The fading appeal of the West

Opinion by Terence Zhao
Jan. 21, 2016, 11:59 p.m.

George W. Bush once said that “[the terrorists] hate our way of life,” for which he received a fair amount of criticism — the remarks were seen as exaggerated, oversimplified and so on.

Yet, there is also a kernel of truth in that statement, which is that terrorist groups — ISIS especially — are indeed offering an ideological alternative to the sociopolitical norms and values of the West. These are norms and values we as Westerners have grown rather accustomed to: secularism, democracy, equality, freedom of expression, humane conduct in war and so on, which is why we, with our Western sensibilities, find it so jarringly revolting when ISIS demonstrates its utter disregard for all of these things.

But that is precisely the point of ISIS — to run in opposition to our Western sensibilities. Now, obviously, I think it would be hard to disagree with the statement that a system such as what we have here in the West, where executions are not performed en masse, without trial and via televised beheadings, is objectively better than the brutal terror of ISIS. However, I also feel that to then tout the superiority of the Western system wholesale without also considering its flaws is quite dangerous, because it is those very flaws that made our system vulnerable to instability and insurgency in the first place.

People like Jihadi John — a British citizen who voluntarily defected to Syria to join ISIS — and other Westerners who undertake similar endeavors get a huge amount of attention because they disrupt our existing mindsets. Because we see the West as a clearly superior place to live than under ISIS’ regime of terror, we cannot comprehend why anyone would do such a thing. And of course we cannot, precisely because we see the West as superior, because our lives in the West are more comfortable than what they would be like under ISIS. That’s not who ISIS appeals to.

ISIS appeals to the marginalized. It preys on those who are most disaffected with the consensus of the West, those who feel abandoned, ignored or even downright despised by the West. These are the family members of those killed as “collateral damage” in a drone strike, the teenagers  from Paris’ ghettoized banlieues who radicalized to escape poverty, unemployment and rampant Islamophobia and social exclusion. These are the people the West left behind — the people for whom the ideas of the West have not delivered — and that is why the alternative ISIS offers, horrific as it might be, can appear appealing.

And this is where the refugee crisis comes in. Of course, it is first and foremost a humanitarian issue, but the West’s continued failure to provide any kind of realistic solution has an even more ominous geopolitical consequence. The Syrian refugee crisis is a test of not only the West’s humanitarian principles but also the very validity of the world order it maintains. And right now, the liberal idealism that the West claims to live by (best embodied by the sanctified mission statements of the U.N.) are falling pitifully short in practice. And by failing to show compassion to Syrians at the height of their desolation and hopelessness and by subjecting those refugees that do reach the West to discrimination and Islamophobic acts, the West is doing nothing less than strengthening ISIS by validating and legitimizing its rhetoric, propaganda and hateful worldview, while discounting its own legitimacy and prestige.

The West wasn’t able to pave a path towards peace, stability or democracy in the Middle East. The West also wasn’t able to broker a settlement and prevent the Syrian crisis from escalating to ever more brutal proportions. Arguably, though, to accomplish those goals still requires delicate statecraft and diplomacy — a relatively difficult process for which failure could be excusable. But to claim that with all its opulent wealth and humanitarian tradition, its immense power and global reach, the West can’t even supply the most rudimentary of things to dying refugees — food, shelter, human decency — then is it any wonder that growing sections of the world are becoming disillusioned with the system that nevertheless insists to be superior?


Contact Terence Zhao at zhaoy ‘at’ 

Terence Zhao '19 originally hails from Beijing, China, before immigrating to the US and settling in Arcadia, CA, a suburb of Los Angeles. He is majoring in Urban Studies, and promotes the major with cult-like zeal. In his spare time, he likes to explore cities and make pointless maps.

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