Why is ISIS a Mystery?

In ‘The Mystery of ISIS’, Anonymous delves, in the pages of the 2015 Summer Edition of the New York Review of Books, into the Western miss-comprehension of ISIS. The atrocities of al-Baghdadi and his henchmen and women are hard to take, particularly their ‘theology’ of sex slavery of ‘infidels’, public display of savage killings and ruthless expansion of purist doctrine. The mystery Anonymous addresses is less about why such a movement exists and why it is successful, but why it attracts so many Westerners who should know better. The mystery, it is claimed, lies in the willingness of these young Westerners to give up their freedom and subjugate themselves to a rigidly controlled system (particularly the women and jihadist brides). But freedom, it seems to me, is not the issue. The issue is a deep seated discontent with a liberal and unfulfilling economic system in the West (and autocratic regimes elsewhere). This mystery, I think is well explained in the words by Edmund Phelps, who, in the same issue yet seemingly unrelated topic (economics), writes that ‘many people have long felt the desire to do something with their lives besides consuming goods and having leisure. They desire to participate in a community in which they can interact and develop.’

And participate they do, these recruitlings of ISIS, willing to give up their comfortable life built on economic efficiency, but void of purpose and creativity, to find a community of brothers and sisters that claims to care for them. Most of us can see ISIS as the destructive cult that it is, but a few disaffected youths cannot head the warning signs, like so many youth before them, who joined communist and fascist movements. They join in the belief to create something new and big and fulfilling…. and to be able to participate, something they feel they cannot do in their parents society.

Such descriptions of unfulfilled lives are of course common, and most who experience it do not join a nihilistic tribe, and we will seldom understand the actual trigger of an individual who does so. But the idea that having freedom, as understood by Western standards, shields from attraction to such movements is completely misguided*. We just have to step back, for arguments sake, from the beloved dichotomy of good and evil. From such a detached perspective, ISIS recruits are not the only ones who conscientiously give up their freedom and are willing to die for a cause. So are the men and women joining the United States military, who are sacrificing their independence and life for a greater good. It is all about which greater good is worth fighting for, of course. The reason to join either tribe and the actual outcomes are entirely different, but the willingness to give up freedom for a perceived greater good seems to me the same nonetheless.

*One of the rational for the Bush administration to bring ‘freedom’ to the Middle East was the strong belief that ‘giving people freedom like we have in the US’ preempts the need to become a terrorist.

Delivering the Goods

In these times of debates among presidential candidates, delivering the goods is always promised, and four or eight years later lamented that they weren’t. But why should it be surprising that┬ádelivering the goods is difficult in a Republic, where separation of powers is a given? It is totalitarian systems and monarchies that seemingly can make fast and tough decisions. Yet autocrats – benevolent to some, tyrannical to most – usually do not last and such regimes change often in spasms of violence.

Participatory democracy, in contrast, is hard and requires compromise and patience, qualities that do not seem to be widespread these days. Safeguards enshrined in our Constitution ensure that change – i.e. delivering the goods – is difficult and requires cooperation from all participants. Separation of power as written in our Constitution exists precisely because history tells us that societies that do not respect minorities and do not take care of their wants will always face trouble, instability and revolt, and ‘stability’ is only possible by state repression and violence.

I want to remind people who complain that times today are tough, that political life is polarized and Congress ineffective, that the country once went to war against itself to make a fundamental change to society, the abolition of slavery. This war was fought to better honor the Declaration of Independence from one of the most powerful and far reaching monarchies in history by guaranteeing liberty to all men, not just white men (yet still not to women then).

Fair on Crime

There is a welcome shift in the mentality about crime and justice. A shift away from ‘tough on crime’ that has made no one safer but causes unnecessary suffering. The urge for revenge is palpable in this ‘tough on crime’, zero tolerance and mandatory minimum sentences, isolation not as punishment, but as permanent management of prisoners, sentencing of minors as adults, and one size fits all on sex crimes with life long registration as sex offenders.

Of Crime and Terrorism

The attacks in Chattanooga and Charleston could not seem more different: Islamic terrorism and a ‘white race war’ perpetrated by two young men who were disturbed by their own life’s inconsistencies, not because they grew up oppressed, lacking freedom, wealth and education (George Bushes favorite explanation why people engage in terrorism, one major reason to ‘bring freedom and democracy’ to the Middle East). Both young men were so called ‘Lone Wolves’ and only superficially motivated by long established political extremist thought. Neither was a member of any corresponding group (supremacists, jihadists) promoting anti-establishment politics and philosophy.

After 9/11, the ‘War on Terror’ relabeled what are clearly ‘hate crimes’ into the terminology of war, with friend and foe, good and evil, combatants and civilians. The war on terror treated a crime as an act of rebellion, for terror has always been a weapon of states, rebels, and freedom fighters. It is time to pursue acts of terror by individuals as hate crimes, not an act of war, which gives the perpetrator more mystic and esteem than they deserve. By labeling them combatants (as in enemy combatants) we grant them the status of warriors in the eyes of their supporters, not criminals.