Well-known Journalist Gwynne Dyer's book Don't Panic: ISIS, Terror and Today's Middle East, published by Penguin-Random House Canada, rests on the premise that ISIS poses no major threat to the Western world. I recently participated in a panel discussion on the book hosted by the Toronto Reference Library and disagreed with the book's premise based on the following arguments.
First, I challenge the notion that there is a formal radicalization process. I disagree with the view that fundamentalist Muslims begin by being pacifist, and subsequently undergo a "radicalization process" when they start to embrace the notion of armed jihad. Jihad as a doctrine is widely accepted by orthodox Muslims as an essential element of the Muslim faith. Anyone who shuns jihad has in fact rejected Islam according to orthodoxy. Therefore militant ideologies already constitute a narrative that is commonly embraced. This does not mean every Muslim in Canada is orthodox. But with the wide acceptance of the doctrine comes the risk of impressionable youth simply executing what they already believe.
Dyer's assertion that ISIS poses no immediate threat to Canada does not mean the terrorist outfit can never attack our country. Furthermore, ISIS per se may not be the only problem, if we acknowledge that militant ideologies form part of the Islamist narrative everywhere. Local groups with radical inclinations can do ample harm to Canadians. Of course, whether we should "panic" or not also depends on how well we can thwart terrorist plots. So far our law enforcement has done a thorough job of protecting Canadians. But we don't know when or where another radical will decide to commit an act of terror. It's already happened in Canada. It can happen again if we don't understand the nature of radicalization.
Dyer suggests the West is not affected by events in Syria and must not be involved in the civil war. However, there is a moral imperative that we need to acknowledge. Innocent people abroad are dying with impunity because the world has been slow to react to the actions of radicals. It's easy to dismiss their concerns when one is sitting a few thousand miles away from the growing tragedy, but to suggest we need do nothing because it doesn't affect our lives is ungenerous. Moreover, this is a civilizational struggle. We now live in a global community where the lives of people affected elsewhere, eventually end up affecting our own.
Hence, we can never be dismissive about terror abroad, as the ideology that inspires it is larger than the terrorist organizations. It is bigger than Al-Qaida or ISIS. The ideology is everywhere, which inspires young people to fight abroad for now, but if we are apathetic, our own country may become a battle zone for jihadi violence. Dyer is right that the immediate focus of these terrorist outfits is to weed out "contamination" in their midst. But their eventual goal is still to conquer "infidel" lands and to subjugate the "infidel."
We must also acknowledge that there is a degree of randomness to terrorist attacks. Because the ideology is so pervasive, an attack may occur anywhere at any time. The danger in Canada is more from lone wolves, but we have seen the extent of damage a single person can cause by using explosives or automatic weapons.
Dyer is right when he suggests that Western interference is shunned in the Islamic world. But he must also consider the following: Vast swathes of populations in the Islamic world are illiterate. They are not the most sophisticated when it comes to political analysis. Therefore the reaction of the Muslim world is also skewed. Many Muslims do not understand the difference between aggression and intervention. They have a primitive view of Western foreign policy, which is why they become angry when they see Western planes flying over their airspace or Western boots on the ground. Should the West do nothing then? That's hardly an option. This is once again a civilizational struggle that Westerners are very much a part of. Furthermore, Islamist sensibilities will soon take over the world if the West and its allies don't take action. Already there are assaults on free speech and institutions. Islamist values like enshrouding women in burkas are being acknowledged by our politicians and judges. The result is a proliferation of an obscurantist view of Islam. The more it is established, the more we will see radical violence erupting here.
Moreover, radicalization is much more than terror. It is also institutionalized violence through state machinery. It is stoning to death for adultery, going after non-Muslim populations in Muslim countries, raping non-Muslim women because they are considered fair game for Muslim men in a conflict. And this type of radicalization has continued for centuries, long before George W. Bush went into Iraq. It is an obscurantist view that simply cannot be allowed to proliferate. That is why this is a civilizational struggle that affects us all because this worldview is being marketed very aggressively.
Dyer also partly attributes Islam's sectarian strife to Western intervention. Indeed, by dislodging a dictator like Saddam Hussain, the battlefield became wide open for sectarian rivalries to surface. But the sectarian divide is very deep rooted. It has existed for centuries, from the dawn of Islam in the seventh century. Muslims are the biggest victims of Muslim terror if they happen to be seen as "the other."
What then is the solution to terror? One approach is to challenge the ideological base of these terrorist outfits. Most existing theological challenges to extremist philosophy have been feeble, few and far between. It is a daunting task because those who espouse such views believe they are taking their cues from the Quran and the practice of early Muslims. The narrative that jihad is an inner struggle is immediately dismissed as defeatist by the radicals. What is needed now is an outright condemnation of the doctrine of armed jihad, not a reinterpretation of the doctrine as Dyer suggests.