As I was disembarking from my flight from Atlanta to D.C. earlier this week, I overheard an older woman talk to someone seated next to her ‘I don’t know how to explain ISIS to my grand kids. I want to tell them they are animals…with their evil intent, but I love animals; so can bring myself to comparing these savages to animals. My grandkid said ‘Grandma they are nothing but murderers. Murderers who kill innocent people.’ Quite obviously, it is hard for anyone to talk about such a group. And you can only imagine how hard it is for Muslims, around the world to talk about ISIS, without first stating that this group is not really Islamic, even though they have appropriated the name ( in English) and the English media continues to use the name, instead of calling them Daesh, as they should be referred. What this group does in the name of Islam gives ammunition for Muslim bashing and more Islamophobia ( yes, it is real and exists). I do recommend this piece by Juan Cole, well worth your time.
So, how does one speak about the group called ISIS/ Daesh, which is actually a threat to some people, in some places? Their formidable power seems to be growing, if the Paris attacks are an indication. With Thanksgiving upon us, there are fears that they may retaliate again. While President Obama has assured Americans that there is no intelligence of a credible threat, the anxieties remain. To be clear, they are a clear and visible danger to many Muslims and non-Muslims, in the regions they rule. The wanton destruction of life and property that Daesh has caused cannot be discounted. While this is true, it is also true that there are over 1500 militias fighting for dominance in Syria and an equal number in Iraq. Dr. AbdulKhaleq Abdulla, speaking at the Annual Conference of the Middle East Institute in Washington D.C. said “Regional and global powers have created monsters (such as ISIS) that have gone out of control and are creating facts on the ground,” he added. Extremism, sectarianism, of kind that we have never seen before is manifest. Abdulla also added that it is impossible to predict that is coming next. Despite all the analysis by security analysts and other observers– the rise of ISIS, Arab Spring, Yemen conflict and the Russian move in Syria – none of these were predicated by anyone. Perhaps it is time to acknowledge that social sciences are not very good at– or even meant to be – used for predicting the future. Rather political theory and related sciences are meant to offer an analysis of events past and a model for what institutions and logics can be used to analyze events occurring in the present.
While talking to your kids or grand-kids, please do break it down to them that this is not some holy pie in the sky kind of war, but a real one; with real interests at stake- land, resources, oil and territory. While ISIS and other groups may use religion to justify their actions, the religion they use to justify it – Islam – is as violent, nonviolent, passive, and aggressive as any other religion, and depends on who practices it, a point well made by Reza Aslan, recently. You should also remind your kids that Christians and Jews have lived for millennia, in Muslim majority countries, in relative peace. This is not a war of religions, but one of ideologies and one that was spurred by geopolitical shifts involving big powers. You should also tell them that in Political Science, it is a basic dictum that there are always players waiting to fill a power vacuum. With the fall of Saddam Hussein and the ongoing conflict in Syria, there is such a vacuum and it was filled by a group that is just plain ruthless, opportunitistic and bent on dominance – that calls itself Daesh.
My sincere advice: Avoid the topic of Daesh during Thanksgiving dinner. If you have to, or if some relative or friend brings it up, do bring up the entire complex geopolitical and strategic errors committed by many great nations and powers that have led to the creation of the monstrosity that we know as the ISIS. To simply reduce it to Islam or American actions in the region does not do anyone any good. It only reduces complex global phenomenon to lame and predictable dinner table conversations – and we know that nothing good ever comes out of such analysis. Be wise this Thanksgiving and enjoy that Turkey!