The Blog

The Challenges Facing a Post-Paris World

Daesh fear our unity: theirs is an ideology that fundamentally believes Islam as they interpret it cannot mix with Western values. Embracing immigrants and fostering inter-faith dialogue and collaboration will do more damage to their ideology than a thousand bombs.

World-views are all the more dangerous for their invisibility. The all too obvious and twisted world-view at the heart of Daesh receives much attention through social commentary, but our own world-views, and the ways in which they frame our responses in times of trouble, often go unexamined and unchallenged. If we wish to not only defeat Daesh and other similar groups in the region, but to also move forward as a world community, we must begin to challenge not just the terrorists' world view, but our own too.

It is very tempting and very easy to lay blame at the doors of the mosque, the church or the synagogue (although usually we lay it at the mosque). The more obvious (and obviously wrong) proclamations of the evils of Islam is not what is at issue here, but rather the subtle idea that can spread like a virus that there is something inherent in religion itself that is to blame for these attacks, that religion somehow inevitably leads to prejudice, conflict and death.

In particular one article that drew upon some research that suggests that religious kids are 'meaner' than their secular counterparts has received a lot of attention on social media of late. Despite being heralded by some as definitive proof that religion is what is wrong with the world, it stands in contrast to a lot of other research in the social sciences. Numerous studies have found that religious individuals lead healthier, happier and longer lives, and that they are more likely to donate more time and money than their secular counterparts to charities and NGO's- this holds true even when looking at secular institutions. This is not to sing the praises of organised religion, which has numerous minor and major flaws, but rather to make the argument that there is nothing inherently cruel or debilitating about religion or religiously inclined individuals. Religion is a tool, used for good and bad, like anything else that finds its way into the hands of human beings.

As Carol Kuruvilla has written this week, religion can actually be part of the solution. With its already established networks in place, it can be a great source of community cohesion in times of emergency like the Paris attacks. Kuruvilla illustrates this beautifully in her discussion of people of all faiths and none gathering during Inter-faith week to talk about Islam and to become more informed about its different strands of thought.

Seeing theology as the only significant recruitment drive that bolsters Daesh forces is misleading too. Factors such as the appalling poverty in parts of Iraq and Syria, reaction against domestic government oppression, anger at foreign government's actions, coercion and a desire for glory and belonging all play significant roles too.

It is also easy to vilify the outsiders of society in times of peril. Numerous social commentators have made the very pertinent point that many of the immigrants coming into Europe are trying to flee the very scenes we've seen on the streets of Paris. Throw in the fact that the vast majority of terrorists attacks on Western soil (including the latest attacks in Paris) are perpetrated by predominantly western-bred terrorists, and the idea that this has anything to do with increased migration begins to feel distinctly irrational. Yet still some in society, even at times the most rational of us, feel distinctly queasy about letting in more immigrants at a time when our world feels so very dangerous.

It is in our understanding of the effects, as well as the causes, of global terrorism that our understanding is distorted too. Much has been made of the fact that dead Parisians enjoy more air time than dead Lebanese or dead Syrians, and many have rightly challenged us all to ask why this is. Of course, on one level the answer is fairly simple. An attack in Paris is both much more unexpected to us and much closer to home, not just geographically but culturally too. This highlights the challenges of a world that is increasingly facing global interaction by actors still predominantly of a nationalist mind set.

Both the vilification of immigrants and the ignorance of suffering in further flung countries are symptoms of classic in-group preference, a human tendency that becomes all the more pronounced in times of heightened threat (be it real or imagined). As noble as ideas around overcoming such a bias are, the reality is that such thought processes have been ingrained over millennia because they help us survive, so they're probably not going anywhere anytime soon. What we can do instead is seek to find ways to identify those of other beliefs, backgrounds and countries as part of our in-group. Recognising that many immigrants making their way to Europe will oppose Daesh even more vehemently than us, and that many of them will have the same values towards liberty and democracy and tolerance as us, is a good first step in this direction.

Not only does such a blaming of religion or immigration completely miss the mark, but it reduces what is a complex, evolving phenomena down into a dangerously simple binary, stunting our ability to combat and progress beyond the grisly scenes on the Parisian streets. Rash decisions based upon faulty prejudices are a recipe for disaster, a recipe that has significantly contributed to the concoction of conflict, poverty and desperation in the region currently besieged by Daesh. It is vital that we take time to assess what world-views are framing our perceptions of the situation before we act. Charging into battle believing that religion, immigrants or some sort of inherent evil in Daesh recruits is at fault here leads us to the wrong conclusions and the wrong action.

Focusing on understanding the tradition of Wahhabism and Salafism within Islam, and the role the House of Saud has played within it, on correcting the litany of bad decisions (some accidental, some deliberate) made by successive Western governments in the Middle East and the consequences they have had on the region, on the fact that in Britain and other European countries we have failed young Muslim men and women, the role climate change is playing in destabilising certain regions of the world, the western arms makers that profit from this scenario and on the oppression, prejudice and corruption of many Middle Eastern regimes are far more useful avenues to progress than blaming the Syrian arriving in a dinghy or the Imam preaching peace in the local mosque. Unfortunately this a more difficult set of circumstances to grasp than blaming a single, vulnerable cause.

As Nicolas Henin pointed out in a recent Guardian piece, Daesh fear our unity: theirs is an ideology that fundamentally believes Islam as they interpret it cannot mix with Western values. Embracing immigrants and fostering inter-faith dialogue and collaboration will do more damage to their ideology than a thousand bombs.