Over the past few weeks America and the West have become engrossed with ISIS – or ISIL or IS, whatever. Stories of beheadings, mass executions and stonings confirm our worst fears about Muslims. Today, America is nearly paralyzed with fear from some trash-talking jihadi murderers in Iraq and Syria and is perceived by many as an existential threat.
Urgently, our president speaks to the nation, our president speaks to the United Nations, the English prime minister calls Parliament back into session and Secretary of State John Kerry cobbles together a coalition of Western and Arab states — all to confront our “Far Enemy” -— all the right thing to do.
Many jihadists speak of the “Near Enemy” (local ‘apostate’ regimes) and the “Far Enemy” (America and the West) as a way to frame their vision, and it’s a phrase that might be of some help framing our conversation.
I firmly believe President Obama is right to oppose our Far Enemy: ISIS – and hopefully the combination of air power and Arab boots on the ground will begin to roll back its gains made beneath the black banners carried by murderers who daily profane God.
The right thing to do — but that’s only part of our mission.
First, we must contextualize: no one wants to put into the ISIS context the fact that in 2003 the United States decommissioned 385,000 well-trained Iraqis from the Army and police. Many of them, unemployed and disenfranchised by the rise of Shi’ite power in Iraq, became Al-Qaeda in Iraq and now have morphed into ISIS – all for a ski mask, $600 a month and an AK-47.
When ISIS rolled into Mosul with 800 to 1,000 fighters and defeated two Iraqi divisions (25,000 Iraqis), captured 1,500 Humvees equipped with TOW guided missiles and robbed the Mosul bank of $429 million they were successful not because they were an overwhelming force but because Iraq, under Prime Minster Al-Maliki, had so isolated the Sunnis that they were susceptible to succumbing to ISIS’s authority.
Hungry, threatened disenfranchised people don’t fight for commanders that are corpulent, corrupt and incompetent. They don’t fight for a prime minister who doesn’t consider their interests. They fight to put food on the table and to oppose oppressors.
While I’ve been impressed these past weeks how pundits and politicians can toss off phrases like Pesh Merga, Sunni, Shiite, Salafi and Wahhabi, few know what they’re talking about.
Probably not one of them knows the Iraqi National Movement (1908-1963) was organized by all major ethnic groups to form a common identity and oppose colonization. Probably not one of them knows that in the 1980s Iran-Iraq war no Iraqi forces defected to Iran – despite the fact Shiites formed the majority of their fighters. Probably not one of them knows that this year many Iraqis chose not to celebrate the Eid at the end of Ramadan to show solidarity with Iraqi Christians who are being oppressed by jihadists.
Probably few of them know that it’s not about Islam — it’s about power and profit.
No, they don’t know those things because that would complicate their lives. It’s much easier to think of Iraq as being three warring sectarian entities than about a nation that should be held together — in spite of the abuse it’s received first from Saddam Hussein and then from America’s neocons.
America doesn’t know these things because they don’t fit the prevailing narrative of barbarous peoples always at war with each other, and our media, reflecting its own neo-colonialist sensibility, reinforces those prejudices.
Yet, given all we don’t know, and all that we fear, I believe the real existentialist threat to America is in the homeland. Given the ignorance and the fear of the foreignness of “the Other,” today war in Mesopotamia against the far enemy is unavoidable – and seemingly preferable to a war in America against our near enemy.
The existential threat to the American dream is the concentration of wealth in the 1 percent, the class and race divisions that persist to this day and the resistance by many to acknowledge that America is a different land than the place of their birth – thank goodness!
Our near enemy is us!
Our near enemy is our unwillingness to challenge, confront and change the social inequities that roil our nation. From Ferguson’s streets, where Michael Brown’s body was allowed to lay, disrespected for hours, to the legions of workers across the country whose labor is exploited for obscene profits for CEOs and stockholders, America’s social tensions are not being confronted.
It is out of those inequities, I maintain, where the dozens perhaps a hundred or more American Muslims who are currently fighting in Syria and Iraq have arisen – those jihadists whom many fear will return to America to behead our men-folk, rape the women-folk and blow up our subways.
Let’s be real. Consider that there are thousands of Muslims in America’s military. Young Muslim men don’t need to get to Raqqa, Syria, for training – they can get it at Uncle Sam’s expense: witness the tragedy of the Fort Hood massacre, for example.
Consider that if such fighters try returning to America and can’t be identified by border agents when they present their passport for reentry then we have wasted a lot of money on TSA and Homeland Security since 2001.
Consider that the American Muslim community has been the source of numerous security tips to government officials about threats from within the community – a community which has been here for more than 300 years and which was very assimilated until 2001 when many of them were unfairly singled out and attempts, continuing to this day, were made to disenfranchise them.
The Muslims flocking to ISIS’s ranks are not thoughtful, educated Muslims. They are not the scholars and intelligentsia in our schools and universities. No, those going to The Levant for the promise of a ski mask, an AK-47, a few hundred dollars and martyrdom are from society’s fringes – criminals and psychopaths, the disenchanted and angry, from those who can’t get jobs, who feel isolated and discriminated against – lost souls who have become estranged from their families, communities and faith.
Ninety years ago this week Langston Hughes wrote a letter to his friend Alain Locke:
“I’ve done a couple of new poems. I have no more paper, so I’m sending you one on the back of this letter.” That poem, “I, Too,” was published two years later and became one of his best known poems:
I, too, sing America.
I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.
I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”
They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed —
I, too, am America.
We are all America, pilots on bombing runs in Syria and Iraq, protestors on Denver’s streets, at the United Nations and in Ferguson, border guards in Texas and policemen in New Hampshire – one Constitution, one body politic yet struggling still, divided by class, color and opportunity.
ISIS is the Far enemy. I believe we have become our own Near Enemy and that if we continue to ignore the inequities, the injustices, and the violence on the home front the threat to our well-being and security and happiness will not be from a band of psychopathic murderers trying to advance a distorted vision of a religion but from disenchanted Americans of all faiths and colors for whom the American dream feels like it’s turning into a nightmare.
This column appeared originally in the Portsmouth Herald.