Obama has called the Islamic State the “face of evil” but he’s now under pressure from those who say he’s not doing enough to beat it. Some insist that an attack on France was an attack on NATO and that it’s time to go to war.
Pope Francis suggests the West already is at war — a kind of “third world war.” If the Pope is right then doesn’t that demand a tougher response? Isn’t the time for caution over?
But only a fool would confuse caution for weakness. On the contrary, to defeat the enemy we have to fully understand who the enemy is, what they want and what kind of conflict we’re involved in here. There are good reasons to proceed cautiously.
To clear something up: We are effectively at war with ISIS right now. A U.S.-led coalition has been bombing targets in Syria and Iraq for over a year, and in recent months Russia has been doing the same. How well it’s worked is disputed: Obama has rhetorically shifted his objectives from crushing Isis to containing it.
Nevertheless, late last week there were signs of success. The Kurds took Sinjar, a strategically significant area in northern Iraq. Mohammed Emwazi, a vicious killer and propagandist, was likely killed in a drone strike.
Paris has obviously eclipsed the news of these breakthroughs.
Who or what are we fighting? ISIS is different from al Qaeda, the group behind 9/11. The latter operated as an alliance of cells spread across the world; ISIS, by contrast, seeks to create a geographic space within which to build a caliphate. This shift in strategy perhaps explains why ISIS has been even more successful than al Qaeda at hitting so many different foreign targets with so many different methods — from Sinai to Beirut to Paris.
ISIS’ caliphate offers a haven for tens of thousands of foreign jihadists: They come, they train and then many return home to create havoc. The caliphate also provides money and the moral encouragement of having an earthly “paradise” to fight for. In his groundbreaking essay on the motivations behind ISIS, Graeme Wood describes an ISIS recruiter calling it “a vehicle for salvation.”
Its fighters are obsessed with recreating Islam in its earliest form (or as they interpret it to have been, because the early caliphate was far kinder) and believe that most other Muslims have fallen from the standard — one that includes the uses of crucifixion and slavery. Whereas al Qaeda limited itself to comparatively rational political objectives, like expelling Westerners from the Arab peninsula, ISIS wants to bring on the apocalypse. It is not nihilist. It is deeply — if distortedly — religious and we need to learn to take its brand of religion seriously.
The good news is that ISIS is isolated. Applying the phrase “world war” here is unhelpful because it conjures images of rival, equally sized nation states engaged in total war. But while ISIS’ reach is global, it does not command sizable support beyond its shifting boundaries. Meanwhile, the alliance against it is one of the largest and most diverse in history, including America, Britain, France, Russia and Iran.
Saudi money may well have once supported it but the Saudi state is now opposed. Indeed the exceptional evil of ISIS leads us to view many of the regional political agendas in a different light. Iran, for instance, certainly is exporting its theocratic government to other countries. But it doesn’t desire the end of the world. The regime is murderous and must be contained. But it can be engaged.
The complexity of Islamic world politics highlights another aspect of this conflict: It cannot be resolved entirely by force of arms. ISIS has exploited Sunni dissatisfaction with the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad. This may mean Iraq as a whole has to be split up to work. Turkey probably has to accommodate Kurdish desires for a homeland. And, most importantly of all, Bashar al-Assad, the dictator of Syria, will have to depart the stage.
There can be no constructive government of Syria until there is law, order and democratic elections that legitimize proper opposition parties. If we give rebels the impression that the West wants to force Assad on them again, they will resist us, too.
Finally, there is the question of how we handle the Islamic presence within Europe itself. This is partly a matter of improving security measures and making sure returnees from Syria don’t just disappear into the crowd. There’s also a refugee crisis to confront. But while the demographic pressures and security problems of allowing hundreds of thousands of people to cross Europe have to be addressed in a firm way, there’s no escaping the fact that a large, settled part of the EU’s population is now Islamic.
And how we respond to ISIS has consequences for interfaith relations.
Some American politicians have suggested a religious test for refugees seeking access to the United States. This kind of prejudiced rhetoric adds to that false sense that this is a world war-style clash between conservative Muslims on one side and Christian democracies on the other. It is also unChristian and cruel. Moreover, while Americans might fear Islamification as an existential concept, we here in Europe have actual experience of living with Muslims — and I can report that the living is easy.
Muslims are our friends, family and co-workers. They fear and despise ISIS as much as anyone else. And those of us in the center-ground of European politics are determined not to alienate, or discriminate against, citizens who are 100% British, French or German.
Of course, it is equally irritating to see politicians who seem to counsel doing nothing and Westerners lacerating themselves because they believe their countries are to blame for all the evil in the world. ISIS is evil — real, concrete evil. It must be stopped. But we must proceed carefully, with a grand game plan and with the desire to build just and representative Arab regimes that last. The legacy of poorly chosen words or unilateral action is there for all to see.
Timothy Stanley is a historian and columnist for Britain’s Daily Telegraph. He is the author of the new book Citizen Hollywood: How the Collaboration Between L.A. and D.C. Revolutionized American Politics. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.