The Brain Supremacy

From the frontiers of neuroscience

The Truth About Islamic State We Don't Want to Hear Part 1

It's too easy just to call them terrorists

Today’s paired posts arise from obligation rather than enjoyment. Their message needs saying, but it won’t be popular. It’s about Islamic State, ISIS, ISIL or however we’re currently translating what they call themselves: the repellent gang of criminals currently terrorising large swathes of the Middle East.

Not that the Western media would care half as much if that were all they were doing: but one of them, who has very publicly murdered an American journalist, has a British accent. He and a sizeable cohort of other alienated young men have gone off to fight for Islamic State; and we’re petrified that they’ll come back and start terrorising us.

It’s not the first time that young Brits have gone off to fight abroad. Many participated in the Spanish Civil War, for example, and we now see them as heroes; but that was different. For one thing, it didn’t involve the West’s long-time least favourite ideology: militant Islam.

Now, I’m a Western non-expert brought up in a still partly Christian culture and indoctrinated early on with the scientific belief system, so this is an outsider’s perspective, but as far as I can see the Islamic State ideology bears about as much relation to mainstream Islam as the Lord’s Resistance Army bears to mainstream Christianity. (An example of which is the quiet dignity under torment of James Foley’s family). In fact, to the untrained eye Islamic State looks rather a lot like the LRA, that deranged cult, especially in its members’ apparent conviction that they should kill anyone who doesn’t think like they do.

You don’t need a religion to believe that it’s OK to kill people, of course. But in this case, religion – very narrowly defined, quite likely by a person or persons of doubtful mental health – seems to be the marker being used to separate the saved from the massacred.

And guess what, we’re busy applying markers of our own. Viz. Philip Hammond, UK defence secretary: “This is a poison, a cancer, what’s going on in Iraq and Syria, and it risks spreading”, and President Obama's remarks along similar lines.

Well, yes. Cancers do that, unless you in turn do some pretty nasty things to them. Like blitzing them with – er – poisons, or cutting them out. Calling Islamic State a cancer begs the question: what form of surgery are our leaders contemplating and how many of our soldiers will die during the operation?

So here’s the unpopular message. Islamic State, like that other revolting entity Soylent Green, is made out of people. People like us, with devices and desires like us, who have somehow come to believe that the best thing they can do in life is commit atrocities.

Except you can bet that very few of them will actually believe that. Instead, they’ll believe that what they’re doing is a way to prove themselves, or a vile necessity, or justified vengeance, or self-defence, or even the only way to save themselves from a situation much nastier than they’d expected. Quite possibly some of the young Brits who went out to Syria and Iraq went for the adventure, or because someone they admired – someone they felt cared for them – asked them to go and implied they’d be cowards if they didn’t. Young men are terribly vulnerable to that kind of pressure. But it’s also likely that some went because they wanted to help, and then found themselves trapped and coerced by leaders who could see the propaganda value of having these foreign fighters on their side.

If you think of these ‘Jihadi Johns’ as terrorists, the instinctive response is to try and eliminate them. But that’s not an option, for several reasons. Firstly, we can’t find them all. Secondly, if we just summarily dispatch them, their younger brothers, cousins, best mates etc will be so enraged that we’ll have effectively bred a whole new clutch of enemies. We’ve seen Israel and Hamas pursuing this policy for years. Has it solved the Israel-Palestine conflict? No. (Has either side shown much sign of learning the obvious lesson? Again, no.) Furthermore, indiscriminate killing’s against the rules – the same rules which make the UK a generally law-abiding (and therefore extremely desirable) place to live.

So if elimination isn't feasible, what can be done to weaken Islamic State? That's the topic of my next post.

Copyright @neurotaylor 2014.

Kathleen Taylor is a freelance science writer and researcher at Oxford University.

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