What is really the hardest, toughest, most pragmatic approach? It is clearly compassion, acceptance and creating allies instead of enemies in the face of painful provocations.
FOR 51 years, I have been a student, scholar, teacher and researcher dealing with the Middle East. With about 90 percent of my colleagues in Middle East studies, I tried in vain to urge our government not to invade Iraq and watched helplessly as our worst-case scenarios became harsh realities.
Now, following the horrendous attacks in Paris, I am watching another quite predictable disaster in the making and am pessimistic again about the chances of our doing the right thing this time. Here is how I see it and how, I would guess, the same 90 percent of my colleagues would see it too: The people of the Islamic State, or Daesh, may be violent and cruel, but they are not stupid.
They do not think that they are going to “defeat” the West by crashing airplanes, setting off bombs in public places or gunning down innocent people at a concert. They also have no illusions about raising an army in Syria that could defeat the West in a conventional war.
What they do want to accomplish is to induce Western leaders and non-Muslim populations into recruiting a steady stream of future terrorists from among Muslim populations outside the Middle East. And it seems that Western leaders are responding to their cry for recruiting help in large numbers.
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The following are some simple facts worth thinking about:
The vast majority of Muslims living in the West or fleeing the Middle East to the West are simply looking to live their lives in pluralistic societies with some expectation of economic opportunity, safety and the ability to freely practice — or not practice — their religion. This vast majority is not a fertile recruiting ground for religious fanatics.
However, where Muslim minorities have been marginalized, treated as suspicious and denied opportunities available to their non-Muslim fellow citizens, disaffected elements — young people especially — become easy targets for the extremist propaganda of the Islamic State, al-Qaida and the like. The goal of the fundamentalist extremists is to increase the number of the angry and disaffected Muslims living in the West, to drive a wedge between Western Muslims and the countries in which they live. But the extremists cannot do this without help from the West itself.
When our leaders and would-be leaders deny relief to innocent people fleeing unendurable conditions in their homelands — conditions made worse by our interventions — those leaders are creating a huge recruiting ground for the like of the Islamic State. When our leaders rouse their supporters by rhetoric that excludes Muslim Americans from full participation in the life of our nations (“a Muslim cannot be president”), they are recruiting for the Islamic State. When misguided Americans and Europeans assault and revile their Muslim neighbors, they are recruiting for the Islamic State.
The actions of the Islamic State, as heinous and frightening as they are, will never defeat this country or any Western country from the outside. If we are to be defeated, it would be by those within who sow divisiveness, disunity and discrimination. It is all too easy to turn our rage into ultimately self-destructive paths.
So what can we do? It is not rocket science (or bomb or weapon science). We could oppose the Islamic State by refusing to do what they want. We could embrace our Muslim neighbors and see to it that they are treated kindly and fairly.
We could welcome refugees from the turmoil of today’s Middle East. We could make the dispossessed welcome and comfortable and leave them to settle here or return to their homelands on a better day with positive feelings about the West and what the West is capable of at its best moments.
Is this naive? It will seem so to some, but consider: Where have the “tough guy” approaches gotten us? What is really the hardest, most pragmatic approach? It is clearly compassion, acceptance and creating allies instead of enemies in the face of painful provocations. This is what the many years of experience have taught me.
Could it happen, could we do this? That really is up to you.