This week, when I heard of Daesh’s* (ISIS /ISIL) latest descent into depravity I became speechless. Bearing witness to such a monstrous act, even in this virtual age, drags us all into unplumbed depths of darkness.
In outrage over the immolation of Muath Al-Kaseasbeh, international calls for immediate deployment of “hard power” to try and exterminate the cancerous growth recently arisen from the Middle East’s toxic swamps are nearly universal — and necessary.
Hard power may eliminate Daesh’s immediate threat and liberate innocent civilians in Iraq and Syria, but we must be clear that unless we’re committed to “smart power,” — the combined use of military force with diplomacy — any regional victory will be pyrrhic.
Retired US diplomat Chester Crocker says that smart power “involves the strategic use of diplomacy, persuasion, capacity building, and the projection of power and influence in ways that are cost-effective and have political and social legitimacy.”
On Tuesday I struggled, wondering if and how I could write about another heinous act — how I could find words to describe yet another iteration of evil — and to write I knew I had to watch.
I watched a brother, fellow human, caged, burned alive — rendered to ash — as he raised his hands in a final prayer and supplication to God.
The idea of punishment by fire is anathema to Muslims. Even if the 26-year-old Jordanian fighter pilot Lt. Muath Al-Kaseasbeh had been worthy of punishment, which he wasn’t, and even if he was worthy of the death penalty, which he wasn’t, even if all Scripture were ignored which they must not be, even if all Qur’anic injunctions against torture were ignored, which they must not be, the bottom line then for a Muslim would be to be attentive to the words of Prophet Muhammad as related through a hadith:
“No one is entitled to punish with fire except the Creator (God) of the fire”.
“No one is entitled to punish with fire…”
The battle between Daesh and its opponents is asymmetric. On one side, from Jordan to the United States, is allied the lethal power of the word’s most sophisticated weapons — on the other are thousands of barely-literate killers, criminals and psychopaths, gathered under a black banner describing an understanding of Islam so distorted as to be unrecognizable to Muslims. Daesh’s pathology of torture, murder, rape, sex-slavery, beheadings and crucifixions inflected upon innocent people — unsanctioned, anti-Islamic acts all expressed outside their theatre of operations through shocking and terrifying videos — has caused universal revulsion.
Daesh thrives on revulsion. Its Al-Furqan media division produces slick, professional-quality violent pornography — snuff films — now available on Fox!
Fox gave them an unparalleled platform — one so large and respectable that Malcolm Nance, executive director of the Terror Asymmetrics Project on Strategy, Tactics and Radical Ideology think-tank told The Guardian [UK] that by hosting the video Fox was showing “exactly what Isis wants to propagate.”
“The whole value of terror is using the media to spread terror,” Nance said. “[Fox News] are literally – literally – working for al-Qaida and Isis’s media arm,” he added. “They might as well start sending them royalty checks.”
Let’s be clear: Of the video’s 22 minutes only about four show Al-Kaseasbeh’s immolation — all the rest is vile propaganda, click-bait for the hyper-partisan, the craven, the deranged. If Youtube and Facebook have banned the film from their sites of what value is it for Fox to host it?
Ask why Fox didn’t post links to the murders of James Foley, Steven Sotloff, Hervé Gourdel, Peter Kassig, Kenji Goto and the many other victims whose deaths were recorded by Daesh. Do they argue that their deaths were less horrific, less blood-curdling, or do they argue that it’s just ok to show the brutal murder of an Arab Muslim but not of others?
Daesh’s films have multiple objectives: to boast of its bloodthirsty deeds to its far enemy; to intimidate its neighbors — its near enemy; to try and separate Muslims and the Muslim World from the West: and as recruiting tools to draw disaffected and marginally-literate Muslim criminals, malcontents, gamers, psychopaths and sociopaths to Mesopotamia to play out macabre, dystopian fantasies.
For Fox, the video also serves multiple purposes. On one hand it affirms what we all agree upon — Daesh’s depravity — and on the other reinforces Fox’s long-standing policy of delegitimizing Islam. The prevailing Fox narrative of constantly conflating Islam with terrorism is but a continuance of its Otherizing of all Muslims. Fox reinforces its audience’s hyper-partisan fears of the Other while simultaneously continuing to try and denigrate President Obama and his foreign policy — all the while ignoring context and nuance.
Didier François, a Frenchman held by Daesh for 10 months before being ransomed, told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour that from his first-hand experience, “I don’t think that this [ISIS] is a religious movement, I think that it’s a political movement and that their guards have talking points against democracy for example, that have nothing to do with the Qur’an.”
“No one is entitled to punish with fire…”
The proper response to both Daesh and Fox is to affirm that victory on the battlefield is only part of the solution. We are enmeshed in a Middle East that is in part broken and volatile because of our military adventurism. We must try to understand which economic, political and religious inequities are so desperate as to draw the Wretched of the Earth to Mesopotamia to join a nihilistic death cult — and try and figure out how to dissuade them from going there. We have to try to help and empower the dispossessed to find solutions and opportunity without resorting to violence and terror.
As Saudi sheikh Abdullah bin Bayyah recently said, “The problem is that even if you defeat these ideas militarily by killing people, if you don’t defeat the ideas intellectually, then the ideas will reemerge.”
It’s our challenge; a challenge to engage ideas, to draw straight paths to human rights, democracy, justice and peace while affirming the dignity of all beings — that’s the challenge of smart power.
Recently I got an email from a self-described Islamophobe that read in part:
“Robert Azzi once sent me a book titled “Destiny Interrupted(sic)”. In his twisted way of thinking, I think he thought that the book would change my perspective on Islam. / The book reveals the dysfunctional history of Islam. They start fighting amongst themselves as soon as they had to pick a replacement for the illiterate Allah(sic) … Islam is a treacherous form of government disguised as a religion.”
First, the book’s entitled “Destiny Disrupted,” not “Destiny Interrupted.” Second, I suggest he, and Fox, stop hating so much, take a deep breath and learn how to read, think and argue about complex issues. It will better serve our national interests, our security, and humanity — and make them feel better about themselves.
The truth is, as Ali, the Fourth Caliph, who was both cousin and son-in law of the Prophet Muhammad related, “People are enemies of what they do not know.”
*Daesh: Daesh, rather than ISIS or ISIL, is the correct acronym of the group’s full Arabic name, al-Dawla al-Islamiya fi al-Iraq wa al-Sham and importantly it doesn’t describe it as a state. Plus, Daesh can be an insult and can mean anything from “to trample down and crush” to “a bigot who imposes his view on others.”
This column appeared originally in the Portsmouth Herald.