Ba-ta-clan. Before Friday, for those who cared about such things, it was the name of a fairly obscure operetta by the 19th century French master of light operetta, Jacques Offenbach. Now it is the latest entry in a long list of places that have been synonymous with tragedy, horror and senseless death and murder. The world has come together to mourn, and ponder what to do next. The question of the hour is what to do about ISIS. It is a serious question, and it deserves a serious answer.
It is much easier to say what not to do. What we should not do is, as some are already doing, talking about restricting civil liberties, or blaming Edward Snowden. One ill-thought through Patriot Act was enough. We should not be blaming Islam for this tragedy. God knows we’re no fans of George W. Bush, but at least after 9/11, he was forthright in saying that Islam was not our enemy. Even the term “radical Islam” is far too imprecise. (Why are there no radical Jews or radical Christians?) We know that when the term “radical Islam” is used it filters right into the atmospheric of religious prejudice to become Islam is radical. To listen to the current crop of Republican candidates attack Islam, or governors say they want no Syrian refugees, or at least no Muslim Syrians in their state is to listen to a party which has no shame to use this tragedy to support and perpetuate xenophobic, and racist ideologies.
We should not use the attack in Paris as an excuse for supporting the right wing in Israel. The two situations are utterly unrelated. Israel and the Palestinians need to solve their problems as much today as they did last Thursday, and the crisis of the occupation has never been as urgent. The similarities are in the fact that right wing people, here, there and in Europe use every political crisis, violence and tragedy to justify endemic prejudices and deeply rooted racist exclusions.
We should not be calling for restricting immigration from Syria. We need to remember that German Jews faced two huge problems in the 1930s. The first of course was Hitler. The second was the US State Department and the British Foreign Office, which allowed only a small number of Jewish refugees into their countries. Imagine what the Jewish world would have been if both had opened the gates to Jewish refugees. Out came prejudice (no more Jews); it was cloaked in the fantastically spurious grounds that some of the German-Jewish refugees might be Nazi spies. The desperate people from Syria deserve our help, and it is in America’s interest to show to the people of Syria that we care about their plight. Yes, let’s do some prudent checks on refugees, but the insinuations of terrorism are just a transparent justification to keep the Syrians out.
Should there be a military response? It is question about which people of good-will can disagree, but ISIS needs to be stopped, somehow, in one way or another. The United States, France, and other countries are engaged in military action now. Certainly any military response needs to have a large political component. There will be no end to ISIS until the Syrian civil war comes to an end, and this needs to remain a priority. Let us remember the current situation: Assad and his ally Russia is opposed by both the US and ISIS. The US ally against ISIS, the Kurds, are vehemently opposed by another US ally the Turks. The US’s Sunni allies in the Gulf States have been providing covert assistance to ISIS, while the US’s Shi’ite opponents, , Iran and Hizbullah, are waging war against ISIS, though the US supports the Shi’ite dominated government in Bagdad. What is needed and quickly is a coalition to keep these factions together, and to plan for the future. It is an enormous endeavor, but the risks of not doing it are equally enormous.
And we need to remember that it is the Syrian and Iraqi people who have suffered the most in the war, and any solution that does not restore Syria and Iraq to a semblance of stability will be no solution at all. Once again, ending the Syrian civil war is necessary to end the threat of ISIS.
And for those in the West, let us not lose sight of our priorities, or of what makes our societies, in the United States and France, vibrant, open, and democratic, welcoming of all, supportive of difference, of all peoples, all religions, of immigrants and refugees. In every crisis of this sort, there are those who tell us that we must choose between liberty and security. They are wrong. There are those who would blame the US, blame Islam, blame Assad, blame Putin, blame the Gulf States for the rise of ISIS. They are wrong, though all the parties in the Middle East share the responsibility for leaving the region so battered that ISIS could find its opening. But in the end only ISIS is responsible for its murderous, heinous ideology and its atrocious acts. All the “players” in the Middle East must put aside their differences, and think constructively about the future of Syria and Iraq, and the stability of the region. It’s never too late to learn from our mistakes, it is wise to change course.