A few years ago, a British comedian made a brilliant video entitled Gap Yah, viciously satirizing privileged British teenagers and young adults taking a year between school and university to go find themselves, or save the world, or whatever it is they go to do. Tarquin and his friend were British, but they could have been from Canada, France or the United States. It’s pretty standard for young westerners to go do community service or something similar in the ‘third world’ or ‘developing countries’ for a little while in their young years before they get bogged down by adult responsibilities. Yes, I did it too. I laid water pipes, planted trees and built stoves in Peru, and I felt incredibly weird the whole time. Did I do some good? Yeah, maybe. Should I have been doing it? I’m really not sure at all.
There’s something totally insufferable about the whole idea. For the most part, and I can’t imagine this has changed much since I did it in 2006, it’s a matter of taking selfies and feeling good about oneself, then eventually getting bored, or realizing that one isn’t actually making that big a dent in the problem, and then going home.
That’s what’s insufferable. We go on vacation, help the poor brown, black or purple people deal with their poverty, and then we go home, to Starbucks Lattes and IPhones and clean water and comfortable beds.
The thing is, this is exactly the same thing that young British, French, American or Canadian Muslims are doing right now in Syria and Iraq. Only the circumstances and the reasons are different, and those differences are kind of cosmetic. In many important ways, they’re doing the same thing for a lot of the same reasons; teenage angst, alienation, anger, and boredom all play big roles, as does a sense of guilt at their comfortable lives and desire to do good for the poor benighted people of some faraway land. In their case, however, they’re going to kill and be killed, not to build schools or plant trees. And recently, like a lot of us eventually do after our service junkets, some of them have begun to realize just how stupid an idea it was the whole time.
Their IPods don’t work anymore. Most of the time they’re not really doing anything glamorous or exciting. The bathrooms are dirty and they’re uncomfortable most of the time. Rapine, murder and butchery aren’t quite as fulfilling as they were led to believe they would be.They want to come home and see their families and go back to the lives they knew. They’re seeing that maybe those Kufar aren’t so evil after all. At least back in the land of Jahiliyya they have regular access to toilet paper.
But out of fear, anger and a little bit of racism, we won’t let them. We should. We should even encourage it, and set up a process by which it is gradually, and very eventually possible. In a way that acknowledges the gravity of their mistake, makes damn sure they’re being sincere in their remorse, and punishes them justly for what they’ve done, but also in a way that leaves them a path open back to a normal life. It’s the right thing to do, but it’s also in our interests, as well as the interests of the people of Syria, Iraq and wherever else these people are wreaking havoc.
When young, stupid white kids from western countries go gallivanting off to save the world, not even the people who think they’re being silly think they also deserve to die. Even if they get into serious trouble in one of the places they go to, nobody seriously suggests that they aren’t worthy of consular protection and assistance, and nobody says that their parents are wrong to be glad they’re back, and to let them back under their roof. I imagine Gap Yah’s parents and the British government did eventually get him out of that Burmese prison. Yes, he was an idiot, but stupidity isn’t a capital offense.
Except, it would appear, when you and your parents are Muslim. Then rich, white politicians are apparently perfectly free to brag about how they will burn your passport and never let you come home. Then your parents will receive verbal abuse and even threats because of your stupid decision, and have their motives and loyalties questioned if they worry about the fate of their children. After your government refuses to help you, and you die, your parents will be forced to become political props as well as suffer unspeakable grief. And, by the way, even your mistake will be angry with you, and publicly seek to kill you even if you do come safe back home. Which is tragic, because you could, and still can, do a lot of good there.
When young, often disadvantaged and justifiably angry Muslims in western countries are mulling over the idea of flying to Syria, who do you think is going to have more moral authority telling them that it’s a stupid idea, completely unIslamic, and that they shouldn’t do it. An ex-Jihadi? Or some western politician like Boris Johnson, whose biggest passport problems involve how much tax he’s able to avoid paying out of his ludicrous, undeserved wealth? The ex-head of MI6, Richard Barrett, who has probably had more experience with problems like this than armchair right wing experts around the world (or, for that matter, armchair left wing experts like me) is explaining in the British press that “many of the people who have been most successful in undermining the terrorist narrative are themselves ex-extremists.” It’s terrifying when young westerners decide that ISIS has a more fulfilling narrative of life to offer than we do. It has to make you wonder a little bit how bad ours actually is. It’s completely in our interests to let these people back to help make sure that that doesn’t happen. They have a chance to do good, and to atone for their mistakes, and since we and our fellow citizens are the ones who stand to benefit from it, it would be suicidal of us to let them die alone and unloved in a foreign country for no good reason.
But what’s good for us or for our ex-jihadi citizens isn’t really the biggest issue here. What is is what’s good for the citizens of the Middle East, for whom this isn’t a theoretical problem, and for whom the tyranny of the Islamic State and the constant threat of violent death aren’t problems happening on the internet or in the papers. It’s right outside their door. This isn’t a hypothetical war, and these aren’t hypothetical issues for them. They are the ones dying, and they can’t just switch off the computer to make it go away. It’s a paralyzingly awful situation, for which there is no easy or obvious solution. Western intervention isn’t going to make it stop, military or otherwise. This is a war that isn’t going to end anytime soon, no matter what anybody says or does. It’s a horror from which there is no escape. It’s not a place people should be jaunting to lightly. And that goes for the people going to join the Kurds, too. The last people in the world whose help the Middle East needs right now are crazed German bikers, and the Western right should stop cheering them on, because they’re not even a tiny bit morally superior to the western jihadists.
One thing I want to make absolutely clear is that these people aren’t just idiots. They are, but many of them are very likely rapists, murderers, and traitors to the countries they’ve come from as well, by any sane person’s definition of the word. The penalty for treason has historically been death, but it isn’t anymore. When they do come home, they should be prepared to do time in prison for any crimes they’ve committed, and probably also to lose any and all privacy they’ve enjoyed in the past, at least for a good long while. In a situation like this, where so much rides on a person’s sincerity, society actually is entitled to know what you’re saying in private, and to see what you’re doing in private. You can’t be speaking out of both sides of your mouth about your repentance, and in a situation like this it’s only prudent that you’re being monitored around the clock, for your own safety, and that of the people around you. This is probably one of the only circumstances in which the sort of dragnet, total surveillance that our security services are subjecting all of us to right now (Hi guys!) is actually justified. Which, by the way, is why they should deploy their resources to that end, and not to collecting the dick pics of innocent strangers.
I do support western military efforts against ISIS, and am glad that we’re helping their enemies in the region to kill them as quickly and efficiently as possible. The closest analogy in the European cultural experience to ISIS for stupidity, viciousness, brutality and unadulterated evil are the Nazis. And if Godwin’s law is in your head, get it out. The reason it’s so irritating when stupid people make stupid comparisons to the Nazis is that it trivializes the analogy when it’s perfectly, completely accurate. And in this case it is. That’s who you should have in your head. That’s the mature, intelligent comparison you should be making. So if these westerners really do believe in the divine mission of Caliph Abu-Bakr and are willing to die in service to a demon in human form, they should rest assured that they will.
But they don’t have to. Because they can also come home. And we should make sure that they can. Were they idiots? Yes. Could they have known what it was they were getting into? Yes. Are they the first young people in history to make a dumb ass decision that they later came to regret? Not a chance. Has their decision put them completely beyond the pale of human consideration forever? No.
The thing about ISIS and their twisted, lying ideology is that at its kernel there’s a small scrap of truth. But only in the same way that the Nazis had one was well when they said that the Treaty of Versailles had punished Germany unfairly. It had, but that in no way justified Nazism or the things people did in its name. In ISIS’ case it’s that there really are a lot of things about Western civilization that are deeply, deeply wrong, and which will destroy us in the end if we don’t figure out a way to fix them. Our society, with its dehumanizing greed, its horrific structural inequalities, and its vacuous inability to give us, its citizens, much in the way of meaning and purpose in our lives beyond waiting for the IPhone 7, is in serious, serious trouble. Going to Syria to wage jihad may be a stupid person’s response to that fact, but it doesn’t mean it isn’t true. This is a test of our situation and our way of life. If we can forgive this, and reintegrate people into our society even after doing something like this, then we’re probably going to be all right in the end.
But if we can’t, we’re probably on the road to becoming history. We’re often told that at the core of ISIS is a festering, maggoty heart of pure evil. I think that’s exactly right. But all the evil ever done in this world has been done with the best and highest of intentions. People always think, by their own lights, that they’re doing good, even when they’re doing unfathomable evil. And one thing that does need to be said about these kids? They thought this was the right thing to do. And no, the Gap Year analogy isn’t the best one available here. Western students and young people aren’t willingly or knowingly risking their lives for anything these days. But they used to. We actually have been here before. It was the late nineteen thirties, and the problem then was young Americans, Brits and Frenchmen going to join the international brigades to make sure Franco didn’t win the Spanish Civil War. George Orwell, Ernst Hemingway, and countless other much less famous names were so convinced that a better world was possible that they left behind everything they knew to fight for it. Was it their fault that Stalin and the communists betrayed those hopes, and the governments of their own countries decided Franco was the lesser of two evils?
These kids wanted to fight for something. They thought they were willing to die for something. Even that thought is a rare commodity these days. Maybe we should make sure we’re keeping it close to home.