Why ISIS is not a Dark Knight

Thomas Friedman recently compared ISIS to The Dark Knight in his op-ed piece for the New York Times. Essentially he states that:

These are gangs of young men who are telling us in every way possible that our rules no longer apply. Reason cannot touch them, because rationalism never drove them.

Furthermore, he quotes Michael Caine’s famous line from the movie:

some men aren’t looking for anything logical, like money. They can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned, or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn. …”

Friedman seems to be saying that ISIS is run by irrational, Joker-esque villains who cannot be reasoned with. The problems with such an analysis are at least two-fold.

1) ISIS is motivated (some would say primarily motivated) by a desire to make money. The New York Times reported earlier in September about how much money they make from oil revenues. It is no accident that the first places the US helped to pushback ISIS were in the oil fields. While their methods may seem “dark and irrational” to someone from the western world who does not live in such a sociological context, their ideology is perfectly rational to them and they have very concrete reasons for doing what they do. While we may disagree with their reasoning, we have no right to claim that they are “irrational” or that they can’t be “negotiated” with. In fact, the negotiations are already happening in Turkey (a fact that Friedman seems to ignore). Or perhaps put more bluntly by Robert Fisk:

the government “cannot negotiate under the edge of a knife”. But we all know what that means. You can.

2) This continues the unhelpful stereotype that terrorists are just one-sided evil caricatures. Terrorist motivations are always based in a reality that is multifaceted. To put everyone in ISIS into one big group gives them more credit and shows more unity than there may actually be within the organization.

Why do I care so much about this? Because it leads Friedman to make statements like this:

Where there is disorder — think Libya, Iraq, Syria, Mali, Chad, Somalia — collaborate with every source of local, regional and international order to contain the virus until the barbarism burns itself out. These groups can’t govern, so ultimately locals will seek alternatives.

It feels undoubtedly like a reshuffled, burdened Kipling poem for the 21st century. Friedman’s view of the situation forces him to create a world of two tribes: order vs. disorder. This kind of jihadist, cold-waresque synthesis leads us to think that we have to pick a side when, in reality, the situation is much more complex than thinking of ISIS as a “virus” in the middle east. Furthermore, he makes the assumption that “these groups can’t govern.” I don’t know where Friedman gets this idea. You only have to throw a stone so far in any direction to see that powerful dictators can lead and control countries with relative ease. All they need is a little bit of fear, torture, and military strength.

What we need to think about is how we can stop this two-sided thinking of good vs. evil American heroism history and start thinking about the complex geopolitical structures in place in the middle east and how to coexist with it in a way that is not antithetical to American aims.


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