How we respond to future attacks will shape our future for generations to come.
Our shock at the recent terror attacks across Paris, the Middle East, and Mali has been predictably followed with calls for mindless retribution. 'Bomb and be done with it. Destroy the enemy, and all will be well.' This seductive voice cannot go unchallenged. ISIL must be defeated, but it will have no meaning to destroy ISIL today if another ISIL springs up 5 years from now. If we truly want to live in a world without terrorism, we cannot continue to treat it as a phenomenon that is self-existing, divorced from a global geopolitical landscape that is shaped largely by our own actions. Our focus should not just be on defeating ISIL- it must be on establishing a lasting peace.
The attacks were perpetrated by ISIL, but ISIL themselves are the offspring of extremist philosophy and foreign support. We must reflect on each of these in turn.
Islamic State does not deserve the name. The Qur'an that extremists like ISIL brandish in their videos disavows their clutch, warning that the murder of an innocent is tantamount to the murder of the whole of mankind (5:33). It teaches Muslims to live in peace with people of all faiths, in 'equity and kindness.' (60:9-10). Muslim extremism is not the result of Prophet Muhammad's teaching any more than Buddhist extremism is the result of Buddha, Christian extremism of Christ, or atheist extremism the result of secular philosophy. Regardless of the ideology from which it claims inspiration, extremism represents a willingness of a few to trample upon the rights of the many. It is abhorrent to most people's nature, meaning that its influence will only flourish with external support. The case of ISIL demonstrates this clearly. Short-sighted actions by western governments supported their dramatic rise to power in several ways.
First, through providing opportunity. It is no coincidence that ISIL has strongholds in Iraq and Libya, two nations left crippled by widely condemned western intervention. It seems that in the minds of our social elite, the financial and geopolitical fruits of those invasions completely outweighed any regard for the lives of the native people. With millions left dead and traumatised, the resulting power vacuums imposed a double injustice on indigenous civilians, whose nations were a walkover for ISIL's territorial ambitions.
Then, through physical support. Arms, funding and training have for years flowed readily to nameless, faceless 'moderate rebels' in an attempt to overthrow Assad. However our apparently peacenik allies were not drones, capable of being called back at the push of a button. The very arms and training we provided have since become the instruments of terror we now oppose. How was this a just or rational policy? If our intention was truly to reduce human rights abuses in the Middle East, then why was our solution to arm and fund different human rights abusers? If we truly wanted peace in the region, our go-to action would not be to overthrow governments. It would be, as a worldwide Muslim leader recently outlined to senior British MPs, to work with local governments instead of against them; to build local bridges instead of burning them; to offer support in weeding out their domestic extremism, but on the condition that they tackle their own human rights abuses. Were such policies that sought peace and not power enacted in a coordinated fashion around the Middle East, both extremism and human rights abuses would begin to dwindle.
As it stands, the callous disregard for human life beyond our cultural borders provides the ideological fodder needed for extremism to flourish. A corrupt clergy can point to the systematic destabilisation of Muslim-majority countries as being an attack on the heart of Islam. Their concocted call to 'holy war' gives a disenfranchised youth a cause, a direction, and -crucially- remuneration. Our own injustices have unwittingly handed extremists their pretext on a silver platter.
Whatever their origins, it is true that ISIL exists now and must be stopped. But their defeat must be executed with wisdom and foresight, as part of a wider commitment to peace in the region. Currently however, a knee-jerk reaction is predominating our political theatres and media forums. It tells us that our inability to rid ourselves of extremism is simply a matter of firepower- more will be needed. Such a vision is blind to what has gone before us. Retribution bombing may well destroy ISIL, but that victory will only last as long as the short time it will take for the next extremist outfit to organise itself. Bombs and bullets may kill extremists, but they will not kill extremism. Our future generations will pay for such naivety. If we want to stop attacks like those we have just suffered, then we must wake up and analyse the root causes of extremism. We must shackle our own hands from working inequity as well as the hands of others.
Nothing can ever justify an extremist taking an innocent life, particularly one who does so in the name of Islam. However, without a commitment to change deeply ingrained behaviours in our international approach, extremism is here to stay.
This article first appeared in the Belfast Telegraph.