Another terrorist bombing in Europe, and another set of tough questions for politicians, pundits and people like us.
Did Belgium ignore signs that the Islamic State (ISIS) was gearing up for the deadly airport and subway attacks in Brussels? Is there anything Western governments should be doing to prevent these kinds of attacks?
Unless we try to understand the mentality and beliefs of ISIS leaders and the men and women they recruit, the answers are incomplete at best.
Getting to the heart of the ISIS world, however, requires more honesty, education and creative thinking than most Western leaders have been willing or able to demonstrate.
Let’s start with honesty.
As Robert Fulford wrote in the National Post, “terrorism has led to an embarrassing willingness to avoid clear thinking.” http://tinyurl.com/go2l9jz
We are so afraid of appearing Islamaphobic that we try to downplay the Islamist part of Islamist terrorism.
Fulford cites Raheel Raza, the Pakistan-born Canadian who helped found the Muslim Reform Movement, who says that we must condemn armed jihad as a seventh-century idea that is not applicable in this day and age:
“How hard is it to understand that radical Islamist jihadis have declared war on the West? It means they will find you and kill you wherever and whenever they can.”
Yes, there are social elements – including poverty, unemployment and alienation – that motivate terrorists. But we need to understand that the main motivation in most cases is a literal, fundamentalist interpretation of Islam as it was practised more than 1,200 years ago – and a desire to return to what followers see as the “purity” of that world.
This doesn’t mean, by the way, closing our doors to Muslim refugees from Syria, or adopting Donald Trump’s dream of banning Muslims from America. But, if we can’t even name the nature of this terror, we can’t fight it.
That brings us to education.
U.S. President Barack Obama once dismissed ISIS as the “Jayvee” – Junior Varsity – version of al-Qaida. And, as Rukmini Callimachi wrote in the New York Times, one of the reasons European authorities were slow to perceive the dangers of ISIS was that they dismissed it as “a lower-profile branch of al-Qaida that was mostly interested in gaining and governing territory.” http://tinyurl.com/jn7z93u
But al-Qaida and ISIS are two very different movements, as Graeme Wood explains in his must-read March 2015 article in The Atlantic, a detailed analysis of ISIS beliefs that includes interviews with some of the movement’s top recruiters. http://tinyurl.com/hhgh8ek
These beliefs, he says, must be seen “in light of a sincere, carefully considered commitment to returning civilization to a seventh-century legal environment, and ultimately to bringing about the apocalypse.”
He stresses the apocalyptical nature of ISIS, and explains that the ISIS faithful believe “Islam’s showdown with an anti-Messiah will occur in Jerusalem after a period of renewed Islamic conquest.”
Jesus, Islam’s second-holiest prophet, will return to Earth to lead the Muslims in this last battle.
Which brings us to the need for what I’m calling “creative thinking” on the part of world leaders, who need to understand that these beliefs are real and they’re not going away.
There are countless disenfranchised young Muslim men who believe, for example, that they will have unlimited sex with 72 virgins in the afterlife, if they become martyrs for Allah.
And ISIS has revived the practice of sexual slavery, which can include sex with children. (In another fine New York Times article, Callimachi reveals that ISIS fighters are routinely handing out birth control pills to the Yazidi women they have captured and enslaved because an obscure ruling in Islamic law states that a man must be sure his slave is not pregnant before he has sex with her; i.e., rapes her).
ISIS followers do not see their actions as brutality, but acts of mercy. One of the recruiters interviewed by Wood explains that ISIS has an obligation to terrorize its enemies – Wood describes it as “a holy order to scare the shit out of them with beheadings and crucifixions and enslavement of women and children” – because it hastens victory and avoids prolonged conflict.
We may dismiss or even laugh at these beliefs, but we do so at our own peril. As George Orwell said of Adolf Hitler and fascism, we must not underestimate the appeal of leaders who offer their followers “struggle, danger and death” – a chance to fight on the side of righteousness and, in the case of ISIS, be justly rewarded in the next life.