The American Response to ISIS

Kashmiri demonstrators hold up a flag of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) during a demonstration against Israe
Kashmiri demonstrators hold up a flag of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) during a demonstration against Israeli military operations in Gaza, in downtown Srinagar on July 18, 2014. The death toll in Gaza hit 265 as Israel pressed a ground offensive on the 11th day of an assault aimed at stamping out rocket fire, medics said. AFP PHOTO/Tauseef MUSTAFA (Photo credit should read TAUSEEF MUSTAFA/AFP/Getty Images)

In the wake of the Paris bombings by ISIS, the United States has joined the world in expressing outrage and its determination to destroy the terrorist group. But with what actions should America -- and individual Americans -- respond?

The typical -- and natural -- approach is to attack ISIS militarily. This is justified and necessary. Those who subscribe to the ISIS worldview have an ideology anchored in the eighth century and seek to restore the caliphate they see as destroyed by Western enemies. They want to gain geography over which they can restore theocratic control as they prepare for an Armageddon with the West. To deny them land thus both shows the failure of their methods and denies them the legitimacy they seek from potential recruits. Their focus on violent jihad ignores the term's predominant meaning -- an inner struggle to follow in the ways of the Prophet Mohammad. Their butchery of all opponents, including Muslim "apostates," makes clear that the leaders of ISIS will not be stopped short of military defeat.

How to wage that military response is a separate question. What ISIS seeks -- and what we should avoid -- is a Western army whose presence would convince and radicalize more Muslims in the belief that there is a crusade aimed at Islam itself. Americans do not generally understand that they are often seen -- even by many peaceful Muslims -- as associated with colonialism and support of repressive regimes. It was the West after all, that launched the Crusades, carved up the Middle East after World War I, supported the dictatorship of the Shah of Iran, and most recently condoned the military overthrow of the democratically elected Muslim president of Egypt. There are sufficient opponents of ISIS among other predominantly Muslim nations. We should encourage and support them in carrying out the ground fight. It is in their interest, not just ours.

The Paris attacks also call for increased intelligence and security measures to deny ISIS its claim of "effectiveness" in killing innocents. But herein lies a triple threat for the United States. The first is that increased security will come at an extreme cost to civil liberty. The second is that it will come as discrimination against peaceful Muslims who live in this country. The third is that it will be used as a campaign tool by candidates seeking to be seen as tough on terror. Politicians of all parties should seek to unite America, not divide it by stoking fear and aiming for partisan advantage. Islamophobia has no place among the values of Americans. It is exactly the reaction that ISIS seeks: more hatred of Muslims equals more ISIS recruits.

But a response that confines itself to military and security measures -- the response that has dominated the American effort against terrorism for a decade and a half -- is too limited. We must think more deeply than that and act more systemically.

We must see ISIS for what it is -- a radical movement opposed by the vast majority of Muslims. We must support the many Muslim clerics and scholars, not just in the United States but across the world, who condemn terrorism and exhort their followers to follow the peaceful path of Islam. It would help greatly in this regard if the American media focused attention on such opposition to ISIS, which has included several major conferences of Islamic religious and academic leaders who have uniformly condemned terrorism. As long as the media limit their coverage to jihadist violence, the American people will continue to have a warped view about Islam and the world's Muslims.

We must also deny ISIS the funds it needs to maintain itself. Whether through black market oil sales, hawking stolen antiquities to willing middlemen who later sell them to Western collectors, drug trafficking, or other means, ISIS as a self-proclaimed state relies on money to support itself. Denying it money denies it power.

Further, we must deny ISIS easy access to the Internet. It is ironic that an anti-Western movement is using Western technology as a principal method of command, control, and competition for talent. We must also encourage more use of the Internet by peaceful Muslim groups to provide a counter-weight to radicalization efforts.

Most importantly, we must work with all countries in the region and our European allies to insist and support the provision of basic services -- health, food, shelter, security, jobs, civil justice -- in all territories reclaimed from ISIS or that it seeks to acquire. It is the failure of governments themselves -- such as in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and Syria -- to provide these necessities of a peaceful life that leads people to condone ISIS and its promise to provide them.

Finally, America and Americans must rely on what Harvard University's Joseph Nye called "soft power." We must be a culture that the world -- including the world's Muslims -- sees as welcoming our Muslim citizens and immigrants and integrating them into society. Respect is an essential antidote to radicalization. Xenophobia has no place in an America that wants the world to believe it is a beacon of freedom, hope, and tolerance.

ISIS is a cancer in the world. It will take a coordinated serious of measures to defeat it. Like any disease, it will claim its victims but is conquerable in time. Like any disease, it will take patience and require mutual support among those who battle it. Simplistic slogans and short-sighted policies will not suffice. Like cancer, the cure will not be without cost - a cost that anti-tax Americans seem not willing to pay (or only willing to pass on to posterity).

America, like the cancer patient, is having its fortitude tested. If - more likely when - there is another terrorist attack on the homeland, a military response and security crackdown will take place. But we should be under no illusion, now or then, that such measures will be enough.