News & Politics

How Not to Fight ISIS

Leave it to some wimpy Brit to tell the world that if we fight back against the barbaric horror of ISIS with everything we’ve got, that that’s just what the terrorists want!

The grey zone is where I want to live. Islamic State hates it, that place between black and white, where nothing is ever either/or and everything is a bit of both. Those who have studied the organisation tell us “the grey zone” – Isis’s phrase – is high on the would-be warriors’ to-eradicate list, along with all those other aspects of our world that so terrify them: women, statues of the past, the pleasures of the present.

No wonder a city such as Paris – indeed, the very idea of a city – appals them. Such places are all about mixing, like with unlike. The modern city, whether Paris or Beirut, scares them because it suggests that human beings might just be able to rub along, those who are Muslim and those who are not, living in the same places, visiting the same shops, watching the same football matches, listening to the same music.

“Refugees welcome” scares them. It undermines their insistence that the west has an ingrained hostility to Muslims and could never be their home. Isis despises empathy and longs instead for polarity and conflict. They want atrocities such as last week’s in Paris – or today’s siege in Mali – to sow fear and loathing, so that non-Muslim majorities turn on their Muslim neighbours until the latter conclude the only place they can ever truly belong is the caliphate. One or the other, either/or. In the Isis mind, ambiguity, like a hybrid identity, is weakness and decadence.

Oh, please. Manichaeism gets a lot of bad press from the sophistic Left these days (probably because they are on the wrong side), but if ever there were a stark contrast between good and evil, the confrontation between Christendom (a term I have decided to single-handedly revive) and militant Islam in the form of ISIS and al-Qaeda is it.

Isis theology… compels true believers to force a confrontation with “Rome” – the dominant west – eventually. Even if we leave them alone, even if we stand aside and let them rule the entire Middle East, “Ultimately they will come for us.”

Point of order: “Rome” doesn’t mean the “dominant West.” It means the dominant Christian West; Rome is, after all, the ancient seat of the Catholic faith.

It’s possible to know all this and, simultaneously, to know that action against Isis with no accompanying action against Assad will be seen as tacit support for the butcher of Damascus and drive more recruits to Isis. And to know the same would be true if intensive bombing of the Isis bastion of Raqqa led to heavy civilian casualties. A UN-mandated force involving Turks, Saudis and the Gulf states might look better, but even the scantest US participation will see the operation branded and damned as the handiwork of the hated west.

Every question we now face – surveillance, shoot-to-kill, border policy – is like this. There’s a strong moral instinct to act, and there are the attendant dangers. To point out the latter does not weaken your commitment to the former. We can be both ruthless in our determination to defeat this mortal enemy and mindful of the risks. We have to be both. We have to inhabit that space that is neither black nor white, but grey. It is the only place any of us can breathe.

No, it’s the place where you will surely die until you muster up the courage to face down this mortal enemy.