The Muslim Ban and ISIS’s ‘Grayzone’
On January 18, 2017, the Iraqi government announced that they now had full control of Eastern Mosul. This was part of a long battle by Iraqi government forces and its many allies in retaking the northern Iraqi city from the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) since the group had first taken over the city in the summer of 2014. This was in addition to their ever-shrinking territory in Iraq as well as their setbacks in Syria. Despite some affiliates causing problems in other areas around the world, it seems that ISIS is on its way to losing its caliphate.
Yet despite these battlefield losses, ISIS is achieving an important ideological goal: the elimination of the grayzone. Some analysts have even argued that this goal is as important as maintaining the caliphate and confronting the West in an apocalyptic battle in Syria. While the former has seen some serious setbacks (and the latter first requires one to believe in the apocalypse), it seems that ISIS is achieving its goal of eliminating the grayzone.
For the Islamic State, as well as its predecessors, the world is divided in two: the world of unbelief (the world of the kufr), and the world of ‘Islam’ as defined by the terrorist group. Between this lies the ‘grayzone’ where non-ISIS Muslims exist in. For them, Muslims residing in this zone live in a state of hypocrisy and apostasy. After all, ISIS is fighting ‘on their behalf’ against the enemies of Islam. In addition, Muslims that live in peace and harmony outside of the purported Islamic State (say, Muslims in the West and other countries) represent a threat to ISIS (you already mention the same sentence at the end as a summation so no need here). After all, an important aspect of ISIS’ discourse and belief is that Muslims cannot be Muslims while living with the ‘Kufr’. While ISIS has tried to portray its caliphate as the ideal utopia for Islamic ideals, Muslims have overwhelmingly responded with condemnation and mockery. For ISIS, Muslims that live in the West and elsewhere are a threat to their narrative and recruiting goals.
ISIS attacks in the West try to eliminate this grayzone, the plane of coexistence between Muslims and their countrymen. Many ISIS recruits are Western Muslims who remain unsure of their place in European societies, who feel discriminated against by their countrymen, and who face other problems as well. Attacks in Paris, Brussels, and Orlando only help to continue this goal. Here, the target is not necessarily the Muslims living in these places, but rather their neighbors. The attacks fuel suspicion and hatred by the non-Muslims toward their Muslim compatriots. This can either result in bigotry by large segments of the population, or the elections of politicians who, like ISIS, also do not view Muslims living outside the so-called Islamic State positively. With any luck, this leads to further disillusionment by Muslims living in these societies until they realize that they don’t have a place in these societies, who then swear allegiance to the Islamic State. This also applies to refugees fleeing from the brutality that is the Islamic State. By spreading confusion and hatred towards these people, they too must make the choice between living in the West or the Islamic State. Indeed, as the Islamic State’s English language magazine Dabiq makes clear ( their 7th issue devoted a whole section to this concept), “The Muslims in the West will quickly find themselves between one of two choices…apostatize and adopt the kufri religion….or perform hijrah (migration) to the Islamic State and thereby escape persecution from the crusader governments.”
Despite facing setbacks in the battlefield, ISIS has managed to conduct and claim credit for destructive operations around the world. Their attacks in Paris became France’s deadliest terrorist attack in modern history. Similarly, ISIS-inspired fighters in Dhaka and Orlando carried out some of the deadliest shootings in both countries. While these brutal attacks had little tactical value to the war in Iraq or Syria, they did succeed in goading already problematic politicians into escalating their rhetoric.
While Islamophobia and racism, especially in Western countries, had been a problem long before the rise of ISIS, these attacks served to strengthen these pre-existing sentiments and figures. Xenophobic policies and attacks have served to increase the division between the Western societies and their Muslim citizens, ranging from France’s burkini ban, hate crimes against Muslims and other minorities post Brexit, the use clash of civilizations-style rhetoric, as well as the disappointing reaction by many countries and individuals to refugees fleeing the horror imposed on them by the Assad regime or ISIS. All of this works to stir up hatred towards the Muslim communities and possibly lead to their alienation and persecution, much to the delight of ISIS and bigoted politicians alike.
Yet, perhaps no other issue was as illustrative and useful to ISIS as the election of Donald Trump as the President of the United States. During the campaign season, it became known that supporters of the so-called caliphate preferred the firebrand leader. When he won, many of these extremists celebrated his win. Trump serves the perfect enemy for groups like ISIS. A populist that employs toxic rhetoric against the Muslims in his own country, making clear that in his vision of America is a White, Christian one. Who better than Trump in deploying clash of civilizations rhetoric while declaring war on ISIS. Trump’s recent moves to ban refugees and immigrants from seven Muslim majority countries has only reinforced this. Despite its unconstitutionality, racist purpose, and lack of any security benefit, the Trump administration shows no signs of backing down. It seems that the Trump administration is also trying to force Muslims into a choice between persecution and discrimination, a stark similarity to the conditions in ISIS-ridden territories. While it is highly unlikely that Muslims will become radicalized en masse or ally with ISIS. Despite the rhetoric, the actions of these anti-Muslim attacks and actors are not dangerous and wrong because they might strengthen ISIS, but rather because these actions undermine the very values that societies around the world cherish.
If there was one thing that seemed obvious during the Presidential campaigns and debates, it was that American Muslims could only be viewed and discussed through a security prism. They were either a threat, an ignorant narrative that was supported by Trump, or a tool against ISIS as described by Hillary Clinton. For much of the discussion, the idea that American Muslims, as American citizens, deserve the same rights as anybody else living in the country seemed contingent upon their utility as security tools. Among Republicans and Democrats, it seemed that Muslims only served to work as security tools for the US government. The message got through loud and clear: Muslims only had a place in our plural society per the expectations set by white America or Europe. Although this was already a problematic narrative in our discourse, today, America has a President and an administration who have put aside the dog whistles for plain bigotry and discriminatory policies. Unfortunately, the rise of similar Trump-style politicians in Europe also seems possible. If the election of Trump has proven anything else, it’s that even with ISIS’ defeat on the battlefield, they might still win the war.