Monday, December 07, 2015

Could ISIS be onto something important?

I have watched with horror as the events spilling out of Paris last weekend have developed this week. The accounts of the brutal attacks and loss of life were horrible, difficult to watch.
In the wake of those attacks, the well named worldwide web has prompted many of us to be aware of similar attacks by terrorist groups which we had, for the most part, simply ignored previously. A devastating attack on Beirut the day before the Paris attacks was comparable in terms of deaths and horror. The attack on a Kenyan university a few months ago also swam back into focus with similar casualties and horror. Many of us who care about our world have had our unconscious Eurocentric lenses brought squarely – if painfully – back into focus.

We have also had to become honest about our fears of attacks on our home shores. The US House voted last night to restrict and tightly screen refugees pouring out of the open wound once bounded by European drawn national borders in places named Iraq and Syria. This comes on the heels of 27 US state governors declaring that their states would not accept any middle eastern refugees, statements with little legal basis but with enormous potential political capital in exploiting the paranoia of a fearful public.

I wish the situation was as clear as many would like to make it. Yes, the US is a nation of immigrants with a history that is closely connected to our greatness as a people and as a culture. No, there probably isn’t a huge chance that refugees fleeing the brutality of life under ISIS will prove to be ISIS operatives once within US borders. But the memory of the 9-11 terrorists, living among us and striking at us using the training we provided them and our own airliners, is still fresh in the memories of many Americans. Where does one draw the line between a raw paranoia whipped into a frenzy by ratings seeking media and a reasonable concern for national security?

There is also a religious element which lies just below the surface here. Many US residents operate out of a presumption of superiority of the particular brand of the Christian religion they hold which tends to express itself in an uncritical but common equation of Islam with violence and terrorism. This blissful ignorance willfully avoids the reality that most of the actual terrorism committed in this country has come at the hands of those acting in the name of the supposedly superior religion. Indeed, Olympics bomber Eric Rudolph found his deadly vocation in a movement called Christian Identity.

No Room at the Inn

A common meme currently making the rounds on social media displays a couple of renditions of the argument that were the infant Jesus and his family seeking refuge in the US today as they are reported to have done in two different Gospels, they would be out of luck. The Gospel of Matthew reports the Holy Family having sought refuge in Egypt from the infanticide launched by a King Herod tipped off by his own soothsayers of Jesus' birth, the slaying of all Hebrew infants a means of eliminating any potential rivals to the throne.  Had Egypt responded to the Holy Family’s request for temporary asylum as has the governor of my own state, we probably would never have heard of Jesus.

A second version of that meme compares the US to a more heartless version of the little town of Bethlehem with no room in the inn for an at-term pregnant mother and her husband. Without even a stable, an infant could not have survived a birth in the harsh elements of early winter Judea.

Of course, both versions are designed to appeal to Christian compassion and the long held value of hospitality in the Christian tradition. They are also designed to bring into focus the role of varying degrees of xenophobia in Christian ideation and how such thinking and resulting behaviors are antithetical to the heart of the Christian tradition with its commandment to love one’s neighbor as oneself. And if there is any doubt about how far the term neighbor stretches, Jesus’ Good Samaritan parable features a culturally despised political enemy as the one who proved neighbor to the man in need.

The Holy Family’s flight into Egypt as refugees from Herod’s homicidal paranoia and the current flood of refugees from places that were once called Syria and Iraq bear some striking similarities. They are both flights to escape terror, torture and death. Matthew’s story is set in a Judea in which a client king had been placed on the throne by the world’s controlling empire of the time. Herod was responsible for keeping the peace in the Roman province and was keenly aware of this role even as he was widely reviled by his own people. 

In the current story, ISIS came to power in the wake of an invasion by the world’s current imperial power. A destabilized Iraq, an imploding Syria and a wealth of weaponry left behind by the invading imperial armies when they exited Iraq provided the raw materials for the rise of a self-proclaimed caliphate based in high visibility torture and the terror which results from it. Clearly, Jesus’ family did not play a direct role in their own need to flee Judea. They were merely the collateral damage of imperial machinations over which they had no control or ability to influence. The same is true of the refugees hemorrhaging out of the former Iraq and Syria.

Bu here the similarities end. In Luke’s story, Joseph and Mary were given shelter of sorts, albeit shelter designed for non-human animals. There amidst the lowing cattle the Christ child would be born. In Matthew’s story, the flight into Egypt occurred with no checks at the border, the family being able to return to their native Judea after the danger to their infant son had passed.

The US House and the governors of our states, when placed in the roles of the owner of the stable in Bethlehem or the officials in Egypt in charge of their borders, come up pretty short. Ironically, it is often these self-proclaimed followers of the Christ child who are most vociferous in their desire to keep out those currently in his position of extreme vulnerability.

Wrestling with the Shadow

I have struggled with my own responses to the attacks on Paris. I watched with equal parts horror and glee as the French announced its response would be “merciless.” Within 24 hours, that response became clear with the bombing of the city that supposedly serves as ISIS headquarters. The anger in my heart leapt with joy as the news of the bombing was announced. They deserved it, my Shadow gloated.

At the same time the sorrow already in my soul deepened as the lives of ever more people bearing the same divine image I and everyone else bears were lost in a hail of fiery explosions. No one deserves to die like that, particularly civilians already suffering under the tyrannical reign of ISIS.

Yet, I find myself in a quandary. On the one hand, I recognize that we cannot bomb our way out of this cesspool of violence and inhumanity that our own short-sighted actions essentially spawned in the first place. Indeed, if anything, the rise of ISIS from the ashes of Iraq serves as the consummate argument against using military force to resolve international problems. Violence always has a way of begetting more violence.

On the other hand, the leadership of all these groups from Al Qaeda to Boko Haram offer no indications that they are open to negotiating. If anything they appear inclined to engage in ever more deadly high visibility attacks like those which shook two world class cities this past week. How does the world deal with the immediate danger they pose without the use of coercive force and the violence which flows from it?

Even as we wrestle with the immediate dangers posed by terrorist organizations, it is the long range concerns they present that must not escape our attention. An essential question to be considered is what makes an operation like ISIS attractive to recruits from around the world? What could possibly prove so compelling to a young man or woman at the beginning of their lives that they would be willing to strap on an explosive device and detonate it in the public square? Clearly, the threat of violence and death are simply not deterrents for these true believers.

It is important here to note that every religion has had true believers willing to kill and die for their faith. While Islamic fundamentalists have been the recent focus of the world’s attention given their role in terrorist attacks, in truth the only real difference between the Christian fundamentalists of our own Bible and Beretta Belts, the Jewish fundamentalists of the West Bank settlements and the Islamic fundamentalists we so deeply fear is their degree of extremism – largely driven by the degree of insularity of the echo chambers in which they thrive – and their access to power.

Pathologies of Modernity – the Message from ISIS

Last night while flipping through the channels trying to find something non-jarring before bed, I stumbled across a provocative appearance by former Undersecretary of Defense for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman on MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell show. Sherman spoke of the role of opposition to modernity in attracting young recruits to the ISIS movement.
Sherman cited Pew Research reports from a number of countries where Islam is prevalent which found that while young residents of those countries were comfortable with the technology that modernity has provided them, they simultaneously fear modernity due to its threat of losing the sense of self. Movements like ISIS and Boko Haram readily provide a sense of identity, however limited and artificial it might be, to people who have largely been the losers in the globalization project of modernity.

I believe that ISIS may well have a few points here that we need to consider.

One of Sherman’s more salient points was how disrupting the infrastructure of ideologically-driven terrorist groups must be a focus of world efforts to combat them. Modernity’s free market fundamentalism has constructed the world as a global marketplace with little concern for what is being sold to whom.

The manufacture and export of weaponry worldwide has escalated even as that weaponry has increasingly been used against the people and nations it was allegedly produced to protect. The majority of ISIS’ current stockpile of armaments was either produced in the US or marketed by US companies. What might the example of ISIS with its ready access to the weapons we produced that they are using to terrorize our world suggest to us about the need to revisit this rather uncritical aspect of modernism?

There are two other points regarding fundamentalist groups like ISIS and its epic clash with modernity that merit consideration. First, virtually all fundamentalist movements include in their ideological core elements of patriarchy in varying degrees of pathology. Frankly, the argument that women must cover their own bodies whether they wish to or not because men cannot control themselves otherwise has never been a terribly compelling argument and could only arise in a culture in which unearned male privilege to define a culture was presumed.

In many ways, fundamentalists of all stripes have something to fear and much to learn from modernity with its liberationist and egalitarian values and its confrontation of repressive sexual mores. Repression validated in the name of tradition and religion still remains at its heart repression.

On the other hand, modernity has its own pathologies that not just fundamentalists find unbearable. While women have been freed to express themselves as they see fit, their bodies have simultaneously become commodities for marketing and thus consumption.
The free market fundamentalism of neoliberal modernity has also produced an enormous disparity and resulting social inequality that perpetually threatens to dissolve its societies into chaos. Entire cohorts of young workers today face underemployment on a good day and unemployment on most days in increasingly stratified societies in which a tiny elite enjoy the good life while the rest struggle. Their despair provides the fuel propelling a descent into the darkness of nihilistic identity groups across the developing world and in its expanding pockets within the techno-industrialized world.

While modernity has freed its citizens from the superstitions of religion and the constraints of the tribe, modernity has resulted in the very atomization and alienation that creates a ready supply of potential recruits for ideologically proscribed tribes that will readily provide identity and existential purpose. These young jihadists of all stripes are not simply confronting us from the outside. We are producing many of them in our own backyards.

A New Consciousness for the Brave New World

US culture has never been known for its ability to delay gratification or to see the big picture. Pragmatism with its preference for immediate action is the dominant philosophy in the US even at times when gradual, deliberate and thoughtful policy has clearly been the better path. But the ease with which cosmopolitan urban centers can be attacked and the flood of refugees which appears to be only the harbinger of even greater flows of desperate people fleeing inhospitable regions ought to suggest to us that business as usual can no longer work.

While Albert Einstein was known primarily for his work in physics, he also was an astute observer of and commentator upon human nature and societies. Einstein often noted that “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.” We stand at the threshold of a new world. Postmodernity has made us very familiar with the failings of modernity. But it is neither a new revealed religion, as it so often is treated in the academy today, nor is it a solution to the problems it so readily brings into focus.
We must develop the new consciousness needed for this brave new world we have no choice but to face. If we are smart, we will take seriously the messages that ISIS is sending us about how we should construct this new world. Though their medium is abhorrent, we ignore their message to our peril. 

All images taken from Google Images All images taken from Google Images
Harry Scott Coverston
Orlando, Florida

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.

For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d? (Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures)


No comments: