Extreme Intolerance: An Immoderate Tirade (Part Two)
Part Two: The ISIS Massacres
First a Russian jetliner exploded over the Sinai Peninsula, killing all 224 people aboard. Then a pair of suicide bombers blew themselves up along with 43 unsuspecting residents of Beirut. The next day, Friday the 13th, terrorists pulled off the most terrifying stunt of them all: 130 souls blasted to eternity in Paris — at a rock concert, at a sporting event, at a couple of restaurants in a fashionable pleasure district — ordinary people out for a good time who never made it home that evening.
The common thread in all this manmade mayhem: ISIS, the self-proclaimed Islamic State and (if all goes according to plans) future worldwide Caliphate, performing acts of unconscionable evil in the name of Allah and his favorite Prophet.
Africa wasn’t spared, either: at least 147 dead, mostly students, at a university in Kenya, and another 21 butchered at a luxury hotel in Mali. Not ISIS this time, but Islamist terrorists all the same. Whether we describe them as dutiful Muslim fundamentalists or as unholy fanatics who pervert their faith, all the aforementioned killers killed for reasons intimately related to their interpretation of Islam.
The carnage in Paris generated the most heat and fury, with mourners draping their Facebook profile photos in the French Tricolor. The massacres there resonated in the West because Paris represents something vital: a joyous mingling of enlightenment and pleasure, fine food and literature and art and romance — in short, liberalism in the purest sense of the word. The liberal spirit is exactly what the Islamists fear and envy (and therefore hate). Joie de vivre is anathema to their souls. So is freedom. To their stunted minds, the city that gave birth to the unapologetically irreverent Charlie Hebdo is even more vile than New York or Hollywood.
Left-leaning apologists were quick to interpret the latest massacres as Western chickens coming home to roost: the fruits of our meddlesome wars, deals and interventions in the Middle East. But aside from bending so far backward as to unhinge their spines, these apologists are simply wrong. Anger with meddlesome Westerners might explain the chronic hostility of Palestinians and Iranians, but ISIS is a different animal: pure theocracy carried to its looniest outer limits. The twin disasters of the Syrian civil war and our misadventures in Iraq simply gave it the power vacuum it needed to take root and flourish.
We all know that ISIS wants to build a new Caliphate and conquer the world for Islam. But we also need to know that ISIS represents only the Sunni branch of Islam — those who insist that the leaders of the faith must be chosen. (Their foes, the Shiites, believe that leaders must descend directly from Mohammed.) This chronic factionalism, like a petty squabble out of Gulliver’s Travels, has been simmering and occasionally boiling over since Mohammed’s death in A.D. 632.
Ousted from power during the Iraq War, the Sunnis were hellbent on avenging themselves against the hated Shiites. ISIS emerged as the Sunni engine of conquest, death and destruction: ravaging the desert regions of Syria and Iraq, murdering all the infidels it could capture, destroying every non-Sunni landmark in its path, including the fabled ruins of Palmyra. On a 0-10 scale of intolerance, ISIS probably rates an 11.
ISIS is more than an intolerant religious fringe group with territorial ambitions. It’s also a death cult. The purpose of the Caliphate isn’t simply to spread Sunni fundamentalism around the globe, but to bring about the end of days. Such blatant nihilism is just the thing to attract angry, aimless, alienated young people from all over the world. It’s like Satanism and death metal and blow-’em away video games rolled into one irresistibly ugly cause. If you’re a disaffected adolescent, what’s not to like?
Poverty has almost nothing to do with the allure of ISIS. It’s about belonging to a potent, violently homicidal (and suicidal) in-group… and about the giddy hormonal rush that presumably comes from holding the power of life or death in one’s hands.
Like the Nazis before them, the ISIS folks are master propagandists. They recruit warriors through savvy social media manipulation and a lavishly produced magazine, Dabiq. Ghastly photos and videos of executions by burning or beheading appeal to the wanton urges of their skeezy teenage base. They even draw young children into their ranks and indoctrinate them in the ways of death warriors.
ISIS proudly concedes that Islam is a religion of the sword, an admission that would find most American conservatives nodding in agreement. Of course, moderate Muslims insist they’re wrong: the Islam they follow is a religion of peace.
So which is it: violence or peace? Will the real Islam please stand up? The scriptural Mohammed was, among other things, a zealot and a conqueror. The Koran and the Hadith abound with undeniably intolerant and violent exhortations — the basis of today’s militant Islam.
Of course, we can find plenty of bloodcurdling passages in the Holy Bible. But here’s the difference: virtually no modern Jews and Christians — even the most orthodox — believe, for example, that we must execute anyone who works on the Sabbath (Exodus 31:15). Islamic fundamentalists refuse to cherry-pick their scriptures; even the most violent proclamations are holy writ and must be blindly obeyed. Like our own extremist ideologues on the far right and left, they brook no departures from their dogma.
Moderate Muslims are more like our own political moderates; they don’t follow scripture to the letter, they don’t persecute infidels, and they’re flexible enough to make allowances for common sense, not to mention ordinary human decency. They represent the best hope for the future of Islam, if not the world.
But meanwhile, how do we confront the murderous fanaticism of ISIS? We have to acknowledge that we’re at war with these monsters, but we can’t suspend our lives or our principles. These are perilous times all around. We take a chance whenever we enter an American movie theater or send our kids to school. Like Israel, we probably have to accept sporadic attacks and random death as a fact of life. But waging war on terrorism is like fighting a scattered swarm of hornets. For every enemy we kill, two more seem to take their place. Surrender is an alien concept to them.
We can wipe ISIS off the map in Syria and Iraq, but they’ll spring up again in some other desert stronghold: in Yemen or Libya or Afghanistan — or even Saudi Arabia. After all, our longtime “ally” embraces extreme Islamic fundamentalism… discriminates against Christians and women… and, most tellingly, has accepted not a single Syrian refugee.
Speaking of refugees, the current war is producing them by the millions. The American response to the refugee crisis, like our response to nearly everything else these days, has been thoroughly politicized.
The left takes the sanctimonious high road, condemning anyone hesitant about admitting Syrian refugees into the U.S. They remind us that Steve Jobs was the son of a Syrian immigrant (yes, but there were no terrorists in those days)… that Jesus, Mary and Joseph sought refuge (yes, in their native land)… that we wrongfully interned Japanese Americans during World War II (true, but we’re not rounding up Muslim Americans) and refused desperate Jewish refugees aboard the St. Louis during the same war (doubtful that their ranks included Nazi terrorists in disguise). Can the left be objective enough to concede that radical Islamists might sneak into the country along with the innocent refugees? That the Trojan Horse theory isn’t entirely a paranoid myth? (Good luck.)
Meanwhile, our conservatives are sounding the nativist alarms. They insist we should help our veterans instead of the refugees. (Why can’t we help both?) They yell about importing Sharia law and burqas against our will. (Nobody said we had to.) Candidate Trump not only opposes granting refuge to refugees but wants to monitor all American Muslims. Welcome aboard the Overkill Express.
Should we admit our fair share of refugees? Yes, bring ’em on, as long as their numbers don’t soar into the millions. Our generosity toward the dispossessed is part of what defines America. No doubt some radicals will slip through and spread their poisons here, but native-born Muslims (and even non-Muslims) can become jihadists, too. We simply need to minimize the odds, so let’s give the newcomers a heartfelt welcome — and a thorough screening.
Am I optimistic about our struggle against ISIS? Not especially, but I haven’t abandoned hope. We’re at war against a pathological mentality, not a country. Radical Islam has to die from within, but the rest of the world can help it along.
I’m encouraged that so many Muslims railed against the Paris attacks, and that ISIS can count no allies in the Islamic world other than Boko Haram and a few other fringe groups. They’d like us to think they’re in the catbird seat, but they’re hungry. They need fresh recruits, money and medical professionals. If we can destroy their lifelines to the outside world, we can disrupt their operations.
Besides destroying their home base, we need to attack their recruiting efforts. The hacker tribe known as Anonymous is finally making itself useful by exposing the identities of ISIS operatives online. If we can leverage the unity of mainstream Muslims against the fanatics, that could be the crushing blow. We can hope that Paris was their wake-up call.
If we fail, we can probably bid farewell to Western civilization. It’s already endangered from within by a depressing assortment of afflictions, including extreme political polarization, angry minorities, greedy plutocrats, a crumbling middle class, lone-wolf psychopaths, widespread indifference to the past, and some really atrocious music. Maybe Western civilization was too rarefied for our rowdy souls; we’re just higher breed of ape, after all. But I think the Western world as we know it is worth preserving.
By now we’re so accustomed to verbal attacks on Western civilization that we almost feel like racists when we rush to its defense. If so, we’ve been brainwashed. The left delights in recounting the historical crimes committed by Christians, as if those offenses somehow justify the current crimes committed by Islamists. Nearly all empires — European, Asian and African alike — are guilty of past outrages. But, for better or worse, most of us live in the present.
So here we stand, faced with chaos and factionalism and a brutal theocratic enemy waiting for the chance to topple us from our high perch. The enemy enjoys the giddy confidence of the self-deluded: those who know for sure that a righteous and judgmental God is on their side. It helps to be sure, but it also helps to be in touch with reality.
We desperately need a worldwide religious reformation, a great awakening that would hold all fundamentalism up to the bright light of scrutiny. If we all took the dictates of our scriptures literally, we’d be committing atrocities on a daily basis. It’s time we acknowledged that no religion has an exclusive pipeline to the will of an inscrutable God, and that all our scriptures were written by gifted but otherwise ordinary men looking for answers.
The faithful should learn to live without certainty. It’s that damnable certainty that makes tyrants of the world’s believers. Of that much I’m reasonably certain. Not 100 percent, mind you — because unlike ideologues and fundamentalists, I’m never entirely sure of anything.
Rick Bayan is founder-editor of The New Moderate.