Our Human Enemy: Confronting Questions of Ideology and Belief in the Fight Against ISIS
The terrorist attack on the city of Paris nearly a year ago captivated the world in horror and raw emotion. In the midst of the grief, the narrative of a resurgent ISIS proved irresistible for ideologues. The politicization reached such a critical mass that it led Thomas Friedman of the New York Times to eviscerate pundits attempting to “bootstrap obliquely related agendas” to the tragedy. Alas, acknowledging the impulse did little to control it. For politicians, a response was mandated, and so too was staring down stubborn questions about the nature of terrorism, its agents, and their motivations.
As world leaders wrung hands and vowed retaliation, Dan Kimmel, a candidate for the Minnesota House of Representatives, decided to weigh in. That Sunday, two days after the attack, he tweeted (below): “ISIS isn’t necessarily evil. It is made up of people doing what they think is best for their community. Violence is not the answer, though.” You could practically hear his stammer through the screen. On Twitter, the statement immediately stood out in a crowd of anger and absolutism. On this black-and-white issue – one surely considered incontrovertible by the average American – Kimmel splashed more than a few shades of grey.
Party leaders and fellow representatives were quick to distance themselves. Ken Martin, the party chair, declared that such views “have no place in our party.” Twitter users responded in kind: demands for apology, hurled slurs, and casual suggestions of terrorist affiliation. With the availability and ease of technology, the court of public opinion convened in a matter of seconds, and Kimmel’s case was raised, tried, and adjudicated in less than three hours. Within hours, he made another proclamation, this one more easily anticipated than the first: he was suspending his campaign, effective immediately.
Well… sure! Why not? Surely an un-American ISIS sympathizer deserves a good public shaming. After all, who would disagree? Who would dare speak up?
In the months since Paris, nations across the Arabian Peninsula, Western Europe, and North America have heralded the impending destruction of ISIS, and with it the perversion of Islam that supposedly compels its perpetrators. The U.S. continues to run the playbook – more drone bombs and airstrikes, always “targeted” but somehow rarely on target. When the weapons fail, we use more. The current only runs one way.
Yet as the Western world redoubles its attempts contain the threat of terrorism, our leaders could learn something from Dan Kimmel. ISIS is a community, at least in a geographic sense, thanks to territorial gains that far exceed those of contemporaries like al Qaeda. They certainly envision a world different than it is today. Violence is not the answer, but it should provoke a question: what does it tell us that they see bloodshed as a catalyst for their desired transformation of the world?
To confer the moniker of evil is to dismiss them as beyond reach, and to declare the enemy inhuman is to ignore the reasons they’ve chosen to sacrifice their lives for the sake of their political project. We should consider the radical notion that ISIS is not an abstraction, or a phantom. It is a group of individuals, organized around a common idea – however abhorrent that idea may be.
Surely President Obama and his national security team know this. Indeed, the US has been rightly admonished in some circles by its apparent attempts to kill its way out of an ideological war. But while the drones wage on, the President has shown his greatest resilience in rebuffing Republican efforts to goad him into using the words “radical Islamic terror.” In this way, and maybe only this way, the administration is taking on ISIS in a war of ideas. Particularly because ISIS seeks to claim the entire Muslim world as their kin, the refusal to validate ISIS as an agent of Islam dismantles the cultural bridge they’re so desperate to manufacture. Neutering their concept of the caliphate must be a part of our counterterrorism strategy, and that starts by devaluing their use of Islam as a justification for brutality.
We used to know how to fight a war of ideas. The US Information Agency, formed in 1953, was tasked with “telling America’s story to the world” as the specter of Communism loomed over the Arabian Peninsula and Southeast Asia. The USIA promoted cultural exchange and study abroad initiatives. It hosted a radio program called the Voice of America, sending cultural exports like jazz and moments like the moon landing into the homes of international citizens. That program continues today in an abridged form, and remains marred by internal conflict and dwindling budgets.
Explaining a complex idea takes patience and care, and that’s true whether it refers to America’s values or to ISIS’s motivations. If Kimmel made a mistake, it was that he fell victim to the same tendency Friedman rightly chastised us for. There’s no doubt that Kimmel's statement was inconsiderate of grieving families who couldn't care less what ISIS believes is “best.” Too many reactions like his are punditry and preening, part of a body politic with a “metabolism too furious to allow for decorum or real perspective.”
But we have goals for our own community. We worked hard to define American values for the world at a time when those values were in danger. We can do so again, but it may require accepting the hard truth buried in Dan Kimmel’s tweet: ISIS believes strongly in its own version of the good, and to beat it, we need to be even fiercer advocates of ours.
Edit: Kimmel’s name would ultimately appear on the ballot during a primary contest against a 24-year-old challenger in June. Kimmel was soundly beaten.