No doubt by now you’ve heard about the tragic loss of life that occurred at a gay nightclub in Orlando this past weekend. 49 dead, more injured, a city and state in a state of emergency, a world community in mourning. Some are dispensing the usual “thoughts and prayers.” Some are using the events of the Pulse shooting—in fact, the deadliest mass shooting in United States history—as political cannon fodder. We need more gun control. We need less gun control. This has nothing to do with Islam. This has everything to do with “radical Islam.” It’s a hate crime. God sent the shooter to deal with the sin of homosexuality. There’s a lot of opinionated noise about what happened after the fact, and most of it is just that. Allow me, then, to be one more drop of water in an angry, confused and saddened swelling sea.
From what we currently know, the shooter, who will remain nameless per my choice to not give him any more press that he doesn’t deserve, pledged allegiance to ISIS or was at least sympathetic to their cause. ISIS took credit for this act of mass violence. Then again, they would. Much like Donald Trump feeding his ego related to any positive developments of a campaign built on bigotry, empty promises and hate, the response of any incidence of Muslims shooting multiple Americans predictably is another notch on the aforementioned terrorist organization’s proverbial belt. It doesn’t mean it’s not true, of course, but it also doesn’t mean one has to like it. Especially since this will probably do wonders for the Islamic State’s recruiting efforts. Death to America and all that jazz.
You probably understand what ISIS hopes to accomplish in the Middle East: the formation of a caliphate—an Islamic state led by a caliph, or supposed spiritual successor of the prophet Muhammad—within the group’s holdings in Iraq and Syria. So, what about the United States? Last time I checked, the old US of A is pretty far from Mosul. Fareed Zakaria recently wrote an excellent piece about why ISIS, well, hates us. As Zakaria puts it, ISIS doesn’t hate Americans or hate the Western world as much as they hate the modern world and Muslims living in that modern world. And they don’t represent Islam, or at least not all of it. Fareed Zakaria describes the Islamic State, quite aptly I believe, as a cancer within the Muslim world. It is not so much a religious movement as much as a political one. To quote him:
Radical Islam is the product of the broken politics and stagnant economics of Muslim countries. They have found in radical religion an ideology that lets them rail against the modern world, an ideology that is now being exported to alienated young Muslims everywhere — in Europe, and even in some rare cases in the United States.
It’s here where Zakaria’s discourse seems the most instructive. Broken politics? Stagnant economics? Alienated young people? Why does that seem familiar? Oh, right—that describes the United States, too! If the current election cycle hasn’t hit on each of these themes, I don’t know what it has hit on. Viewing the rise of ISIS through this lens, it’s not to crazy to suggest that parallels exist in the rise of someone like Donald Trump in America. ISIS rejects the trappings of the modern world and the liberalization of Muslims across the globe. Trump appeals to those who reject a growing acceptance of political correctness and goodwill to people of all races, creeds and orientations, invoking sentiments of making America “great again” and thereby making his supporters nostalgic for a mythical era the likes of which they can neither dispute the veracity nor remember as authentic. ISIS promises the disaffected youth of the regions it touches and influences a solution to their woes in the destruction of a vague, ill-defined “other.” Trump, the consummate showman and strongman, lashes out against any group that serves his purpose of stoking the fires of anger among his faithful, and frequently, this takes the form of “radical Islam.”
In both cases, the goal is complete destruction of the other, and by whatever means necessary. ISIS’s influence has been felt in any number of “lone wolf” attacks carried out on American soil, using the kinds of weapons the firearms fetishists among us are so desperate to ensure are legal to buy and carry. If Donald Trump were to have his say, any number of rights violations might be on the table, including waterboarding and other forms of torture, as well as targeting families of suspected terrorists and inflicting harm on them. Thinking in these terms, no other is a good other, and thus, any association with someone resembling the collective other means that person is guilty, too. As far as Trump and other Republicans are concerned, this means foaming at the mouth at what Islam supposedly teaches its followers about hate and destruction, and it certainly requires a condemnation of any refugee policy that would have men, women and children from war-torn Arab nations like Syria live among us “true” Americans. All the while, of course, the underlying symptoms of why so many people are disaffected in the U.S. and in the Middle East fail to be treated, but in the creation of a scapegoat in an amorphous enemy, the distraction is enough. Death to America. ISIS must be destroyed. If we have to bomb, kill, rape and terrorize our way to doing so, risking innocents as collateral damage, so be it.
By no means am I suggesting that the United States has been guilty of the same sorts of atrocities as ISIS, nor am I saying that we ever would. In the never-ending war on terror, however, America is not without a good amount of blood on its hands. Abu Ghraib, drone strikes and bombings of hospitals, Gitmo, regime changes in the Middle East and elsewhere, scores of dead soldiers, civilians and enemy combatants—so much death and destruction (and, not to mention, so expensive). And much of this was with a Democrat as Commander-in-Chief! Lord only knows what Trump, a man with the foreign policy knowledge and temperament of a small child, and the backing of a Republican majority Congress, might do if given the right authorizations. What’s more, as Fareed Zakaria and others would insist, this bombastic language denigrating all of Islam on the part of jingoists in the U.S., France, the Netherlands, and other major developed countries is actually counterproductive. When Westerners demean the Islam faith and the prophet Muhammad, and suggest its practitioners are a backward sort, it is no wonder attempts at reform by Muslims are met with decision and scorn, and groups like ISIS are able to recruit from all corners of the Earth. If we were to live in Iraq or Syria and witness the regular degradation of the Muslim people, we might think America were the enemy also.
The massacre in Orlando was indeed a terror attack, and ISIS may well be at least partially to blame. This does not mean, however, that we should all be allowed to carry assault rifles, nor does it signify that law enforcement should be conducting invasive surveillance of Muslim neighborhoods. And once more, it doesn’t mean we need to use the term “radical Islam.” What jihadists like ISIS espouse and what the Quran teaches, I believe, should remain uncoupled, because what bastardized version of Islam the Islamic State is selling does not deserve to be mentioned in the same thought as a religion which preaches peace and love, not to mention such an association is far from helpful in communicating our acceptance of those Muslims in and out of the Arab world who share a sense of belonging with those of other faiths. At a time like this, what is most needed is compassion, especially for the families and friends of those who were lost in the shooting, but for others, as well. Insisting on less clouds the distinction between us and those who would try to hurt us, and blurs the sides of the same coin of American intolerance and ISIS’s wanton destruction on which we find ourselves.