Tuesday, September 8, 2015

ISIS is Islamic, but we should still shut up about them

Islam has never been united. For one thing, there is no Muslim pontiff who speaks for the world's 1.6 billion Muslims living on six continents. Yet even the Roman Catholic Pope speaks for only about half of the world's 2.2 billion Christians; and millions of those Catholics choose to disregard him on such crucial matters of the faith as birth control, premarital sex, divorce and gay relationships. 

If we sat down and took a deep breath, we'd all admit that there is no perfect, ideal version of Catholicism, or Christianity for that matter, that exists separately from the people who call themselves Christians. Anybody who says he is Christian and practices some form of the faith, no matter how strange, is a Christian. Attempts to label practitioners on the margins of a faith as "heretics" or "not true believers" has been tried, will continue to be tried, in vain. It only comes with conflict, violent schisms, cults and new denominations.

The same is true of Islam, with its Sufi, Sunni, Shia branches... and a bunch of sects and sub-sects that I don't know or understand. It is diverse and always changing.

ISIS in particular, with upwards of 30,000 fighters, or about 0.00002 % of the world's Muslims, is Islamic, just as they claim. A dark and evil part, but a part of Islam nonetheless. Just as violent white supremacists in the KKK or Branch Davidians are indeed part of the Christian pageant, because they profess themselves to be so. You or I can stand aloof and say they're not, but Christianity is what Christians do; Islam is what Muslims do; including all the good and bad. These religions are not what some sacred texts say. We can't just define away the behaviors -- and the believers -- that we don't accept as pure or "mainstream." (Although millions of believers will continue to do just that, to the detriment of world peace and understanding....)

Likewise, the U.S. should not -- and I'm thinking of Barack Obama specifically but before him scores of prominent conservatives -- engage in pointless, unwinnable schismatic debates about who is or isn't Islamic. It's apparent why both sides are tempted to do so: conservatives want to stoke xenophobic fear among Americans that justifies, post facto, their wars of choice in the Mideast and continued spying and infringements on our civil and constitutional liberties; and President Obama, in response, wants to calm Americans' nerves, and avoid antagonizing one-fifth of the globe, including America's peaceful 2 million+ Muslims. Conservatives' anti-Islamic argument is mean and stupid on its face; Obama is stupid for engaging seriously with stupidity.

Just as our arguing that ISIS is not Islamic does not seem to affect their appeal to disaffected recruits from all over the world, nor does our paying so much attention to ISIS hurt their cause. Just the opposite. When the most powerful nation in the history of the world -- not to mention the "Great Satan" -- declares that ISIS is scary and powerful, it's the best possible endorsement for the Islamic State's recruitment and fundraising efforts.   

Keeping a cool head and maintaining perspective on global threats are responsibilities of being a superpower. We must be serious when choosing our enemies, and more serious in how we fight them. That doesn't automatically mean all guns -- and mouths -- ablazing.

I've said it before: With all of its vast power, the U.S. shouldn't say that ISIS is an "existential threat," "clear and present danger," or anything of the kind.  It's the equivalent of a well-armed huntsman hyperventilating at a swarm of mosquitoes. 

Since 9/11, almost no leaders of any political stripe are willing to say the truth: We cannot defend ourselves against every attack on U.S. soil by extremists, especially by lone wolf terrorists inspired by the Internet and driven by deep personal resentments and/or violent mental illness. (ISIS's forte.)  And especially against those attacks on U.S. soil that require very little coordination or preparation (that could tip off domestic spies), and make use of readily available weapons of mass terror: assault-type weapons, ammunition, and bomb-making ingredients.  

In October 2002, I grasped this sad fact immediately and personally during the DC sniper attacks. The terrorists, who everyone was sure must be al Qaeda, ended up being a disgruntled, mentally disturbed Army vet (the sniper) and his impressionable teenage nephew (the spotter and getaway driver).  They were armed only with a Bushmaster semiautomatic rifle. They killed 17 people and wounded 10 others, and perhaps worse, caused widespread terror in several states before they were caught, by selecting victims at gas stations and shoppers in parking lots, two of the commonest places in American life. That's how easy terrorism is. And there's nothing stopping anybody today from doing exactly the same thing. Nothing. Nowadays we just have a few more cameras around that anyway wouldn't pick up snipers tucked away in the distance.... 

Our leaders continue to lie to us that by eliminating (as in 100%!) the threat of Islamist extremism "over there," and oppressing the peaceful Muslims at home, we can keep ourselves safe "over here."  In fact, by persecuting Muslims at home, and making stupid wars of choice over there, we make Americans less safe over here, in ways that we've witnessed numerous times. (In a word: blowback).  And worse, we who usually refuse to trust our leaders, who know they tell us what we what we want to hear, choose to believe their lies. (The 240,000-employee strong Dept. of Homeland Security, which didn't exist prior to 9/11, the NSA, the Pentagon's top brass, and the military-intelligence contractors getting $285 billion a year certainly thank us for our choice!)  We should know better.

When influential bloviators like Glenn Beck, and even conservatives that I know, say that radical Islam is one of America's most dire problems, nobody dares laugh at them. Yet if I said the KKK was something every U.S. Presidential candidate should propose a plan to fight, I'd be laughed out of town. Never mind that there are upwards of 3,000 Klan members in the U.S., in all 50 states, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, as opposed to 100 or fewer members of ISIS in the United States, according to the Pentagon.

Either way it's like arguing which is worse, the mosquito or the fly. The West, in particular the United States, has many more important problems to address. 

Publicly, we should ignore ISIS; outside the public eye of cameras and journalists, we should fight ISIS seriously but in proportion to the threat they pose, in the time and manner of our own choosing, and not have our actions be driven by the release of disgusting YouTube videos.