Three Steps to Defeating ISIS: An Open Letter to Christians and Atheists

In light of the attacks in Paris this last Friday, it is understandable that you get worked up, even angry. The attacks were acts of violence, carnage, bloodlust, and nothing short of terror in the darkest, most horrific sense of that term. It caught the French people, and the world, off guard, when nations and peoples are gearing up for the COP21 climate conference in Paris this December, and also for our respective end-of-the year celebrations and rituals.


Most Parisians are probably peaceful, and prefer to just live and let live, in a country where living is really, truly considered a great treat — and for good reason. I doubt, if you had asked them on Thursday, that most Parisians would have been willing to drag themselves and their fellow citizens into a senseless bloodbath. But the landscape now — from my vantage point in Hamburg, Germany — looks much different than a mere four days ago. The New York Times reports that France has already struck ISIS targets in Syria in response to the attack:

President François Hollande, who vowed to be “unforgiving with the barbarians” of the Islamic State after the carnage in Paris, decided on the airstrikes in a meeting with his national security team on Saturday, officials said.

There is also growing speculation that ISIS has now become more sophisticated, and has shifted its focus on attacking the West in our own countries:

Experts say they demonstrate Isis’s evolution from localized operations in Iraq and Syria to the West.

“The push to France likely represents the next stage of Isis,” said Clint Watts, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

“We’ll see them increasingly move away from conventional and insurgent operations in Iraq and Syria and more towards terrorist attacks in their extended network,” he said.

I think, whatever your analysis, we are in dark times, and darker times are still to come: global warming, global economic depression, and maybe even global war. That is exactly why I am calling for us to take the moral high ground right here and now: Turn the other cheek, do unto others as you would have done unto you, and love your neighbour.

And by “us” I don’t mean just Christians and atheists, though this letter is addressed chiefly to them. Nor do I mean Westerners in general, i.e. those who live in the West and may have accepted what are termed “Western values”, whether you are Christian, atheist, Muslim, Jew, Buddhist or Hindu. I mean all of us, and this letter is for anyone and everyone who is willing to take the time to read it.

Right now we are on the brink, and in fact we have been for some time. This is why I honestly wonder why the Paris attacks have caught us so off guard. They shouldn’t have, at least not if we had been paying attention to the events of the world. Let us not forget that just the day before a similar attack had been carried out in Beirut, Lebanon. These sorts of attacks have been going on in the Middle East and Africa for a very long time now, and we in Europe and the United States really should understand by now that a large number of attacks in other parts of the world will translate to a certain smaller number of attacks in our home countries. No matter how sophisticated our defense and intelligence systems really are, there is no getting past the fact that committed terrorists will always find a way. That is why we should stop giving them reasons to be so committed.

The Syrian conflict — the birthing grounds of ISIS — has also gone on for some years now, and refugees, most of them Muslim, but many not, have been fleeing their homes in ever-increasing numbers. Most of these refugees land in countries surrounding Syria, such as Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq, but a good portion — chiefly those with the money — have decided to travel to Europe.

That is a sensible decision. Despite our cultural differences, Europe and the Middle East are, geographically, not that far apart from each other. This is an obvious statement, but I feel it needs to be repeated. Because of their geographical closeness, Europeans are actually much more familiar with the many values and cultures of the Middle East than are citizens of the United States (my first nationality). The result is that governments of European countries — especially Western Europe, Germany and the Nordic Countries — are much better equipped to integrate the refugees coming in than would be the United States, just because many programmes and resources are already in place, and because Europeans are already familiar with smaller, relatively successful integration attempts in the past.

Naturally, this is all generalisation, and it is exactly the fact that this generalisation doesn’t actually hold true that really frightens me. When I talk about successful integration attempts from the past, I am specifically talking about the “Turkish question” here in Germany, and as many Germans of Turkish descent will still tell you today, integration is a relative term. As a US and German citizen who had spent most of his life in Virginia, but most of his adult life abroad, I originally approached the question of Turkish integration in Germany — and by extension Muslim integration in Europe — with the same attitude as the US problem of integrating immigrants from South and Central America. That is, everyone who complains about “die Türken” is just a conservative, religious bigot being duped by the conservatives in the government, who want to maintain power. Quoth the US-German, “Nothing more”.

Except… not everyone who complains about “the Turks” is conservative or religious. Some have been my friends, or good friends of my friends, and if you know anything about me or my politics, I don’t have very many conservative or religious friends (a shame, I will add). And, well, Angela Merkel, the Chancellor of Germany from the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), has been criticized by her own party for her “open door” policy towards the refugees. I know, there are other, chiefly economic, reasons that a conservative chancellor of Germany would support an open door policy. But it goes to show that things are not as easy as they may appear. This is a lesson that I have since learned, and I would like to pass it on.

I was once a radical (though not militant) atheist. I have since come to understand that there is a lot of good stuff to learn from religion. This should not come as a surprise to other atheists, though I know it will. Any institutions that have been around for as long as Islam, Christianity or Judaism — just to pick a few — are bound to come across some good ways of thinking about the human condition, and especially about how we treat one another. Of course, these same religions, and all religions, have figured out some decidedly bad ways of thinking about the human condition, and have pioneered some of the worst ways of treating human beings imaginable. But I do not see either of these things as being parts of the nature of religion, but rather as parts of us, which, when outwardly manifested and mixed with a good deal of cultural development and nature-nuture interaction, becomes one of many religions or religious ways of thinking.

So before we start listing the number of violent passages in the Quran versus the Bible (an interesting academic exercise, but ultimately besides the point), why don’t we follow the things you know to be good? Islam is not inherently violent any more than Christianity is. Violent people will use any belief system to justify their violence, even if that belief system explicitly condemns violence. One problem, of course, is that all religions give their followers the ability to pick and choose which passages to follow, and this makes sense, if we understand religion as something that we have created. Think about it this way, if you are on the council to write a religious text, you are going to include passages that will appease the broadest audience possible. Peaceful people won’t follow your religion if it is all about war and gore, and violent people won’t follow your religion if it is all about love thy neighbour and do unto others. Why else is the Bible given to us in two versions, combined into one, contradictory book? Even most Christians nowadays admit that there are contradictions, and that much of the Bible is not literally true, though they didn’t many hundreds of years ago. Why the double standard with Islam?

I don’t know much about the Aztec religion other than what I can read in Wikipedia and glean from popular culture, but I will use it as an example. The Aztec religion is a religion we’ve all sort of heard of, and we all agree that what we have heard is bad, and I am willing to say that the bad stuff in the Aztec religion it is worse than whatever bad stuff Islam has to offer. Even if we can’t agree on that, surely there is some religion in the history of the human species that has worse stuff in it than Islam does. And surely you will say now, “Why does that matter? Islam is what there is right here and now in this historical context, not the Aztec religion or what have you”. And here I ask, where was your historical context before I mentioned the Aztecs?

Because the violence in the Middle East has a historical context as well, one in which we in the West are deeply entrenched, and for which we are morally culpable. We colonised their lands, took their oil and other resources, divided them into territories, put in place or supported their dictators, gave weapons to their religious fundamentalists, and helped create the conditions that have led to civil war in Syria, leading to the refugee crisis and to the formation of ISIS. We have done all of this with vague justifications from our Western (Christian) values, starting with the idea of civilising barbaric peoples and continuing all the way up to bringing them democracy and the rule of law.

Then we ask, “Why are they (Muslims, Middle Easterners) stuck in the dark ages?” Did we forget that when we were in our dark ages (aptly named the Dark Ages) and into our Middle Ages, they were advanced civilisations, with books, libraries, mathematics, logic, law, trade, exploration, medicine, philosophy, and all of that good stuff? Did we forget that our Renaissance, our reawakening, which eventually lead to our Enlightenment and the Western values we cherish most — liberté, égalité, fraternité — started because we barbarians stumbled upon their libraries in Toledo, then called Ṭulayṭulah, in Spain? Of course they were also imperial powers, which is why they were in Spain in the first place.

I keep saying “they” and “we”, and it should be obvious right now that there is no specific “they” or “we”, and that it is absurd to keep speaking this way. We are all very different people who have very different backgrounds, and what holds true now goes for the Muslims and Christians hundreds of years ago. There is no way that we can define a “them” without also defining an “us”, and no matter our definitions, someone is going to be left out, or have the injustice of being labeled something they are not, an injustice that often leads to oppression and death. We all are well aware of the consequences of this kind of thinking. ISIS attacked Paris on the lines of this thinking, just as they attacked Beirut and Baghdad and numerous other cities since their inception. It is the thinking that keeps “their” women under “their” thumb, as we did not long ago (and still do, by the way). It is the thinking that keeps immigrants to “their” countries in slavery, toiling under horrible working conditions for “their” development (see any parallels to “us”?). It is the thinking that divides “them” into Sunni and Shiite religious sects (a division “we” helped create and later on exploited).

The French government is bombing ISIS on these very same lines, justified by the childish “They started it!”, as if the French have never killed anyone except in self-defense, and as if many French people didn’t hate Muslims before the Paris attacks. Now people are burning the refugee camps — as if that has only happened in retaliation, and only in France. And as if it is only Christians (or right-wing atheists?) versus Muslims. People in my original country hate some types of Christians for the very same reasons. Speaking of the US, the US government got us into Afghanistan for the same kinds of reasons, and we were tricked into invading Iraq for similar reasons. It is so easy to trick us when we are already so convinced that there is an “us” and a “them”!

I remember. I was sixteen or seventeen years old at the time, and my dad and I guiltily discussed how we were kind of excited about the invasion. Neither of us like war, not at all, but we had been sold that something had to be done about Saddam — a dark, evil autre with a moustache too similar to Hitler’s. We have since both realised how wrong we were, as the last decade has shown. I’d like to think I learned better because I am a smart, good person, devoted to principles in philosophy and ethics, but I don’t think that can be the whole picture. I think it is more likely that I went into philosophy and ethics in the first place because of the influence of one specific individual (the reason my dad changed as well): my mother. She was always very gentle and kind, and refused to even joke about other religions or groups of people (except sometimes, in private, but no one is perfect, nor do I necessarily see that as a sign of imperfection). She wasn’t even an atheist, but an agnostic, and while I know she did indeed have her trepidations about Muslims and specifically how many Muslim women are treated, these were genuine concerns about the agency of women, and whenever she spoke about it I feel she spoke from sympathy and empathy for their plight, not hatred for Islam. Unlike Charlie Hebdo, or certain Danish artists, or my friends, she actually was just as critical of Christianity as she was of Islam, and her criticisms did not seek to provoke or agitate the other side, but to remind us of the horrors all people can exact on each other.

But maybe this is all just my brain telling me what I want to hear. I am sure my mother wasn’t as good as I have made her out to be, but unfortunately I will never truly know. She died from a drawn out though relatively quick case of Parkinson’s and parkinson’s-related dementia, and she was diagnosed at a time when I was just learning to appreciate my parents, but also enjoying my first tastes of freedom in University. Approaching the second anniversary of her death, I am reminded of how uncertain I was throughout those eight long years, and can’t help but draw parallels to our (the world’s) uncertainty right now. I remember the anger, blaming her for refusing to take her levodopa pills and descending into uncontrollable shaking and anxiety because of it. Or, when she did take her pills, the fear when she floated into dopamine-induced delusions, and thought worms were coming out of her eyelids, or nearly ate poison. Oh the dreadful irony! — take the red pill or the blue pill, and you can either experience the real world of pain and suffering, or embody the pain and suffering of others, or both! Sadly, there is no third pill, at least as long as we continue reducing the solutions to our problems to pill-like forms.

What does this all have to do with the conflicts today, with the Paris attacks and the debates about Christianity and Islam? My anger and fear were directed at a woman who loved me, who was no more in control of herself than I was of her, and and the anger and fear probably stem from my own inability to control what was happening to her (take the pill, things get bad, don’t take the pill, things stay bad). The only thing I had control over was myself, and, well, I lost that as well. But if I had known then what I do now, I think I could probably have spent my time with her in a much more peaceful, productive, soulful way. I can’t do that, but I can at least be peaceful, productive and soulful in the way I spend time with others, with my friends, family and acquaintances. I don’t claim to be some calm Buddha-Jesus-Gandhi guy spouting wisdom and goodwill to all — but I certainly do like wisdom, just as much as I like goodwill. And the two go hand-in-hand.

Any person who is truly wise — Christian, atheist, Muslim, Jew, Buddhist, etc., etc. — also has good will towards others. Keep that in mind when you say that violence is inherent to Islam, that Islam is more violent than Christianity, or even when you make the more qualified and seemingly enlightened statement, “Islam nowadays has more violent individuals than Christianity does”. Certainly Islam has elements in it, that, when cultivated, produce violent individuals, and the violence found within Islam creates a feedback that promotes violence among certain Muslims. But that violence doesn’t come from Islam, it comes from human beings. We are intelligent enough to make up and remember our justifications for violence, but not quite intelligent enough to make up and remember all of the things that are bad about violence. Or, indeed, to remember that while terrorism may be as real as it is horrific, the most dangerous, horrific and real problem we face now is in fact our division and us-them mentality, not least because it causes us not to act on a future threat to all humans: climate change.

If we continue our divisions into religions, warring nations and clashes of cultures to the same degree that we divide ourselves now, then while climate change will remain the ultimate threat, we will not even be able to see it among the many, many, many threats that we create and perpetuate ourselves — real or imagined. Right now, because of our divisions and love of dividing, we won’t even admit our own moral culpability, or, if we do, we will qualify it with a weak “but they…”. I know someone is going to say, in response to this letter, “But ISIS…” and I will readily admit, I don’t know what to do with ISIS. That’s because we are not in control of ISIS, and gaining that attempt at control will likely be worse than things are right now. But we are in control of ourselves, so long as we have the presence of mind to realise this fact. While violence is a part of us, human reason, love and compassion — sympathy and empathy — are as well. That’s why the same religion that gave us the Crusades and justification for the genocide of many, many peoples also gave us (along with many other religions, to their credit), three of the most important principles that humankind has ever imagined. You would do well to practice them, and hence the three steps to defeating ISIS:

  1. Practice liberté by turning the other cheek. No one is freer than those who choose not to retaliate for attacks or insults, especially since that is what ISIS wants us to do in the first place.
  2. Practice égalité by doing unto others as you would have done unto you. There is no sign of equality better than giving to people you don’t know, refugees fleeing violence, that which you would wish to receive if you were in their shoes.
  3. Practice fraternité by loving your neighbour. There is nothing more fraternal — or, indeed, human — than showing your love and respect for people of other religions and cultures. You can’t control what they do or how they think, but you can control yourself, at least to some extent.

There is an “us” that does not necessarily mean a “them”, and for which there is therefore no injustice in defining us by it. That’s all of us, and we need to constantly remind ourselves of who we are. In the end ISIS, and all violence that has led up to this point, can only be vanquished when we refuse to take part in the things that set us apart. In that way we will be defeating the ISIS in us. I have said that listing the violent passages from religious texts is besides the point, and so, in fact, is much of what I have said here. What is important, now, is how we move forward. I humbly suggest we recognise that there is such a thing as an all of us, and we start treating each other that way.


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