According to polls, a third of Republican voters in Iowa want Islam to be criminalized. Unfortunately, the cornfields of middle America aren’t the only place that ‘Islam’ is being blamed for the terrorism attacks in Paris.
Presidential contender Ben Carson for instance, wants it to be made illegal for a Muslim to be elected as President of the USA. For the Republican Party at least, freedom of religion in America extends only to tolerating many ways of accepting Jesus Christ as your personal saviour. In reality of course, treating Islamic State as the essence of Islam makes about as much sense as treating the Ku Klux Klan as the essence of Christianity.
As Juan Cole pointed out in a recent column on this point, if Islam is so inherently violent, one has to ask why the murder rates in Muslim countries tend to be very much lower than in the United States… Moreover, the millions killed in the 20th century nationalism wars of Christian Europe were way, way above any death toll caused by Muslims over the same period. In some Muslim countries is there an unhealthy blurring of the roles of church and state? Perhaps. Yet as Cole also points out, Franco’s Spain [and the Salazar dictatorship in Portugal] saw church and state become virtually fused, with deadly effect. There’s nothing unique to Islam about that risk. Oh, and like Christianity, Islam also forbids the killing of innocent non-combatants.
None of which denies, or lessens the barbarity of Islamic State. Nor do the actions of Islamic State lessen the barbarity of the saturation bombing of civilian areas that’s become a common feature of the war against IS in Syria, and during the parallel fighting in Yemen. On social media, many people have criticized the West and its media for being utterly horrified by the killings of circa 130 people in Paris and by us treating this as front page news, day after day – while the bombing by the Saudis of a wedding party in Yemen last month that killed 131 people received only a cursory mention, if it got reported at all. In response, some have argued that this criticism would have more sting if it was issued by people who were protesting about the Yemeni wedding bombing before the Paris attacks, and not by those raising the comparison for rhetorical purposes, in retrospective outrage. Meaning: compassion isn’t – or shouldn’t be – a bidding contest. Feeling empathy for the victims in Paris doesn’t have to be justified.
Even so, it remains a simple matter of fact that the West has paid more attention to the carnage in Paris than to the victims of the West’s own bombing and drone campaigns – even though these forms of violence have been feeding on each other for a very long time, in a deadly feedback loop. In recent days for instance, France has launched massive retaliatory bombing raids on what it says are military targets in the Islamic State ‘capital’ of Raqaa in northern Syria. It is a tit for tat, blood for blood process. Not coincidentally, Islamic State has just announced it will be singling out those Western countries engaged in bombing raids on Syria and Iraq as its next targets of urban terrorism. And so the cycle continues. Washington DC however, may prove to be a more difficult objective for IS to reach than Paris, which has proven itself to be the softest of targets.
How can this cycle be broken? It is very easy to see why some in the West – and many of the Christian fundamentalists within in the Republican Party – like to think in apocalyptic terms, and prefer to embrace entirely static ‘causes’ for the conflict, such as the allegedly malevolent nature of Islam. When you divide the world into the timeless ‘truths’ of good and evil, you don’t have to think much about history. You don’t have to think about the impact of the Picot Line, or the West’s creation of the House of Saud and its propping up of the Shah of Iran, or George Bush’s invasion of Iraq… There is a history in the Middle East to which Islamic State and its caliphate has been the almost inevitable backlash.
Invoking the chain of history doesn’t absolve its modern agents of course, of responsibility for their own actions. Also, knowing about the lessons of history is no guarantee that you won’t be forced to repeat its mistakes. But the danger is that in our compassionate identification with the victims in Paris, we will stop questioning the nature of our response. Already, for instance, the Paris attacks have been invoked to justify the New Zealand military presence in Iraq!
There are many ways of fighting Islamic State. Some of them will merely serve to further polarize the civilian and refugee communities fleeing into Europe. With good reason, there is widespread scepticism about the refugee passport found near one of the suicide bombers. Islamic State have good reason to want to stem the flow of Syrian people running away to Europe in terror from their glorious caliphate. If the West now embarks on indiscriminate crackdowns on refugees, this will merely drive them right back into the arms of those forces professing the perverted form of Islam that we’re trying to defeat.
On a lighter level of First World problems, here’s Jeffrey Lewis and his eloquent recent lamentation about touring as a support act…