The multiple, coordinated terrorist attacks that claimed the lives of at least 128 people in Paris last week have united much of the Western world in their determination to meet the threat posed by the Islamic State (ISIS), the fanatical jihadist militant group that has seized control over large swaths of Iraq and Syria. Unfortunately, most Westerners have yet to understand the driving force behind the murderous group, a failure that may ultimately lead to even greater losses in the future.
In the wake of the Paris attacks, France launched what they described as “massive” air assaults against Islamic State positions in Syria. In the days and weeks to come politicians across the globe will surely call for tighter border security and stricter immigration policies. Given the nature of the threat, these measures are both logical and necessary. But they will ultimately fail. They will do so because, at its root, the threat the civilized world faces isn’t from immigrants with bombs and machine guns, it’s from the medieval religious beliefs that drive their violence.
The Islamic State is not a primarily political or military concern, it is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse. In December, The New York Times published comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that even our top military minds have yet to understand the Islamic State’s true nature. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.”
Put simply, the Islamic State is committed to purifying the world by killing vast numbers of people. Muslim “apostates” are the most common victims, but any group that resists their beliefs are subject to murder on a mass scale.
The Islamic State’s members insist that they are following the precepts of Islam as put forth by the Prophet Muhammad and his earliest followers, precepts that they have sworn to uphold. As journalist Graeme Wood recently explained: (The Islamic State’s) rise to power is less like the triumph of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt (a group whose leaders the Islamic State considers apostates) than like the realization of a dystopian alternate reality in which David Koresh or Jim Jones survived to wield absolute power over not just a few hundred people, but some 8 million.”
All of this is virtually impossible for most Westerners to fully grasp. Centuries have passed since Europeans slaughtered each other in large numbers over arcane theological disputes. But one need look no further than news of abortion clinic bombings and Biblically-inspired race murders to understand that fanatically violent beliefs are not confined solely to desert dwelling foreigners.
There can be no reasoning with these groups; there is no logic that can be used to come to terms with them. Their only goal is to convert the world to their beliefs, and kill those who refuse to follow. It’s sad and pathetic, but it’s not new: Humans have been killing one another over what they perceive to be the will of all-powerful deities since the beginning of recorded history.
While Western military might may degrade the Islamic State’s capabilities, their ancient ideology of hate will only spread, driven by poverty, ignorance, and, undeniably, the very military actions meant to hold it in check.
The plague lies in humanity itself, in our genetic makeup and evolution, in our need to believe our group is special, the chosen ones, and in the need to dehumanize the “others” and cut them down if they refuse to convert. The fact that an estimated 4,500 Westerners have joined ISIS and Al Quada to fight in Syria is proof that the disease knows no boundaries.
Unfortunately, you can’t prevent those kinds of ideas from crossing borders, not even with a wall.