How to think about ISIS in the wake of Paris? This requires reams of reading and writing. But for those with little time, here are some ideas to get thinking about.

Should Syrian refugees be allowed into Europe/The US? 

For conservatives on both sides of the Atlantic, these attacks have a silver lining. What? Let Syrians in to take our benefits AND kill us? Seems like a no-brainer, right? Actually not so much. Stopping migration will not stop this. We’ve had terrorist attacks in Europe before (Madrid, London, Paris) that had nothing to do with the recent spate of refugees. Europe has had Muslims for generations. Most importantly these attackers were not Syrian refugees, they were European-born.

The people fleeing the depravity of ISIS in Syria are refugees, not terrorists.  There have been no terrorist attacks from the thousands of Middle Eastern/Muslim/Arab refugees who have come to the US in the last ten years. The US has a lengthy background check for immigrants which is actually surprisingly effective at rooting out malefactors.

Morally, the right thing to do would be to separate the extremists from the innocent (mostly middle class Syrians and Muslims who are migrating at great risk) in a process of vetting. In policy terms (morality aside) imprisoning all moderate Syrians in an ISIS-controlled hell will radicalize much more of the population and kill all the moderates creating a much greater crisis for the rest of the world to deal with later.

In relation to European refugees, UNHCR says, post-Paris: “The best response would be to immediately improve arrival processing in Greece and Italy and implement the European Union’s plan to relocate 160,000 refugees.”

The West has a tendency to lump all Muslims together. What we are talking about here are millions of individuals, with vastly differing ideas on religion, politics, and issues related. A terrorist attack, horrific and outrageous as it certainly was, does not negate the humanitarian crisis that has been unfolding in Afghanistan and Syria for years. 

Is ISIS really Islamic? 

The main point here is that there is, as I’ve said before here, no one “thing” that is Islam. Just like any other religion or ideology it is capable of a million iterations, depending on how those who call themselves Muslims act and interpret sacred texts (in this case the Koran and the Sunna). So in short, sure, they are Muslims, as they claim. And in long…they actually rather scrupulously cite and promote the Prophet’s agenda of Islamic expansion, Jihad, etc, of the seventh century. Its a bit like modern Christians thinking its OK to march to Jerusalem and kill all the Muslims there (which some would like to do). This might have been OK in the eleventh Century (actually even then it was a stupid idea), but now its just not cool. Similarly for ISIS, it may have been morally acceptable to behead enemies and enslave women in 700 CE. But now? not so much.

What kind of threat is it? 

One should always take this kind of threat seriously. 9/11 proved that there was no end to that particular enemy’s depravities–and the US government underestimated the threat from that quarter until it was too late.  However, it is hard to see how ISIS can maintain a territorial state (one of the preconditions for having a Caliphate), because as many commentators have suggested in the last few days, its stupid to deliver acts of violence when you have a return address. Furthermore, ISIS’ apocalyptic theology is kind of self-defeating….unlike good old fashioned Al Qaeda, ISIS appears to believe in the apocalypse happening as soon as possible. Bin Laden talked about it plenty, but did not appear to be in a rush to meet his maker. Further furthermore, they need resources, that is to say  cash. So far, as Juan Cole ( has pointed out, they are acting kind of like a seventeenth-century pirate state–taking enclaves and looting their inhabitants for cash. This can backfire quickly–as people need sustenance.

On the other hand, IS in Afghanistan has been preying on illiterate and impoverished peasants and paying them way more than they would otherwise make, and telling that that their orders are from God. Their pay is often double or triple what they would get in the Afghan army or police. And often those organizations don’t pay their staff for months. The big question, however, is how long can the cash keep coming, and what happens when it runs out?

What does Isis want? 

See above, for some of this answer. But whereas Al-Qaeda had specific political goals (US out of Saudi Arabian and wider Middle Eastern “homeland,” Israel to die, etc., ( its goals were quite clearly anti-imperialist), IS is more apocalyptic, which is why concessions cannot be reached, peace cannot be negotiated. Their aim seems to be an Islamic Caliphate whose duty is to spread the Dar al Islam (abode of Islam) to the entire world, and initiate  Sharia’ law, a la seventh century. Other Islamic states have versions of Sharia which often exist alongside other more “Napoleonic” legal systems. This is anathema to IS because they see man-made law as secondary to divine law. Subordinating the latter to the former is heresy. Everything outside the Dar Al-Islam, is considered the Dar al-harb (abode of war). Ultimately the goal seems to be annihilation and a reboot in the afterlife. Which might well be delivered to them by the forces for the rational world.

Check out recent Atlantic article on this subject.

What ISIS Really Wants

The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse. Here’s what that means for its strategy-and for how to stop it.

Should the US/Europe send boots on the ground to “root” ISIS out. 

Clearly there is much more support for this option now. But look what happened last time we sent large amounts of footwear to the Middle East…We got ISIS. Arguably ISIS is a product of the last 10 years of US involvement in the region. We destroyed infrastructure and government in Iraq and created a vacuum. Ditto Afghanistan.  Putting large armies in the field tends to turn native populations against the occupying country, as does bombing those countries indiscriminately–or at all.  So before any commitment to ground troops is made this will have to be thought through extremely carefully.

Many questions remain, and answers will always be elusive and extraordinarily divisive as they will play into existent divisions within the politics of each country. Cool heads must prevail; Xenophobia is the resort of the simple minded and bigoted.

About the Author
Adrian Cole studied Arabic at Exeter University in the UK, Alexandria, Egypt and Harvard University. He is now a freelance writer, living on an island in Casco Bay, Maine, with his wife and children. His book The Thinking Past was published by Oxford University Press in 2014.
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