Creating Sustainable Peace and the Canadian Reaction to ISIL and terror in Canada

A recent article (Ottawa Attacks: Terrorists’ not who we think) in Canadian International Council’s website outlines that we may need to re-think our response to “terror” in Canada.Their article provides excellent insight into the situation at home and alludes to something we must also consider with regard to our overseas response.

Most of the press coverage of the war against ISIL portrays all of the members of ISIL as killers and rapists, even the coverage provided by ISIL themselves. This is how the “terror” tactic works. It causes instability and fear amongst the populous and creates doubt in any existing government’s ability to provide protection. Undoubtedly, there are some within the ranks of ISIL who are the leaders and showmen, who do whatever is necessary to strike fear into the people they encounter and who effectively duplicate their message to make us believe we should fear all of them. If we were to actually learn about the members of ISIL, we would likely find that the mayhem is led by a few individuals who use the US and Canadian bombing as a justification to prove the righteousness of their actions.

Let us remember that during WWW II, many Germans supported the ideology that was promoted by Hitler, not because they actually agreed with his methods or master goals, but because of some of the ideas that they felt would make their lives better. In addition, they were being fed propaganda about their enemy that justified actions they might not have taken otherwise. As individuals within a populous which they believed to be generally supportive of Hitler, they would not want to be seen as non-supporters for fear of loosing their status or their lives. While supportive of their leaders, certainly not all were as radical as the leadership and given the opportunity many would likely have stopped the fighting much sooner or chosen a different approach if they could see another path to the lesser goal of economic prosperity for the vast majority.

The same is likely true with ISIL. While many of their adherents may support the concept of a “new caliphate” and agree with their right to freely choose their religious and political path, it is also likely that most of the adherents do not rape or kill in the way that it has been portrayed in the media. Very likely the vast majority are the foot soldiers of a rebellion. Many of these foot soldiers, while supporting their rebellion, likely do not participate in the atrocities or in worst case do so to show their devotion to the cause when in the presence of radical leadership or others who they fear may turn them in for not supporting the movement. Such was the case for the Germans as well. The book “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined” by Steven Pinker, outlines many psychological experiments that demonstrate how normal people react more violently when surrounded by others who they suspect support a violent cause.

Remember that it only takes a small army of violent hoodlums who portray themselves as the leaders of the movement to create fear within their own ranks. These same self-proclaimed “leaders” are in the position of leadership precisely because they are feared and they are willing to do anything to claim power. Without a functioning political system and police to protect the individuals they have little choice but to go along with their leaders or leave. Attacks against ISIL only builds their case and others within their ranks see them as the only salvation for their freedom to choose their own path. When there are some acting out of fear and others acting out of not wanting to be seen as defiant, the key is not to bomb them out of existence, rather it is to offer another more peaceful alternative and encourage, through incentives, a less radical leadership and path to their end goal. If their goal is truly religious in nature, i.e. the goal to establish a new caliphate, perhaps the caliphate need not be violent, nor geographically constrained. It is true that the leadership of ISIL may desire the strict implementation of Sharia law and be willing to fight for it, their may be other acceptable scenarios for the majority of their members which have yet to be explored.

Just as WWW II resulted from economic difficulties and inequalities derived from the reparation measures imposed on Germany resulting from WWW I, many of the supporters of ISIL are likely participating because they are struggling from very real economic pressures resulting from prior insurgencies, lack gainful employment, fail to see a future they want for their children, coupled with a perceived oppression by both foreign and regional powers. They see this as the only hope for a better world and more stable economic situation than the one they currently live in. Groups like ISIL grow in size because their adherents begin to view them as a solution to some of their social challenges and defenders of their freedoms. Unfortunately most of their adherents lack the courage to stand up to their own radical leaders. With the picture of victory painted by their leadership and given their inviolable right to protect their own freedom from foreign attackers, ISIL wins the hearts of average people and the outcast criminals alike. The key to deescalation of a struggle is to propose peace talks with any member of the group who is willing to negotiate at a point in the struggle where the fighting ebbs and some sense of exhaustion is perceived. It is as this point that people may see a future in peace rather than continuation of the struggle.

While their is no doubt that Canadians should stand in solidarity with their soldiers as the defenders of our nation, and mourn the loss of these brave souls, we should also encourage our government not to paint all supporters of ISIL with the same brush or fall into the trap of demonizing every member, just as we remember that not all Germans were Hitler or part of the SS. Far too often, Governments or groups paint another group all with the same brush, they dehumanize them as killers and animals and encourage their own citizens to take up arms against them. This is precisely what happens before all genocides. Let us not imagine that all members of ISIL share the goal of raping and killing neighbors who may not support their movement. There are undoubtedly criminals within this group who need to be punished for leading the atrocities, but in countries where wars have taken place, one of the most effective tools in establishing peace is offering amnesty to those who wish to defect and offering a means for them to build a more stable situation for themselves and their families. Such was the case in Uganda when members of Kony’s rebellion were encouraged to come home and abandon the struggle.

If the countries of the region were to step up to lead in the fight against ISIL, there may be some justification in supporting the effort. Unfortunately, the countries in the region, at very best seem to be fading into the background and in the case of Turkey seem to be taking advantage of the situation to fight against their own enemies (i.e. PKD), rather than supporting the fight against ISIL. This lack of support suggests that countries in the region have a different perspective of what is going on. As such, it appears to be more of a foreign operation which is led by predominantly Christian nations, even though there continues to be efforts to maintain a “coalition” of sorts with the regional powers.

Canada should always take a role to end violence against any group of people, however, I believe that, in supporting the US bombing raids, we have taken the wrong approach. Canada should offer humanitarian assistance, negotiating teams, observers and in places where peace still exists, offer peace keeping if it is requested. Send a clear message that Canada does not encourage or support violence on either side. Let us all re-think this situation and decide what peaceful roles  Canada can play to most effectively bring sustainable peace to the region and then to have the courage to stand up to the US and suggest that neither country wins by escalating this war.

Garth Schmalenberg, MA Human Security and Peacebuilding

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