How to Respond to Fire; Asserting the Self while Avoiding Hypocrisy

It is difficult to overcome the shock generated by the brutal assassination of Lt. Moath Kasasbeh. Indeed in many ways, I—and many like me—have yet to do so. Throughout the ordeal which was brought some closure by the awful news Tuesday, Jordanians, Arabs, and Muslims alike were of many minds. From anger towards ISIS to self-questioning of the country’s role in in the anti-ISIS coalition; from a proportionally cruel response to a calculated power-play, or a pragmatic non-response; from an impulse to double-down on the offense to withdrawing from intervention; we have felt it all, thought it all, and wanted it all.

The need to bring retribution onto those who are too cruel to even respect the last moment of another human is eating at all of us. How could one possibly bring appropriate retribution onto inhumane organizations without descending to proportional inhumanity? How do we resist blood thirsty revenge while still asserting that we—the honorable, peace-loving people of the world—exit, that we have might, that we have true red-lines that cannot be crossed? How does one assert anything when up against a force that it itself uses violence and terror?

Reclaiming Culture and Religion as a Duty

Certainly, the answer our response cannot be nothing. Nothing is not on the table. Our religions, culture, and region are too close to our heart to let them by hijacked by thought that promotes violence and barbarism. We must do something; something to reclaim our religions of peace, to reclaim our culture who—not too long ago—was known as a culture of hospitality and generosity.

The continued existence of the so-called “Islamic State” puts those things we hold near and dear in jeopardy. ISIS is not merely transforming the borders, bureaucracies, and institutions of neighboring countries; it is transforming the Arab culture I love and cherish, it is projecting a new radicalized Islam that is tipping scales, shifting spectra, and redefining what it means to moderate.

By participating in the anti-ISIS coalition, we are not intervening in an external matter, we are simply taking charge of our destiny. A continued, strong participation in the efforts against ISIS (both militarily and intellectually) is a matter of sovereignty and self-determination; we must reclaim our culture and religion from extremist radical thought.

Resisting Revenge

Yet, as we respond—militarily and otherwise—it remains imperative not to become the enemy. As the impulse for proportional retribution eats at each and every one of us, some have felt inclined to call for mass-bombings, burning, even gassing and chemical attacks as appropriate responses in moments of anger. Those should likely be off the table, when it comes to the list of appropriate responses. But what is left on?

A shorthand is to realize that actions with no utility cannot be on the table. Refining this shorthand further, we can say that destructive action whose only utility is to gratify our need for revenge and retribution is not permissible.

Indeed, framing a response in terms of its utility, the positive outcomes it generates, is a powerful first step in the healing process after having faced injustice. A proportional response should be of some benefit. This benefit can lie on many axes and is important to consider such axes individually.

In the international sphere and global balance of power, establishing steadfastness is disproportionately effective. Steadfastness is equally important in the global PR battle for the minds of young Muslims to prevent their radicalization. Steadfastness taking a public stance on ISIS and the radicalization of Islam, and taking action—some action—against those in our custody who directly support and promote such radicalization.

It is also important to realize the existence of a radicalization problem and to own it. The society that birthed these individuals who commit actions I find unfathomable is my own—it is our own. Every mom and pop can own this as a problem from within, not some external plot we have no control over, and take charge of deradicalizing the people around them.

Internationally, we must continue to promote reason and moderation, and must do so while avoiding hypocrisy (tempting as it may be).

A Reasonable, Escalated Military Intervention

If left untouched, ISIS is not going anywhere. It is a state-like organization that is armed, militarily entrenched, and active. Though unrecognized and condemned internationally, ISIS continues to create facts on the ground locally, creating bureaucracies and institutions that further reaffirms their presence and reality, leaving as many marks as it can on society. While it exists, ISIS will continue to brainwash youth locally and internationally. After its eventual demise, ISIS’s impact of society will proportional to the duration it remained active and embedded.

We forced once again to consider, just as we were three quarters of a century ago, that peace and justice might sometimes only be achievable through armed conflict. Must this be the case today? I fear it might. ISIS is much too entrenched and effective, and even if showing our kindness and compassion alone will be enough to cause its demise, it would only do so after many a generation of promising youth are turned to terrorists. One might argue a military intervention also radicalizes the local population. Here I disagree by drawing attention to the daily realities of the situation: those living under ISIS control are already in a state of war simply by witnessing ISIS’s mass-executions and public beheadings. I think there is a strong empirical claim to be made that those not already radicalized do wish to fight ISIS. An intervention whose main actors are fellow Arabs (especially Syrians and Iraqis) might be desirable.

A reasonable (yet escalated) military intervention is one that observes basic human rights and Geneva conventions are respected. Targeted attacks are favored over blanket bombings. Individuals taken as prisoners are treated with dignity and respect. Weapons and techniques deemed illegal and unethical by international law remains impermissible. Partnership with local boots on the ground to take over public institutions and begin transforming the status quo remains imperative.

As ISIS loses status quo control, Jordan and other countries must initiate humanitarian and reconstruction efforts similar to those done in Gaza and Lebanon. From field hospitals, food, and medicine, to funding and infrastructure, rebuilding areas of Syria and Iraq formerly controlled by ISIS. Passing the buck around, claiming that spending resources on aid and reconstruction is one country’s problem versus another’s helps no one.

I argue against Arabs outside of Syria and Iraq to deploy land-power based on practical rather than ethical concerns. It is difficult to justify the immediate possibility of loss of thousands of lives in a land military conflict when a nation is not faced with such an immediate loss of lives in the counter-factual case. Syria and Iraq are faced with such losses, on the other hand.

Those who beat the war drum must do so with sadness, mourning the loss of peaceful alternatives, and wearing their heart on their sleeves.

A Problem from Within

We must recognize that blaming the west for the rise of ISIS and radical Islam leads us nowhere. I wrote about how extremist political Islam feeds off of regional political crises, such as the Arab-Israeli conflict and Israel’s invasion of Lebanon. Make no mistake, though, though ISIS feeds on external crises, it is of us, within us, and from us.

For years, hawkish Islamist factions in the country have had a disproportional influence on our school curriculum, as well as the general culture of our bar and trade unions. This influence flirts between teaching pious Islam, proud Arab nationalism, and fanaticism. The response, of course, is not to police speech or censor others, but for all individuals in society to promote moderation over fanaticism.

A Message of Peace Amid War

Let us not adopt a ‘with us or against us’ mantra in the war against ISIS. Let us receive with open arms those who defect from ISIS, providing them with a concrete path for de-radicalization. Let us be careful in not becoming what we condemn. Respect free speech, hope that an open and uncensored public sphere will be dominated by the voices of the moderates (and if it isn’t, work to promote the voices of the moderates).

Examining Jordan’s Threat of Executions in these Lenses

The government of Jordan threatened to execute a number of ISIS-affiliated prisoners if Lt. Kasasbeh is killed. What to make of that response?

I cannot bring myself to condone the death penalty.

I also understand that the threat (and following through with it) does have a utility beyond the gratifications of revenge. Fanatical Islamists in prison often have a radicalizing effect on others. Symbolic responses that show some form of unwavering defiance plays a big role in the global PR battle I spoke of. Ensuring that states and groups that defy ISIS are not ‘weak’ goes a long way here, sad as it may be.

Some might argue that if expending lives in a targeted attack was an acceptable outcome in a war, then viewing executions in that light is not very different. I reject that argument, though, as the analogy fails when considering those on death row are imprisoned and immobilized, while those targeted are not.

Closing Thoughts

Sometimes, it seems, pragmatism leads us to realize that an entrenched violent force is unstoppable without force. I believed that was the case during the US-led Libya intervention, I believed that when the anti-ISIS coalition was formed, and I believe it continues to apply today.

As emotions take over our region, I take this opportunity to remind my friends that acting in Syria and Iraq is not an intervention in external affairs which we have no business in, but rather an exercise of self-determination—of claiming the religions and culture we love from fanatics, and protecting it from harm.

Can we do so without beating the war drum? I wish. But I sincerely would not know how.