross the borders into Europe as refugees. The US’ protection against this negligible threat is strict security measures that were implemented after 9/11. But a screening of refugees, alleging them with terror, is racist and a racist society is not a peaceful one. Increased security in Europe would mean less freedom, at least for those who by their skin color and/or nationality aren’t allowed the ‘Western lifestyle’ of freedom anyways.
It is important to reset the focus on the more apparent threat in Europe which comes from within the countries through racist and nationalist parties on the right, who present ideologies that are as anti-humane and fundamentalist as those of religious fanatics.
‘What now?’ It’s on civil society to put pressure on politicians to fight ISIS through economic sanctions and empowerment of local groups, to prevent war and welcome refugees. Western societies can change the language of discourse, refuse abstract fears and stand up against right-wing extremists. There is a lot one can do and it’s crucial to reflect on one’s own role and potential in a complex world. Lastly, if peace is wanted then radical humanity can be a good starting point into an unknown direction.
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