SENSE OF IT ALL: Islamic State’s Worst Fear


Ormseth, Matthew_rgb_cropBy MATTHEW ORMSETH

(Published Dec. 12, 2015)

If it proves to be true that last week’s rampage in San Bernardino was, if not planned and directed by the Islamic State, at the very least inspired by the extremist group, the deadly attack would be only the latest installment in the group’s war on daily life in the West.

Whereas Al-Qaeda directed their attacks toward prominent symbols of political might — the Twin Towers, the Pentagon, U.S. embassies overseas — the Islamic State has attacked the locales of day-to-day life. The Nov. 13 attacks in Paris targeted a concert hall, cafés, bars, and a soccer stadium. On Wednesday, an office’s holiday potluck was visited by terror. The Islamic State seeks to sow terror amongst the West not by going after symbols of political and economic might, but by disrupting, shattering, and truncating the lives of its ordinary citizens.

Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik’s decision to target a workplace holiday potluck does not, I would argue, constitute an attack on Christiandom. Rather, it was an attack on what we, as Americans, consider the holidays in a country so heterogeneous in faith. The general term “the holidays” encompasses Christmas, Kwanza, Hanukkah, and New Year’s, but regardless of which particular faith and celebration you adhere to, the holidays are, quite simply, the time of year when you spend time with the people you love.

I didn’t really understand this until I moved to the East Coast for school, but I do now. For many people, the roughly three or four weeks from mid-December to early January that we designate as “the holidays” is the only time out of the year that they see their family members and old friends. It’s the season of home-cooked meals, of reunions, of intimacy and candor. It’s the time when old friendships are reaffirmed, the time when we are frank and open about our love for one another.

And so it is hardly a surprise that individuals who identify with the Islamic State would attack a holiday party. The Islamic State is the antithesis of all we associate with the holidays. They encourage young men and women in liberal, democratic nations to abandon their families and join their self-styled “caliphate” in the killing fields of Syria and Iraq. They imprison the citizens of towns under their control; their hisbah, or morality police, maintains strict curfews and patrols the streets with sadistic zeal. They encourage secrecy and aloofness, and condemn candor.

Love, I would argue, is something that cannot exist amidst such blatant inequality between man and woman, amidst the fear that lingers between neighbors and the hatred espoused so openly by the group’s leaders. The Islamic State preys on the alienated, luring them from their homes and families with promises of acceptance and community; what they find, though, is only a deeper, and more hopeless isolation. To the Islamic State, togetherness is anathema. Romantic, platonic, and neighborly love are all they fear and despise.

This holiday season, we would do well to remember this — that what the Islamic State and its assassins hate and fear above all else is togetherness. Their leaders dream of America turning on its Muslim citizens in the wake of such attacks as last week’s rampage; such bigotry would only swell their ranks with more recruits, more potential gunmen, bomb-makers, and suicide attackers. The Islamic State’s choice to wage a campaign of slaughter does not stem from a close study of the Koran, but from a murderous ideology of subjugation propped up by haphazard, fragmented slivers of religious texts picked and chosen at will.

For my Muslim friends, the holidays are a joyous time of year spent with the people whom they love the most, and Farook and Tashfeen’s decision to attack a holiday party is an attack on their values of friendship, family, and togetherness.

We need only to examine the Islamic State’s fears to remind ourselves what we are celebrating in the weeks to come. We will celebrate hope, as we compose our list of resolutions for the year to come. We will celebrate charity and hospitality. We will celebrate family. We will celebrate friendship, both old ones and new. We will celebrate love. We will celebrate the love we have for specific people in our lives, and the more general love we have for the world as a whole, a love that need not have a definite recipient to exist.

This is how we fight back against terror — not with fear, as terror itself does, but by affirming our unshakable belief in all that terror would wish to destroy.

Matthew Ormseth writes from New York. He can be contacted at [email protected] expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.



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