WASHINGTON, Nov. 16, 2015 – The latest terrorist attacks in Paris make it clear that the West is confronting a ruthless enemy that understands how to take advantage of the openness that characterizes the free societies for which it has such contempt.
ISIS claims that it is, somehow, acting in the name of Islam, and its stated goal is to establish a caliphate that will impose Islamic shariah law upon all of its inhabitants. Yet, in Syria and Iraq, the overwhelming majority of its victims have been Moslems. Iran, proclaimed by some in the U.S. and Israel as an “existential” threat to the U.S. is, ironically, also a target of ISIS. It is not Islam, a religion whose adherents practice a number of different variations of the faith, which is represented by ISIS, but a narrow, intolerant and barbaric version of that faith.
We know something about barbaric and intolerant religion from our own Western tradition. It is as if a group emerged in the Western world, proclaiming itself Christian, which embraced the philosophy of the medieval church and its policy of eliminating all non-Catholics, as pursued by the Inquisition.
Forced conversions, burning Jews, Protestants and dissenters at the stake — this is something we remember from history. Out of such a narrow, exclusionary view of religion grew our open, free Western societies, with religious freedom for all.
Islam, while struggling to accommodate the notion of religious freedom, has a history of tolerance of other faiths. In the Middle Ages, when Jews suffered under severe disabilities in Christian Europe, they were able to practice their faith in the Moslem world. Before Ferdinand and Isabel conquered Spain in 1492, Jews lived freely in Moslem-dominated Spanish areas, such as Córdoba, and held some of the highest positions in that society.
When Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, they were welcomed into the Muslim Ottoman Empire.
What has caused the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, jihadism, and terrorism at the present time?
There is, of course, much speculation about what has contributed to its development. Some believe that the creation of the State of Israel in 1948 and the displacement of the indigenous Palestinian population is one reason. Palestinians argue that they are the last victims of the Holocaust, having their land taken to make up to Jews for the horrors inflicted not by Palestinians, but by Europeans.
At the end of World War II, there was much goodwill in the Arab world toward the U.S. as an anti-colonial power. We were a significant factor in urging England and France to abandon their colonial enterprise in the Middle East, in Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, Iraq and North Africa. Yet, by embracing the creation of Israel in an area with a majority Arab population, the U.S., in Arab eyes, became just another colonial power.
The U.S. role in Israel was hardly the only policy embraced in Washington that led to disaffection on the part of the Moslem world. We helped to overthrow the democratically elected government of Iran and installed the shah as Iran’s leader. Later, of course, he was overthrown by the Islamist forces that now dominate Iran.
Then, we invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, two countries that remain unstable today, helping to spread hostility to the U.S. and to fuel the growth of an extreme form of Islam that manifests itself in ISIS. We have supported, and continue to support, oppressive regimes throughout the Arab world.
Whatever legitimate grievances some Moslems may have against the Western world, however, is no excuse for a reversion to barbarism. Men and women of every faith and background are threatened by the emergence of ISIS, and it is essential that we take the necessary action to eliminate it.
We have played no small part in helping to create anarchy and instability in the region without any thought to what would follow. President George W. Bush, for reasons we now know were not true, invaded and destabilized Iraq. President Obama and his secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, participated in the assault on Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, who had long ceased to be a threat to U.S. We did so without any plan as to what would follow.
Now, Islamic fundamentalists are wielding power in parts of Libya, and anarchy reigns elsewhere. All of this has led to an unprecedented refugee crisis,
How we react to the latest terrorist attacks will determine, in large measure, whether we will diminish their power and appeal or increase it. Terrorism experts argue that what ISIS most wants is for the West to make Islam itself the enemy, thus gaining untold numbers of new recruits for its cause. Turning against immigrants fleeing ISIS terror, as some governors and presidential candidates are doing, not only is not in the best tradition of our nation of immigrants, but also plays into ISIS’s hands.
It is particularly unseemly to see presidential candidates who are themselves the children of immigrants, doing so, and to see one candidate saying we should admit only Christians. We have also heard one Republican candidate question whether a Moslem could be president and another call for the possible closing of mosques.
Do they have any idea of how such rhetoric plays directly into the terrorist handbook for success? But we have seen such narrowness before, as when America’s doors closed to Jewish immigrants fleeing Hitler.
And the rise of radical anti-immigrant groups in Europe, such as Marine Le Pen’s National Front in France, will only strengthen the appeal of ISIS to disaffected young Muslims throughout the continent. Needless to say, Europe cannot be expected to accommodate an endless flow of immigrants.
The best way to stop this flow of immigrants, who would much prefer to remain in their homes, is to defeat ISIS and restore stability to the Middle East.
In times of crisis, societies often react badly, in violation not only of their values, but of their own best interests. After Pearl Harbor, we put Japanese-Americans in the equivalent of concentration camps. In panic, we violated the very values our society was fighting a war to uphold. Let’s not do it again. If the war on terror, which we need to fight and win, turns into a war on Islam, we are the ones who will be the losers.
In this case, doing what is morally correct coincides with doing what is in our long-run best interests.
When will the voices speaking for America’s highest values finally be heard? They have been strangely silent thus far.