At a friend's birthday party this past week, I had the privilege of having an in-depth discussion about contemporary violence with journalists from Muslim countries. This gave me the chance to ask politically incorrect questions. Friendship, compassion, and warmth are curiously powerful weapons against extremism and fear. When there is space, when we feel free, we can ask...when we ask, we can learn.
I asked a woman from Bahrain how people in her country were responding to ISIS. I asked because I wanted to better understand how Islamic countries perceived ISIS -- a group as much after her country as they are against mine.
Her answer surprised me.
She said some people are surprisingly swayed by the ISIS narrative. They seem to agree that their plight -- their disappointments in life -- might actually be the result of shirking the tenants of Islam. This reductionist approach provided people with a false -- albeit much desired -- clarity.
Of course most people, she says, are not swayed but many are.
Saudi Arabia & ISIS
She quickly turned the conversation towards Saudi Arabia, sharing a perspective I had not yet heard. She said that Saudi Arabia denies that ISIS comes from its territory. It is actually illegal to suggest this in public. She said that the United States wants so badly to partner with Saudi Arabia it too is denying the country as a source of ISIS' power. Not to say that they support ISIS, but they foster an environment in which ISIS thrives.
Western Fascism and ISIS Extremism
As I listened to this passionate, inquisitive, warm and articulate woman with large dark eyes and a Burberry-patterned hijab, I began to think about how Western civilization can be as sloppy about stopping fascism as the Muslim world seems to be about stopping ISIS. When faced with uncertainty and a belief that one has little control of one's destiny, stories about impurities as the cause seem to flourish.
Sometimes this is good. After the economic collapse in 2008, economists and business leaders talked about returning to "fundamentals." They meant business basics-- don't spend more than you make. Don't bet the farm on a virtual cow, etc.
But sometimes the call to fundamentals gets wonky and sometimes it turns from wonky to downright destructive.
France's National Front Party Marie Le Pen talks about returning to a "pure France" and Donald Trump's rhetoric is not far behind. During panic, we quickly want to separate the "good" people from the "bad." If someone gets a cancer diagnosis, the approach is to separate the "healthy" cells from the "sick" cells.
These approaches disregard the systems in which these people function. The environment in which cells become sick. If you just cut out the cancer without changing the host, you'll likely just see it pop up again.
Same is true with extremism.
The Western world needs to be careful not to slip into purity discourse. If the Western world wants the Muslim countries to stand up to ISIS' calls for purity, then I figure it ought to do the same.
I have studied World War II far too long and been through the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum too many times with survivors to miss the early tremors.
Let's not think just because the hatred comes from our people that it is superior to other people's hatred.