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Quick Takes

QUICK TAKES – Are The Paris Attacks A “Game Changer” For The West And The Islamic World?

QUICK TAKES, an occasional feature designed to solicit immediate, brief opinion responses on pressing issues of the day, posed to its contributors the question Foreign Policy magazine tendered after the Paris attacks on November 13, 2015.  Are the  attacks a “game changer” in regard to our understanding of the significance of ISIS, the relationship of the West to Islam, and/or the handling of the Syrian refugee crisis?


NO.  Western leaders still refuse to acknowledge the “Islamic” character of ISIS

Is Paris a “game changer” between the West and ISIS? No, it is not, and it will remain locked within the same deadly “game” that scores in body counts until at least the following measures are taken.

The first measure is to be dead serious about the religious ideology of ISIS, not as some epiphenomenal delusion, not as some mere criminal reaction to racism and poverty.  Rather, we need to acknowledge it is the very ideology of ISIS that serves as a main driving factor  for the mobilization of certain disaffected Muslims worldwide and as a underlying reason for the group’s pervasive global strength.

The familiar “low-hanging fruit” analysis of Islamic radicalization as a fault of Western foreign policy and as a result of decades of economic marginalization of the European Muslim communities is on the verge of becoming a tragic parody.

The second step is to make it crystal clear to the public that this particular religious ideology of ISIS is Islamic, and that those who identify and fight for this caliphate are Muslim, even if they don’t represent all Muslims.  ISIS is Islamic because they self-identify as Islamic. Any cursory glance of their recruitment videos and social media, their agitprop magazine Dabiq, and their own public announcements made after their spectacles of murder ought to make the religious affiliation of ISIS glaringly obvious.

Above all, there are many other Muslims who publicly recognize ISIS as Islamic, even though they reject the violent interpretations of the Qur’an and the Hadith that ISIS maintains.

Shadi Hamid, a senior fellow at Brookings Institution  who self-identifies as a Muslim, has warned that “Islamic apologetics carries serious risks”.  By denying ISIS the agency of their own religious beliefs to their actions, such apologetics eradicates the role that religion plays in politics.  Such a misstep leaves us stuck in an impossible mire of myopic secular bias within our analysis that repeats the same old conclusions made for decades on end.

Furthermore, saying that ISIS has nothing to do with Islam, according to Hamid, will only serve to increase “Islamophobia” rather than mitigate it, since to the ears of the general non-Muslim public who may have very little or no knowledge of Islam, “claims that Islam and ISIS are unrelated sound entirely divorced from reality.”

To witness radical jihadists perform their inglorious bloody deeds punctuated with jarring booms of explosive belts and prefatory cries of “Allahu Akbar”, and then only to be told by our leading politicians, or UK Home Secretary Theresa May, that ‘this is not what it plainly appears to be’, is like a nightmarish spin-off of Rene Magritte’s Treachery of Images that will only create collective cognitive dissonance within non-Muslims, which in turn will lead to mass paranoia, and will then finalize into violent hate crimes towards innocent Muslims.

The third strategy is to publicly support in solidarity those devout Muslims who affirm that ISIS has ‘something’ to do with Islam, and who are working towards de-radicalization, counter-terrorism, and community restoration, such as ex-radical Islamist Maajid Nawaz who runs the counter-extremism organization Quilliam Foundation in London, or author and journalist Asra Nomani and activist Raquel Evita Saraswati who work towards women’s rights and tolerance within Islam and towards building trust with non-Muslims.

Unfortunately, it is a tragic irony that these Muslim activists often face severe censure in the media from the “progressive” left who will label them as “bigots” and “Islamophobes”, and also from many other Muslims who will label and shame them as “porch monkeys”, “lap dogs”, and “native informants”.

In our day and age it will take brazen moral courage to support these brave Muslim activists.  As Slavoj Zizek has written in the wake of the Paris Attacks, “the next taboo worth leaving behind is that any critique of the Islamic right is an example of ‘Islamphobia’’.   Enough of this pathological fear of many Western liberal leftists who worry about being deemed guilty of Islamophobia.” Yes, Zizek, basta.

The fourth and final push would be to publicly recognize that the theological basis of ISIS comes from Saudi Arabia, which as Algerian writer Kamel Daoud points out is “the world’s chief ideological sponsor of Islamist culture”, having a “religious clergy that produces, legitimizes, spreads, preaches and defends Wahhabism, the ultra-puritanical form of Islam that Daesh feeds on.”

Saudi Arabia participates in a litany of human rights abuses such as public crucifixions and beheadings.  They refuse to release Raif Badawi, who has been sentenced to brutal torture because of his opposition to the Wahabist clergy.  It also refuses to allow Syrian refugees to cross its borders.

Yet, in the strangest of ironies, somehow Saudi Arabia was elected as current chair of the U.N. Human Rights Council Panel. A globalized ultra-puritan style Islamist ideology, no matter the poverty or wealth of Muslims, no matter the wretched postcolonial rage or successful European integration of Muslims, will always offer to Muslims an alluring symbolic seduction of the “true” caliphate until the West renounces its denial and duplicitous complicity with the Saudi theocracy.

Joshua Ramos, a fellow with the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) in Vienna, is finishing his doctoral studies at the University of Denver on the work of Olivier Roy and radical religions in a global context.  His research and publications focus on religion, fundamentalism, demography, and immigration.


NO. Opinion-makers in the West still make an invidious, unacknowledged distinction between domestic victims of terrorism and victims elsewhere

The day after the Paris attacks one BBC commentator suggested that what happened in Paris was “Beirut-level” violence.

That is an essential insight. Global and regional powers — many from “the West” — have for decades been inflicting massive violence and causing huge scales of human suffering throughout parts of the Middle East. But westerners assume that such violence should be contained there. Far over there. This racist presumption of qualitative difference is now being proven false.

President Obama has called the Paris onslaught an “attack on all of humanity.” While perhaps true, we in the western world cannot accept that humanity is affected only when Europeans are murdered or, as on 9/11, symbols of western military and economic power are made to crumble.

The suffering of a Parisian concert-goer is unacceptable and condemnable. Such suffering is neither more scandalous nor more unacceptable than the suffering of a child in Aleppo, in Karachi, in Gaza. The primary difference is that the child in those places is likely poor, without the benefits of being insulated from the violence engulfing her context.

King Abdullah II of Jordan has called the present moment a Third World War. The number of countries involved and the massive suffering being inflicted in many contexts appears to qualify for this appellation. Those communities being newly forced to confront the violences of the present world will be tempted to reactivity.

The fog of war clouds analysis and judgment. At this stage of conflict, we may be entering a period of dangerous confusion. As we express concern for “all of humanity,” we must resist seeking the good for only some humans alone.

Rev. Robert O. Smith, PhD, is Academic Director for the Jerusalem Global Gateway of the University of Notre Dame and co-moderator, with Dr. Muna Mushahwar, of the Palestine-Israel Ecumenical Forum of the World Council of Churches. He is the author of More Desired than Our Owne Salvation: The Roots of Christian Zionism (Oxford, 2013).


NO.  Politicians in America still react hypocritically to the refugee influx.

In a move as startling in its rapidity as it was predictable in its outcome, the House of Representatives voted on Thursday, November 19, to block refugees coming to America from Syria.

The margin was large, with 289 representatives voting in favor, and 137 voting against its passage. So in its first official congressional action, the United States government answered with a ringing “aye” the question of whether the Paris attacks were a game changer, at least in terms of the refugee crisis.

Over 25 Republican governors added their voices, the tide being so swift that the Democratic governor of New Hampshire added her state to the list. All of President Obama’s efforts to head this reaction off with tweets and speeches proclaiming that to attempt to block safe haven for the refugees was a betrayal of America’s deepest values were for naught.

With Thursday night’s action, the question changed from what the House would do, to what does it mean? Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid promised to block the legislation. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan called it merely a prudent action, and claimed that he was asking for a “pause” in the refugee program.

Of course, that could be called into question, since the bill passed called for the director of the F.B.I., the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security and the director of national intelligence all to confirm that each Syrian refugee posed no threat. No threat? That’s a level that can’t be achieved for American citizens.

That naturally raises a political theological question. What is right? The Christian requirement of taking care of the stranger within your gates, (Leviticus 19.33-34) or of caring for the “least of these my brothers and sisters” (Matthew 25.31-46) is abandoned by many Americans who most frequently wish to be identified with Christianity and Biblical teachings.

The very people who flee from the atrocities of ISIS are denied sanctuary, on the pretext of security.

The 9/11 attackers were not in the U.S. on refugee status, but tourist and student visas. America has begun to sacrifice its principle of being that best hope for those fleeing persecution. In 1883, Emma Lazarus penned a poem, that still stands upon the plaque on the Statue of Liberty. Part of it reads “Give me your tired, your poor,Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

Perhaps the next bill from the House will arrange the removal of the plaque.

Ward Holder is Professor of Theology at Saint Anselm College.  He is the author of  Crisis and Renewal:The Era of the Reformations (John Knox Press, 2009) and John Calvin and the Grounding of Interpretation: Calvin’s First Commentaries (Brill , 2006). 

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