By Saba Sadri

As the severity and extent of the attacks in Paris became increasingly clear this past Friday night with each successive news report claiming a higher and higher body count, the possible consequences and repercussions of these terrorist acts also became increasingly clear. It was not long before reactionary rhetoric from politicians, pundits, journalists, and others on both sides of the Atlantic began to disseminate, calling for war and a halt to the flow of refugees, specifically from Syria.

On Monday, French President Francois Hollande declared that France was in a state of war, pledging a “ruthless” response to destroy ISIS. Hollande’s discourse was stern and aggressive, yet still controlled and collected – those to his right have not refused to exploit the tangible climate of fear. Marine Le Pen, the leader of France’s far right Front National, was quick to call for an immediate stop to the admittance of refugees into France as well as a crackdown on Muslim organizations and mosques that are believed to be radical.

In the United States, several states announced their decision to refuse to accept refugees, several Republican Presidential candidates then followed suit, and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan finally called for a vote on the matter. Candidates Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz, perhaps believing to have found a reasonable compromise, asserted that Christian refugees should be admitted, with Cruz going so far as to propose possible legislation banning Muslim refugees. Marco Rubio, an increasingly favored Republican candidate, upped the ante, claiming, “This is a clash of civilizations and either they win or we win.” In this heated environment, reprisal attacks began taking place on refugees and Muslims throughout Europe, the United States, and Canada in the form of violent assaults, fire-bombings of mosques, and death threats.

This article is in no way a call for inaction; ISIS must indeed be dealt with decisively by first establishing peace in Syria and then securing both Syria and Iraq through an international coalition with highly visible participation from other Arab states. However, in the meantime, the Western World needs to take a step back and realize that the religious and racial fault-lines these terrorist attacks are inflaming play directly into the hands of Muslim extremists. ISIS, and Al Qaeda before it, runs on the notion that the Muslim world is locked in an ongoing war with the Christian world. The most religiously fanatic among them believe that this war is the pre-requisite for an apocalyptic showdown between devout Muslims and infidels at the Syrian town of Dabiq, a belief whose pervasiveness is seen through ISIS’ monthly online propaganda publication, namely its magazine also named Dabiq. While this is a useful recruiting tool for true believers and fanatical Muslims, ISIS, in fact, does not draw most of its support from these fanatics.

Rather, ISIS is the result of an alignment of interests between various parties. Yes, the first among these are the extreme remnants of Al Qaeda in Iraq, which the United States defeated in 2007 through the Surge, in combination with the empowerment of Iraq’s disaffected Sunni population who had previously sympathized with Al Qaeda. The so-called Sunni Awakening resulted in Iraq’s Sunni minority gaining a stake in the future of Iraq as well as more power and representation in the government. As a result, Al Qaeda’s extremism lost its appeal. However, sectarian policies and increasing disenfranchisement of the Sunni minority by the Shiite-led government of Nouri-al Maliki reversed this progress and pushed Iraq’s Sunnis back into the arms of the extremists. Except now, ISIS had replaced Al Qaeda. It is from these politically disaffected Sunnis that ISIS draws most of its manpower.

While the Sunni tribes provide the manpower, the former Ba’ath Party members of Saddam Hussein’s regime provide the expertise and experience necessary for ISIS to conquer and control its territory. Saddam’s secular Ba’ath Party was the only political party in Iraq prior to the U.S. invasion and was composed of experienced military officers, bureaucrats, doctors, and government officials. The United States barred the top four tiers of Ba’ath Party members from participating in the new government while also disbanding Saddam’s military, consequently leaving tens of thousands of skilled professionals and soldiers out of work. Many of them are now in the jihadist camp simply because ISIS offered an opportunity for them to reassert control of their country.

The main reason behind ISIS’ growth is therefore not its extreme ideology but its ability to recruit from disaffected and alienated sections of the population. While ISIS continues to attract the most radical fringes of Islam, its ultimate ambition of establishing an intercontinental caliphate will require much more manpower than its estimated 30,000 fighters. To recruit more fighters and sympathizers, ISIS needs to tap into the same sense of dissatisfaction, anger, and alienation that brought the Sunni tribes and former Ba’athists to its cause in Iraq, but on a global scale. It is for this reason that ISIS wants Western states to respond with reactionary policies such as banning Muslim refugees or declaring “a clash of civilizations” as Senator Rubio has done. The more reactionary, aggressive, and seemingly Islamophobic the West becomes, the more likely it is that ISIS can convince less radical Muslims that a global war between Christianity and Islam is truly taking place.

The idea may seem crazy, even impossible, but plenty of similar, albeit less intense, examples exist. Just a few weeks ago, many Americans were up in arms about Starbucks changing its classic seasonal Christmas-themed coffee cups to plain red, declaring it a “War on Christmas” with Donald Trump playing on populist sentiments and calling for a boycott of the company. If so many people living relatively safe, comfortable, and peaceful lives in the richest country in the world interpreted an act as harmless as changing the theme of a coffee cup as a “war” on their religion and culture, imagine the thoughts of the orphaned teenage Syrian refugee fleeing a war-torn country when he or she is stopped from entering the United States for fear of being a terrorist. Is it really too far off to think that this young Muslim could be led to believe by a manipulative group such as ISIS that there is, in fact, a war going on between Islam and Christianity?