The horrific and spectacular acts of violence committed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria have shocked the world.Mass executions of innocent people, the beheading of captured journalists, the intentional attempts to inflame sectarian tensions, widespread sexual violence, and many other human rights abuses have quickly identified Islamic State as a brutal and ruthless actor.
The language used by our leaders to describe and respond to the horrors of Islamic State has been unsurprisingly forceful. Tony Abbott, the Australian Prime Minister, has referred to the group as an “apocalyptic death cult” whose aim is to “have heads on stakes.”
U.S. President Barack Obama conveyed a similar message in his recent speech at the United Nations: “There can be no reasoning — no negotiation — with this brand of evil. The only language understood by killers like this is the language of force. So the United States will work with a broad coalition to dismantle this network of death.”
The behavior of Islamic State has been so extreme as “to shock the conscience of mankind,” to use a phrase made famous by political philosopher Michael Walzer. Yet it is precisely because the violence committed by Islamic State has been so shocking and so directly opposed to our most basic standards of morality that our judgment can become clouded.
While many acts committed by Islamic State are certainly evil, and it may be appropriate to refer to the group as a whole as evil, there are also real dangers in seeing Islamic State in such black and white terms. The problem is the situation in Iraq and Syria is decidedly gray.
Identifying Islamic State as an evil monster that must be “destroyed,” as Obama and other world leaders have promised, risks misunderstanding what is a complex political phenomenon.
Without accepting or condoning the behavior of Islamic State, we still can appreciate that it is a group motivated by certain political beliefs and grievances. Dismissing Islamic State as a band of medieval savages means ignoring the important reasons it has had so much success and why it has rallied people to its cause. Some of the most obvious factors include: sectarian misrule in Iraq, a civil war allowed to fester in Syria, and a “war on terror” too often defined by the betrayal of values that were supposedly being protected.
Simply put, the goals of Islamic State have not appeared in a void: outside actors have played significant roles in shaping the fortunes of Iraq, Syria and indeed, much of the Middle East, especially following the fateful events of 11 September 2001.
Yet those who talk of evil almost invariably refer to others, while failing to recognize how they might be related to what they are condemning. Such thinking was displayed by former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who had the temerity to suggest that “we have to liberate ourselves from the notion that ‘we’ have caused this.”
To be able to remove the 2003 invasion of Iraq by the U.S., Great Britain, Australia and a motley ‘coalition of the willing’ from understanding the rise of Islamic State relies on mental leaps that only Blair and a few “neocons” are capable of making.
Likewise, when asked about the rise of Islamic extremism, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry responded that “there is no constructive purpose whatsoever served by going backward.
There are lots of questions that people can dig into for history about mistakes that were made.” This perspective may be politically expedient, but it does not help in understanding and responding to the current crisis. The only way Iraq and Syria can move forward is through coming to terms with the past.
In his speech at the U.N. David Cameron, the British Prime Minister, stated: “my message today is simple. We are facing an evil against which the whole of the world should unite.”
Yet the situation in Iraq and Syria is not at all simple. It is deeply messy and complicated, one in which the international community’s ability to respond effectively is limited. In this context, perceiving Islamic State as little more than a malevolent, barbaric force may only further reduce the options open to concerned outsiders.
The forceful words of President Obama and other leaders clearly convey the message that against evil, there can be no compromise, only force.
Given that Western violence against Muslims and American intervention in the Middle East have been such powerful factors in motivating Islamic extremism in the first place, one must wonder how effective the military strategy embarked upon by the U.S. and its new “coalition of the willing” can be.
To be clear: Questioning the use of force by the U.S. and its allies in response to the crisis in Iraq and Syria is not meant to suggest that we should sit idly by as innocents continue to be brutally killed and abused.
Nor does recognizing the motivations and grievances shaping the behavior of Islamic State and its fighters entail condoning or accepting their beliefs and actions. Rather, it is a warning that reducing a complex political conflict into a simplistic story of good and evil risks engendering responses that may placate our sense of moral outrage but fail to address the causes of the violence and instability in the region.
When looking at Iraq and Syria it should be apparent that there are simply no good solutions immediately available. The horrific acts of Islamic State should be denounced and the international community must consider how it can limit the suffering of affected people. But acknowledging this messy and brutal reality also means coming to terms with Islamic State as a political actor, which is motivated by grievances and goals.
The longer we dismiss Islamic State as an “apocalyptic death cult” or medieval savages, the longer it will be before we can devise a more effective response to dealing with the terrifying challenge they represent.
Christopher Hobson is an assistant professor of political science at Waseda University, and a visiting research fellow at United Nations University.