The responses to the tragedy in Paris have run the gamut from “Pray for Paris” to the French President Hollande saying that “we will be ruthless” in the fight against ISIS. While all of these reactions feel like natural and even appropriate responses, they will also be fruitless. When your enemy not only doesn’t fear death, but embraces it, threats and demonstrations of strength only serve as fuel for their propaganda. Sun Tzu, who is often regarded as one of the greatest minds in military history, said that you must understand your enemy. He further elaborated that it isn’t their army you are confronting, it is the minds and ideas that run the army. ISIS is doing just that with it’s Western enemies, and we are feeding right into it.
Think about it. ISIS attacks targets in Iraq and Syria, what does the West do? A combination of drone strikes and arming rebels with Western weapons and training. The former ends up being used as a recruiting tool, and the latter puts those very weapons in the hands of ISIS who control the traffic. We seem to believe we are fighting a war over territory, with finite enemy lines. Where one side can pound the enemy lines of another relentlessly, and ultimately take away their will to fight. This is not that war. There is no territory. The war being fought is one of ideology, and it knows no geographic constraints. In order to beat this enemy, we must put more energy into understanding them, and more importantly emphasize with them. Do not confuse this with sympathy, care, or even mercy. It is an emotional understanding.
In the US, the number of non-Muslims that have read the Quran is so small, it is essentially immeasurable. One study found that over 99% of Americans have never even held a Quran. Instead, we do one of two things, both with complete and utter ignorance. We state that Mohammed is a false prophet, or we do the politically correct thing and say that we must respect everyone’s belief. Would you respect a belief that states, “Kill disbelievers where you find them… such is the reward of disbelievers.” ? Because that is an actual verse in the Muslim holy book. Again, our reaction is either; Islam isn’t a real religion, only mine is, or we say that it is an allegory or being taken out of context. Either response indicates an unbelievable lack of understanding about our enemy.
In an effort to resolve this systemic issue which could possibly result in a third world war, I thought I’d provide a simple framework. For starters, stop thinking about Islam, and start thinking about your belief. You know, the one that is absolutely right. Yeah, that one. Since I am an American and the majority of our country identifies as such, we’ll go with Christianity, but you could substitute anything including science and reason. Imagine believing beyond the shadow of any doubt that Jesus is the Lord and Savior. Follow his teachings and you will spend an eternity in Heaven. What would convince you that this belief you have built your life around is not true? The stance of almost every single GOP presidential candidate is “nothing.” Even in the face of indisputable evidence, these allegedly brilliant leaders would not change their position on their religion. They go so far as to cite how their belief will be used to influence their presidency, and often to raucous applause.
Now take that example a step further, and this is where it gets tough. What if you learned that Jesus wanted you to cleanse the world of filth and evil? Impossible, you’d say. Jesus was all about love and forgiveness. However, that is essentially what the Rapture will be according to the bible. And the majority of our presidential hopefuls aren’t shy in admitting they share that belief. Now apply that understanding to Islam, and more importantly fundamentalist Islam using the same mentality a fundamentalist Christian would use when reading their holy book. This is the paradox we face with belief. We seem to readily accept our own, while simultaneously dismissing another’s to the point of not even comprehending it. In each instance, when faced with evidence to the contrary, we respond with “faith.” We claim not to be “awesome” enough to understand our deity, but that we have faith that it is for the greater good.
If American’s and Westerners can start to at least grasp this concept, we can win the war against ISIS and every other organization that fills it’s vacuum. The problem with this approach is that it is not politically correct, and moreover it is not politically viable. Imagine a study which found that the majority of Born Again Christians shared some type of trauma in their life before converting. In other words, some type of empirical proof that people fill gaps in their life with religion. Who would print that? It almost seems cruel. Like telling a six year old on Christmas Eve that Santa isn’t real. The fact is, most religious subscribers cannot even comprehend life without their belief. It creates a perceived reality with comfort and failsafes.
So why would fundamentalist Islamist be expected to give up their beliefs? These are people recruited in early adolescence, often with no education, little food, and even less hope of escaping the cycle of violence and despair. Facing all of this, an Imam approaches one of these hungry and hopeless youths and promises him food, shelter, and a future. It isn’t until he is enveloped with faith, community and a feeling of strength that he learns his role is to help fulfill the Rapture. Imagine looking back on the poverty and hopelessness, and ahead to the promise of paradise that goes with dying in battle. Nobility, righteousness, fighting for the holy cause. Do we honestly believe that we are going to win this battle with brute force?
The fact is that ISIS has perfected a battle strategy pioneered by the patriots that founded the United States. We would never have defeated the powerful British going musket to musket on an open field. So we resorted to militia warfare. Taking advantage of the slow speed of a conventional army, we used it to our advantage. Raiding supply lines, burning shipments, and targeting officers with small, quick groups of militants. We broke every rule, and we did so because we believed in freedom, and we were willing to die for it. Make no mistake, our American patriots were terrorists to the British. The British lost because they underestimated the creativity and passion of men who were willing to die for something bigger than themselves. The fact that the cause of ISIS is delusional is moot. It is as real to them as Jesus or God is to a devout Christian. We like to believe they are primitive and lack sophistication… just as the British thought of the Americans. Well, they just executed a six prong coordinated attack with the exact number of casualties they planned for.
These are not stupid people. They are cunning, agile, adaptable, and most importantly they understand us. No less than two decades of studying our operations, behaviors, and responses. We have drones, aircraft carriers, and the most advanced military on Earth. What good is that when a single tweet can mobilize a dozen men with small arms and explosives to hit multiple targets at once? This is a war of ideas. So we can “pray for Paris” or promise a ruthless response, but it begs an important question. What are they hoping we do?