A few days ago, the journalist James Foley was beheaded by an Islamic State (IS) jihadist. The killer spoke in a South London accent but apparently had less to do with the ideals of Britain than he felt affinity with the fledgling "paradise on earth" of the Caliphate.
The worldwide media coverage of the startling event made people take notice of the battles in Syria and Iraq in a way they couldn’t from bloody images of dead Arab children or news of hundreds killed in a new bombing raid. The journalist’s death was different for us.
Most people don’t know what to make of a jihadist group choosing not just to kill the American, but doing so in such a calculated, propagandistic way. Decent people of the 21st century can’t seem to empathise with such callous disregard for human life. It’s like being on another planet. Ironically, that’s exactly where IS wants us all to be.
Some of the words the media threw about after the journalist killing show how emotionally-driven and uncomprehending our response was. Calling IS “brutal”, “horrific” or “maniacs” seems to sidestep what’s really going on. But it’s all most commentators could muster at the time.
But beheading is nothing new to the global, franchised jihadist movement. They’ve been practising this particular death signature for more than ten years, and it’s their favourite way to scare anybody with the stomach to watch. Even hearing about it turns most people green (some with envy, but that’s another story). The jihadists said they would release the journalist if the United States stopped its (albeit) limited bombing against their forces in northern Iraq. Spanish and French hostages had already been released by the group, so it wasn’t out of the question that Mr Foley and colleagues would also be freed.
On the other hand, it can’t have escaped everybody’s notice that the last thing IS ever wanted was for the United States government to concede their bombing campaign in northern Iraq. Releasing Mr Foley was likely never going to happen even if the Americans turned all their drones around at once.
The jihadist’s game is much bigger than killing a simple hostage here or destroying certain religious sects there. They want to bring death to America and everybody else in any way they can. The journalist was just the closest representative of the Great Satan they could find. They will look harder and farther afield in the future, that much can be guaranteed. IS won’t be happy with a snivelling pseudo-state in the badlands of the Middle East. They have their eyes set on raising the black flag of al-Qeada over the White House, Whitehall and the Beehive. If the United States wants to stay halfway across the world, out of arms reach, then the jihadists will simply grow longer arms.
After all, it’s not about taking and bargaining for hostages in some grand game to send a message. The defiled corpse and severed head is the message. And yet when the media or leaders of Western nations see what jihadist groups like IS are doing, it’s all a bit hard to swallow.
‘How,” they ask, “can human beings believe other people are inferior and worthy only of death?” “IS are surely brutal and maniacal, that explains their actions,” they think to themselves. “They’re out of their heads and not thinking straight.’ Yet maybe, just maybe, when people like IS say they want to kill or convert everyone on the planet and that doing so will send them faster to heaven, they actually believe it and perhaps we should listen to their words.
Right now it’s Islam Awareness Week in New Zealand. At least, technically speaking it is. Dame Susan Devoy opened the week on Saturday with a rousing speech. But with what’s going on almost everywhere around the world (even in China), I’m not sure Islam needs a single week for us to be made aware of it. It’s doing quite well on it’s own, thank you very much.
New Zealand might be far away from most of the killings and explosions of the Muslim world, but if the death-loving ideology underpinning groups like IS can ever be countered everybody needs to be on the same page. That includes all moderate Muslims too.
Islam Awareness Week set up an “Ask a Muslim” tent in Auckland’s Aotea Square over the weekend. I thought it was an excellent opportunity to ask them what they thought of IS. So I did:
“We condemn them and everything they are doing. They are bringing shame to Islam and we cannot agree with them,” one man said. “What they say, you have to see, is not real Islam. Islam is peace, those people want war,” another exclaimed. But the thing is, I can’t help but think this is exactly the way IS fighters would respond if I asked them in reverse about those men in Aotea Square. I’m not going to Iraq to find out though, but I have my suspicions.
As a non-superstitious person, how exactly am I to tell the difference? At least IS tells the world loud and clear via a snuff film what they think. I don’t hear a peep out of their fellow “moderate” believers. Unless I asked the Islamic men in Auckland about IS, I wouldn’t have known their position. And in that case, silence sounds a lot like support.
Jihadist groups feverously crucifying children and beheading journalists with glee cannot be explained by using words like “brutal” in isolation. If we want to try and explain what we’re seeing, we need to understand that they truly do believe what they say they believe. For thirteen years since the 9/11 attacks in America, Western countries have played whack a mole with groups very similar to IS. They pop up in the vacuum of nation-states from Morocco through the Caucasus to Indonesia. And each time our response is the same.
We speak to the jihadists in one of their languages: violence. It’s not the only language they have, but it’s one they respond to. Missiles and troops are sent to kill or capture their fighters across the world, and just when the fighting dies down does it spring back somewhere else altogether more hateful and vicious than the last.
US Secretary of Defence Chuck Hagel is right saying over the weekend that IS are “beyond anything we’ve seen”. But he’s not going to avoid another group taking its place in the future if his response to the group is once again limited to concerted missile strikes.
IS will not be able to establish anything like a viable state, no matter how hard they try. The so-called Caliphate was doomed from the start because functioning states are exactly the kind of target Western nations excel at destroying. But if the last thirteen years are any indication of our campaign “successes”, Western nations have proven horrible at destroying the kind of fire that burns in the hearts of people like IS. That is exactly the fire that needs either dousing or controlling. Missiles won’t achieve this goal.
Western nations are going to be fighting jihadist groups like IS for the rest of our lives and beyond if we continue to refuse to listen to what they are saying. A dangerous ideology is much more difficult to counter if we don’t think anyone truly believes it.
When jihadists say they believe in killing the infidel wherever they find them, jihadists actually mean it. When they believe they will go to heaven if they blow themselves up, they actually mean it. If they wish to establish a Caliphate and destroy the foundations of Western society no matter how long it takes, they mean it.
And when some American, German, Australian, British, Dutch, French, Tunisian, Saudi Arabian, Malaysian, Indonesian and maybe New Zealand Muslims say they too want these things, we have to understand that these few people truly believe what they say.
These jihadists must be stopped, that much is clear. But again we will be fighting these people forever if we cannot seriously formulate a plan to counter the ideology that breeds such thinking. I believe those men in Aotea Square when they say IS have perverted their religion. But I need to see more proof that true Islam can coexist with Western society than only a few men assuring me so in private.
Western countries have made a mess of the Muslim world, that can’t be denied. But the way many Muslims act throughout the world is not entirely the result of our actions. If we’re going to take this threat seriously after all this time, we need to tackle the ideology at its core. That means imploring with Muslims who say Islam is peaceful to stand up and take control of their religion from groups like IS.
Unfortunately for the multicultural melting pot tendencies of developed countries, this may require some soul searching too. It’s certainly not as bad in New Zealand as elsewhere, but if 15% of French people in a recent poll support IS, there’s clearly something going on.
Call that percentage an outlier if you want, but it is becoming more obvious that the issue of jihadist ideology runs far deeper than a few thousand fighting men in the desert half a world away and deep in the Iron Age. Missiles will kill the people on the battlefield, but they won’t change the beliefs of your neighbours or workmates. It’s well past time for everyone who thinks IS are wrong to tell them so. Otherwise, severed heads will be the message read loud and clear.