This was originally written on November 16, 2015. I’m re-posting it here today because… well, you know why. Travel safe, everybody.
Grief, as C.S Lewis explained, can prompt a rational man to do foolish things. For instance, just last night, I read the comments. Not just the comments — I read several articles in famous publications that may as well have been comments, and I listened to the words of politicians who seem determined to be YouTube comments made flesh. When you’re attacked, it’s logical and healthy to want to kick back as hard as you can. I get that. But everybody with access to a working modem (or a working political party) needs to take a moment and get serious. Because when we act like ISIS is, in any way, representative of Islam, we’re doing exactly what these jerks want us to do. We’re stepping directly into their trap.
The entire business model for groups like ISIS depends on widespread Western failure to appreciate the distinction between devout Muslims and crazed nightclub shooters. ISIS wants you to treat the Muslim on your block as if he’s packing heat in the name of Allah. That way, you will support nativist politicians who aim to make life uncomfortable for outsiders, and those who practice Islam will become angry and (they hope) susceptible to their hate propaganda. Life in the West gets harder for Muslims, suspicion builds, politically convenient battle lines develop, and ISIS’s grotesque parody of a caliphate begins, in theory, to look like a valid alternative to Western inhospitality. They’re begging for us to seal the borders and treat Muslims like prospective criminals. That’s their aim. Let’s not take the bait.
Islam is a religion about submission to God’s will. A real believer walks a path of humility and nonviolence and spends his life in the pursuit of holiness. The moment he considers blowing up a theater or a cafe, he’s no longer a Muslim — he’s a murderer. There is no resemblance between true Islam and the idiotic beliefs of ISIS, and anybody who tries to tell you otherwise needs to go read the Koran. Miley Cyrus occasionally raps; you don’t mistake her for a genuine emcee, right? Just because this al-Qaeda spinoff operation calls themselves Islamic State doesn’t mean they know thing #1 about the religion they purport to represent.
Luckily, there is a word for what the members of ISIS are, and it’s a word we don’t use nearly enough. These people are fascists. Their movement conforms to everything we’ve learned — mostly the hard way — about international fascism: their thirst for purity, their fear of human sexuality, their faith in strength through violence, their intolerance and illiberalism, and their antisemitism, too; all of that stuff is straight from the fascist playbook. Their appeal to disaffected young people with a belligerent streak and a desire to lash out against modernity is the same one used by the Brownshirts — with remarkably little altered in translation.
Fascism needs to be opposed, hard, at all times and in all places. Sometimes that means physical fighting. More often, it needs to be dismantled ideologically. We have to make it clear, and convincing, that a culture of Yes is always preferable to a culture of No, and we have to stay true to that idea. We can’t be hypocritical; we can’t allow ourselves to be dragged toward the fascist murk by people who’d like nothing better than to see an authoritarian clampdown across the Western world. The Syrian refugee crisis was a source of immense embarrassment for ISIS — not because they give a damn about the fate of the people displaced by sectarian violence, but because the millions seeking asylum made it clear, with their own two feet, that they’d sooner wander around Europe than support the imaginary caliphate. ISIS had to watch while the leaders of the Western world — the world they need to demonize in order to keep their campaign going — opened their doors to Muslims in need, and made them welcome.
Sometimes we call ISIS “radical”, or “radicalized;” this, too, is totally unearned. There’s nothing radical about shooting the poor merch guy at a rock concert; that kind of brutality and mindlessness has, sadly, accompanied the human race for centuries. What Angela Merkel did was radical in its courage. Openness is radical precisely because people who can’t manage it can never imagine that other people are capable of it; thus, it stands as a challenge to jerks everywhere. Radical compassion jeopardizes their mission, their narrow worldview, their entire reason to be.
I read today that France wants to suspend the Schengen agreement that has, for decades now, insured that national borders within the EU remain open. Several U.S. states have decided to refuse Syrian refugees. Mr. Trump is angling for surveillance of mosques. ISIS could not have scripted this any tighter. Don’t take my word for it; take theirs. Since their emergence as a blot on the world map, they’ve made it theiraim to drive wedges between Western governments and ordinary Muslims. Our prejudice is their best propaganda. When we act like the actions of ISIS somehow follow from the precepts and tenets of Islam, it is a monumental insult to centuries of Islamic scholars, statesmen, scientists, artists, craftspeople, and everyday believers.
Don’t mistake this for a pacifist appeal, or an understatement of a genuine threat. There are indeed people out there who want to blow you up, not all of whom live in the Middle East. The success of the anti-fascist movement — and if you are a rocker, or a writer, a lover, a real Christian or a real Muslim, you’re part of it — depends on you keeping your head. Violent provocation can’t go unanswered. This is, however, not a predicament we can bomb our way out of. If it was as easy as leveling Raqqa, the battle would have been over long ago.
Many factual questions remain unanswered: for instance, Mr. Hollande needs to explain to people how it was that eight maniacs on the loose in Paris had access to giant arsenal. Before any sweeping geopolitical conclusions are reached, the exact link between the shooters and the landlocked gunmen in Syria who call themselves the Islamic State has got to be established, and firmly. But all of that is the easy part (or it ought to be if our governments are honest.) The hard part: convincing bewildered and frightened Westerners that Islam isn’t the enemy. No civilizations need to clash. Allow me to lend my hand, small as it is: I, an American Bible-thumper, stand today with millions of my Muslim brothers and sisters in abhorrence of the violence in France and elsewhere. Better than the secular can, we recognize that these were not the acts of God-fearing people. God-fearing people know that judgment will come, in ways sublime and profound — and that that judgment does not begin on some mystic day of reckoning. It begins right now.