Imam teaches the Quran in Crimea, (1850s, lithograph by Carlo Bossoli) - from Islam Wikipedia page
It has taken me three days to begin to process the Paris attacks. As the story unfolded over the weekend, at some point it occurred to me that Le Bataclan, where so many people were killed and wounded, was not unlike many rock clubs I’ve gone to around the Northeastern U.S. It wasn’t a huge stadium filled with tens of thousands; it wasn’t even an arena concert. It was a mid-sized club, 1500 capacity, with a random rock band playing. Though it wasn’t completely random for me. While I’ve never seen Eagles of Death Metal, as a California-based band, several friends of mine in Los Angeles bands knew them personally and had played with them. And their merchandise person, Nick Alexander, who was sadly one of the victims in the attack, had worked with many other bands I know. So this wasn’t just another terrorist attack in a Middle Eastern marketplace, a government office, an overseas embassy or a mosque (as horrible as all those are) — this was personal.
I understand that ISIL/ISIS, unlike al-Qaeda, wanted to attack civilian targets. They wanted to attack cultural institutions, the Western world’s way of life. But why this concert? That may seem like a ridiculous question to ask amidst all the bloodshed, but has anyone else wondered this? Surely there were many other shows going on in Paris on a lively Friday night. Why that one? Was it the band name? Did the attackers go through a weekly arts paper and, seeing Eagles of Death Metal listed, assumed that the band and their fans were a pack of wild, aggressive, violent and war-crazed heavy metal headbangers? Looks can be deceiving. And band names can be very deceiving. We as a species are very quick to form opinions based on first impressions and initial appearances, without digging deeper to get at the truth. Upon being threatened or attacked, we’re fast to seek revenge without going beneath the surface and examining the ramifications, as one would in an intelligently played chess game.
Eagles of Death Metal — not a bunch of radical metalheads, but a fun-loving group of blues rock musicians. Any music fan familiar with 1970s easy-listening rock bands would understand the irony and humor in their name. Their fans? Just a guess, but probably a more liberally-minded crowd likely including those who are opposed to overseas U.S. military aggression. In other words, at least some of those people who were indiscriminately gunned down by ISIL that night might have been somewhat sympathetic to their primary cause (get foreign troops out of Syria) if not their ideology and methods.
And now, in the aftermath? Those who believe that since all terrorists seem to be Muslims, all Muslims must be terrorists (like my next door neighbor) have one more example to bolster their argument. Those who judge by appearance only, without keeping their eyes, ears and minds fully open, will turn their anger and hatred toward everyone of Islamic faith. At current count, that’s 1.6 billion people. And according to a recent survey, Islam will overtake Christianity as the world’s largest religion by 2070. Demonizing what will soon be the majority of the world’s population because of the actions of a minority group (by latest count approximately 30-50,000; that’s still an infinitesimal minority of the world’s Muslim population) is not a wise move. It will only widen the rift already between us, creating even more hostility and violence and bringing otherwise peaceful people into the extremist fold.
Upon entering the Bataclan with their Kalashnikovs, these attackers apparently yelled that this was revenge for the French troops being in Syria. What do they think will happen, now that they staged an orchestrated attack in the streets of Paris? Do they imagine that the French will oblige their request, remove their soldiers and leave them alone? Of course they won’t. They’ll go in there 100 times stronger to seek revenge. Not a very smart chess move, ISIS. [As I was writing this, French President Francois Hollande spoke at a special session of both houses of parliament and declared that France was at war.]
On Sunday, I was perusing Twitter and watching the morning news programs. There were discussions about the previous night’s democratic debates. Bernie Sanders was ridiculed for answering the question of global terrorism with the need to address climate change and economic disparity. The fact is, the spread of terrorism is strongly influenced by those two issues. Granted, there is not very much one can do about radical Islamists who want to impose Sharia Law and establish a caliphate. They want to take their part of the world back a thousand years, and this will obviously never square with modern society. However, there is absolutely something we can do to cut off their seemingly endless supply of willing soldiers and to stop creating such fertile ground for the confusion, fear and chaos that ISIL thrives on.
On the subject of economic disparity, it is very easy to sway public opinion when civilians have no food or clean drinking water and cannot provide for their families. Without basic human needs, people will do what they have to in order to survive. And those who are destitute and marginalized, or those who are educated but see no path for advancement, believe that they have nothing left to lose. This makes them the perfect ISIS recruits. If someone comes along and says, “this is the only way and we will take care of you and your family,” what choice does one in such circumstances have but to believe them? So long as there is no middle class, there is no middle way. Rich or poor, have or have not. Power or powerlessness.
As for the role of climate change in all of this, it has been predicted by scientists that future earth changes will bring about mass migrations, which could lead to major global instability. As desperate people search for food, water and fertile farmland, these displaced people, separated from their homeland, will create unsettled regions where opportunistic groups might easily obtain a foothold. These mass migrations inspired by the will to survive will make a mockery of our petty border disputes and cultural sensitivities. And it’s exactly in this type of wretched environment where radical groups like ISIS thrive. That’s right, this isn’t some science fiction movie plot — it’s happening now.
In addition to dealing with these colossal global issues, we must go back to the old concept of winning hearts and minds. But this time, the U.S. must be sincere — and not hypocritical. You can’t drop packages of food on one day and then bombs via drones on a wedding party the next.
After reading about the debate, I switched on Face The Nation, just in time to hear the enlightened thoughts of Farah Pandith, former Special Representative to Muslim Communities for the United States Department of State. Her comments were rays of truth amidst all the calls to arms and other emotionally-driven reactions. Her main point was the need for credible voices, possibly even former extremists, to speak out against the senseless violence. The need to scale up messages on social media, to combat with intelligent dialogue the campaign of hate being waged by ISIS and their sympathizers. This has to be done not by American and European voices, but by Arabic Muslim ones.
I have often wondered why more of the peaceful Islamic community (by far the majority) doesn’t speak out when tragic events like the Paris attacks occur. They’re out there, but their voices aren’t being heard. “Where are they?” I ask myself. But who can blame them? In addition to fear of reprisal from extremists, they are marginalized or even persecuted by their American and European neighbors who should instead be supporting and encouraging them to come forward. Anyone who calls a peaceful, innocent Muslim “terrorist” is driving one more individual toward a terrorist training camp. An uninformed racist is in fact ISIL’s most effective recruiting officer.
No, there is nothing we can do about extremists who hate the modern world and our way of life. But we can suck the oxygen out of their cause by helping strengthen the moderate Islamic voice in contemporary society and by no longer persecuting innocent Muslims overseas and in our local communities. We must welcome those families and individuals fleeing war-torn countries in search of peace with open arms.