Do I need to have an opinion about how to handle ISIS? Well, at least it’s an opportunity to think.
Actually, I started thinking about this unexpectedly the other day. Funny how the brain works. I was reading a totally unrelated text, and suddenly I had an insight: Fear can choose to manifest by creating fear. This, I believe, is the path ISIS has chosen.
Just for a minute, put aside any reactive skepticism and join me in the exercise of trying to figure out what these men do fear. Isn’t fear usually inspired by the prospect of loss–of safety, power, possessions, wealth, people we love, life itself? Can’t it also be inspired by fear of losing life as we have known it? How about fear of being unable to reinstate a life that once was, that is radiant in “memory”?
The images of the Middle East that come to mind are of a people mostly garbed in the past. We might assume that the dress offers some protection from the sun, but the countries have months of temperatures ranging from about 104º to over 115º in Kuwait City. These are Death Valley temperatures. The Ghutra headdress worn by men and the long robe called the Thobe must be suffocating. And then the poor women swelter in the Hijab head scarf, the veil called the Khimar, the cloak called the Abaya, and in some cases the combination veil and body covering called the Burqua. They all suggest the funeral shroud, and that seems appropriate.
All of it represents a commitment to history or to the rules of the Quran that will not yield to the exigencies of survival itself. It seems to be the costume of a people who refuse to release the grip of the past, including ancient grievances and doctrine that impair their ability to adapt to a changing world. The orientation is so extreme that the faithful may not access other knowledge, experience individuality, or explore any other world than their own enforced reality.
We are fortunate that members of the intelligentsia there have found refuge and opportunity in the West. For this distance, however, it seems that among those who remain, the primary things of the modern era that have been embraced are weaponry, the technology of the oil and gas industry, and the luxuries coveted by the extremely wealthy.
It is a land in which the origins of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are passionately cherished and also live on in the dress of 700 to about 3,000 or so years ago. There is so much allegiance to the ancient stories, the ancient teachings, the ancient prescriptions for devotion to the one religion or the other, and the ancient calls to vengeance that the Middle East in a way has become a region associated basically with a refusal to evolve.
It seems to be a daily choice, the commitment to value the past over hopes for a different kind of future.
But things have changed in spite of fundamentalist opposition. The world has gotten so crowded, and so many outside influences impinge on a chosen reality. The men most devoted to the most rigid traditions must feel the most threatened. And perhaps the rise of the feminine elsewhere is the most troubling specter. Although Mohammad was said to be warm and polite to women, he lived in an era when daughters were unwelcome and female infants are said to have been buried alive. In luring free women to join their cause, ISIS is symbolically, and perhaps triumphantly, reinstating that tradition.
So let us assume that the members of ISIS are terrified of losing control over erroneous interpretation of Mohammad’s actual teachings, over their women, their land, and their commitment to live forever in the past. They are terrified themselves, and so their goal is to terrify others with acts of barbarism also reminiscent of ancient history. They plunge us all into a past that survival requires us to escape.
And how do we do that? Maintaining perspective would be one way. If one stops and thinks about the United States since 9/11, it is clear that this is a very tight country, and we have little to fear from terrorists. In fact, we need to be more worried about our own over-armed citizens who flip out regularly.
In addition, everyone who is circulating ISIS videos and Muslim-phobia materials needs to realize that they are actually helping ISIS foment fear. It is my thought that anyone who leaves the United States to join ISIS should automatically forfeit citizenship. Those who are serving the ISIS mission in unintended ways here may escape penalty, but we should make them all writhe with discomfort over being unwittingly exploited.
As for America’s response to the terrorists, the truth is, I think, that if it were not for our commitment to energy interests in the Middle East, we might respect their determination to share the fate of their doomed artifacts. For all of us, the decision to live in the moment, to pursue knowledge with passion, and to grow spiritually enlightened through new and timely teachings is a day by day choice that we evolve, not devolve. At the same time, we cannot stand in the way of a people bent on extinction.
On the other hand, we could, of course join them in self-destruction. The Middle East is a world we do not understand, a world into which we have repeatedly intruded with disastrous consequences. It is a world whose power brokers have good reason to resent, even hate us, but who are also quite willing to manipulate and use us. It is tempting now, as it always has been, to throw our military weight around over there, but what calls is a vortex of violence from which there may be no escape. In this case, the willingness to be informed by painful history could become a blessing.