Engaging the ISIS Threat

Dialogue_to_unlockThe perspective and approach that Marc Pilisuk suggests in this blog is radical and courageous. In it Marc suggests we should talk to ISIS and engage them in dialogue. This suggestion re ISIS is hardly a part of our national dialogue! Nevertheless this war with ISIS in which we are engaged is another kind of war. We are not engaged with a particular state, but more with a movement with those who see terrible evil in some values of the West. Can bombs and weapons wipe out a movement? Unfortunately violence will help the movement to grow.Read this blog piece, engage in conversation with others whether you agree with it or not.



By Marc Pilisuk

We find widespread agreement that the methods chosen by ISIS and other groups espousing indiscriminate acts of terror are abhorrent. The responses I have heard suggested cross a political spectrum and are summarized as follows:

Wipe them out militarily;

Mobilize an international coalition of nation states to battle them;

Target their identified leaders and assassinate them with drones;

Increase international and domestic surveillance;

Deny them the ability to control territory;

Isolate them;

Get Muslim leaders to denounce them and stop referring to them as ISIS.

Rarely is “them” described other with the names of suspected organizers of specific acts of terror. None of the responses appear to hold any promise for undoing the threat. In times of threat we typically find a demonization of an evil enemy that must be checked at all costs before its influence grows to destroy us. That condition is shared with most previous heightened conflicts. But there is an additional factor now. The most militant factions of the dissident extremists are not governed by a state or even by a clearly identified revolutionary identity. They employ soldiers and weapons strewn of the middle-East over decades, largely by US interventions but weapons trafficking is well established. Their horrendous acts of terror are most frequently the work of men and women ready to engage in suicidal missions. Acts of retribution or suppression aid in their recruitment of increasing numbers of such people.

One cannot fully understand this recruitment without recognizing the wide-spread sympathy with some of the core beliefs. They believe that Western colonial powers, particularly the US, have through modern history:

Exploited their natural resources;

Created and supported repressive regimes more responsive to transnational corporations than to public needs;

Bombed mosques and medical facilities, assassinated journalists, disdained the culture, religion, and the historical contributions of their region;

Fanned anti-Arab hatred.

None of this justifies indiscriminate acts of terror, but the beliefs have a sufficient validity to be reflected among larger numbers of the middle-eastern population and diaspora, some small percentage of whom will be recruited to engage in acts of terror — completing the cycle of escalating military violence on all sides and apparently without end.

In order to break the cycle of endless war against never-ending terrorist attacks we may have to take more seriously what is often acknowledged. There is no military solution. The step needed to engage ISIS and other organized groups planning acts of terror is to talk to them.

Always in times of escalating rhetoric of war, reasonable discourse is not considered. The enemy is considered vicious, culpable of violent and criminal activity and not to be trusted. The idea of talking with ISIS sounds preposterous. What do we say? With whom would we meet? What security assurances would be needed? What ground rules would have be set?

As one of the founders of the first Teach-in on the VietNam war and planners of both a national Teach-in in Washington and a cross-national teach-in in Toronto I have sad memories at our efforts at dialogue. In Washington, invited guests in the State Department and White House advisors did not show up for a dialogue with highly qualified opponents to the war. In Toronto, we tried to get lower level officials of the South Vietnamese puppet government, to meet with Viet Cong officials. We were not successful in initiating talks. It was far easier for government officials to generate demonizing accusations, to plan strategies for winning, to bomb military targets and rice fields, to send soldiers into the black hole of war. 58 thousand did not return from their battles which killed two million VietNamese and led to the Cambodian genocide. The returned soldiers, beset with trauma, still account for disproportionate numbers of suicides, homeless, jobless and mentally ill people. Surely dialogue could have addressed untrue charges of single US ship being attacked and the reality that VietNamese nationalism rather than mythical fears of dominos falling into a Communist orbit. We speak of preserving values of the dignity of all lives. When the International Atomic Energy Agency was conducting its expert in dialogue with Iraqi official to gain sufficient access to determine whether Iraq had bomb-producing facilities and when the largest anti-war demonstrations around the world asked for this time, US and British authorities instead initiated a war with Iraq, the consequences of which include the emergence of armed, angry people whose influence continues to grow. Talks with Saddam Hussein would surely have been preferable. Talks have occurred between nuclear powers with expressed concerns that they would be annihilated but for the threat of massive retaliation. It is time now to talk directly with ISIS.

With whom would we speak? The US already retains an extensive list of suspects, many already on watch lists with data on their interactions with colleagues. Many already are targeted for assassination. They can as easily be targeted with invitations to talk. Citizen diplomacy could use personal contacts to initiate interest. Surely elaborate security guarantees would need to be arranged. Perhaps a unanimous Security Council resolution might help with such guarantees.

What would we say?

“You are angry with those who have mistreated your lands and your culture. You have made your point in how strongly you wish to strike back. We may disagree on many things but do agree that outright destruction of all groups espousing terror or military violence is neither a possible nor a desirable outcome, nor would it be in keeping with any spiritual faith. We are prepared to listen to your message and try to better understand it. We ask only that you do the same. We start with a belief that colonial powers hold a share of the blame for unrest and owe a debt for past and continuing exploitation. The path to a more just world may be difficult but the attack and counter attack in place now is too disrespectful of human dignity and devoid of hope to continue. Let us begin with small, safe, talks to try to find something better.”

 Years back, at the height of the cold war, psychologist Charles Osgood proposed a strategy of GRIT, graduated reduction in tension-reduction, in which, small conciliatory unilateral initiatives would be announced and followed through, regardless of adversary response. Successive efforts would summon both curiosity and small reciprocal efforts. Evidence from both lab studies and analyses of gestures in the Kennedy-Khrushchev is promising.

Given the alternative, this is a time to test our beliefs in the power of creative non-violence.

Marc Pilisuk, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus, The University of California


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2 Responses to Engaging the ISIS Threat

  1. Grace E Higgs says:

    Governor Kasich has proposed a Department of Peace. That would be a great start and would take the initiative to negotiate. Emphasis should be placed on rebuilding a meaningful educational system for boys and girls since they have been denied that. The boys by indoctrination in the Koran nearly exclusively and the girls by denying them any meaningful education that would prepare them for work and evolvement in today’s world. Certainly the developed nations could help to build such a system. We did it in Kore with great success. Pilisuk is right. Any progress would be very incremental. But those of traditional Islamic faith need to be in the forefront and lead the way. It is the misinterpretation of Islam that is destroying the Middle East as much as acts by western powers.

  2. kkanet says:

    Dear Grace,
    Thanks for your comment and your thoughtfulness. It is always encouraging to hear support of dialogue as a means of making peace and just listening before using arms. I do think, disregarding so much of what we get from the media, we are on the way to more peace and collaboration.

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