A- A A+

Countering ISIS by going off-script

Fatima Measham |  19 November 2015

It is tempting to view the aftermath of the recent terrorist attacks in Paris as something of a well-rehearsed script. Condemnation of the killings, sympathy for the families of victims, resolve to seek and punish perpetrators, expressions of solidarity across nations.

Pray for ParisAlso part of the routine: Muslim clerics and scholars repudiating extremism, counter-assertions that their statements are not harsh enough, and assaults targeting Muslims on the street and in policy.

In Australia, a senator in the federal parliament — not some random talkback caller on radio — suggested that the Grand Mufti be fitted with a monitoring bracelet for broadening the discussion on factors that lead to radicalisation.

In the United States, nominees for the Republican presidential candidacy took the position that only Christian refugees from Syria should be taken. A mayor in Virginia invoked the use of Japanese internment camps during World War II in his refusal to settle refugees in his area.

In Ontario, Canada, a mosque was set on fire, a Hindu temple vandalised, and a Muslim woman was beaten and robbed in what police say was a hate-motivated attack.

One of the things that we seem to be really bad at in times of high insecurity is distinguishing between our allies and enemies. We do the work of our enemies when we fail in this way: when we victimise our allies, we become weak rather than strong.

But even casting the vast majority of Muslims as 'allies' is deeply problematic. The premise that there are distinct parties who would otherwise act separately muddles the truth: that terrorism is indiscriminate by nature. French Muslims were among the dead in Paris, young men and women at the prime of their life, out in town on an autumn evening. There is no Muslim 'them'; there is just us.

In this regard, there are a few things that have gone off-script, or have been articulated with greater resonance than before. For one thing, there is a growing recognition that Islamist attacks, whether or not they have prior imprimatur from Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, are strategic and not just nihilistic or 'evil'.

They seek western military responses that would fulfil the medieval-apocalyptic narratives that prop up the 'caliphate'. We would do well to remember that the idea of defending homeland values is as potent for jihadis as it is for nationalists and white supremacists.  

ISIS also seeks to make life for Muslims in secular societies untenable. French journalist Nicolas Hénin, who was held hostage by ISIS for ten months, says that in the wake of the Paris attacks: 'They will be heartened by every sign of overreaction, of division, of fear, of racism, of xenophobia; they will be drawn to any examples of ugliness on social media.

'Central to their world view is the belief that communities cannot live together with Muslims, and every day their antennae will be tuned towards finding supporting evidence.'

Academic and media presenter Waleed Aly similarly outlines these expectations in a segment on The Project, adding 'I won't be manipulated'. He goes on to say that when a politician or cleric says that Muslims do not belong, or when non-Muslims write 'missives of hate' on social media, they are contributing to conditions that favour ISIS, which is essentially a world without nuance or complexity.

Departures from script become significant in this context, and indeed some resistance to ISIS strategies seems to be emerging. French president Francois Hollande made plain the connection between refugees and terrorism: 'The truth is that this link exists because the people of Syria and Iraq have fled because they are martyred by the same people who attack us today.'

His country has retained its commitment to 30,000 refugees who 'will be welcomed in the next two years'. 'Our duty is to carry on our lives,' he says.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's reaction to hate-motivated attacks in Ontario is also worth noting in that it makes a pointed distinction between national security issues and national values. 'Diversity is Canada's strength,' he says. 'Our focus must be on stopping the people responsible for the terror, and continuing to fight hate by embracing Canadian values (of pluralism and acceptance).'

Perhaps the most salient response to the Paris attacks is captured by one particular victim, a man whose wife died at the Bataclan concert.

In a Facebook post addressed to terrorists, Antoine Leiris writes, 'You want me to be afraid, to cast a mistrustful eye on my fellow citizens, to sacrifice my freedom for security.' He describes his devastation, the ignorance he believes has shaped the attackers, and his little son who 'will insult you with his happiness and freedom' every day. And yet, Leiris says, 'You will not have my hatred.'  

It is not a prescription for defeating ISIS, and certainly there are commentators who would argue that 'a few hugs and hashtags' does not address the threat. But it does mean refusing to cede control over our language and behaviour to terrorists. We cannot be our own enemy.


Fatima Measham

Fatima Measham is a Eureka Street consulting editor. She tweets @foomeister and blogs at This is Complicated.



Comments should be short, respectful and on topic. Email is requested for identification purposes only.

Word Count: 0 (please limit to 200)

Submitted comments

An excellent article. The Paris mass murders were performed by thoroughly indoctrinated, self-alienated sickos, who, in response seem to have conjured up every right wing sicko. Sickos thrive on hatred. These contemporary sickos on both sides want to polarise the situation into an 'us' and 'them' one. Religion and ethnicity should not be used to divide us. Neither Nicolas Henin nor Waleed Ali, who you both mention, are divisive, overly sectarian figures but mainstream members of their respective societies. The French Muslim community did mainly originate from 'economic migrants' (now a pejorative phrase here) who actually wanted a better life for themselves and their children and were fully entitled to seek it. That community appears to be almost totally with the rest of France in solidarity. We want normal, mainstream people like these to speak out rather than unrepresentative figureheads. They do.

Edward Fido 19 November 2015

A useful and informative contribution to current discussions.

Noel Kapernick 20 November 2015

Wonderful thoughtful article thank you. It is a great shame more people of all faiths and non faiths don't think this way.

Janet Spink 20 November 2015

Dear Fatima, the peaceful law abiding citizens of any religion, sexual preference or political belief are being told that we will "counter and win over" radicalized Muslim's with love and goodwill preventing others from taking this violent path. The Grand Mufti identified a number of community behaviors he believes are causative factors. These included racism, foreign policy and military interventions. Fatima, this is naivety in the extreme. These are violent criminals that oppose freedom and law in the name of religion. The frustrated response from peaceful western communities around the world is in large part due to the lack of leadership within the Muslim communities and their continued inability to deal with their children who are migrating to violent subgroups. Unfortunately the Grand Mufti's comments are frighteningly revealing. They demonstrate at a very real level, he believes the actions of the radicalized youth are a "reaction" to causative factors within western communities. i.e., We are in some way partly culpable for a 15 year old boy who kills a man in cold blood as he walks away from his place of work. Your entire narrative misses the crucial issues as did Waleed's. The muslim community needs to find its leadership. Currently there is none, along with a lack of ownership for the brutal murderers that have filed out of Australian mosques and headed to Syria and surrounds. Until the leadership is found, few things will change. Community attitudes and general trust of muslim communities will not improve within the current state of affairs.

Luke 20 November 2015

" There is no Muslim 'them'; there is just us." Bravo. WE (all of 'us') do not sufficiently realise just how conditioned we are by our prejudiced and outdated Traditions. WE, whoever we are, tend to think 'our' way is THE Way, just like babies think they are the centre of the world and the only thing that matters. We all need to grow up and learn to live with, and flourish with diversity. God is calling different peoples along different paths. These paths should harmonise and benefit each other. If they clash, it is a sign that one or more is straying from God's call. Self deception and short sighted self interest is leading us to stray from the path God provides for us. Muslims and Jews have a long history of abuse from Christian hubris, and can't be expected to just forget this over night, so allowance needs to be made. Religious leaders need to meet and solve these problems. Probably it will need a push from 'vox populi' to succeed, so let us speak up and contribute to a great reconciliation.

Robert Liddy 20 November 2015

Thanks for a positive and insightful article. I am reminded at this time of the words of two of history's great peacemakers - Gandhi and Martin Luther King - both influenced by history's greatest peacemaker, Jesus Christ, and both knew the power of going 'off the script'. Gandhi said, "An eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind." MLK noted that 'Hate begets hate; violence begets violence; toughness begets a greater toughness. We must meet the forces of hate with the power of love.' History proves that they were right.

Jeremy Thewlis 20 November 2015

Thanks for another thoughtful piece on this vexed matter. We need to reflect on what is happening and not simply blame and condemn, as so many commentators, including Luke below, are doing. Double standards are being applied by those who deny humanity to 'them' and claim innocence for 'us/our side'. There is glaring almost universal grief and mourning for the victims in Paris and the virtual silence about victims in Beirut, Homs, Karachi and elsewhere; the former are people the latter numbers. The Grand Mufti was vilified for daring to mention possible triggers for the grotesque killings in Paris. In my view, pointing out historical and contemporary factors that might engender vengeful acts is not to condone those acts but to try and comprehend them. France has responded with military might in Syria with what is accepted as appropriate vengeance. Why is this so angrily condemned? Why do we unquestioningly approve bombing from the air and other military actions that almost invariably slays children, women and men, not all of whom are terrorists. As a world, we must surely address the complexity of today's conflicts and try to resolve them peacefully if we are to avoid endless attacks and retaliation.

Myrna 20 November 2015

Far from the rarefied air of ES to the real world of IS using women and children as human shields, to protect themselves from enemy! I applaud Cardinal Koch who referred to IS as a "satanic Terrorist Organisation" And the Pope who denounced "the radical Islamists’ use of God’s name to justify the attacks as “blasphemy,” he said, and reminded of Jesus’ preaching about the end times and the coming “apocalyptic elements, like war, famine and cosmic catastrophes" Then again ES unlike the Vatican is not high on the IS hit list[as advised by FBI]

Father John George 20 November 2015

Really nice read, Fatima. I do think, however, that we should also understand the roots and the political context of IS. Regional and Western governments have also had a hand in what IS is and does. Politics, warmongering, and the armament industry are as tainted with blood as terrorists are. And if we do not stop all of them in favour of negotiations and diplomacy, we are all as guilty as the people you discuss.

Consuelo 21 November 2015

Luke there are already Muslim communities leaders in Australian cities who are speaking out, but their voices are not often heard because the media focus on the loudest voices - the extremists on both sides of the issue. And many of these moderate Muslim leaders and muftis belong to smaller communities and don't hold the same authoritative/unified status as, for example, an Archbishop would in the Catholic or Anglican Churches. The other issue, as reported this week, is that some muftis are frustrated and tired of having to justify themselves and distance themselves from jihadist movements like ISIS. Perhaps there is a need to for a more unified public campaign to denounce the violence and extremism, but the media would probably be the biggest hurdle in how well the message filters through. Muslim leaders deserve far less criticism and blame for not speaking out than Catholic bishops and the way they failed to deal adequate with the child abuse scandals - both in the past when the abuses occurred, and more recently during the royal commission. It seems ludicrous to have to point out that paedophilia within the church and the subsequent failings to deal with it were clear and grave breaches of the values and ethics of Christianity. But Pell in particular didn't seem convincing in expressing this at the royal commission. Similarly we are expecting our muslim community leaders to take a public stand - that terrorism is obviously a breach of their religious values - yet they don't share the same hierarchical authority, media saviness, England language skills and and prestige as cardinals and archbishops.

AURELIUS 21 November 2015

@Luke -"Your entire narrative misses the crucial issues as did Waleed's. The muslim community needs to find its leadership". Luke, firstly, there is no single 'Muslim community' in Australia. What there is are a number of communities of Australian Muslims divided by sect, ethnicity and geography. In addition there are Australian Muslims, some of them young males, who don't identify with or particularly engage with any of these specific communities. And misleading titles such as Grand Mufti of Australia give a false impression of leadership scope. Which Sunnis does the Mufti represent outside of Sunnis in Western Sydney, let alone Shia in Brisbane or Ahmadis in Adelaide etc? I also reject your false dichotomy between 'Western communities' and 'Muslim communities' since the latter is not only a part of the former, but is interwoven into it. Lastly, the problems arising from the actions of some Australian Muslims is not solely the responsibility of 'Muslims', it is also the responsibility of Australia(ns) in general. Because, as I say, Australian Muslims exist and have a relationship to both contexts of society. That doesn't mean that the responsibilities of both (Muslims and nons) are the same or even equal, but there is an active, positive part to be played by everyone, which does not include simply and exclusively assigning blame and responsibility to the other.

Rashid 22 November 2015

The ninth method is to think of the world as a place where people go from religion to religion looking for truth but finding only confusion. They are like a skilled craftsman who carves an ox and paints it until the statue resembles the real thing. But when he tries to use it to plough his field, the ox is good for nothing.

AO 24 November 2015

Similar articles

On blaming Muslims for Paris

Justin Glyn | 19 November 2015

DescriptionIt is possible to find 'texts of terror' in Jewish, Christian and Muslim Scriptures. They need to be responsibly understood and explored with a close understanding of their context. We did not demand all Catholics stand up and denounce every IRA attack, nor that all Christians apologise for Anders Breivik. Similarly, why should we expect all members of a religion with over a billion adherents with multiple ancient variants to actively disown every horror claimed to have been committed in its name?

What separates us from IS

Andrew Hamilton | 19 November 2015

Liberte, egalite, fraterniteThe mass murder of unarmed civilians in Paris last weekend was appalling. Whether considered as an act of war or of terror, it was indefensible. The themes of war against terrorism and victory have dominated commentary on the killings. In light of the fact that the war against terror was the seedbed in which IS grew, they demand serious reflection. We should ask precisely what our enemy is attacking, what therefore must be defended, and what will be the signs of victory or defeat.

Contemplating war in ordinary France

Bronwyn Lay | 16 November 2015

Bataclan Theatre in ParisAs I marched for Remembrance Day in our small village in France, I wondered, 'How long will these villages keep these ceremonies? When will someone decide these wars are too long ago or too far away?' Two days later, Paris was attacked. The news came like war does: sudden and violent. Then came declarations of a state of emergency and the closing of borders. My eldest daughter was over the border in Switzerland without a passport. War starts in increments, in the small ordinary worries of families.

On tolerance and terrorism

Chris Middleton | 16 November 2015

Darkened Eiffel TowerIn many of these conflicts religious difference constitutes an important element in the conflict. Some commentators point to religion as the cause of many of humankind's wars. In a sense they are correct, as they would be also if they ascribed war to humankind's quest for liberty, equality, justice, or even love. It is a paradox of the human condition that that which is noblest in the human often gives way to violence and intolerance. How are we supposed to react to such an attack?

Myanmar Mother Suu's moment in history

Amal Aung Zaw | 13 November 2015

Aung San Suu Kyi Time Magazine coverThe results resonate beyond the shores of Myanmar. The manner in which a fragile woman with the power of empty hands wrought a miracle, melting decades of totalitarian dominance, is the stuff of history. The world savours this moment as its own. This is the Gandhi moment, the Mandela moment of the 21st Century. In an era of ISIL killings and chronic violent wars in the middle east for 'democracy', a woman from the east has once again affirmed the moral superiority of non violence.