The President should not dignify ISIS by calling it “evil”

A mural decrying the Great Satan on the former US embassy in Tehran. Photo by John Kavanaugh

A mural decrying the Great Satan on the former US embassy in Tehran—photo by John Kavanaugh

Yesterday on Air Force One, the president condemned the ISIS beheading of aid worker Peter Kassig, whom Obama said was “taken from us in an act of pure evil by a terrorist group.” I agree that beheading aid workers is awful, and that ISIS is perhaps the most reprehensible pack of hypocrites to emerge from a region famous for producing them. But it is a mistake to call them or their acts “pure evil.” Everything about how ISIS presents itself suggests that they want to operate on the continuum of good and evil, ideally with the west at the other end. It’s their best hope of transcending what they are: a crime syndicate masquerading as a state masquerading as a religious movement.

For the purposes of this discussion, let us agree that ISIS is a state the way North Korea is a democratic people’s republic. It calls itself a state. It has taken over the provision of public services in the areas it controls, although reports suggest it is not administering them ably, and it is even talking about minting its own currency. But its money comes from bank robbery, kidnapping and extortion, not industry and/or a stable tax base. ISIS resembles the modern state the way a pyramid scheme resembles Wal-Mart. It only works if it keeps expanding.

The Islamic State is not very appealing to prospective citizens, in other words. Towns in Syria and Iraq are not joining ISIS because it offers better governance than what’s available.1 They’re joining because they got conquered. ISIS is an army that follows the operational model of a stick-up gang. By insisting on the conceit of a caliphate, they obscure their crime under the aegis of the ongoing struggle between western culture and fundamentalist Islam.

President Obama absolutely should not participate in that conceit. By calling ISIS evil, he situates it on a continuum of morality with the United States. When Americans see ISIS and the US and hear that one calls the other evil, they know which is which. People in Iraq and Syria do, too. Here’s a fun thought experiment; decide which of these is evil:

  1. The people with “state” in their name who have been aerially bombarding your part of the world for the last ten years.
  2. The people with “state” in their name who promise to unite your part of the world under your religion.

It’s a huge mistake to frame the conflict this way. When you use the word “evil,” people listening hear that you and the thing called evil are opposites. If they thought you were evil already, you encourage them toward whatever you condemn. People in the Middle East might do something about ISIS if the leader of the United States would stop declaring them his mortal enemies.

With that in mind, I recommend the following strategy to the White House: agree that ISIS is a state. Talk about them as a state that has invaded neighboring states. Condemn kidnappings and beheadings as actions unbefitting a state and get the fudge out of the rhetoric of good and evil.

The US has little if any moral authority in the Middle East. What it does have is the authority of a functioning state. Say what you will about our foreign policy and, lately, our maintenance of domestic equality. When you live in America, roving gangs of black-clad criminals do not seize your bank account, turn off your electricity, and sell your daughter into slavery. We have a stable, modern state.

Calling ISIS a state and not an evil movement will also encourage other states to address the problem. I don’t know Middle Eastern politics, but it’s my understanding that leaders in the region support quasi-religious terrorist groups because it plays well with big constituencies back home. If the United States can stop talking about ISIS as an evil2 movement to re-establish the caliphate and start talking about it as an extraordinarily shitty nation that keeps invading other nations, maybe our mutual enemies will find it palatable to intervene.

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  1. For what should be very obvious reasons, the USA can’t possibly recognize ISIS as a “state” — it’s a new and horrific terrorist gang hardly deserving of ambassadors, a seat at the UN, etc. The USA hasn’t even recognized Palestine or Taiwan, for godsake.
    And this maybe be quibbling a bit, but in your quote Obama didn’t call ISIS “evil”, he called its act “evil”, which it undeniably is. He was right to say so, but should have followed it with a halt on his pending executions of his own citizens (federal death row) and elsewhere (robot bombings).

  2. “…extraordinarily shitty nation that keeps invading other nations.”

    A lot of them would use that description for us as well. If we can’t call them evil b/c they call us evil, then we can’t call them invaders b/c they call us invaders too.

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