Don’t let ISIL divide us

Deadly attacks in Europe have unleashed a blame game marked by division and polarisation.

Denmark Copenhagen vigil
Muslim populations across Europe are habitually blamed by proxy for ISIL's deeds, writes Shabi [AP]

We are not united in our misery – alas, it is dividing us, for that is terror’s aim.

In Copenhagen last weekend, a film-maker and a Jewish man were killed in terrible attacks linked to violent jihadi extremism – the killer apparently swore allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) – the same strain that gunned down Jews and cartoonists and police in Paris last month.

The Danish prime minister appealed for unity – and the Danish people rallied to show it – but beyond this, these two deadly attacks on innocents in Europe, in as many months, have unleashed a blame game marked by division and polarisation.

Meanwhile, the death cult ISIL has assaulted us with more monstrosities, this time the mass beheading of 21 kidnapped Christian Egyptians, in Libya – ISIL thereby bragging about both its new franchise in Libya and its continued revelling in heinous killings.

Singled out for religion

Those Egyptians, who had gone to Libya in pursuit of work, were apparently singled out for their religion – and perhaps also to taunt Egypt, which immediately launched air strikes on Libya. That was, presumably, exactly what ISIL wanted, because those air attacks have inevitably killed civilians (at least six, according to Human Rights Watch), which ISIL may now exploit and manipulate. For that is its practice.

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The anguish caused by this group just seems to be growing and spreading. There is misery upon misery for the thousands of Syrians and Iraqis who have the misfortune to live in areas occupied by this vicious group.

Fear and terror reigns across those regions – for Christians, Shia Muslims, Sunnis, too; indeed, for anyone who is deemed to be the wrong kind of human, which is seemingly anyone who disagrees with ISIL’s world view.

News doesn’t easily get out of those regions, but when it does, the description of life in the self-proclaimed caliphate is relentlessly brutal.

Meanwhile, fear and loss have also devastated Jewish communities within Europe as the horrifying fact of being killed for being Jewish awakens nightmarish collective memories, and poisons the most simple aspirations to live normal lives.

And there is agony, too, for Muslim populations across Europe, who are habitually blamed by proxy for the deeds of the death cult, no matter how many times or how rigorously ISIL is denounced and despite the fact that so many more Muslims have been killed and targeted by this group. Every time violent jihadi terror strikes in Europe, Muslim communities brace for a backlash of hostility and potential attacks.

Division and polarisation

These terrible, daily realities are bad enough – but what makes it so much worse is the division and polarisation that such acts of terror have created. Pointless, destructive debates over the “right to offend” rage across Europe’s media landscape. So, too, do attempts to downplay or ignore the realities of either Islamophobia or anti-Semitism, as though the existence of both at the same time cannot be comprehended.

ISIL’s horrendous killing spree in Libya has prompted renewed calls for military intervention – stepping up existing bombing campaigns in Iraq and Syria, putting boots (though it is not clear whose boots) on the ground. It is as though the endless war on terror and the horrors it unleashed – ISIL being one of them – have taught us nothing, have not instilled even the basic realisation that ideologies cannot be bombed away; that air strikes are no substitute for political solutions.


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The American journalist and anti-war activist, Norman Solomon, has described White House foreign policy as “explicitly endless, perpetual war” – adding that it resembles a kind of “repetition compulsion disorder”.

And there is a particular indignity about the interventionists take on Libya; advocates of the 2011 NATO bombing, which unleashed the chaos and unravelling of the state that in turn created the conditions for ISIL to take root, are now calling for more bombs, this time to dislodge the group.

The understandable rage that ISIL’s stomach-turning murder sprees invoke, our utter horror at the suffering this group has caused, creates a desperate need for quick fixes and magic bullets – and the trouble is that there are none.

No simple solution

As Fawaz Gerges, professor of international relations and Middle Eastern politics at the London School of Economics, has written: “There is no simple or quick solution to rid the Middle East of IS [ISIL] because it is a manifestation of the breakdown of state institutions, dismal socioeconomic conditions and the spread of sectarian fires in the region.”

He adds that the most effective way to degrade ISIL is “to dismantle its social base by winning over hearts and minds, a difficult and prolonged task, and to resolve the Syria conflict that has given [the group] motivation, resources and a safe haven”.

But there is, if not a fix, then a way of helping to alleviate some of the suffering; by providing sanctuary to those in Syria and Iraq. There are now over 3.7 million Syrian refugees, less than six percent of whom have resettled in Europe; incredibly, Britain has accepted only 90 of those.

Here, then, is the pressing failure – the tragedy that the interventionists cry to “do something” does not invoke. This is the bit that could tangibly make a difference – the intervention that could save lives.

Rachel Shabi is a journalist and author of Not the Enemy: Israel’s Jews from Arab Lands.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.