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Countering ISIS by going off-script

  • 20 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.

Also 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,