South Asians for Human Rights

Promoting Democracy, Upholding Human Rights

Published in The Express Tribune, September 11th, 2014.

In recent weeks, the terrible images of Islamic State (IS) terrorists beheading American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff spread around the world like wildfire. Online debates raged about what would be the most appropriate response to the transmission of the sickening pictures: to view or not to view? In viewing the videos, radical Islamists were finding a captive audience for their message of hate. But by not viewing the videos, Westerners were refusing to fully acknowledge the violent extremism in their midst.

Not surprisingly, the videos also prompted anguished navel-gazing and soul-searching among Western leaders, who asked themselves, their advisers and their citizens to weigh in yet again on the not-insignificant question of how to best respond to radical Islam. Unfortunately, most of the answers were of the fear-mongering variety, with the United Kingdom threatening to strip suspected jihadists of their passports and the White House’s press secretary stating that foreign fighters returning from Iraq and Syria are a significant ‘threat’ to the US homeland.

Such reactionary sentiments by political leaders are not entirely misplaced. Both the US and the UK have been victims in the not-too-distant past of terrorist attacks by those professing to adhere to an extreme interpretation of Islam, and neither country has yet found an effective response to the culture clash being foisted upon them against their will. But the real danger is that the governments in these and other Western nations will use the menace posed by ISIS toerode civil liberties and democratic values even further, somehow discounting the fact that the last decade of scare tactics and hysteria hasn’t made their countries any safer.

We’ve been here before. Guantanamo Bay prison camp — festering like an open wound off the coast of Florida — is a visceral reminder of what happens when a panicked need to ‘do something’ overtakes common sense.

The Cold War was used to rationalise a multitude of sins, not least among them nuclear proliferation. But successive administrations in the United States also used it to ‘justify’ political witch hunts, dodgy deals with discredited regimes, and proxy wars in Asia, Africa and Latin America — all in the name of ‘fighting Communism’. Untold human rights abuses were perpetuated by dictators allied with the United States, who turned a blind eye to their injustices, so long as they promised to affiliate themselves with Washington instead of Moscow.

There is no indication that any of the IS leadership has Mandela-like ambitions for peace, reconciliation and racial harmony; very much the opposite, in fact — they have pledged to overrun and subjugate everyone who is not ‘a believer,’ whatever that means in their twisted notions of the Muslim faith. But cooler heads need to prevail in the War Room — because when the United States overreacts and ignores its own stated values in the fight against extremist political views, it gives everyone else a free pass to do so as well.

While Western leaders search for a comprehensive response to IS’s provocations, and do their best to ensure that no more of their citizens are murdered by fanatics, let’s hope they also fight the urge to overreact. The best way to undermine IS and others of their ilk is to remain unruffled