There is no doubt: ISIS are barbaric, murderous, stupid, infantile and ultimately doomed. Despite this, all of the responses to last week’s horrendous events in Paris have lacked a full clarity of the situation- unsurprising given the confused web of intersecting sectarian and geo-political alliances that have found their bloody intersection in Syria.
What so desperately needs to be pointed out is this: as long as we don’t know who our enemies are, who are allies are, and what we plan to accomplish in relation to either of those, any large-scale military intervention is unlikely to be constructive, and may well make matters worse.
Questioning what drives people towards radicalisation is not the natural human reaction to being attacked: understanding rarely comes before anger and a desire for retribution, whatever the consequences. And I’m not saying we should invite ISIS terrorists to a counselling session to talk about their feelings; I mean why is ISIS able to recruit from Muslim populations all over the world? And why is it able to launch attacks all over the world?
That Western foreign policy is to blame is always a tough sell at times like these, but it is never the less vital that we should continue to involve historical context in the way we react- to ignore history simply because we don’t like it is dangerous folly. A line often trotted out by Tory commentators is this: “The foreign policy blunders that you claim alienated the Muslim community happened after 9/11, so really, they have nothing to complain about”.
To suggest that the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan are the only grievances the Muslim world has against us shows a shocking ignorance of everything. Which makes it even more shocking that this isn’t countered more often.
After the 1st world war, Britain and France (acting through its diplomats Sykes and Picot) divided the former Ottoman holdings in the Middle East between themselves, with France taking northern Iraq, Lebanon and Syria, and Britain claiming Transjordan, Palestine and the rest of Iraq. By drawing imaginary lines in the sand we divided ethnic groupings and traditionally bonded peoples and made artificial nation states to make things easier for ourselves. Much the same thing happened in Africa.
These borders are behind a lot of modern conflicts. As Robert Fisk points out in his interesting article in yesterday’s Independent: ISIS thrives through its proud disregard for these Western-imposed borders. The Sykes-Picot agreement is reviled throughout the Arab world.
But that doesn’t even begin to scrape the surface of our crimes in the Middle East, which usually involved hoisting dictators onto artificial nation states in order to ensure a continuing flow of oil to our Western economies.
Despite ISIS’s success at publicising its brutality through the internet – which is, of course, in their interests – they have killed far less people than Assad’s regime, who has made a murderous habit of barrel-bombing his own people in order to stifle dissent. Just a few years ago we were discussing toppling Assad: what has changed? He is still the murderous Tyrant he ever was: are we now going to ally with him as the less of two evils simply because the other side started killing Europeans?
On the face of it, that seems a natural reaction, but it also demonstrates our readiness to impose double standards on Western lives and those of Arabs, Africans, South Americans and Asians. It shows a tendency to think that our borders are sacrosanct (and thus to express haughty outrage when refugees flood across them) and that the borders formed of imperial self-serving ignorance in the Middle East are weak, flimsy, not to be taken seriously. As Fisk says: Arab leaders have always lacked respect for these borders because they don’t believe in their legitimacy.
Why is ISIS able to launch attacks all over the world? It probably isn’t. But we know that news outlets are very fond of being the first to declare links that don’t exist, and we know it is in ISIS’s interest to claim responsibility for things they have actually had no centralised control over. This is a standard procedure for terrorist groups: to exaggerate their influence, power, and global reach; all too often Westerners are happy enough to oblige, and give themselves to fear.
Let us be crystal clear: ISIS is not the challenge of our generation, it is not a threat to humanity. By exaggerating their threat you are only doing them a favour. Fear should not be our reaction. And I disagree with Zoe Williams , hide your fear with manful bluster if you need to, it has served Britain well for centuries, and I find her classic Guardian-style take on the human psyche to be irritating.
And finally, to continue living your life with happiness and tolerance is the ultimate insult to ISIS, to refuse to be afraid the ultimate weapon. Bombing ISIS in Syria is exactly what they want, but that doesn’t mean it will be good for them. Clearly, they are counting on a long, drawn out war (very much a possibility) and on the chance to demonstrate Western aggression towards Muslims (again, very much a possibility), thereby radicalising Muslims all over the world. Our strategy, if we do bomb Syria (and it seems likely that we will: just leaving them there to get on with butchering more people, living off the revenue of oil, is not exactly a prime strategy) must be to avoid both those things.
That means having a plan, and being careful not to alienate the Muslims who had nothing to do with the attacks in Paris, any more than I hold responsibility for Michelle Bachmann. The only thing that could polarise the world in the way ISIS would love to see happen is if those people believe they don’t have a place here.
It is our duty to make sure that they do.