Over the past year, the Islamic State has taken its tactics of terror far beyond its strongholds in Iraq and Syria. On Nov. 13, IS fighters struck Paris in one of the group’s most coordinated operations. This new global war, which has killed thousands from France to Yemen, has brought greater sorrow and fear – but also with it a new global resolve to end the IS threat.
This moment of unity must not be lost, as has happened after previous mass terrorist attacks. It is easy to agree on the darkness of the militant ideology that drives IS, and to try to protect against its reach, to kill its leaders, or to retake territory by force. But it also requires hard work to agree on the light that should replace that darkness and to end the IS threat for good – with something sustainably good.
We catch a glimpse of this unifying light after each attack by IS. In France, President François Hollande asserted the need for “values that we defend everywhere in the world.” In Kuwait, after an IS suicide bomber killed 27 Shiites in June, thousands marched in unity chanting, “Sunnis and Shiites are brothers!” In Lebanon, where an IS blast killed 44 Shiite civilians Nov. 12, the Sunni prime minister called on the country’s factions to find new ways to unite against internal strife.
In Tunisia last March, after IS killed 23 people at a museum, people took to the streets to honor the country’s long history of tolerance, with a parade in which one boy played a trumpet to the tune of “When the Saints Come Marching In.” Since then, the flow of young Tunisians joining IS has slowed, in part because many better appreciate what this model Arab nation stands for.
The Islamic State was able to expand because of an absence of enlightened leadership in Iraq after the 2003 ouster of Saddam Hussein and in Syria after the democratic uprising in 2011 against Bashar al-Assad. A similar problem still exists in post-9/11 Afghanistan with ongoing Taliban attacks. Each country has struggled to define a national identity that can overcome sectarian or tribal differences. Foreign powers have used these divisions to fight proxy wars with each other. In such a vacuum of universal ideals, IS can attract thousands to its vision of an earthly paradise that relies only on violence and repression against those who do not follow its fanatical ways.
The struggle against IS must be mostly a campaign to fill the hearts of young Muslims with something other than the hate, resentment, and false propaganda from the brutal dictatorship of a self-proclaimed, medieval-style caliphate. Fear of IS, no matter how justified or what it justifies, is never enough.
The US-led military assault on IS strongholds has halted its territorial advances, perhaps even forcing the group to retaliate out of weakness with terror in the countries that support that assault, such as France. But this cycle of violence can end only when the gloom of the IS ideology is replaced with a blossoming of hope for Muslim countries like Iraq and for young Muslims inclined to join it.
That is a global task that needs every person’s help – in being neighborly to those of another faith, in treating Syrian refugees with kindness, in upholding principles of liberty in domestic security, in supporting aid to anti-IS Arab states, and in backing inclusive government in Syria and Iraq.
Or by always remembering that the light of good ideas is necessary to dispel the darkness of IS.