Since the events in Iraq, Beirut and Paris last week, we have all been trying to make sense of what has happened and how to respond. Over the coming weeks, The Religion Factor will be publishing reflections from staff and fellows of the Centre for Religion, Conflict and the Public Domain on these events from a number of different perspectives. Today’s post, from CRCPD Director Erin Wilson, suggests that becoming more comfortable with ambiguity may be the most difficult response, but is perhaps one of the few ways to deal with the inconsistencies and uncertainties that such events inevitably raise.
‘You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.’
To Kill A Mockingbird, By Harper Lee
I watched To Kill A Mockingbird on Saturday evening. After the horrors that had unfolded on the news throughout the day, I wanted to feed my soul, to reassure myself that peace, justice and change are possible.
The ironic thing about To Kill A Mockingbird is that, while we often think of it as a story of inspiration and hope, it is primarily a story of defeat. A white lawyer in a Southern American town during the depression chooses to defend a black man wrongfully accused of rape. Despite his skills as a lawyer, the clear demonstration that the man could not possibly have committed the crime he is accused of, and his impassioned plea to the jury for a just verdict, the man is found guilty anyway. Faced with the prospect of being executed, he tries to escape, and is shot in the process.
Where is the hope in this story? Where is the inspiration that inequality, injustice and violence can be overcome?
The hope, for me at least, is in the character of Atticus Finch, the man who chose not to see the world in terms of black and white, but who instead chose to see its blurred lines, its greyness, its nuances, its difficulties, its ambiguities, its beauty and its ugliness; who chose to humbly stand up for understanding and a different way of seeing people and the world, even the people with whom he profoundly disagreed, the racist white townsfolk who spat on him and threatened his children.
Since last Thursday, our world has been rocked by multiple terrorist attacks across Lebanon, Iraq and France, attacks that appear to have been carried out by individuals and cells affiliated with ISIS.
Faced with such suffering, cruelty and horror, our immediate urge is to look for answers. Who is responsible? Why did they do it? How do we respond? How can we prevent such horrors from happening again? And it is easy to fall into black-and-white, us-and-them style responses to these questions.
Some in the Western media and on social media have blamed ‘refugees’ for the attacks. Refugees coming from Syria, they argue, may be ISIS agents, intent on carrying out more attacks on citizens in Europe, America, Australia, Canada and the UK. Such statements also blame governments for accepting too many refugees and not closing their borders sooner. Governors of 24 states in the USA have subsequently taken action to refuse resettling any refugees from Syria, and politicians and public commentators in other nations have been suggesting similar courses of action. Sadly, the words ‘refugee’, ‘Muslim’ and ‘terrorist’ have been increasingly used interchangeably in public debate since 9/11 and such arguments do nothing to reduce their conflation. ‘Refugee’, once a word used to designate someone fleeing persecution, has become a word used instead by some to designate potential criminals and terrorists.
Others have blamed ‘religion’, specifically ‘Islam’ for the violence, though it appears there are fewer voices making this claim now than in January following the Charlie Hebdo attacks. What has been a more prominent argument is that ‘violent’ or ‘radical Islam’ is to blame, not Islam as a whole.
Other voices have been quick to respond to these claims. The refugees that are pouring out of Syria are fleeing ISIS, not attempting to spread their ideology, they argue. From the statements issued by ISIS following the attacks in Beirut and Paris, it also seems that the logic behind these attacks has as much to do with political and military strategy as it does with religion. If France continues to support military action against ISIS in Syria, it will remain a priority target, the group reportedly said.
The problem is that there seems to be an element of truth in all these claims. While some of those who carried out the attacks in Paris are believed to have been French citizens, there were apparently some among them who had entered the EU via claiming asylum in Greece, according to UK intelligence sources, though the evidence for this is by no means conclusive. And while ‘religion’ and ‘Islam’ are part of the identity of ISIS and form part of the reason why some people have joined the group, there are many other complex factors at play as to why individuals choose to (or in some cases are compelled to) fight as part of ISIS, including poverty, desperation, marginalization, isolation and exclusion. These factors are part of the reasons why people act in the name of ISIS in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and France alike.
Faced with these contradictions, ambiguities, uncertainties and the sheer overwhelming wall of information that is being generated in the aftermath of these attacks, there are I think three prominent ways in which we as individuals, as human beings, especially those of us in relatively safe, secure, stable societies may feel tempted to respond.
The first is to cling on to these black-and-white, either-or responses. They are, after all, comforting. They provide us with clear analyses and open up relatively obvious, straightforward policy responses that can be carried out quickly and immediately. If the problem is radical Islamic ideology, then we must wipe it out. We must encourage and support ‘moderate’ Muslims and fight the radicals. If the problem is terrorists coming in as refugees and asylum seekers, then we must stop the flow of refugees. If the attacks are an act of war, then we must defend ourselves through military action. But these responses only deal with part of the overall story. As I have written about previously on this blog, the line between ‘radical extremist’ and ‘moderate’ is not always clear-cut, and is often designated for strategic and political reasons. There has also been a suggestion by analysts that increasing social and political divisions and suspicion of refugees may be part of the goals of ISIS in undertaking these attacks, feeding into their narrative of a war between Islam and the West. Declarations of war by European leaders only provide more support for this view of the world, and lend a power and drama to these actions that may be exactly what ISIS want, rather than doing anything to undermine their position and influence. If we adopt such black-and-white, either/or analyses, are we not in danger of replicating the behaviours of the terrorists we denigrate, albeit with our own ideological commitments that may or may not be more palatable and reasonable?
A second response is to throw up our hands in despair, proclaim that it is all too hard, too difficult, too awful, too horrible, and return to the cocoon of our comfortable lives, leaving the difficult decisions and conversations to our politicians and military and intelligence leaders. This is an understandable response too, but one that is only afforded to a small portion of the world’s population who live in relative safety, security and prosperity and do not have to deal with the reality of violent conflict and terrorism on a daily basis. If we are truly committed to solidarity with the victims of violence and terrorism, wherever they may be in the world, then we must not, cannot, withdraw from these confronting and troubling events and debates.
The third response, which may well be the most difficult and least comforting, is to accept the ambiguities, the difficulties and the lack of clear, immediate solutions. Taking this approach, it is difficult to argue that ‘religion’ is the problem, since religion does not have agency. Neither is ‘Islam’ the problem, since there is no such thing as one unified ‘Islam’, but multiple ‘Islams’, in the same way that there is no one ‘Christianity’ and not all Christians support the actions of violent groups such as the Army of God or Christian Identity. Rather it is the way people choose to interpret and interact with their religious beliefs, traditions and other people that is at issue. At the same time, these so-called ‘religious’ motivations cannot be neatly separated out from other factors that we might call ‘historical’, ‘political’, ‘economic’, ‘military’ or ‘strategic’. They are entangled in complex ways. It is not a problem that is confined to the Middle East, attributable to the political and economic turmoil there. It is also bound up with structures of poverty, marginalization and exclusion that exist in Western democracies.
In practical policy terms, I have heard arguments for and against a variety of responses in the wake of Beirut, Iraq and Paris – increasing air strikes (which has already begun occurring), shifting from an air offensive to a ground offensive, tighter and stricter controls on refugees and asylum seekers entering countries. Some or all of these may eventually be adopted. None of them are perfect or ideal solutions, especially not if we are committed to the pursuit of peace (not simply the absence of war), human dignity and human rights. Air strikes invariably involve ‘collateral damage’, civilian targets such as playgrounds, schools and hospitals, as we saw only recently with the destruction of the MSF hospital in Yemen, being caught up in the conflict. A ground offensive may enable the defeat and dismantling of ISIS, but not without significant loss of life and it does little to address the factors of poverty, inequality, disaffection, marginalization and exclusion that contribute to such a group’s rise in the first place. Limiting or completely stopping the intake of asylum seekers and refugees may prevent ISIS fighters infiltrating states via these avenues, but it does not prevent engagement with terrorism by a state’s own citizens. It also resigns the millions of refugees pouring out of Syria to either living in limbo in refugee camps for years on end or having to return to (what is left of) Syria. This is not an effective lasting stable solution, but more importantly, it is not a solution that is consistent with the values of the universal dignity and worth of every human person that Europe and other ‘Western’ powers claim to stand for.
I am also unsure whether introducing more programs to ‘tackle radicalization and extremism’ necessarily provide an effective response. Such programs in some ways only serve to reinforce perceptions of exclusion and inferiority that can feed into the engagement with more radical ideologies. Our response must also include what may be a painful reflection on the biases, inequalities and discriminatory structures and practices that contribute to people feeling that they do not belong and their voices, perspectives, desires and goals are not valued and have no place to be heard within secular liberal democracies; and a willingness to alter and change these structures and practices.
This does not mean I think we should do nothing; rather that, whatever we decide to do, we must acknowledge its limitations and imperfections and be prepared that whatever policies and actions we take may not produce the peaceful and just outcomes that we would like to believe they will and may produce unintended and unwanted consequences. We must become comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty.
This also in some ways means letting go of the illusion of security. Whatever responses we and our political leaders decide to pursue, we cannot prevent such atrocities from happening again. If not attacks carried out by ISIS, then violence carried out by others who also feel marginalized, excluded and powerless, are strongly committed to the realization of a political ideology or goal, or a variety of other reasons and factors. But the illusion of security is one that the rest of the world has long had to live without.
What we should not let go of, however, is our commitment to the value and worth of every human being, even those with whom we profoundly disagree. I would suggest that in embracing ambiguity, recognizing the limitations and fallibility of our own perspectives and the policy responses of our governments, and our inability to understand others unless we consider the world from their point of view, we have the potential to generate greater space for solidarity, understanding and inclusion across traditional divides of politics, economics, culture and religion.
Erin Wilson is the Director of the Centre for Religion, Conflict and the Public Domain, Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies, University of Groningen.
I would like to thank Brenda Bartelink and Kim Knibbe for comments and suggestions on this piece.
 See, for example, comments made by Australian politician Pauline Hanson on Channel Nine News in Australia http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3319053/Pauline-Hanson-slammed-TV-tirade-response-Paris-terror-attacks.html or comments made by actor Rob Lowe and Republican presidential hopefuls http://www.9news.com.au/World/2015/11/14/16/01/US-actor-Rob-Lowe-slams-French-President-in-wake-of-Paris-terror-attacks and https://newmatilda.com/2015/11/14/paris-attacks-highlight-western-vulnerability-and-our-selective-grief-and-outrage/
 http://www.thenation.com/article/what-i-discovered-from-interviewing-isis-prisoners/ ; http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/nov/14/france-the-secular-seat-of-europe-to-lose-so-many-to-radical-islam
 http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/2/f2135be4-8ac5-11e5-a549-b89a1dfede9b.html#axzz3rhDEz6mu ; http://juergensmeyer.org/why-isis-attacked-paris/ ; http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/paris-terror-attacks-ahmed-almuhameds-passport-may-have-been-planted-by-terrorists-a6735476.html