Co-authored by Cyrus McGoldrick
In the wake of the recent attacks in Paris, Beirut and Baghdad, the majority of people in the U.S. believe we should take part in a military response, including the use of increased U.S. airstrikes and ground forces against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. This would not only be ineffective, but is exactly the trap ISIS has set (yet again). If there’s anything we should have learned since 9/11 and the “War on Terror,” it is that violence against the Muslim world cannot defeat terrorism or anti-Western anger; only respect for human rights and sovereignty will work. But before discussing that topic, one must deflate another majority belief in the U.S.: that ISIS is somehow mainstream among Muslims, or that the West is at war with “radical Islam.”
Muslims are a religious community with no central leadership, neither religious nor political — only the Qur’an and the historical example of the Prophet Muhammad are normative, and the interpretations of each are sometimes debated by the masters of the Islamic tradition. This divides the community loosely into several major sects and, within them, schools of thought.
Nonetheless, across all divisions, the religious claims of ISIS have been refuted by almost every major and minor scholar of Islam, and ISIS’s actions have been condemned by every Muslim organization in the U.S. as well as by many laypeople. We should understand that it is wrong to continuously expect and request such condemnations, but the condemnations still continue, as they have after almost every act of political violence blamed on the Muslim world. Shaykh Abdallah bin Bayyah and Shaykh Muhammad al-Yaqoubi have led efforts to refute the religious claims of ISIS, and even the Taliban and thought leaders of al-Qaeda have written against ISIS and opposed them on the battlefield. Al-Qaeda and the Taliban have also been condemned repeatedly by Muslims and their organizations in the U.S., but the fact that all of the above agree on the depravity of ISIS and the obligation to fight them is enough to end the discussion on the group’s religious foundations.
Furthermore, the primary victims of ISIS are Muslims, and the primary opponents of ISIS are Muslims — in Iraq, Syria, Iran, Lebanon, Palestine, Afghanistan and beyond. Yet it seems clear that we in the West don’t care much about what Muslims do to each other, except when convenient for propaganda purposes, to dehumanize and delegitimize in order to justify war. This is why we call their violence “terrorism” and ours “defense.”
ISIS seems to be as strong as ever, despite the world’s major militaries claiming to unite against them, and despite the full rejection of them by Muslims of all sects. Why? ISIS is a reaction to the U.S.-led wars of aggression in Iraq and across the Muslim world; to the Sykes-Picot agreement that divided the former Ottoman caliphate into artificial nation-states and installed friendly governments in them; and to an Islam devoid of political resistance that many feel has gone too far to the other extreme in accommodating imperial incursions. ISIS propaganda is built around these themes, and their recruiting is built around that propaganda, in addition to a steady stream of money that they distribute to their soldiers and workers in U.S. dollars. ISIS has also focused not just on war, but on state-building, calling themselves a caliphate, and thereby inspiring young people devastated and radicalized by war to become part of a “constructive” solution.
So how will ISIS be defeated?
A multilateral approach could be led by the United Nations, as described by many experts, especially Dr. David Cortright of the University of Notre Dame. Beyond that, global powers from NATO to Russia must release their military, political, and economic influence and let the Muslim world rearrange themselves and deal with ISIS on the ground, even if that takes a form the rest of the world doesn’t like. Only self-determination, human dignity, and opportunity will defeat extremism, and any foreign nation acting as a global police force will necessarily undermine that effort. Instead of continued military involvement in the Middle East, which is downright counterproductive and further solidifies our dependence on the military-industrial complex, we must seek and sacrifice for a peace that is built on justice for all people. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness must be the right of not just the people of New York and Paris, but the entire world.
Sheldon C. Good is a member of Salford Mennonite Church and lives in Washington, D.C. Cyrus McGoldrick is a member of the Islamic Movement for Justice and lives in Istanbul, Turkey.