On Friday, a handful of Islamic State militants launched a coordinated assault on multiple locations in Paris, killing 127 people and wounding many, many others.
Now we have to decide how we are going to respond to it.
I do not mean what our governments and militaries are going to do about it. I’m not qualified to comment on that. I also don’t want to argue over whether this is “true Islam”/Quranic. If you want to see my position on that, read this. What I do want to say is that it’s important for non-Muslim Westerners like me to a) put these attacks into context and perspective, and b) orient ourselves towards a productive social and cultural path forward.
First, it’s important to point out that what happened last night is a rare event in the West, but it is a way of life for some parts of the Middle East. The Islamic State is sweeping across the region, fighting against Syria, Iraq, Turkey, the Kurds and just about every Islamic nation within striking range of the area it controls. An event very similar to what happened in Paris also happened in Beirut. By far, the biggest victims of Islamic extremist groups like the Islamic State are Muslims, and yet the reaction by so many following attacks such as these is to pin it on the entire Muslim world.
It can be hard to get to that point of understanding because everything in our primitive, pattern-seeking lizard brains tells us to do the opposite. We see “us” being killed by “them” and we feel a lurch in our stomachs telling us that it is time to end “them.” We want to go in and do some damage. “They” are a great evil that wants to kill “us” and “we” are putting a stop to it — whatever “it” is. Forget nuance; we feel our evolutionary instinct to protect our own tribe, no matter the consequences to others. “They” have hurt us, and now “we” must hurt them back.
The message of Islamic extremism, the one they use to recruit, often centers around the idea that the West hates Muslims, that our military actions against extremism are a war on Muslims, and that Muslims need to unite and take up arms against the West if they want to protect their families. It is exactly the same instinct as the one we feel, except instead of 9/11 or Paris it is about Iraq or Iran or the oppression of Muslims in the Western world.
This instinct is why so many people are dying in these kind of attacks. Islam is not what causes people to behave like this — our instinct to create an Other and dehumanize it and think of it as a monolith is what causes people to behave like this.
In the war against the Islamic State, Muslims like those in Kurdistan are our natural allies. The Muslim refugees trying to escape with their lives are our natural allies. Last night, the West experienced what much of the Muslim world is fighting on the one hand and fleeing on the other. It should make us more sympathetic and open to refugees fleeing the Islamic State, not less.
If we treat our peaceful Muslim brothers and sisters with love and respect, as allies, we will create a contrast against the Islamic State that will help us work with peaceful Muslims against our common enemy. We will tear down the rhetoric of radical Islam that tries to paint our fight against them as one against Islam as a whole. The Islamic State wants us to equate them with the rest of the Muslim world. They’re counting on it. They need it so they can gin up a new round of recruits. They need it so they can show Muslims currently living in the West that they are not welcome; that we really do hate and fear them. If we’re serious about defeating the Islamic State, we can’t prove them right.
This great evil has left us an opportunity to rise above our history as a species, to stop thinking of people as monolithic demographics, to show love to the lovers of peace while also opposing the evil, regardless of their religion or ethnicity.
In Romans, Paul said “Do not be overcome by evil but overcome evil with good.” You can eliminate certain sects of evil, but the only way for people to stop taking up arms and killing each other is if we overcome it with good, through the love we show our fellow humans. The vast majority of Muslims who reject and fight against the Islamic State don’t deserve to be kicked around between the West and the extremists. People who oppose the evil actions of militant groups like ISIS are all our allies.
There’s a debate to be had as to what (or if) the appropriate military response to yesterday’s attacks may be, but we need to remember who the actual enemy is. If we can’t, this problem will get worse and more people will die decades into the future. It’s 2015; it’s time to get over our instinct to discriminate based on imagined tribal boundaries.