A war on ISIS, not Islam

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It’s a crisp Saturday night in Covent Garden, the voices of my friends drowned out by the babble of noise at the tube station’s entrance. There are security guards standing just beyond the ticket gates. Exiting the station we pass a cinema –  hastily printed paper signs warning of  a “random bag check” policy are taped to the glass doors. T-minus 24 hours since the the Paris attacks.

We stop at a crosswalk as the light turns red. My friend, his hands dug deep in his pockets, shifts nervously back and forth on the balls of his feet. “We picked the worst night to be out here,” he says, motioning to the throngs of people. He nervously eyes a bearded man clutching a purple backpack and speaking  – what sounds like Arabic – loudly into his cellphone.

A meager 24 hours after the tragedy, we are filled with a plethora of overwhelming emotions. We are deeply saddened by yet another illustration of the nauseating evil present in our society; we are unified in our defiance – these terrorists will not dictate our way of life. But we are also scared. Scared on a very physical level for our immediate safety as we wade through the crowds, but also by something much deeper. We are scared of the way these attacks make us feel. Scared of the way we find ourselves staring – even if only for second – at the man with the purple backpack.

We’ve seen it before, recently even, with the attacks on Charlie Hebdo – high profile massacres carried out by radical Islamists. And, with each one, we wonder for a millisecond longer about the purple backpack. It touches us all on a deeper level, even if we don’t recognize or want to admit it.

After this devastating attack in Paris, the response on social media and in person has been rapid and heart-warming – the ASL’s varsity boys soccer team giving flowers to the American School in Paris, the countless individuals who have posted on Facebook and Twitter expressing their sentiment and their hope. Let’s not allow this be a shallow display of unity. In the coming months, or even weeks, as one by one the tricolores fade from our Facebook pages, let’s not forget. Let’s remember the martyrs – those injured and those killed – and condemn the depravity of the Islamic State (ISIS). But let’s also remember that Islam is not the problem – we must not let ISIS succeed in demonising a people.

Each act of terror carried out by the radical Islamist group clouds our vision and blurs the line between the evil actions of a few, and the faith of many. We must continue to make the distinction. Look to Twitter, where Muslims, famous and otherwise, around the world were out in force to distance themselves from the actions of ISIS: “I am a Muslim. I condemn the Paris attacks. Over 1.5 billion Muslims do,” many tweeted. Their message is clear: Islam is not defined by one reprehensible group or the actions of radical terrorists.

When French President François Hollande issued his “we are at war,” statement in the hours following the attacks, those of us who are American could certainly relate. I was too young to fully grasp the situation, but my parents speak of a time, post 9/11, when the U.S. also declared such a war. 9/11 drove a deep wedge, made us scared and made us suspicious. In a sense, my parents tell me, our culture of openness and acceptance slipped down a few rungs.

In the aftermath of this tragedy, I hope the same effects won’t plague the French, yet it seems almost a certainty that France’s secular values will come into question, and that anti terror legislation will be proposed.

As France “goes to war” we can only hope that the enemy has been rightly identified. We aren’t fighting against Islam. In fact, far from it. We aren’t even fighting radical Islam, as many from across the political spectrum have gesticulated over the past few days. We are fighting a part of our very own society, the dark, reprehensible and evil actions of a few.

While it is impossible to understand the actions of ISIS without reference to their religious beliefs, these terrorists represent a cruel and twisted version of their faith, not Islam as a whole. A war on terrorism, not Islam, is the war we are waging; I just hope that through all the suffering, however painful, we can remember that.

Photo courtesy of Sam Arch