Part three of a three-part series reflecting on the Islamic State group (ISIS). The author is an MCC worker in the region, whose name is withheld for security reasons.
What is that which we call evil but the absence of good?…Unless they are parasitic on something good, they are not anything at all.
Augustine argued that evil can only exist as a corruption of something good. It is not an opposite of good, with its own power. On its own, evil is nothing. In a similar way, Hannah Arendt maintained that totalitarian movements are parasitic on politics, with “politics” defined holistically as the negotiation and refinement of different interests and values in community.
A movement like ISIS “could not exist without destroying the public realm of life” and producing, in its wake, a mass of individuals alienated from their old identities. ISIS feeds on loneliness and alienation, and it produces it in turn, as individuals become defined only in their relation to the movement—a reorientation symbolized by new recruits burning their old passports on camera.
But just as light defeats darkness simply by being, the antidote to ISIS’s totalitarianism is politics—holistically defined, that is. ISIS works by tearing apart the fabric of society, unwinding the overlapping identities that bind communities together. The solution to ISIS is therefore nothing other than being, together.
But what do philosophical prescriptions like this have to do with the hard terrors of Raqqa? Everything. Real politics in this context means:
• international negotiations to end the Syrian civil war
• restoration of basic government services in Iraq and Syria and measures to stimulate sustainable and diversified economic growth
• development of state institutions in Iraq and Syria that are accountable to their populations
• development of civil society, including unions, religious groups, non-governmental organizations, and others, providing for political organization outside of the state
• private and public repentance for historic and ongoing imperialism by Western nations and commitment to engaged non-interference in the affairs of Middle Eastern nations
• continued dialogue at all levels between Muslims and minorities living in Muslim majority nations about the legal and social status of minorities
• increased cultural exchange between Western nations and majority Muslim nations, including their respective minority populations
And most importantly:
• initiatives, large and small, that create friendship and shared purpose across cultures and religions
Does this allow me to give an answer to the horrors my friends have suffered at the hands of ISIS? Certainly not one that feels as real as arms and airstrikes. But I believe it is the most real answer anyone could give. In Revelation, the beast does not triumph; the Word of God does—as it already has—wearing a bloodstained robe and leading the people of God in triumph to live together in the city of God. These steps testify to that reality; they are the kinds of steps that will bring stability to the region and deprive ISIS of the chaos it needs in order to survive.
Augustine, Manual on Faith, Hope, and Love, IV/14.
Arendt, Origins of Totalitarianism, 475.