ISIS and the Existential Threat (by Chris Milburn)

Tuesday, August 9th, 2016

In the wake of violent attacks on civilians in the U.S. and Europe, ISIS, also known as the self-proclaimed “Islamic State”, poses a unique and unprecedented challenge to the western world. Americans, in particular, struggle to understand the group, its motivations, and capabilities. Among the most important points of conversation is the recurrent question: Does ISIS pose an “existential” threat to the United States?

Opinions on this matter vary widely. An existential threat would be one that threatens the existence of the United States, but the nature of the threat from violent jihadists remains unclear. In the past, an existential threat may be have been described as a uniformed enemy capable of overtaking a nation’s territory or resources. But acquisition of physical territory and large-scale force become less relevant to conflict as it intensifies in a world dominated by communication.

War remains a physically violent conflict, but the symbolic elements of war take on greater importance in a globalized world. The murder of Father Jacques Hamel, the French priest in Normandy, is but one gruesome illustration of this theory in action; a single murder, carried out in highly symbolic fashion, becomes an act of terrorism gaining notoriety on the global stage. Indeed, it is this type of decentralized symbolic violence that has allowed ISIS to extend their reach into Europe and the United States.

As ISIS continues to assert their claim to Islamic authority by executing effective symbolic violence, they have forced the two major U.S. political parties to divide into two opposing positions. Democrats refuse to acknowledge the ideological roots of the spreading violence while Republicans propose to exclude immigrants based on their religious practices or ethnic background. Both positions overlook significant elements of the intensifying conflict and open the door for the Islamic State to continue to thrive.

The United States president has set the tone for the Democratic Party’s response by rhetorically asserting that nothing would be accomplished by acknowledging that ISIS’ violence is the product of radical ideas rooted in Islamic belief – a blatant analytical bias certainly preventing his administration from properly engaging the threat posed by the Islamic State. The Republican Party’s presidential candidate has repeatedly proposed banning Muslims from the United States – a vague yet alarming proposal that is not only impractical, but also unconstitutional.

Contrary to the president’s declaration, an analysis of any such violent ideology must address the political, social, religious, and territorial claims of the violent actors. In the past and under different conditions, blunt military force may have been sufficient to prevent the advances of certain hostile armies. But if effective counter-measures are to be employed in the current conflict, the complexity of the new operating environment demands an accurate analysis of the ideological conditions leading to violence. American inaction in this regard allows violent Islamists to gain a strategic upper hand by manipulating a particularly compelling narrative of the United States to their advantage. This approach also ignores the decentralized nature of modern terrorism, a fundamental factor contributing to the problems understood by westerners as “radicalization” and “violent extremism.” The Islamic State’s influence flourishes in these conditions.

The Republican proposal predictably takes the opposite approach in recommending that Muslims be prevented from entering the United States. Proposing that any religious adherents be banned from the United States “until our country’s representatives figure out what is going on” is a massive shift away from the core American tenet of freedom of religious expression. Further, this proposal inflames fears of immigrants and outsiders (perhaps intentionally) by erroneously branding an entire population with the horrible violence of a few. Such a ban would be an egregious assault on the very identity of the United States itself. This, too, creates an environment in which the Islamic State’s influence flourishes.

Finding the way forward in such a conflict is not easy. An effective approach will require a nuanced view of humanity and social interactions, and a clear vision of a desirable United States identity. Perhaps the Islamic State does not pose an existential threat in any traditionally understood sense of the term; Islamist soldiers are not likely to arrive on the beaches of North America and forcibly overtake the United States. But the Islamic State threatens the existence of the U.S. when Americans allow their national identity to be manipulated by fear. When America no longer exists as a strategic global peacekeeper or the champion of freedom, liberty, and justice, it will have succumbed to the existential threat of ISIS.