By Mike Appleton, Weekend Contributor
“Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering whale; to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee.”
-Herman Melville, Moby Dick
The response to the grotesquely brutal murder of Lt. Muath al-Kaseasbeh on February 3 was intense and swift. Within hours after the Islamic State released its obscene video, Jordan hanged two al-Qaeda prisoners. Thousands of Jordanian citizens marched through the streets of Amman in a demonstration joined by Queen Rania. The young pilot’s father, Safi al-Kaseasbeh, demanded “revenge, severe revenge for the blood of Muath.” Tribal elders, who only recently were arguing that Jordan should withdraw from the U.S.-led coalition conducting airstrikes in Syria and Iraq, now called for retribution in the name of “Muath the Martyr.” By the following day, Jordanian F-16s were bombing ISIS targets in Syria.
The conservative media in this country promptly labeled King Abdullah II a hero. On Fox & Friends, Elisabeth Hasselbeck praised him for “stepping up with strong leadership and clarity, ” adding, “What is our president doing?” Even Charles Barkley weighed in, publicly expressing his wish that President Obama were more like the Jordanian king.
Please excuse me if I refrain from joining the fawning multitudes.
The truth is that neither Jordan’s response nor the widespread outrage voiced across the Arab world will change anything. It will not produce new initiatives. It will not result in a coalition of Islamic nations sending ground troops into Syria and Iraq.
What we are witnessing is a momentary paroxysm of religious rage expressed in the language of retribution. Typical were the remarks of Ahmed al-Tayeb, the Grand Imam of the al-Azhar mosque in Cairo, who described ISIS as “satanic” and insisted that its adherents should be “killed, crucified” or “have their limbs amputated.” The unfortunate lieutenant has been proclaimed a martyr in an ephemeral and undefined cause.
Appeals to blood lust and retaliatory executions may momentarily satisfy the emotional needs of angry mobs, but they have no lasting significance. Revenge is reason unhinged. Vengeance as a policy is unlikely to produce long-term solutions. The recent killings of Japanese journalists did not provoke similar outpourings of rage. Nor have the beheadings of numerous aid workers and non-Muslim foreign nationals. Jordan remains a fertile ground for ISIS recruiters. As recently as 2005, 57% of Jordanians polled by Pew agreed with the view that suicide bombings of innocent civilians are justified “to defend Islam from its enemies,” a figure which dropped dramatically only after the bombings of three hotels in Amman in November of that year.
While debate will continue over the role of the invasion of Iraq in the unraveling of the Middle East, it ought to be abundantly clear that the elimination of ISIS and its supporters is an ideological problem. It will not be solved by U.S. airstrikes and drone warfare or tit-for-tat atrocities or Clint Eastwood wannabes. It will require instead that tribal and ethnic loyalties be subordinated to national interests. It will require that leaders in the Middle East abandon the religious schizophrenia that characterizes their public rhetoric: the condemnation of extremism and the simultaneous condemnation of western attacks on extremists as an assault on Islam.
Most importantly, it will require that reason and cooperative effort replace the politics of vengeance. Ahab may have sworn his hatred with vehement eloquence, but only the whale survived.
Sources: Aki Peritz, “What Jordan Knows About Psyching Out ISIS,” The Daily Beast (Feb. 20, 2015); Tom Finn, “Calls for revenge in Jordan as nation mourns slain pilot,” Middle East Eye (Feb. 13, 2015); Richard Wike, “Widespread concerns about extremism in Muslim nations, and little support for it,” Pew Research Center (Feb. 5, 2015); Mark Thompson, “The Power of Vengeance,” Time (Feb. 5, 2015); ” ‘Crucify them!’ Muslim leaders condemn ISIS execution of Jordanian pilot,” rt.com (Feb. 4, 2015); Jim Michaels and Jane Onyanga-Omara, “Pilot killing triggers backlash throughout Middle East,” USA Today (Feb. 4, 2015).
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