How to Lose the War on ISIS

In the war of words with ISIS, the West is off to a pretty bad start.

That’s crucial, because ultimately this is a competition not for territory but for hearts. And so when we describe terrorists as cowards, as our official propaganda still tends to do, we sound patently absurd. Someone who sets out to die in an attack may be sick or savage, but a coward? Kind of obvious, isn’t it? And research on the motives of Islamist radicals and suicide-attackers repeatedly reveals them to be not mindless brutes but committed, motivated individuals with clear and well-established goals. As Scott Atran wrote recently, the task would be so much easier if ISIS fighters were mindless; in fact, they’re much worse.

We might not like it, but ISIS offers its followers a positive vision of the future — positive not in its attractiveness, but in its expression of what it is for and not merely what it is against. Evidence suggests that this vision can exhilarate its supporters, and as importantly, can provide their surviving family members with prestige (and, not incidentally, often compensation). We have to ask ourselves if our own vision of the future is one that we are willing to die for it, as Westrners once did for democracy and liberty. Because ISIS fighters are willing to die for theirs.

Second, we must recognise the legitimate motives of those drawn to ISIS, and address them persuasively. To simply say they hate our freedom is to provide a reply that will leave the fields of potential recruits fertile soil for ISIS, because we are completely ignoring what might motivate disaffected youth in Western societies to radicalise. Crusades may welll be ancient history, but as I have written previously, the colonial exploitation that built our prosperity — and which created a world in which the poor, former subjects of the West felt the need to migrate to give their families better lives, which for some created a sense of inferiority only reinforced by hostile attitudes to immigrants — has created a rich seam of resentment ready to be exploited by opportunists who do hate us. At the time of 9/11, I was living in the Third World, and I recall the conflicted emotions I then felt: revulsion, but tinged with the sense that, as one similarly horrified colleague said, ‘the chickens are coming home to roost.’ Or as a somewhat less-compassionate observer then told me, ‘Now they know what it’s like.’

Third, as I noted in my most recent post post, Western countries must decide what they want most: their old ways, or their current prosperity. If they’re to keep the latter, they will need to make a positive space for newcomers, and allow them to adapt their new country’s cultures culture to their needs. Some Western societies have more capacity to do this than others. France may have it within itself to celebrate its diversity, embrace its Muslims and help them find a space in which they can flourish in a way that nurtures a tolerant Islam. But in the short term, ISIS appears to be gaining the upper hand: the surge of the far right is exactly what it wants to achieve, and the response of the left — to simply criticise the right as intolerant xenophobes — is itself the sort of negative discourse that the enemy wants to stir in us. We need to appreciate the legitimate concerns of those gravitating to the far right, and offer them a more positive vision of what the Western way has to offer than its nativism.

It is not unreasonable for people to express anxiety that immigration challenges their way of life. As the examples of relatively-successful immigrant societies like Canada reveal, cultures must indeed change a lot to accommodate large-scale immigration. Those who advocate it must therefore make their case why the hybrid society which would emerge from immigration would be one worth having. If they can’t, they should more honestly reconsider their case, and take more seriously the alternative vision proposed by the nativists.

Twenty years ago the British Prime Minister John Major told his fellow Conservatives that ‘fifty years from now Britain will still be the country of long shadows on county grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers and pools fillers and - as George Orwell said - “old maids bicycling to Holy Communion through the morning mist.’ But in fact, mosque attendance today rivals church attendance in the UK, while most of those attending church aren’t village maidens but immigrants. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Visit a church in Brixton, the multi-cultural neighbourhood in south London where I make my home, and you’ll discover a renewed vitality that is positively enriching. But the culture developing in such neighbourhoods on the frontier of the emerging Britain may not be what those Mr. Major — himself a native Brixtonian — was trying to reassure, had in mind: either we accept a different country from what we knew, or if we want to cling to the old ways, we accept the price tag that goes with it.

Finally, we need to set aside the parochialism that reduces the conflict to a ‘clash of civilizations’ between Islam and the West. This is not a war between Islam and the West. As revealed by a nearly-simultaneous attack in Beirut, which the Western media largely ignored, this is not a battle between Islam and the West so much as a battle between one particularly-militant and intolerant brand of Islam and most everyone else. And if we continue to ignore the massive toll of suffering in non-Western societies, we can hardly hold up our supposed civilization as a model for everyone else. If you were a citizen of a Third-World country and faced such callous disregard for your suffering, might you not also start to look elsewhere for inspiration?


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