ISIS? A terrorist organization with a nihilistic vision and genocidal agenda?

I don’t think so, but that’s what President Obama, Secretaries Kerry and Hagel, Senators McCain and Graham, and probably many if not most Americans think. And there is much evidence including the recent beheading of the journalist, James Foley, in support of support this opinion.

President Obama in his August 28 press conference  speaks of ISIS, or as he calls it, ISIL, using such expressions as the following: rooting out a cancer like ISIL …. [being] sure that families are safe from their barbaric acts … recognizing this cancer as representing the very worst elements in the region [to that end with help from our partners we will need]….to systematically degrade ISIL’s capacity to continue with their violent and destructive actions …for they are beyond the pale, they have no vision or ideology beyond violence and chaos and the slaughter of innocent people.

John Kerry, just one day later, joins up with his President, singing much the same tune, using many of the very same expressions: To defeat terror we need the world’s help.  ISIS, or the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, presents a unifying threat to a broad array of countries, including the United States. We need to confront its nihilistic vision and genocidal agenda. In addition to its beheadings, crucifixions and other acts of sheer evil, ISIS, or ISIL, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, poses a threat well beyond the region. ISIL fighters have exhibited repulsive savagery and cruelty. The cancer of ISIL, as well as of other terrorist organizations with like-minded agendas, should not be allowed to spread to other countries. No civilized country should shirk its responsibility to help stamp out this scourge, this disease.

What conclusions might one draw from the words of the President and his Secretary of State? That ISIS or ISIL is a terrorist organization, with an evil, genocidal agenda. That it wants only to destroy. That it’s a disease, a cancer and if not stopped forcibly will go on to destroy us, even here at home.

Now if that were the case, although I don’t think even the President and the Secretary believe their own descriptions of this organization, wouldn’t you think they would not be talking to reporters and writing op-ed pieces but setting about to stamp out this scourge, the way one would a poisonous snake, (although this “snake” is much worse and has no saving graces at all, as does even the rattler or water moccasin).

ISIS clearly does have a positive agenda, one that accounts for the thousands of young men from the developed world, from France, the United Kingdom, and even the United States, leaving their homes and families and going to the Middle East to join up with a cause they admire and want terribly to be a part of. I don’t think they’re going there to be a part of a disease, or to hold the knife that cut off James Foley’s head. They’re clearly going there to be a part of a sort of “new world,” or at least the revivial of an old and still admired world, that of the medieval caliphate.

As Robert Zaretsky will point out in what follows, ISIS is by no means an army of nihilists, let alone a scourge or cancer, but quite the opposite. They would be better compared not to a terrorist organization (although they are that also) but to the early Communists, to Lenin et al. (also terrorists) who led a hard and brutal and cruel campaign to create their own “new world” in Tsarist Russia.

And much as in the case of the Bolsheviks it is their mistaken idealism that we need to combat. For it is that idealism that is drawing our own sons and daughters to them, much as communism did in the early years of the last century, and it is this idealism, although even less persuasive than communism, that we need to replace in the minds of millions of jobless young people with a more persuasive idealism of our own.

Wouldn’t you think that the President, not to mention Secretaries Kerry and Hagel, and also Senators Graham and McCain (who are the authors of the op ed piece in the right hand column below that I have placed alongside of the Robert Zaretsky piece) might have had something to say about this battle, the real battle that is going on, not only in the Middle East but in the world, the battle between the generations to some extent, between extremists of the left and the right, but most of all between the haves and the havenots.

Is ISIS an army of nihilists? Just the opposite
How politicians’ favorite word for the jihadist group obscures what’s really at stake
By Robert Zaretsky and David Mikics
August 31, 2014


Militant Islamist fighters took part in a military parade along the streets of Iraq’s northern Raqqa in June.

Following photojournalist James Foley’s gruesome death last week at the hands of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, nihilism has become, quite suddenly, the “ism” du jour. President Obama condemned ISIS’s “nihilistic ideology”; Secretary of State John Kerry vowed to crush this “ugly, savage, inexplicable, nihilistic, and valueless” movement. Left speechless by the video of the execution, we are relieved to find a word that somehow speaks to the unspeakable horror of it all.

But here’s the rub: “Nihilist” is almost precisely the wrong way to describe groups like ISIS. Not only does it fail to define the group’s worldview, but from their perspective, no word better defines the world of Western, enlightened, and liberal values—in a word, our world—than does “nihilist.”

It is the West, not the East, that gave birth to the term nihilism and the existential condition it describes. And the ethos of ISIS—in which no act is too sadistic if it helps bring an extremist religious state closer to reality—is not nihilistic at all. It is, to the contrary, a reaction to nihilism, a way of fending off its moral challenge by embracing a dangerous and outdated theocratic mentality. To understand the real meaning of nihilism, and the role it has played in Western thought, gives us not only a more accurate view of the moral conflict at work, but a path forward. Western thinkers have, for the past century and a half, proposed that a direct reckoning with nihilism can be a path not to violence, but to just and considered action.

Drawn from the Latin word for “nothing,” nihilism appeared in European thought in the second half of the 19th century. It was most often defined as the conviction that no conviction—religious, metaphysical, or moral—was possible. Its original associations were not with any perceived barbarism in non-Western societies, but to the spiritual decadence and rudderlessness of the West. By withdrawing the promise of heaven and the threat of hell, nihilism threw life on earth into relief, making us responsible for our own deeds.

It was the Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev who heaved nihilism into Western consciousness. In his novel “Fathers and Sons,” Turgenev created the immortal character of Evgeny Bazarov, a medical student as devoted to scientific method as he is disgusted by the dead weight of political reaction and religious superstition. Destruction, plain and simple, was the goal of the Russian youths who saw themselves in Bazarov: the destruction of society’s institutions and the illusions they spawned. “We repudiate everything,” Bazarov announces. As for what follows, the young man shrugs: “That is not our affair: the ground must be cleared first.”

That ground-clearing, however, Bazarov leaves to others; he remains a man of thought rather than deeds. He wants to get rid of the old, false ways of thinking, but he has no practical plan to bring this about and no idea what he might do should his dream ever be realized. Uncertainty is his most appealing trait; he is a gentle soul, a far cry from the desperate, bloodthirsty types we usually call nihilists. It is Bazarov, the armchair nihilist, and not the bomb-thrower, who keeps faith with the spirit of nihilism: He is ready to think things through, unwilling to jump into violent action.

German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche took Bazarov’s stance a step further, insisting that a world emptied of lasting meaning is infinitely more terrifying than a world filled with czarist prisons. Like the madman in “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” who declares God is dead, Nietzsche warned his contemporaries that the religious, moral, and even scientific stories they lived by were, simply, a pack of lies. At the same time, he acknowledged the void this left for the deeply frightening thing it was. Despite the power of Nietzsche’s critique, we nevertheless tend to cling to traditional beliefs for the comfort they offer. But existential religious thinkers like Soren Kierkegaard and Karl Barth have argued that any faith worthy of the name must co-exist with doubt and disillusion.

ISIS, however, recoils from such an encounter with doubt. Far from being nihilistic, the followers of ISIS are instead terrified by the empty vistas nihilism reveals. They parade a twisted version of Islam as truth, insisting that death and blood on earth are a necessary sacrifice for the paradise that awaits the religious warrior. Many of Al Qaeda’s and ISIS’s recruits are disaffected young men glad to turn to a thrilling new belief system that walls them off from the danger of nihilism. As George Orwell, among others, pointed out, a similar role has been played by other belief systems, like communism: No matter how violent the deed, it was done in the service of History, the brutal deity of the communist movement. The worldwide caliphate ISIS aims for is a vision just as galvanizing, and just as illusory, as the communist utopia.

Some of us in the West have grown comfortable with a kind of epistemological nihilism: namely, that knowledge is elusive and truth nonexistent. What we must do is relearn, like Nietzsche or Bazarov, to feel discomfited by and not indifferent to this abyss. This is a path that was traced with clarity and urgency by the French-Algerian novelist and moralist Albert Camus. For Camus, far from nihilism representing an intellectual or spiritual dead end—one that leads some of us to embrace extremist ideological movements—it is a necessary passage in our search for values. Those values, as Camus made clear in works like “The Plague” and “The Rebel,” must include a recognition that human nature and human knowledge are imperfect: We cannot win the war against injustice, but only achieve provisional victories. In that spirit, he called on us to strive to “serve justice so as not to add to the injustice of the human condition, to insist on plain language so as not to increase universal falsehoods, and to wager, in spite of human misery, for happiness.”

We know that ISIS scorns the principle of human justice, but by labeling them “nihilist,” comforting as that may be, we ourselves flout plain language. In “The Plague,” one of those resisting the epidemic, Tarrou, declares: “We must call things by their name.” Nihilism is not the enemy—this is not a war of meaning versus meaninglessness—but, instead, it is a description of the human condition. Our real enemies are those who, afraid of this prospect, seize on brutality as a means to religious or ideological ends; our real friends are those who, recognizing this possibility, are willing to work together toward human solidarity and dignity on our shared earth.

Robert Zaretsky is the author of “A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus and the Quest for Meaning.” David Mikics is the author of “Slow Reading in a Hurried Age.” They both teach in the Honors College, University of Houston, and are working on a book about nihilism.

Stop Dithering, Confront ISIS

GrahamMcCainJohn McCain and Lindsey Graham: Confront ISIS Now

August 29, 2014

AFTER more than three years, almost 200,000 dead in Syria, the near collapse of Iraq, and the rise of the world’s most sinister terrorist army — the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, which has conquered vast swaths of both countries — President Obama’s admission this week that “we don’t have a strategy yet” to deal with this threat is startling. It is also dangerous.

The president clearly wants to move deliberately and consult with allies and Congress as he considers what to do about ISIS. No one disputes that goal. But the threat ISIS poses only grows over time. It cannot be contained. It must be confronted. This requires a comprehensive strategy, presidential leadership and a far greater sense of urgency. If Mr. Obama changes course and adopts a strategic approach to defeat ISIS, he deserves support.

Such a strategy would require our commander in chief to explain to war-weary Americans why we cannot ignore this threat. ISIS is now one of the largest, richest terrorist organizations in history. It occupies a growing safe haven the size of Indiana spanning two countries in the heart of the Middle East, and its ranks are filled with thousands of radicals holding Western passports, including some Americans. They require nothing more than a plane ticket to travel to United States cities.

This is why the secretary of homeland security has called Syria “a matter of homeland security.” His warnings about ISIS have been echoed by the attorney general, the director of national intelligence and, now, the secretary of defense. Americans need to know that ISIS is not just a problem for Iraq and Syria. It is a threat to the United States. Doing too little to combat ISIS has been a problem. Doing less is certainly not the answer now.

It is a truism to say there is no military solution to ISIS. Any strategy must, of course, be comprehensive. It must squeeze ISIS’ finances. It requires an inclusive government in Baghdad that shares power and wealth with Iraqi Sunnis, rather than pushing them toward ISIS. It requires an end to the conflict in Syria, and a political transition there, because the regime of President Bashar al-Assad will never be a reliable partner against ISIS; in fact, it has abetted the rise of ISIS, just as it facilitated the terrorism of ISIS’ predecessor, Al Qaeda in Iraq. A strategy to counter ISIS also requires a regional approach to mobilize America’s partners in a coordinated, multilateral effort.

But ultimately, ISIS is a military force, and it must be confronted militarily. Mr. Obama has begun to take military actions against ISIS in Iraq, but they have been tactical and reactive half-measures. Continuing to confront ISIS in Iraq, but not in Syria, would be fighting with one hand tied behind our back. We need a military plan to defeat ISIS, wherever it is.

Such a plan would seek to strengthen partners who are already resisting ISIS: the Kurdish pesh merga, Sunni tribes, moderate forces in Syria, and effective units of Iraq’s security forces. Our partners are the boots on the ground, and the United States should provide them directly with arms, intelligence and other military assistance. This does not, however, mean supporting Iranian military forces, whose presence only exacerbates sectarian tensions that empower ISIS.

We should embed additional United States special forces and advisers with our partners on the ground — not to engage in combat, but to help our partners fight ISIS and direct airstrikes against it. Regional allies should play a key role in this effort. No one is advocating unilateral invasion, occupation or nation-building. This should be more like Afghanistan in 2001, where limited numbers of advisers helped local forces, with airstrikes and military aid, to rout an extremist army.

Still, we must face facts: A comprehensive strategy to defeat ISIS would require more troops, assets, resources and time. Such an undertaking should involve Congress. We have consistently advocated revising the Authorization for Use of Military Force that has provided congressional backing for counter-terrorism operations since September 2001. Now could be the right time to update this authorization in light of evolving terrorist threats like ISIS. If Mr. Obama provides a coherent strategy and determined leadership, he could win Congress’s support.

Whether or not Mr. Obama listens to us, he should listen to leaders with a record of success in combating groups like ISIS, especially John R. Allen, Ryan C. Crocker, Jack Keane and David H. Petraeus, among others. He should consult with military and diplomatic experts like these, just as President George W. Bush did when rethinking the war in Iraq.

One of the hardest things a president must do is change, and history’s judgment is often kind to those who summon the courage to do so. Jimmy Carter changed his policy on the Soviet Union after it invaded Afghanistan. Bill Clinton changed his policy in the Balkans and stopped ethnic cleansing. And George W. Bush changed course in Iraq and saved America from defeat.

ISIS presents Mr. Obama with a similar challenge, and it has already forced him to begin changing course, albeit grudgingly. He should accept the necessity of further change and adopt a strategy to defeat this threat. If he does, he deserves bipartisan support. If he does not, ISIS will continue to grow into an even graver danger to our allies and to us.

John McCain, Republican of Arizona, and Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, are United States senators

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