As you are no doubt aware, the recent attacks in Paris have led to an outpouring of sympathy and hospitality toward the throngs of refugees trying to escape exactly that sort of terror, which was happening in their neighborhood on an almost daily basis. Oh wait…No. The “cawmun sense” brigade was all over the internet and the air, using the attacks as an excuse to shut the refugees out. Who could have predicted such a callous, calculated tactic?
Well surely these anti-refugee types changed their minds once they learned that thus far, none of the attackers have been identified as Syrian refugees, and even the phony Syrian passport that appeared at the scene of one of the attacks may have been “planted,” according to a German government minister, right? Well no, facts don’t really faze these people much.
From the other side, many pundits and writers have suggested that ISIS actually wants to provoke a backlash against refugees, or in more general terms against Muslims, in hopes that this will radicalize both and bring in more recruits. Obviously the purveyors of “cawmun sense” know this is nothing but a load of liberal hippy bullshit, but if you actually think about this critically, this theory actually makes a lot of sense. It just takes decent knowledge of Islam and the workings of “extremist” groups (I’ll clarify what I mean by extremist later). Exposure to recent Russian propaganda is a big help as well.
First of all, ISIS and similar movements have a very strong motive to provoke persecution against Muslims. This persecution is key, because if your movement is about defending Islam and claims to follow the proper interpretation of Islam, persecution is a necessary precursor to fighting a jihad according to Islamic notions of just war. Granted, many people who join ISIS seem to know as much about Islam as your average Islamophobe, but it stands to reason you’re going to get people who will ask questions as to whether this jihad is truly righteous or not.
When we look to Islamic history and the Quran, we see the first revelation to the Prophet in Sura 22 39:40. Before quoting this, it’s important to understand the historical context. Mohammed and the early Muslims were not liked by the rulers of their home city, Mecca. Their monotheistic faith threatened the city’s economy as a…well…Mecca for pilgrims of various religions, many of which were polytheistic. Mohammed also expressed other teachings which were threatening to the powers that be, and thus he soon fell afoul of the authorities.
At this time, however, Mohammed’s Islam was utterly pacifistic. Violence, even in self-defense, was not explicitly allowed. Over time the persecution of Muslims led to migration from Mecca, ultimately leading to the Hegira or Hijrah, when Mohammed himself was forced to escape a plot against his life. This migration to a city called Yathrib, which would later be known as Madina, occurred in 622 CE, the beginning of the Muslim calendar.
Unfortunately for the Muslims, not all of their brethren were able to leave Mecca, and thus they continued to face persecution. The Meccans also weren’t about to leave the Muslims alone in Yathrib, and they refused to allow Muslims to return to their city and visit the Ka’aba.
In this context, and quite conveniently, Mohammed received the revelations regarding when it is permitted for a Muslim to engage in violence against their enemies. (The following are from the Yusuf Ali translation of the Quran -Author)
To those against whom war is made, permission is given (to fight), because they are wronged;- and verily, Allah is most powerful for their aid. (They are) those who have been expelled from their homes in defiance of right,- (for no cause) except that they say, “our Lord is Allah”. Did not Allah check one set of people by means of another, there would surely have been pulled down monasteries, churches, synagogues, and mosques, in which the name of Allah is commemorated in abundant measure. Allah will certainly aid those who aid his (cause);- for verily Allah is full of Strength, Exalted in Might, (able to enforce His Will).
And why should ye not fight in the cause of Allah and of those who, being weak, are ill-treated (and oppressed)?- Men, women, and children, whose cry is: “Our Lord! Rescue us from this town, whose people are oppressors; and raise for us from thee one who will protect; and raise for us from thee one who will help!
Now obviously, Salafist and other radical terrorist groups don’t necessarily follow the words of the Quran. Many of these groups have their own workarounds they use for justifying the violation of commands in the holy text. For example, some will claim that later revelations nullify earlier ones. But the point is, persecution and defense are important concepts in justifying war.
It’s easy for jihadists in some countries to attract people to their cause by claiming that Muslims are persecuted and thus are obligated to fight back. If you live in Afghanistan or Gaza, for example, the persecution looks like a massive explosion from a bomb or rocket. Persecution is checkpoints, humiliating searches, and arrests in the middle of the night. In Western and other industrialized nations, it’s another story, however.
It’s a fact that with few exceptions, Muslims in those horrible, decadent industrialized nations tend to live far better than their brethren in historically Muslim nations, not to mention in areas plagued by active wars involving jihadists. Yes, Muslims do face things like racism and stereotypes, but it’s nothing compared to the persecution they would face in some of their ancestral countries, often at the hands of other Muslims. So how do you get those Muslims to believe their being persecuted in a war on Islam, to the point that they’ll migrate to Syria to join the jihad or carry out terrorist actions wherever they currently reside? Obviously you need them to be more alienated, more isolated, and more persecuted. It comes in handy when a potential recruit, who may know very little about Islam at all, asks: “Hey brothers, are you sure it’s alright to be fighting like this?”
Would ISIS strategists actually follow this line of thought? In order to answer that, we have to get back to that “extremist” thing I mentioned earlier. I’m deliberately going to paint broad strokes when using the term extremist here (hence those quotes earlier), so for the sake of explanation let us define “extremist” as any political ideology that seeks to change the political status quo outside the rules of the political system. In other words, outside of constitution norms, elections, and so forth.
Now with this broad definition, you can take virtually any group that falls under that category, from far left Communists to anarchists to right-wing “patriots.” Study any of these enough, and you’ll inevitably find people voicing the “worse is better” concept. It will differ depending on who you hear it from and what movement you’re observing, but it’s the same basic concept. Make or let things get worse, and more people will become radicalized and receptive to your ideas. Conversely, the reason why the group’s message isn’t as potent now is because things are “too good.” Take away their HD TV’s, Netflix, internet, etc., and they will come flocking to your banner. The idea’s not entirely out there either, one can argue it has historical successes behind it.
The extremely dark comedy Four Lions actually lampoons this idea from the POV of jihadists. Super radical British convert Barry, who prefers to be called Azzam al-Britani, wants to bomb a mosque in the hopes that it will radicalize moderate Muslims and lead to an uprising:
Obviously this is just a movie, but the idea of “worse is better” and going after people who are sitting on the fence is widespread enough for people in ISIS to think of it.
Lastly, there’s the Russian analogy. As the Russian elite have ramped up their anti-Western propaganda, they’re still forced with a huge contradiction. They love the West. They just love it. The universities where they send their kids, the luxury apartments and villas they buy, the free food they get at Spaso House whenever the US Embassy is putting on an event. They love it. But their people aren’t supposed to love it. They need to put their noses to the grindstone and work harder, if they can work at all, because Russia needs to fight NATO encirclement while working with NATO in a war on terror against ISIS and…Okay that makes no sense but you get the idea.
Yet in spite of all the propaganda, Russians who can move to the West, do move. It’s not just the IT people and engineers either. RT founder and close friend of Putin spurned the birch trees and banyas of the motherland to live in the US, where he owned real estate. After his recent death, his body was buried in one of the most decadent cities in the decaying West- Los Angeles. Lately a lot of readers and friends speak of Russian immigrants or relatives living in the US and Canada and praising Putin and his policies, but strangely, few of them want to live under the Dear Leader’s wise rule. I know of one who got her wish, and now she wants to go back to the decaying West.
Obviously this is very embarrassing for Russia’s self-appointed “patriots.” Similarly, it’s got to be embarrassing for Islamic radicals when they notice that given a choice between join them and their “REAL TRUE 100% ISLAMIC STATE,” the overwhelming majority of Muslims say “No thanks,” and using any transport available, risk death and drowning to find asylum in the decadent Babylon that is Europe. So just as Russia’s patriots can do nothing but shake their fists and scream, “You’ll see! One day you’ll all see!” in spite of the fact that Russia has never really managed to rival any of these countries in terms of living standards, so too must many radical Islamists fume at the inconvenient truth that Muslims seem to prefer anything but their “true” Islamic society.
Of course the harder the anti-Muslim and anti-refugee backlash, the better it is for ISIS. First the refugees. If they’re sent back en masse to Syria or bordering countries, they may join ISIS or other jihadist groups. They’ll have been disillusioned by the West and democracy, desperate with nowhere else to go, and they’ll be fearful of retribution from the jihadists if they don’t offer up their services in some way. As for Muslims already in Europe, increasing racism and right-wing activity (worth pointing out how most European far-right parties have ties with the Russian government) will also create a larger audience for radicals. ISIS, and really any radical jihadist, wants these people to think: “They don’t like you. They hate you. They will always hate you. You’ll never be accepted. They persecute you. They’re degenerate perverts unbelievers; join us and let’s fight back against them!”
So in short, no, the idea that ISIS could be deliberately trying to provoke a backlash against refugees and Muslims in general is not just liberal hippy bullshit that can be dismissed in favor of dropping lotsa’ bombs on stuff. The backlash helps strengthen claims of persecution against Muslims in ISIS’ narrative. Knocking people off the fence and onto your side is a pretty widespread concept, as is the idea of deliberately provoking overreaction so as to garner more recruits.
Our evolution causes us to have overblown fears while ignoring real danger. A primitive, backward part of us wants to imagine that by locking out or restricting Muslims, Arabs, or Syrians, we can somehow be safe. There will be no more 9/11’s, 7/7’s, Charlie Hebdo’s, or Paris massacres. Unfortunately instinctual reactions are more likely to lead to increased violence and a general perpetuation of the cycle of violence as a whole. To paraphrase Cracked.com’s Jason Pargin (aka David Wong), the kind of people behind these attacks aren’t ignorant of our ability to retaliate against them; in fact they are counting on it.