Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Giving Thanks For ISIS

Take a deep breath, I don't support ISIS in any way. I want to draw you in to listen to what I have to say, given that we've all been bombarded by 100s of opinions about unequal sympathy for various terrorist attacks, the nature of Islam, and Syrian refugees. The one good thing that ISIS has given us, for which I am thankful, is a kick in the pants to get in some arguments about topics that actually matter and begin a process that I hope with all my heart will result in a safer home for families whose old lives have been bombed into oblivion. 

(this may not be the most politically correct song, given the context, but it's the one that comes to mind when I try and process the sadness and the frequency of terror on this globe)

If you're on Facebook or follow any news outlets whatsoever, you've been riled up one way or another over people talking about how to help or not help Syrian refugees. I'm almost overwhelmed by it, and I'm certainly passionate about it. The threat of injustice is something worth getting mad about, and I make no statements like, "I hardly ever post this, but [insert pointed political news or opinion link]" because I DO do that all the time, and I'm trying not to be a pain or feel ashamed of speaking up and "bothering" people's daily lives in the process. I understand that politics can be divisive. Do you know why that is? Because it's close to people's hearts, which means that it's something that matters. 

Often, I hear people swear off political conversations because they don't want to damage friendships. Granted, we need to be respectful and loving in our language, but I am going to step out on a limb and say that there are some people you shouldn't be friends with because of their politics. Politics permeate lifestyles. It's not acceptable to let someone else's bigotry, hatred, and especially some half-baked claim of Christianity-aligned poor behavior go unchallenged. It's a terrible witness for Christ when we choose to look the other way when people attach His name to their lack of compassion. Jesus loved people even when they were bigots, and therefore I am called to as well, but he surely did not let them off the hook for their attitudes, words, and actions. 

I'm by no means an expert in war or politics or Islam, but I do dedicate a lot of my time to learning about it, and I'm striving to become more and more knowledgeable in the information I can offer. I'm so grateful that all of my personal contacts that I've seen take part in the Syrian refugee discussion on Facebook have been supportive of refugees, regardless of their politics. However, I'm disgusted by the words of some of our leaders, in the face of overwhelming historical evidence of the shame of having ignored or mistreated immigrants in the past. I was looking at a map of the states whose governors have opposed taking in refugees, and if the governors' words represent the majority of their citizen's beliefs, I don't think that it's too harsh to say that on this issue, the Bible belt should be renamed the Bigot belt. What an irony, and what a crying, sobbing, shame. 

But you already knew that. 

What I want to talk about is a conversation that we haven't been having, and why I think it's a major part of the puzzle in dealing with the seemingly endless threat of extremism in our world today. I have no qualms about saying that I think bombing Syria or any other place, for that matter, is a dead-end strategy. War begets war - a principle as old as time. I concede that ISIS, Boko Haram, Al Queda, Assad, and the rest are terrifying and need to be stopped, but we have to stop fighting a newer, more cunning, brand of evil with yesteryear's tactics. 

Ultimately, the struggles in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) need to be resolved at home - no amount of coaxing or brow beating or arming or educating can bend a region into a mini-West. Part of the reason that I think the latest wave of American wars in the Middle East have been failures have been this form of modern imperialism - the idea that if we just set up these countries to accept democracy, they'll swallow that little sugar pill and behave nicely. 

(vintage poster found here)

MENA has a very, very different historical and cultural background from the West, one that may not be best suited to democracy, and I think that's not altogether a bad thing. When we expect democracy, we often set up these states for failure. During the Arab Spring, many young people were ready to overthrow their dictators, but then what? There is no framework for a culturally appropriate government thereafter, which has given new dictators and extremist groups the opportunity to seize power, recreating the exact conditions seen prior to the Arab Spring, and encouraging the West to start new wars with the new dictators. Let's get off this merry-go-round, already.  

I want to back up for a minute and talk about the domestic dispute we were having in the US before the Paris attacks and America's role in the Syrian refugee crisis. As a country, we have been unable to "fix" our disease of mass shootings. To me, the school and theater massacres have been the work of extremists too. The ideology subscribed to by various criminals may be different, but the pain is the same, and problems seem equally difficult to solve. What if we could treat mentally-ill-white-male-with-a-gun syndrome and violent radical Islam with the same medicine? 

I was about to suggest that the greater Muslim community take careful measures to dissuade those around them from radicalizing, but there, I have shown my own naivety and bigotry. Muslims ARE and HAVE BEEN speaking out against terrorism all along! 

"The common perception is that radicalization happens at the mosque. But in fact, with a few notable exceptions, individuals are likely not exposed to violent extremist ideology from the imam at the local mosque. In fact, it is much more likely that an imam who sees someone in his mosque heading down the path to violence will try to intervene to correct that person's misconceptions about Islam, get the person's family involved, or even report the person to the authorities. People who do embrace a violent jihadist ideology will often, for this very reason, actually stop going to the mosque." (source)

Beside her point that the media doesn't care to listen to mainstream Islam (which is decidedly NOT extremist) I was struck by what Dalia Mogahed said in her MSNBC interview - we don't fear or blame the general community of white male "Christians" (as some have claimed to be) when a school shooting happens, but instead we assume those individuals were deranged. Why do we slant our eyes at Islam when Muslim extremists commit crimes? 

Some will dispute the fact that Islam is not a violent religion, and therefore it can't be compared to other world religions (including Christianity). First of all, we can not deny a history of violence in the name of Christianity and Judaism, and perhaps other religions as well, though I don't know as much about those. The Crusades, the KKK, individual massacres, general imperialism and even some cultural cleansing on the part of missionaries are a few examples of the bloody history attached to the term "Christianity". I do not believe any of those things reflect true Christianity, and I do not believe that radical Islam reflects Islam as a whole. 

From my limited knowledge of the Qur'an (and I am working to learn more about text-book Islam) it is undeniable that there are calls to jihad. Does this mean that Islam is a violent religion? I'm not always sure how to answer this question, but I can say with confidence that the vast majority of Muslim people do not seek violence. Many who are devout or read the Qur'an carefully choose to interpret the call to jihad in a nonviolent way. In an effort not to make this post twice as long, I will cite Wikipedia, "Many observers—both Muslim and non-Muslim—as well as the Dictionary of Islam, talk of jihad having two meanings: an inner spiritual struggle (the "greater jihad"), and an outer physical struggle against the enemies of Islam (the "lesser jihad") which may take a violent or non-violent form" (emphasis mine). 

Many more Muslims - and this is the case for most of the Muslims I grew up with - are not devout and carry the title of "Muslim" primarily as a cultural identity rather than a spiritual one, much as we do when we refer to America as a Christian nation, or the distinction I would make between the 83% (!) of Americans who self-identify as Christians and the true believing Church. 

Vile things have been done in the name of Christianity, but we know that is a contorted view of the truth. As a Christ-believer, I can not call Islam "truth", but I do not think that the religious Muslim body at large is any more to blame for terrorism than Christians are to blame to for the KKK or Westboro Baptist or Dylan Roof (the Charleston church shooter). When asked later what she would say to Donald Trump, given the opportunity, I loved Dalia Mogahed's response that he doesn't understand the United States constitution. She didn't care whether he liked or supported or understood Islam, she cared that he upheld the laws that this country has put into place to protect against discrimination.

"As reported by the New York Times, a recent study by New America found that since 9/11, 'nearly twice as many people have been killed by white supremacists, antigovernment fanatics and other non-Muslim extremists than by radical Muslims.' The FBI's own report on terrorist acts in the United States between 1980 and 2005 "identified 318 events (including bombings, arson and malicious destruction, and shootings); only 7% of those events were attributed to Islamic extremists." (source) Furthermore, of the 784,395 refugees taken in by the US since 9/11, THREE have been arrested on terrorism charges (source), none of whom carried out attacks on US soil. To me, that translates into the acceptance of refugees as being a risk worth taking. 

Mogahed further points out that anti-Muslim sentiment spikes not after terrorist attacks such as 9/11 or the Boston Marathon bombings (with ISIS being the one exception), but instead with American election campaigns. How sick is it that our politicians capitalize on fear and discrimination in order to become the leader of this country? No one who does that is fit to lead a nation of immigrants, for that is what we are. Even as a pretty firm Independent/leaning-Democrat, I was interested and perhaps supportive of Chris Christie until he joined the ranks of those refusing to grant access to Syrian refugees. In his own words, "not even orphans under the age of 5". Nevermind that he doesn't have the authority to enforce that - he wrote himself out of the books in my eyes. Given the nature of politics in the US today, I know that people will say anything to get elected and then change their tune in office, but I can not respect a man who tells such filthy lies, assuming that was just a political lie. 

So, the conversation we should be having, but aren't - how can we get at the root of the problem of ISIS and our home-grown white supremacists? I will focus mainly on the ISIS question here, and tie it in to the mass shootings later. I think the key is ideology. Without making the mistake of putting the responsibility of de-radicalization on the Muslim community, I think we have far too little energy being put into combating the extremely powerful ideas that make ISIS so strong and dangerous. As far as I can see, combating extremism with bombs may kill a ringleader here and there, but the long-term result is merely a new group with a new name popping up somewhere else with the same twisted schemes. This leads me to think that the there is an underlying issue that is not being properly fought against. 

ISIS is incredibly adept at what they do. This very enlightening article/video points out that aside from ISIS's impressive use of high-production-value recruitment videos and sophisticated social media tactics, they provide a sense of purpose for people who feel like they lack one. The power of belonging and feeling important can not be underestimated. Furthermore, ISIS's videos present them as saviors of the marginalized, particularly Suni Muslims who are often treated miserably by the Shia majorities around them. This is just one of the stunning uses of propaganda that has attracted nearly 20,000 people from abroad to travel to Syria and support ISIS who most certainly relies on those recruits for their military strength. ISIS even takes care to indoctrinate children.   

So far, ISIS has always been a step ahead of those combating them because they have a powerful central message and sophisticated means of sharing that message. Why can't we - their opposition - turn on them with their same, clearly effective, weaponry - the power of ideas and inclusion? What if we were to employ an army of millennials to drown out the noise of ISIS on social media? (Anonymous is trying - whoever you guys and girls are, I want to kiss you!) What if we taught our children peace and equality with the same fervor that ISIS teaches children to hold a gun? So what if it's propaganda? We could use a little bit of constructive propaganda around here. 

No one is making me a war strategist based on my plan to dissolve ISIS and prevent future school massacres. I get that it's idealistic and ultimately we can't talk every crazy person out of crazytown. We want to feel like we're DOING something, seeing some change. But I would argue that fighting terrorism with the weapons we have been using - bombs and hatred and even the occasional stab at diplomacy - have failed. This is a new kind of war that we are fighting with outdated weapons. Change takes time. We need only to inspect our own hearts to see the truth in that. 

Again and again, when I work through these problems in my head, I come back to one-on-one relationships. What else is really in our power? And yet, can we not change the world if we treat our fellow men and women with dignity? Give them a change to speak, even if that means we hear some insane ideas (and perhaps get them some professional help, or if all else fails, make it impossible for them to come in contact with innocent people). Respect one another so that we all have the opportunity to feel welcomed and included and that we have a purpose. THAT will put ISIS out of business. 

(art by Jason Ratliff

Going back to what I said earlier about my uncertainty that democracy, at least the American brand of it, is the right fit for MENA, Canon White says, "You can’t have politics without religion in the Middle East! It’s impossible. Faith is our common ground. How on earth do you reconcile factions who think each other literally Satanic? You listen to their stories. You get to know each person, love them. Perhaps you can persuade them to hear each other’s stories. That way the conspiracy theories unravel."

A lack of compassion toward others can push people toward radicalization."It's important to remember that people are influenced by more than just external factors, and any one person who decides to join a group like ISIS or carry out attacks in its name is going to be driven most of all by his own personal and internal motivations. And that's exactly what makes dealing with radicalization so hard." (source) It is not our fault when a member our community decides to act out violently, but it is our responsibility to do everything in our power to keep others from thinking or feeling so isolated that they form the twisted idea that the world should suffer as they have. This "antidote" could work for our domestic issue of rampaging gunmen as well. Several factors that often proceed an individual's radicalization include (cited from here):
  • Treatment of certain groups as "suspect communities" that are subjected to invasive and overbearing counterterrorism efforts
  • A cultural or political hostility toward religion in general or Islam in particular
  • Unpopular foreign policies, such as support for repressive regimes or involvement in a military campaign, especially in a predominantly Muslim country (or several of them)
It is not beyond the scope of ISIS to carry out attacks on American soil as it has in Paris, Lebanon, and other cities. They are already here. They can already act through sympathizers in the US. Keeping immigrants out will not change that fact. 

What we can do differently than Paris is treat our immigrant population with respect. "France has the largest Muslim population of any European country: an estimated 5 to 6 million, or about 8 percent of the total population", "often socially and economically marginalized." (source) I love many things about France, and my ancestry is heavily French, but I lost a lot of respect for the French government, at least, when I learned in a recent class how openly racist they can be, and encourage their society to be. In the past, politicians have run on platforms of anti-immigration, much as some of our American presidential candidates are doing now. 

France values freedom of speech at all costs, which I would be tempted to respect, if it were not for support of publications like Charlie Hebdo, which often published (and probably still does) many despicable things in the name of free speech. Yes it's legal, but that kind of tolerated behavior stokes reciprocated hatred in marginalized communities. I do not say this to condone the attacks on Charlie Hebdo in any way, only that it's a factor in pushing immigrants, Muslims in particular, into the shadows, where dark things lurk. 

If you're curious why Syria's neighbors don't take them (as I have been), here's a good explanation. I also found this graphic (same source) to be astounding. All things considered, the United States has been doing a great deal of whining considering how little they've done to help. 

Refugees and immigrants come to Europe and America whether we like it or not, legally or illegally. It is not possible to keep everyone out, so why would we make it miserable for them and risk pitting them against us?

I am so happy and humbled that France has chosen to accept many more refugees in the wake of the Paris attacks. In this, they are demonstrating their ability to "heap hot coals on the heads of ISIS", even more so than their bomb dropping, in my opinion.

Of course, our desire as individuals to help refugees is easier spoken about than put into action. I am aware of my own tendency to wag my finger about these issues and then fail to put any of my words into action. I'm afraid that sometimes I rest on my childhood having lived alongside Muslims and gotten along, and think that that excuses me from working toward further reconciliation now, because I've already done my part or learned my lesson. Shame on me. Instead, I've come up with 2 1/2 ideas for how to start respecting and including people who aren't like me, particularly Muslims, in my community. 

1. Get a foreign language penpal. Helping an immigrant improve their English is a great way to build a relationship. I will update this with a link once I find out how to go about this. 

2. Visit your local mosque and ask if there's anything you can do to support their members in the community (Here's the SM Islamic Center, in case you didn't know we had one! There's a mosque in SLO as well.)
2 1/2. (because it hinges on either 1. or 2. having resulted in a relationship). Cook for a new Muslim friend. Where politics is one of the most divisive topics I can think of, food is one of the most inclusive rituals known to man. 

I'm sure you'll be hearing more about this if I accomplish my goal, and I invite you all to hold me accountable to it as well. I apologize that much of this post is in "us" and "them" language, despite my topic. The reality is that I'm not close with any Muslims, and until I am, there is a part of me that considers them "other", simply by virtue of not being exactly like me. I'm always trying to be aware of the fact that there is a large community of frequently mistreated immigrants already sharing in the community I live in - Mexican migrant workers and immigrants, legal or otherwise. Honestly, I don't know very many people who aren't very similar to me, and I think that's a problem. I'm trying to change that, and I challenge you to do the same if you're in the same boat. 

One of my favorite sources of news and encouragement on the immigrant-settlement front is Miss Understanding. A Christian woman and a Muslim woman who are friends have begun to facilitate activities and meetings and conversations between ordinary people of the two faiths in an effort to incite change on a one-to-one basis. One of my favorite quotes from a friend involved in their efforts recently goes as follows: "I wish I could bottle up the love that exists between my family and Sondos's and pour this love out all over the world." That, my friends, is the power of making the refugee at home in this country.

I am thankful for a God who is bigger than ISIS, and I'm thankful for the push and the opportunity to get out of my comfort zone and love a refugee as refugees (America) first loved me. Happy Thanksgiving.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts with Thumbnails