Progressives Need To Make Hard Choices About ISIS
by Steve Spirgis
Posted on Young Progressive Voices on August 14th 2014
“There are children dying on the mountain, on the roads. There is no water, no vegetation, they are completely cut off and surrounded by Islamic State. It’s a disaster, a total disaster.” – Marzio Babille, Iraq Representative for UNICEF.
Progressives are at a historical fork in the road. ISIS — the band of militant, theocratic murderers and atrocity-mongers under the command of so-called “caliph” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi — has forced a confrontation between two irreconcilable beliefs that are core to the classic progressive mindset: “Solidarity,” and “anti-war.” The empathy is heavily engaged by the struggles of everyday people caught in ISIS’s path — whole villages hurled into ditches and callously machine-gunned, thousands forced to flee up the side of a sacred but remorseless mountain, starving and dehydrated while rifle-toting jackals encircle them and wait for them to die.
But the spectres of Vietnam, and of the criminal botching, corruption, and profiteering of our adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan, loom over any prospect of military engagement. For some, the political disgust at siding with the bloodshot and racist ‘hawks’ is too much to bear, too great an insult. The people up on the mountain will just have to starve, rather than that we have a hand in militarizing their rescue. Imperialism is a well-known side-effect of military culture. It is curious that the progressive allergy to imperialism hasn’t shown up much regarding the actions of ISIS. If imperialism ever had a face, the imagined world-conquest of the “renewed caliphate” is it.
Desiring nothing less than the unreserved capitulation of all who resist them, ISIS has set out on a quest to subjugate their neighbors, looting treasure and destroying irreplaceable cultural and religious relics as they go. They are all too proud to report themselves, too. ISIS recently dynamited the Mosque of Jonah — purported to be the final resting place of that unfortunate biblical figure who spent three days in the belly of a whale — and have destroyed an inoffensive shrine to the Yazidi tradition at the top of Mount Sinjar. They’ve claimed territory for themselves and set up ‘checkpoints’ along major roadways like the toll-charging bandits of old.
So why has this not engaged our multicultural, anti-imperialist sentiment? It is because many are very pleased to be smug and I-told-you-so about the collapse of Iraq. To act now might be to prop up that state against its enemies, to give it further aid, rather than to treat the entire country like a pariah, tainted by US involvement. This strain of thought, where the US can do no right, is a luxury. Western progressives have the privilege of sitting in our comfortable homes and wringing our hands about violence. We solemnly shake our heads at the idea of engaging in warfare, and utter empty platitudes. “I’m against war.” Of course you are. No serious, humane, compassionate person is for war. We need not and ought not be gleeful at the prospect. We should look at the possibility of warfare with the utmost reluctance, and measure its use as exactly as possible to the needs of the moment. The violence of war represents a failure, somewhere along the way, to confront anti-human ideologies.
The particulars of ISIS’s religious beliefs are on display for the whole world to see — a creed of utter religious nihilism, engaged in a homicidal mockery of Sunni Islam. I myself profess no religious faith, but I happily coexist with Muslims intellectually and culturally, as I’m sure many readers do. Sunni Muslims, engaged with their faith in ways that do not offend our basic human empathy, are charitable, hospitable, and possess a poetic and ironic awareness of their faith’s culture, history, and art. I have no doubt the same is true of the other branches of Islam.
I take issue not with Islam, but with the nihilistic and murderous impulses that ISIS has woven into its particular Islamic tapestry. The barbaric notion of ‘convert or die,’ forcing people to flee into the Arabian deserts at the height of summer, the deliberate destruction of sites of human heritage and cultural value, these behaviors should incite loathing and calls for resistance among the humane and progressive left. Yet, it is almost an article of faith that the left, confronted with the duty to aid our brothers and sisters as they are persecuted and slain, will sit on its hands.
The call for punitive sanctions – so effective against murderous tyrants that Saddam Hussein managed to build palaces to his own squalid glory even while his country suffered and starved around him – falls on deaf ears. Who would we we sanction? ISIS is not a recognized state, does not deserve such status, and in any case would probably reject it. Who shall we invite to the table? Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has made it clear what he thinks of anyone who disagrees with him, and the newly dug mass graves are a convincing proof of his intent.
Compassionate leftists are keeping two sets of books, and the numbers no longer match up. The laudable ideal of multiculturalism, of mutual respect for traditions and heritage, and of validity for unusual social mores is not a license to permit any and all crimes in the name of tolerance. How “tolerant” can a person be about an ideology – genuinely held and sincerely professed – that drives inoffensive noncombatants into the desert to die? How “tolerant” can a person be about the intentional murder-privation of tens of thousands of innocent people? In any case, why should we be tolerant of such acts?
The left is famously incapable of agreeing on how society should be structured. Central tenets, such as the impulse toward “horizontal” leadership and detachment of human value from industrial productivity, have emerged in various forms throughout the centuries. Still, no concept of utopia, of future prosperity and community, has emerged that can absorb groups like ISIS. ISIS represents an actual enemy: An enemy of women, of progress, of science and reason and free thought, an enemy of history and culture and human inheritance.
It is a luxury to not get our hands dirty, and the snobbish classism of the phrase is all the clue anyone needs as to its real intentions. We are aware, deep down, that groups like ISIS will require confrontation. Somewhere along the way, whether it’s Israel, Russia, Iran, India, or NATO, ISIS is going to run up against a threat to its existence. It will not sue for peace. Many of its fighters will throw themselves at the enemy guns, expecting either victory or a martyr’s heaven. The rest, lacking the courage of their convictions, will break and melt into the general population of the Middle East, perhaps having learned their lesson but more likely licking their wounds and waiting for the next chance to subjugate other human beings.
There will be a confrontation with ISIS, whether we force it or they do. It will be shameful of us to sit on the sidelines while the hard, bloody work of ridding ourselves of their nihilism is done on our behalf by those who ought to have been able to count on.
Steve is an intensely idealistic futurist, anti-oppression writer, and equality activist. He participated in Occupy Wall Street and took part in anti-racist protests along the US/Mexico border. He lives in Phoenix, at least for now.