The barbarians are at the gates. The thunder of battle echoes throughout the city. Women and children unable to flee face the inevitable slaughter. Capable allies observe from afar, apparently unwilling to prevent the impending destruction. Hopeless, a soldier turns to his companions and asks, “So much death...what can men do against such reckless hate?”
The above scene could easily be a description of the current situation in the Syrian border town of Kobani. Kurdish fighters are battling for their lives against the Islamic State with little hope for any meaningful, military aid from coalition forces.
Instead, the above scene is from Peter Jackson’s film adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy novel, “The Two Towers,” second in “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy. It describes the hopelessness felt by King Théoden as he laments what appears to be the inevitable slaughter of his people at the hands of the Dark Lord Sauron—the evil antagonist in Tolkien’s universe—who has Théoden’s people trapped in a city-fortress.
As Sauron is an illustration of evil in a fictional universe, the Islamic State is a manifestation of evil that is all too real. Their wickedness is so base that it caused even President Obama to sound like his predecessor, George W. Bush, when he described the Islamic State as a “network of death” during the recent United Nations general assembly in New York. Considering Obama spent a lot of time critiquing Bush during past foreign policy speeches, it is strange to hear the current President use a term that sounds uncannily familiar to “axis of evil.”
As the “network of death,” the Islamic State is reigniting the dualistic worldview of good versus evil, a theme often dramatized in literature and film but rarely taken seriously in the postmodern world. It is true, globalization and the advent of the information age has revealed a complicated world that is often difficult to categorize and define. Nevertheless, the Islamic State proves one thing to be true, and that is that evil truly does exist, and the free world must come together to cast it out. With that being said, how do you combat such evil, such “reckless hate?”
Strike at the source.
Tolkien would agree, as the ultimate quest in his fantasy trilogy is not defeating Sauron militarily, but the destruction of the One Ring, which is the true source of evil in Tolkien’s universe.
In the prologue of the film adaptation of “The Fellowship of the Ring,” it is revealed that Sauron “poured malice, hate, and the will to dominate all life” into the One Ring. As a result, Sauron uses it to spread his influence and grow his power. Similarly, defeating the Islamic State on the battlefield is only addressing the symptoms of a larger problem, the source of their evil. It is a source that empowers and perpetuates the Islamic State. It is the ideology of extreme Jihad.
There have been countless discussions over the reasons behind extreme Jihad. The common argument is that circumstances drive individuals towards extremism. Nevertheless, a new study from the Queen Mary University of London concluded that “there is not a strong correlation between terrorism and poverty, lack of education, or mental instability.” Even more telling is that “terrorists are more likely to be highly educated and financially secure.” This would at least help explain the hundreds of Islamic State recruits coming from wealthy, western countries and the financial backing that the Islamic State enjoys from wealthy investors in the Arab Gulf.
The ideology of extreme Jihad is what the free world must ultimately destroy. If poverty, lack of education, or mental illnesses were the true sources of extreme Jihad, then it would make sense to focus efforts there. Nevertheless, if the “mounting evidence” suggests it is the pull of the ideology itself that drives members to extreme violence, then the strategy to confront this evil must be two-fold: decimate the Islamic State militarily and destroy their ideology.
There are no clear answers on how to destroy this poisonous conception of Jihad, but a concerted effort to do so must take place before it is too late. The luxury that the characters have in Tolkien’s universe is that the source of evil is contained to an item—the One Ring. Frodo’s race against time and his journey across Middle Earth to destroy the One Ring at its place of origin was a daunting task in itself, but at least the means to an end were known.
Oftentimes, policy makers are fixated by short-term solutions for long-term issues. It is an unfortunate side-effect of democracy, as it is oftentimes convenient to choose what makes the most sense politically rather than strategically. When our policy makers settle on the best short-term solution, more times than not they end up treating the symptoms of an issue rather than its root cause. Military action against the Islamic State represents a necessary alleviation of the symptoms of extreme Jihad, but it does not offer the long term remedy necessary for defeating the Islamic State and extremists who share its radical belief in violent Jihad.
Evil cannot be bargained with, it cannot be defeated haphazardly, it cannot be appeased, and it is singular in its devotion to its absolutist goals of dominion. The Islamic State and the fictional character Sauron share the fact that they are both evil, but not sources of evil in themselves. Rather, Sauron’s power lies in the One Ring, and the Islamic State’s lies in its twisted brand of Jihad.