Saturday, August 30, 2014

Is IS Isolatable?

To state the obvious, the so-called Islamic State (IS) is now a colossal problem for the peace-loving people of the world.
We started hearing about that extremist group as ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria). Then as it became evident that their goal and scope was larger, it began to be called ISIL (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.)
(The Levant is an area that includes not only Syria but also Jordan, Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, Cyprus, and part of southern Turkey.)
On June 29, the group announced that its name is now just “Islamic State” and that they have established a caliphate. The caliph, who is the “leader for Muslims everywhere,” is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
The flag of the Islamic State
Of course, the U.S. and most countries of the world do not recognize IS as a legitimate state—and most Muslims in the world do not recognize al-Baghdadi (b. 1971) as their leader.
Still, IS is a threat not only to the non-Sunni people of the Near East but also to peaceable people everywhere. It is a vicious terrorist organization bent on controlling more and more territory by force, as well as by propaganda.
To better understand IS, a “must-see” video can be viewed here. It was made by VICE News journalist and filmmaker Medyan Dairieh, who for three weeks had unprecedented and exclusive access inside IS.
This video presents an alarming account of a truly terrifying group. Something must be done to stop their relentless spread across Iraq, and elsewhere. But what?

A couple of weeks ago, 50 religious conservatives publicly stated that the U.S. must "destroy" IS. (Russell Moore, about whom I recently wrote, here, was one of those 50.) That sounded a lot like a questionable call for a holy war.

And even peace-loving Pope Francis has said with regard to IS,
. . . where there is an unjust aggression, I can only say this: it is licit to stop the unjust aggressor. I underline the verb: stop. I do not say bomb, make war, I say stop by some means. . . . To stop the unjust aggressor is licit.
James Bretzke, a priest and professor of moral theology at Boston College, declares, “This is the most pronounced endorsement of the use of force of any pope . . . in the last 100 years.”
To be sure, doing nothing with regard to IS and its relentless spread is not a viable option. The question, of course, is what could and should be done.
The Pope went on to say that no country should act alone, and that there should be an agreement within the international community, possibly through the United Nations, before embarking on a military campaign.
He also warned against an all-out war, insisting that force could be justified only to "stop" the Islamic State.
Then on Wednesday, 53 religious leaders sent President Obama a letter encouraging him to “move beyond” war in Iraq/Syria.
That seems to be what the President is trying to do at this point.
Many conservatives are opposed to that, calling for the destruction, not just the containment, of IS. For example, Princeton University Professor Robert P. George has authored a petition calling upon the President and Congress to not stop, not contain, but destroy IS.
George’s petition can be found here, and the first signature after his is Russell Moore’s.
But seeking the containment, or isolation, of IS is far better—because it is less violent and would elicit less retaliation.
But is IS isolatable? Probably. But it certainly won’t be easy.


  1. To the western mind, Islamic State (IS) is probably not a viable term for this Sunni Muslim terror group/ state. (There are a few other Sunni terror groups around the world who consider themselves to be states, but have not declared a caliphate.) The key problem with the term IS is that the Shia also have a separate (and official) Islamic State of Iran (ISI) which is expecting the soon arrival of the next caliph, the 12th Imam. If the world does nothing, ISI will probably destroy ISL and force the world to take on an even larger threat - a nuclear caliphate. Indeed ISI is already arming troops toward that end. (The ISI caliphate would probably initially include Iran, Iraq,Lebanon, Azerbaijan, Kuwait,Bahrain and portions of Turkey and Syria).

    A decisive global response to ISL is probably needed just to keep ISI in check. A similar response is probably need for the Sunni terror/ stateist groups in Nigeria, Palestine, Yemen, Mali, Pakistan and an eye kept on others.
    A recognized caliphate with a global vision could very likely initiate another world war, as the Sunni population of the world is about a third of the global population. If a small country like Japan with a visionary emperor could conquer much of the Pacific and Asia, what could a charismatic religious visionary do?

    I do not see room for either a Sunni or Shia caliphate in our world. The Pope is probably right. Yet we must continue to love our neighbor (and enemy?) the Muslim, who already lives with us, and for the most part are decent people worldwide.

    1. Even if they are the "enemy," I tend to think we should call groups by the name they use for themselves. That is the reason I use "Islamic State."

      I know little, and could find little on the Internet, about the Islamic State of Iran (ISI). Wikipedia doesn't even have a article about them.

  2. Local Thinking Friend Eric Dollard sent, as he often does, perceptive and thought-provoking comments:

    "Thanks, Leroy, as always for your timely comments. I have a few to add.

    "IS was originally funded by Saudi Arabia and Saudi Arabia has been funded by our addiction, along with Europe's and Japan's addictions, to oil. Europe and Japan have taken steps to decrease their addictions. We have recently reduced our dependence on foreign oil, mostly from Canada, Mexico, and Venezuela, because of fracking, which has increased U S oil output.

    "In addition, with the advent of more efficient automobiles, U S demand for gasoline has been declining. So far, however, the price of oil has not declined very much because the petrostates have a vested interest in keeping the price high. They do this by fomenting crises, which spook the oil markets. (Additionally, China and India have increased their imports of oil.)

    "Saudi Arabia and IS both subscribe to the Wahhabi version of Islam and the Salafist version of Sharia. Saudi Arabia has spent millions, perhaps billions, in an effort to spread Wahhabism. IS is one of the end products of that effort.

    "So we must first cut off funding for IS and this cut off must start with Saudi Arabia.

    "Secondly, IS has captured some oil fields; the oil from these fields must be kept unmarketable. All roads leading into IS territory must be cut off to the extent possible (there are not that many roads). Given the mostly desolate nature of the territory under IS control, food shortages may eventually occur if food is prevented from entering IS territory.

    "In other words, we need to set up a cordon 'sanitaire' around IS controlled territory and, to borrow a phrase from Grover Norquist, starve the beast. I do not know to what extent any of this is actually feasible; it will certainly require the cooperation of the surrounding nations.

    "Finally, we must accept the fact that Iraq should be three nations rather than one: a Kurdish north, an Arab Sunni center (mostly under IS control at this time), and an Arab Shiite south. The Turks may resist an independent Kurdistan, although Turkey has been more flexible recently about this.

    "The Arab Sunni tribal leaders have generally supported IS, but they can probably be persuaded (i.e., bribed) to defect from IS if they are offered an independent state under their control. Without the support of the Arab Sunni tribal leaders, IS would have a very difficult time in Iraq.

    "Along with the above actions, the whole direction of U S foreign policy needs to change, but that is a topic for another day."

    1. Eric, thanks so much for your significant comments. What you have written ties in nicely with what I had in mind in calling for IS to be isolated (rather than destroyed).

  3. Thinking Friend Glenn Hinson of Kentucky sent the following comments (and gave permission for them to be posted here):

    "IS poses a very difficult question very much like the one Nazi Germany posed in the 1930s: Can we stop such brutal forces without counter force? That's why I can't adopt a full-blown pacifist stance. Like Reinhold Niebuhr in 1936 and Pope Francis today, I think we sometimes have to think of "just wars" to restore order to society.

    "I say that with great pain; in a world where people didn't resort to violence, things might be different. In our violent world we must make this painful choice."

    1. Dr. Hinson, I much appreciate your comments, although I hope we can stop IS short of the conflict becoming war. The U.S. and most of its allies would, no doubt, see it as a just war. For IS it would certainly be seen as a holy war, and the resentments and retaliation spawned would likely last for decades.

      When I was watching the video about IS, some of it made be think about movie clips I had seen about Hitler and the Nazis in the 1930s.

    2. Dr. Hinson then responded with this comment:

      "The religious mandate probably exceeds the mandate Hitler used to support his fanatical aims. Roland Bainton once observed that no war is so cruel as a religious war, and that's what we see here."

    3. The above reminded me of these words by Pascal:

      “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from a religious conviction.”

  4. Here is a most interesting graphic of "United Against Islamic State":

  5. Here are more substantial comments, these from Thinking Friend Truett Baker in Arizona:

    "I almost didn't respond to your very thoughtful blog because it reaches to the non-violent core of my value system. I am not a pacifist in the pure sense of the word but I abhor violence.

    "As others have pointed out, our experience with Germany and Japan prior to WW II has implications for us today in searching for solutions to deal with the Islamic State.

    "I see the IS mentality like a moral cancer that threatens to destroy our world as we know it. You can't just 'contain' or partially remove a cancer. Its virulent and destructive nature is effective only by complete removal, and at this point the analogy begins to break down for me--hence my dilemma. To even attempt destruction of the IS has Armageddon written all over it, so what to do?

    "We live in a fallen world and learned long ago that you can't wipe out evil with more evil.The IS is an radical Muslim ideal that can only be destroyed by a better ideal. Perhaps our only hope is to contain the cancer until we can inject it with a better ideal, and that will challenge the best that the world can muster to give."

    1. Truett, thanks for your thoughtful comments. I especially like your last paragraph.

      Not all cancer is countered by surgery. It is often attacked with chemotherapy and/or radiation. While the latter may not destroy the cancer completely, it often keeps it from growing or spreading. Perhaps that same sort of action, "injecting it with a better ideal," is needed to contain or isolate IS.

  6. Thanks Doc for some really good insights. I served in the Baghdad Embassy during 2004-5 as the senior US diplomat concerned with the Ministry of Justice. Here is an NPR link about how ISIS is coping a few weeks after taking over Mosul. This NPR story mentions a massacre in one of the prisons I once 'oversaw' ... it breaks my heart. Steve Hemphill

    1. Stephen, thanks for posting your comments and for the informative link.

      It must really be hard for people like you who have been there and know the people and the local situation.

  7. Your friend Truett Baker has expressed my feelings well. I feel so helpless and confused by the situation.

    The radicalization of the next generation, in particular, is of prime concern. If "containing" the IS, metaphorically performing chemotherapy on it, entails killing the fathers of those young boys, we cannot expect this mindset to subside any time soon. Killing the fathers will only foment a stronger commitment to Jihad among the boys. I find myself praying for our nonviolent Muslim brothers and sisters to intervene. It's all I can think to do.

    1. Debra, thanks for your comments.

      Yes, probably the best hope for neutralizing/isolating the IS is with action taken by other Muslims, those who are nonviolent and maybe even by some who are not. A lasting solution is likely not going to be come by Western nations being the primary ones seeking to get rid of the "cancer."

      Thus, I am troubled by those, including Sen. Feinstein on "Meet the Press" last Sunday, who criticize the President for being "too cautious." Decisive American (Western) intervention might help solve the immediate problem there but would likely cause more problems in the years ahead.

      On this, as on other issues, I think the President is to be commended for taking a long-range, rather than a short-range, view of the situation--although he would likely get more political "points" by impressive short-term action.

  8. Sorry to be so late posting on this, I was out of town.

    All the usual suspects are banging the war drums so loudly it is hard to think. However, we must think. For now, I think Obama is doing exactly the right thing by containing IS and looking for partners and plans. We have made many serious errors over the years in the middle east, and we should proceed with extreme caution.

    I believe that the process and responsibility of governing tends to drive governments into more sane ways of behaving. We should offer carrots as well as sticks, to see if IS might be willing to morph into a more traditional government of the Sunni lands it holds, abandoning the more extreme goals and methods it has made famous. At the very least, this process should facilitate the building of a coalition to find a future solution, if necessary. Many of the countries in that area are far less than desirable, and IS might well end up within the bounds of the span of those governments. We should not measure it by the standard of perfection. We should offer it a path to a stable relationship in the world of nations. As long as our rhetoric is as fierce as their fanaticism, that cannot happen.

    We contained a nuclear-armed USSR. We can contain IS.

    1. Craig, I expected you to make some comment about this blog article, so I am glad you made it back home and shared your words of wisdom.

      I agree that the President "is doing exactly the right thing," but it seems that even many within his own Party now do not think he is doing enough.

      It seems to me that unlike many (most?) politicians, the President often makes decisions based on the probably effects 5, or 25, years later rather than on 5 or 25 days later. That is most commendable. But that also make him vulnerable to the criticism of those who want a quick fix.

  9. In a 9/5 article, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, founder and chairman of the Cordoba Initiative, (remember him? I mentioned him in my 8/20/10 blog article), declares that there "is no such thing as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria."

    Iman Rauf goes on to assert, "It's not an Islamic State just because a bunch of thugs says it is. If the news media call it that, the thugs and terrorists win."

    The article can be found at

  10. Very good show on NPR this afternoon about what name for this terror group should be used. They interviewed several media sources from TV, radio, and print. Only one group uses ISIL, because our American administration does. None use IS, because there is no state, as the President has said. (Isn't that the commonality of all the names?). All but one noted that ISIS is the universal name for the group around the globe and on the internet.

    1. Today the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, the Wall Street Journal, and USA Today all had headlines with the name "Islamic State."

  11. Thanks Leroy for this thoughtful piece. Something else to consider: The international conflict resolution mechanisms, the models for appropriate response to major conflict known to our world, are almost exclusively built around the nation-state as the primary unit of response. We have of course the UN, and we have regional bodies, and they were all designed with the nation-state as the fundamental unit.

    But the nation-state is increasingly out-dated. Its ability to control things has been waning for decades. Business corporations, religious leaders, transportation networks, news networks, pop culture icons, etc., have vast influence in our world that nation-states can't really control. Yet we continue to really on mechanisms of response designed for a time when nation-states had a monopoly on power.

    ISIS is about far more than international politics. It is about a struggle for identity and recognition from people who feel deeply disregarded, disrespected, and humiliated. It is about internal rivalries within a religious group, not only between Shia and Sunni but between leaders within those entities as well. It is about economic deprivation and aspiration. It is about deeply religious families and communities struggling to come to terms with invasive modernity and maintaining identity and faith in the face of overwhelming distractions and diversions. ISIS is dangerous and terrifying, but we should never forget it is not a cause, it is a symptom of multiple under-lying causes. As a basic principle, if you fixate on a symptom, without addressing the multiple causes that underlie it, your response tends to contribute to an expanded problem in the end.

    No military campaign, no matter how successful, can touch the underlying causes of this situation. Now is a time when our only option to deal with a dangerous and complex problem is to formulate a response that is not dominated by one modality, ie: by military response. What would it look like if we gathered global and regional religious leaders, global and regional business leaders, global and regional youth leaders, global and regional development workers and gave a mandate in each sector to come up with strategies designed to weaken the forces of humiliation, deprivation, and ignorance that have converged to create a fertile womb for this evil creation? And formed a global task force made up of these people - not the nation state leaders with their Superman weapons and accompanying simplistic Superman solution - to formulate a plan of response?

    "When the only tool you have is a hammer, everything you see is a nail." Now is a time for richly complex set of responses, commensurate to the richly complex problem at hand.

    1. Thanks, Ron, for your thoughtful comments. (I wish I knew who you are.)

    2. I was pleased that Ron Kraybill sent me an email saying that he is a Mennonite working for the UN in the Philippines.

      Although I have never met him, we have had some exchange of correspondence before, and I much appreciate him posting significant comments above and for writing.

  12. This morning along with comments about today's blog article, local Thinking Friend Eric Dollard also sent these comments:

    "As for the ISIS 'threat,' bombs will not defeat terrorists.

    "We (the US) should be an example for justice, freedom, and the promotion of peace. On this score, we have failed miserably.

    "We cannot continue to kill noncombatants with errant bombs or drones, support oppressive governments, abuse prisoners, continue our oil addiction, and try to impose America's consumerist culture on the Near East, and expect to stop terrorism."

    1. I'm late into this discussion, but since I know Eric, and agree with him on most points, I'll tag my comments to his. I really would like to comment on everyone's comments so far, since I agree with almost everything written, including Pope Francis's vague call for military intervention. No one has mentioned the beheadings (3 so far):
      James Foley, USA, Aug. 22
      Steven Sotloff, USA, Sep. 2
      David Haines, UK, Sep. 13

      I have read several commentators that cite these as "game changers" in tipping American public opinion from anti-war to pro-war. Whenever I hear the traditional hawks beating the drums of war, I usually react the opposite, but Pope Francis makes me think twice. Also, the plight of the Yazidis back in August brought up the question of "R2P" -- Responsibility to Protect.

      After Obama's speech on Sep. 10th, the congressional hawks accused his plan as "too little, too late," and they are beating the drum for American ground troops to expedite the destruction of ISIS/ISIL. At the moment, I also favor ground troops, but with several key differences, and from a pacifist-leaning perspective.

      Whereas they want quick response with quick results, I want quick response with slow results -- I will explain this shortly. They want maximum deaths of the enemy and minimum deaths of Americans; I want minimum total deaths and wounded on all sides. My mantra is from J. Denny Weaver: use the least amount of force necessary.
      Weaver used the example of raising our kids, and getting them to brush their teeth, and follow all kinds of rules. We can use persuasion, logic, reinforcement, “time out,” etc., and even verbal harassment — all better than corporal punishment — but even that may be appropriate in extreme situations. And the example of traffic laws — the threat of fines and jail and prison and loss of driving privileges — there is a continuum of coercion from lesser to greater.

      So in the case of war, I have postulated this moral equivalent: for any given objective, choose the least costly alternative in terms of deaths and injuries. It seems that military “science” could give us some metrics along these lines: hypothetically, option A will produce 300 casualties — 300 enemy (not distinguishing combatants and non-combatants) and zero ally: option B will produce 250 casualties — 200 enemy and 50 ally; option C will produce 350 casualties — zero enemy and 350 ally (we are all undefended pacifists or victims of a genocide). The moral choice must be option B.

      As an amateur, without the benefit of science, I assume option B in this case includes ground troops as part of the mix. Whether all the troops are Muslim “proxies,” with only Americans as advisors in safe headquarter locations, or whether all the troops are Western “infidels” — I could not get that specific. And whether U.S. air power is merely to enforce a “no fly zone” or to take out enemy artillery, I couldn’t get that specific, either. (more below)

    2. Applying this principle of "least force necessary" to historical battles, perhaps we could rehash the decision to drop A-bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki vs. a land invasion of Japan. The standing myth is that there would have been much more loss of life with a land invasion, and therefore the A-bombs were the better moral choice. I have never heard that official Pentagon estimates at the time confirm this theory. I have also heard that even if the Hiroshima bomb was “moral,” surely the Nagasaki bomb was excessive and therefore immoral. And I have heard that the Japanese command was divided, and that even a month-long blockade would have been sufficient to produce a satisfactory Japanese surrender.

      As a theoretical pacifist, I fantasize about a future “spearhead” rapid reaction force of U.N. peacekeepers that could intervene in R2P situations. We may have to relegate the decision to intervene to a "benevolent dictator” commander-in-chief to avoid the slow process of democratic gridlock on the Security Council.

      My other fantasy is that the patience of Canadians, for example, through collaboration and compromise, will lead ultimately to independence (as from England) and “liberty” without bloodshed, or a minimum, at least. My fantasy is that Australia will lead the way in elevating your indigenous people and show how a conquered and occupied population can eventually achieve their human potential.

      Thus, my preference for slow results – time for each side to be creative in finding more non-violent solutions to their conflict. And in weighing costs of lives, it just seems intuitive that if losses are proportional on all sides, the seeds of resentment and impetus for “getting even” in future conflicts will be lessened.

      When I was a freshman at the University of Kansas, I told me advisor that I wanted to enroll in elementary Russian (which I ultimately majored in). My advisor said, oh, you are an optimist: the optimists study Russian, the pessimists study Chinese. It was a Cold War joke, and racist, at that — that it would be better to be conquered by European communists than by Asian. Another variation, “better Red than dead” was current at the time. Neither sentiment was popular; fighting godless communism was our official purpose in life. “Give me liberty or give me death” was the mantra of our hawks. Later Jane Fonda and Tom Hayden and the anti-war movement, prompted in some degree as a reaction to compulsory military service and a large loss of life — both our troops and Viet Cong — televised in color every newscast in our living rooms.

      The little I know about ISIS/ISIL is that it resembles the tactics of the Roman Empire at the time of Jesus: if conquered people give lip service of allegiance to their jihadi Sunnism, and if you pay “protection money”/taxes, you can live your own lives. Everyone knows the Roman Empire eventually collapsed, and even though there were a lot of innocent victims along the way, Pax Romana had its benefits . . .

    3. Phil, thanks so much for your lengthy, substantial comments!