Joining ISIS – Expected and to Some, Heroic

Dec 06

Joining ISIS – Expected and to Some, Heroic

I enjoy watching Meet the Press and other Sunday news shows. I get to see both newsmakers and talking heads filling time speaking with a stunningly America-centric view of the world. This morning, turning MTP on a bit late, Donald Trump filled the screen. The Donald was being asked about the unfortunate shooting in California and about ISIS. As he issued his stream of consciousness responses, he talked about the danger of Muslims in the US, about how “they” used social media better than “us” and how people were being “brainwashed” into joining ISIS.

I have been meaning to write this for a while but hearing the Donald spurred me to action. So it is time to accept that people from around the globe joining ISIS is not a result of brainwashing, it is expected and part of a long history of people joining foreign armies, rebel groups and other forces. It is not unexpected and it is, in the context of the joiners, the heroic thing to do.isis 2

People have joined foreign forces throughout history. I grew up with Hemingway’s stories of war. I learned of people going up to Israel and joining the Irgun to fight for independence. I read endless tales of people from the US joining the European forces in WWI and WWII, long before their government decided to join the frays. I read fewer stories about people of German, Japanese and Italian heritage joining their national armies, or, in some cases, third columns in the US, Canada and the UK. Less well known are the numbers of Canadians who joined the US forces fighting in Viet Nam.

In conversations, I learned of Sikhs who joined rebel forces and organizations to reach political goals. I was told of Indian Muslims who joined Pakistani forces and militias during the partition. Tamils told me of friends and families who joined the Tigers and other groups to fight for independence, sometimes using tactics of fear and murder. I have met with Palestinians who have friends who have joined or supported, over the years, the PLO, Hezbollah and Hamas. And, more recently, I have spoken with those who know others who have made their way to Syria to join the Kurds, ISIS and other active militias.

In short, people have been joining conflicts that matter to them for many years. During the periods in question, many were considered, depending on where they went, heroic, demented, traitorous, patriotic or fulfilling their duty. Historically though, we consider many of them heroes, or at least heroic.

In most of these stories, the protagonists were young men who deeply believed in their causes, to the point where they were willing to leave their homes and risk their lives. They felt they were helping their countries and making the world better. Now, to that roll of self-perceived heroes, we add the men and women making their way to ISIS or supporting it in their own countries.

We could take pages to discuss why people would want to support the vision of ISIS but that is for another post. Let us just consider that an Islamic Caliphate, ruled by a strong and uncompromising Sharia legal system, provides a more compelling vision of hope than the more confusing, morally grey, environment of a Western democracy. Let us also consider that for many, ISIS is fighting an asymmetric war against an almost infinitely larger and better equipped invading army. Fighting alongside the underdog against a murderous aggressor can easily be viewed as heroic.

Let’s face facts. In ISIS, we have a new force looking to acquire territory and to govern it in a theocratic way that many in the world (including most Muslims) feel they have transcended. But there will be many who believe that this theocratic governance is a more moral foundation than a messy democracy. We can expect that some will support them in theory, some financially and some in action. For them, it is the right thing to do.

We have to stop thinking of ISIS recruits as brainwashed and start thinking of them as people who are supporting their better way. We have to understand that to themselves and many others, they will be recognized by history as heroes.

If ideologues and simpletons continue to act as if those fleeing to ISIS are demented, insane or just out to attack the West because they don’t like us, we are doomed to failure.


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Joining ISIS - Expected and to Some, Heroic
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Joining ISIS - Expected and to Some, Heroic
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Joining ISIS is not a result of brainwashing, it is expected and part of a long history of people joining foreign armies, rebel groups and other forces. It is not unexpected and it is, in the context of the joiners, the heroic thing to do.
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