In Defense of Understanding ISIS

word ISIS TERRORISTS and magnifying glass with pencil made in 2d software
word ISIS TERRORISTS and magnifying glass with pencil made in 2d software

In the third Democratic primary debate on Saturday, moderator John Dickerson asked Hillary Clinton a pointed foreign policy question about the apparent ISIS attacks in Paris:

...you gave a speech at Georgetown University in which you said, that it was important to show, quote, "respect, even for one's enemies. Trying to understand and in so far as psychologically possible, empathize with their perspective and point of view." Can you explain what that means in the context of this kind of barbarism?

In the interest of disclosure, I'm a PhD student at Georgetown, but I wasn't present for that speech, and as a committed political independent, I'm very undecided on whether to support Clinton's bid for the White House and also deeply ambivalent about her overall foreign policy approach. But I would like to write in defense of the idea or attitude captured in Clinton's quote, which was implicitly called into question by Dickerson's use of the word barbarism.

The legend behind the origins of the word barbarian is that the Greeks couldn't understand the language of foreigners and thought they were just saying "barbarbarbar," so they coined a term to capture the uncouth, uncivilized, savage otherness of these foreigners. A barbarian is someone that you can't speak to, an irrational, or at least an unintelligible person. In religious terms, a rough equivalent today would be to call someone a fundamentalist. At least in common parlance, fundamentalists are people who can't be reasoned with; they clutch their pre-rational assumptions so tightly that there's no use talking sense to them. That's why no one self-identifies as a fundamentalist these days; everyone believes they themselves are rational. Even the Protestant movement for whom the term was invented has all but abandoned it. Today fundamentalist, like barbarian, is an insult, an epithet, a verbal expulsion from the realm of the intelligible and the rational.

Which brings us to the premise of Dickerson's question: can ISIS be made intelligible? Are the ISIS fighters capable of feelings and are those feelings human feelings (the base of empathy)? Or are they simply barbarians, fundamentalists, excised from the ranks of rational, emotional humanity?

Clinton's response to Dickerson's implicit question was roughly No, ISIS is not intelligible or empathizable:

I think with this kind of barbarism and nihilism, it's very hard to understand, other than the lust for power, the rejection of modernity, the total disregard for human rights, freedom, or any other value that we know and respect.

This answer, the answer of a presidential candidate and not a contemplative former Secretary of State, is a very good political answer. It polls well. What the Greeks knew, and what Dickerson in asking the question and Clinton in answering it thusly both grasped is that your geopolitical enemies are much easier to hate if you can separate them from the human herd. If you come up with a term or phrase, be it barbarian, fundamentalist, radical Islamic terrorist, jihadi, etc., with which you can categorize their inhumanity, their nonhumanity, it makes them much easier to bomb at a distance.

Make no mistake, ISIS is brutal, inhumane, violent to the nth degree, and unapologetically opposed to our government and our way of life. But the men who fight for ISIS and the women, even Western women, who volunteer and travel to Syria to join the cause, are human beings. They are not insane, nor are they irrational. Their brains work the same way that ours do. They have feelings the same way we do. They believe deeply in their cause, and they have dedicated their lives to accomplishing it, murderous as that cause may be. That they are unintelligible and their actions appear incomprehensible to us is as much a failing of our empathy and intelligence as it is caused by their difference from us.

We in the Western (mostly) Christian world have been lulled by our creature comforts. Our consumer culture leaves us obsessing about the next iPhone and largely apathetic to religion and the ultimate battles of good and evil. We cram religion into a brief hour on Sunday morning, if at all. We cannot imagine a religious fervor that would lead one to willingly be killed or even to kill others.

All the while, we approach the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, a Western religious revival that triggered a maelstrom of violence, hatred, and bloodshed on both the Catholic and Protestant sides in the 16th century. Every religion has a fraught relationship to violence. The powerful religious ideas and feelings that stir up a Martin Luther King Jr. or a Gandhi to campaign for human rights can also contribute to dark fantasies and apocalyptic death cults, of which ISIS is Exhibit A in the world right now.

I'm not suggesting that the U.S. stop fighting ISIS or that we try to find some mushy, religious, Kumbaya, sentimental view of them. But Clinton was right in her Georgetown speech and wrong in the debate. There is a rationality behind ISIS' brutality, there is a method to their madness, there are ideas and ideals that they believe in. Barbarians are easy to bomb but impossible to reason with.

Naming them barbarians exempts us from having to deal with their ideas. And what our world, and most particularly the Muslim world right now, needs is people who can reason with the supporters of ISIS, who can deal with their ideas. We need people who can understand their way of thinking, and, yes, even empathize with it to a degree, but then help them see the flaws in their reasoning, the gaps between their ideals and their actions, the deep currents of mercy and generosity in the religion they purport to love and the contradictory nature of their killing in its name.

The Roman playwright Terence wrote, "I am human, and nothing human is foreign to me." Would that it were so in our political rhetoric.