The scenes from Paris after Saturday morning’s attacks are sickening, angering, and disheartening. They are also not totally unexpected and will likely occur again. We, the West, can lull ourselves into a feeling of safety narrowing the reasons and the regions of trouble. However, let me be clear – we must stop whistling through the graveyard regarding our worldwide war with ISIS, Al Qaeda (AQ) and other forms of radical Islam.
President John F. Kennedy said in his inaugural address in 1961 something about a similar struggle with Communism and the Soviet Union. Kennedy was a realist who understood the burdens facing the West. He said, “now the trumpet summons us again, not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need; not as a call to battle, though embattled we are – but a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle…” It took another 30 years for us to win that war – already 20 years old. Make no mistake; we are in similar long, twilight struggle with ISIS and all other forms of radical Islam.
There are many reasons why this war – and it is a war because they think it is a war – will not go away soon. Fundamentally, radical Islam is based on the belief that the Westernization of the world has gone to far and offends the premises of Islam. The acceptance of women as social equals, the open social mores of the West, the separation of religion and state, and the existence of Israel are all a part of the witches’ brew of this anger.
We are also faced with a generation of young men in the Middle East (and some in the West) who are underemployed and disconnected with their society. One of my friends calls them “dude fighters.” In a previous generation, they would have been hanging on street corners, smoking weed, going to the gym, and chasing girls. Some still do.
However, the cause of jihad appeals to these “dudes” deeply. It is about them and their heritage and feelings of being dispossessed. And those who are 20 years old with nothing to live for are willing to die for causes because they think it will be their glory. For those in the West puzzled by this, think about Lee Harvey Oswald, John Wilkes Booth, and the Tsarnaev brothers among others. Dispossessed from their society, angry, and in their 20’s. A cause was all they needed to act. And they did.
Europe must also do some soul searching. Immigrants there are treated with the same lack of respect we inflicted upon African Americans in the south during the Jim Crow period. They are marginalized, stigmatized and ghetto-ized. The housing projects of Western Europe are petri dishes for the development of radicalism.
As for the United States, we are in this war whether we like it or not. The Presidential decree that the war on terrorism was over sent the wrong message. We looked like we were quitting the field and radicalism won a major victory. Setting red lines in Syria and stepping back also allowed a Petri dish of radicalism to develop and metastasize into an area that would allow the existence of an ISIS.
I have no fear that we will win the battle with radical Islam. I also believe it will be a long, drawn out affair taking place on battlefields worldwide. And it will increase focus on “soft” civilian targets. But, history is not on their side. The last 250 years have been about people looking for more freedom and less oppression. ISIS and AQ are an aberration. But to defeat them, we must show continued strength, resolve, and wisdom in dealing with a different culture. We are in a twilight struggle that can be won.