(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, February 11.)
It’s hard to think of a more challenging conundrum than the one posed by the Islamic State.Labour leader Andrew Little was right last week to describe Isis as evil. It’s a word seldom heard these days because it implies a moral judgment, and moral judgments are unfashionable. But “evil” is the only way to describe men who coldly behead their captives, then amp up the shock factor by burning one alive.
There is an element of gleeful sadism in their barbarism. Last week they pushed a gay man from the top of a tall building – reportedly the fourth such execution for homosexuality.As with their other atrocities, they posted pictures and video online, a gesture that was part boast, part taunt. In doing so, they were saying to the world: “Look what we’re capable of. There is no limit to what we will do.
“Norms of civilised behaviour don’t apply to us. In fact we hold the civilised world in contempt. You know, and we know, that you are too weak and divided to stop us.”These otherwise primitive haters of the decadent West mock us further by using sophisticated Western technology to rub our noses, figuratively speaking, in the blood of their victims. Without the smartphone, the video camera and the Internet, their power to shock would be enormously diminished.
And these are merely the more flamboyant examples of the Islamic State’s depravity – the ones calculated to get our attention and fill us with fear, horror and anger. Almost unnoticed in the background, Isis is proceeding with its grand plan to establish an Islamic caliphate, which means systematically slaughtering or enslaving anyone who stands in its way.No one, then, can dispute that the Islamic State is evil. The conundrum is what the rest of the world should do about it.
I wish there was a pat answer, but the Islamic State presents a unique challenge because it stands apart from all norms of combat or diplomacy.It has no regard for human lives, including those of its own followers. It acknowledges no rules, it has no interest in negotiation and its adherents – who seem to include a significant number of thugs with criminal records – are said to be happy to die for their cause because it will ensure entry into paradise. How do you defeat such an enemy?
Yet doing nothing is not an option. Either we believe civilised values are worth defending and that vulnerable people deserve protection from mass murderers, or we don’t. And if we do, we can’t just whistle nonchalantly while looking the other way and pretending it isn’t happening.We have been here before. In 1994 New Zealand was one of only three countries in the United Nations that supported forceful intervention to prevent genocide in Rwanda. The rest of the international community didn’t want to get involved, having recently seen America get its nose bloodied in Somalia. More than half a million lives were lost as a result.
A similar situation arose in the Balkans War, where a puny and impotent UN peacekeeping force did nothing as thousands of Muslims were massacred.The situation in Iraq and Syria is not dissimilar. The West has lost its appetite for combat because of failures in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Islamic State is counting on America and its allies having no stomach for a fight; it is goading us, convinced that its will is stronger than ours. And so far it has been proved right. The military response has been half-hearted.
In effect, the Islamic State is testing the moral resolve of the civilised world. I just hope we won’t fail the test as we did in in Rwanda and Srebrenica.This is not like the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, where the objectives were hazy (or in the case of Iraq, tragically misconceived). Isis is not some shadowy terrorist entity; it’s a functioning army, operating in plain sight.
That doesn’t make it easy to defeat, but neither is it an excuse to do nothing.Unfortunately Andrew Little, while condemning Isis as evil, doesn’t think it’s our business to stop them.
It’s interesting that where the Islamic State is concerned, the Left sharply deviates from its honourable tradition of siding with the weak and vulnerable. The Islamic State, it insists, is not our problem, no matter how many innocents die.I suspect the Left is unable to see past its antipathy towards America and can’t bring itself to support any initiative in which America plays a leading role. Its ideological blinkers blind it to the fact that on this occasion, America is on the side of the angels.
Yes, it’s ironic that the American invasion of Iraq helped create the circumstances that enabled the Islamic State to flourish. George W Bush barged in like a Hollywood sheriff come to clean up Deadwood.But that doesn’t mean the West should wash its hands of the appalling crimes being carried out as a result. Indeed America could be seen as having a moral responsibility to clean up the mess it helped to create.
Most reprehensible of all is the craven argument that we should avoid antagonising the Islamic State for fear that some deranged jihadist will strike at us. That’s moral cowardice of the lowest order.John Key is right to highlight the inconsistency in the Left’s stance, and I applaud him for saying that New Zealand will not look the other way. It’s rare for Key to commit himself so emphatically, and commendable for him to do so on one of the pressing moral issues of our time. We should hold him to it.