In Remembrance: Why one atheist joined the fight against ISIS

Wednesday is Remembrance Day, a day to remember those who've lost their lives in military combat. While views on war and armed conflict vary widely within the Humanist community, it's a fact that many Humanists and atheists have served in the military and some have lost their lives. One Canadian soldier and atheist who died in combat was John Gallagher, who was shot and killed last week by an ISIS gunman in Syria.

The National Post shared one of Gallagher's Facebook posts, reproduced below, on why he volunteered to fight with Kurdish forces against ISIS. While I don't personally agree with everything Gallagher says, I think it's important to highlight to both refute (once more) the lie that there are no atheists in foxholes and to remember the sacrifice of people like Gallagher and others who have served.

Finally, I'd also recommend David Brittain's 2012 Guardian article on why Humanists should be included in Remembrance Day ceremonies in the UK.

Lest we forget

-Ian Bushfield, Executive Director, BC Humanists

Why the War in Kurdistan Matters

John Gallagher, originally posted to Facebook

First, let me get the obvious out of the way: I do not expect anyone to agree that it is a wise course of action to volunteer to fight against ISIS. Would-be terrorists from all over the world, including Canada, (including some I probably went to school with,) are flooding into the Middle East by the thousands. They’ve got the numbers and the weapons to win this war, so to go stand on the other side of the battlefield is objectively insane.

I also respect the viewpoint that the last thing any westerners ought to do is get involved in another Middle Eastern conflict. We’ve already done tremendous damage to the region; the rise of ISIS is a direct result of foreign policy blunders by the last two Presidents (at least!). If you think that for the good of the region we should all sit this one out, I can understand that. But I can’t agree.

The cause of a free and independent Kurdistan is important enough to be worth fighting for all on its own. The Kurdish people are the largest ethnicity in the world without a country of their own, and have suffered enormously under the boot-heel of regional powers. Now they are under threat from another genocidal foe, yet they have not given themselves over to the joint manias of religious fanaticism and suicide murder. This should be enough reason for the West to give them whatever support they need in such a time of crisis. But there is an even better reason.

For decades now, we have been at war. This war has been unacknowledged by our leaders, but enthusiastically proclaimed by our enemies. This war has produced casualties on every continent, in nearly every nation on earth. It has had periods of intense fighting, followed by long stretches of rearming and regrouping, but it has never ended. It is not even close to being won. Someday historians will look back and marvel at how much effort we put into deceiving ourselves about the nature of this conflict, and wonder how we convinced ourselves that it was not even taking place. This war may have started in 1979, or earlier; 2001 increased the intensity of the conflict; the withdrawal from Iraq kicked off the latest phase. Like the American Civil War, World War II, and the Cold War, this war is about ideas as much as it is about armies. Slavery, fascism, and communism were all bad ideas which required costly sacrifice before they were finally destroyed. In our time, we have a new bad idea: Theocracy.

We live in a society that’s grown around a very basic philosophical principle: That the world around us can be understood using our senses and our minds. From this simple insight comes the moral revelation that all human beings are equal in this capacity, and therefore equal in dignity. This radical idea was the turning point in human history, before which all civilizations had been dominated by the idea that class hierarchies and racism were perfectly justified according to the revealed wisdom of ancient texts, and sanctified by holy men with a special relationship to some ‘divine’ power. We began to see justice as something which could be measured by its effects on living people, not as superstition.

This idea has been under threat ever since its inception, because it’s the most powerful force for human emancipation that has ever been, and so it is a deadly threat to the privileged. It is also a threat to those who fear a world where human beings must be the judges of our own actions. Some prefer to subordinate their own morality to a doctrine they know they can never fully understand; this is more agreeable than facing the thought that we are alone in this world. This terror at our own freedom, and hatred for the mind that makes its realization inescapable, has given birth to movements that promise to give us back our comforting delusions. Communism and fascism were both answers to the problem of human freedom. These ideas were defeated. But always in the background the germ of these ideas was aggressively breeding. Theocracy isn’t just as dangerous as fascism; it’s the model of fascism, and all totalitarianisms. Communism said ‘instead of god, the Party.’ Fascism said, ‘instead of god, the Nation!’ Theocracy simply says ‘God.’

There is nothing uniquely Islamic about this trend, except that it just so happens that the most violent proponents of theocracy today happen to be Muslim. In the 1500’s, it was the Christians. By hard fighting and a brave defense of our principles, the forces of secularism managed to wrestle control of European society away from the theocrats, and we have been fighting the regressive movements that have tried to take their place ever since. The Muslim world has been dominated by theocratic politics for decades now, and that war has overflowed to engulf the rest of the world.

We are all on the front lines of this conflict, whether we know it or not. We can measure the causalities not only in the body counts of deadly terror attacks, ‘mass demonstrations,’ embassy assaults and assassinated artists; we can also measure it in the terror produced among cartoonists, satirists, publishers and booksellers, news media and educators who are being prevented from doing their necessary work of maintaining the machinery of the enlightenment. Not only have we all been threatened; in many ways we are all already casualties of this war.

The stance of pacifists and the appeasement left on this issue is not tolerance, but ironically, what it claims to oppose: fearmongering, and even ‘Islamophobia,’ since it betrays their utter terror of offending the sensibilities of immigrant communities and the so-called ‘community leaders’ who are presumed to give them their marching orders. Their pre-emptive apologism for barbarity betrays a deep contempt for the character of immigrant Muslims, since it presumes that they enjoy their mental oppression and prefer the moral stagnation of sharia law and the hadith to the pleasures of an open, cosmopolitan, secular society.

I have met plenty of self-described Muslims who have never even read the Qur’an, don’t care what it has to say about the role of women or the punishment for blasphemy, who don’t know or care how Muhammad treated prisoners of war, or how he dealt with dissenting poets in Mecca. That’s fine. I personally wish they would learn a bit about those last points and take more responsibility for the company they keep, but the point is that they are not an active part of the problem. Yet elements of our government are perfectly willing to accept that thuggishness is something we must automatically and un-judgmentally expect from Muslims, that it is US who must accommodate ourselves to THEM. What we need here is more historical education, not cultural sensitivity.

The war that is ongoing in the Middle East is a war against theocracy. In many ways it is a civil war, and I believe more depends on its outcome than anyone in power is prepared to face. But it is also a distant front in a civil war within Western society, since we are sending troops to fight on both sides. And here the stakes may be even greater. Our war is not just about theocracy; it is between those who still believe in the enlightenment, that self-determination is the most basic and most crucial of all human rights, that the first duty of every man in society is to defend the mechanisms by which we make ourselves free; and those who ultimately lack the capacity to believe in anything. These people have been corrupted by the masochistic fables circulated by leftists and identity politicians that tell us Western society is inherently racist, inherently sexist, and inherently imperialist, when it is Western society which pioneered the ideas that racism, sexism, and imperialism might be a problem in the first place.

Because of our beliefs, we live in the most racially inclusive, sexually liberated, and anti-imperialist society which has ever existed in human history, and to teach young people anything different is a criminal act of intellectual violence. And the crisis we face today is the direct result of this ‘progressive’ thinking: we are now under threat by those who take advantage of the masochism and apathy fostered by the left to recruit people who will take a violently affirmative ideology over nihilistic pessimism, even or especially if that means committing atrocities that would make the average ‘imperialist’ vomit. Those who contribute to this environment of moral decay and vulnerability are the useful idiots of jihad and fellow travelers of theocracy, and it is the duty of thinking persons to oppose their influence by every means at our disposal.

I was raised in a fundamentalist religious environment. If today I have any intellectual or spiritual existence worth fighting for, it is because it was impossible for the religious forces in my life to have their way and shield me from the assaults of reason and conscience. They could teach me that evolution was a lie, but they couldn’t prevent me from reading about it or prohibit the public schools from teaching it. They could tell me blasphemy was a sin, but they couldn’t prevent me from sneaking Monty Python and South Park. The mechanisms of society, in other words, gave me the tools by which I could make myself free. They saved my life. Who safeguards the social machinery now? Only an overbred political elite and intelligentsia who burble about the urgent need to never give offense. This is not only a disgraceful failure; it is a national emergency.

Like theocracy today, fascism used to be an international movement, with fascist parties in every western country. Then World War II happened. Nazi Germany became the standard-bearer of fascism, and when it was crushed, the movement wasn’t just destroyed, it was discredited for all time. Ironically, the rise of ISIS gives us the same chance now. We have the ability to eradicate jihadism in our lifetime. The terrorists’ own playbook sees the taking and holding of territory as a necessary step to discredit Western democracy and prove that the Caliphate is a real political possibility in the 21st century. We have to prove that it is not. And like we did with Nazi Germany, we must crush it with overwhelming, unrelenting force. We have to take it while the mass graves are still fresh, while there are still survivors to give testimony to the atrocities they’ve witnessed, while the murderers are still around to be put on trial. Only by destroying ISIS without mercy can we discredit the idea, and force the would-be jihadis and fellow-travelers to give up their insane dreams of a new Mecca and join the modern world.

I’m prepared to give my life in the cause of averting the disaster we are stumbling towards as a civilization. A free Kurdistan would be good enough cause for any internationalist, but we are fortunate enough to be able to risk our necks for something more important and more righteous than anything we’ve faced in generations. With some fortitude and guts, we can purge the sickness that’s poisoning our society, and come together to defeat this ultimate evil. I’ve been fighting this battle in one way or another for my entire life. I hope for success. The rest is in the hands of the gods.

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  • commented 2015-11-09 14:28:02 -0800
    A brilliant article – except for the last sentence which can be chalked up as metaphorical. Thanks for posting this, Ian.

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