The leaders of ISIS want you to hate them. They want you to despise Syria and Iraq. They want you to fear Islam. They want you to shun refugees. Instead of giving them the gift of hatred, we must focus on the roots of the problem.

Will Plowright, PhD Candidate in Political Science, UBC

As the fallout from the Brussels attack subsides, publics in Western countries find themselves grappling with one question: who are the people in Syria and Iraq who support ISIS, and why do they commit attacks against innocents around the world?

The standard media response to this question is that we’re dealing with psychopathic monsters, rather than human beings with their own personal histories and reasons for engaging in violence.

In a career of interviewing members of armed groups in many countries – including ISIS in Syria – I have seen that these are neither psychos nor monsters, but instead, are normal people in frighteningly extraordinary situations. And this is much scarier than a world filled with monsters.

If we don’t want to see more attacks like in Brussels or Paris, we should drop the simplistic language of "evil", and work on putting an end to such conditions that feed extremism. Because it may be this dehumanizing language that leads us to turn a blind eye to the roots of the problem, and in turn making further attacks more likely.

"Wouldn’t you join them?"

In 2013, I travelled to Aleppo, a city in northern Syria over which a brutal battle has raged since 2012. I interviewed fighters and commanders from many of the Syrian opposition groups, including al-Nusra, the Free Syrian Army, and ISIS.

I met one man who I’ll call Abu Aziz, who was only 21 years old. He was friendly, and had a broad smile. He had joined ISIS because most of his family – including all of his six brothers – had been killed in an air attack by the Syrian government while sitting in their home. On the few times I saw him, he shook my hand enthusiastically, asking me questions about my home and family, and insisting on giving me small presents. This was two years ago; odds are he has been killed since then.

Another man, Ahmad, in his thirties, joined with ISIS because the government had destroyed his family’s grocery business and killed his wife in an aerial attack. Many of those fighting asserted that they were defending their own community when no one else will. They asked me, "If your city was being destroyed, and only one group was coming to help you, wouldn’t you join them?" Though I do not support the cause for which they were fighting, there was no doubt that these people had suffered. As a human being, I sympathized with that pain.

And then there are those foreigners who move to Syria or Iraq to join ISIS. The ones I spoke to said they were fighting because no one else was helping the Syrian people. They pointed to the chemical weapons, the barrel bombs raining down on the hospitals and schools, as well as the constant barrage of mortar and artillery fire. They drew my attention to the hundreds of thousands of dead, and the millions of refugees and displaced. And they asked: why is no one trying to help them? In Syria, we see chaos; they saw a group of people that no one was protecting.

No gift of hatred

As Helene Muyal was murdered at the Bataclan concert hall in Paris last November, her husband Antoine Leiris wrote a heartbreaking Facebook message as a response to ISIS. He said, "I won't give you the gift of my hatred. It's what you sought, but answering hate with anger would be to surrender to the same ignorance that has made you what you are".

Mr. Leiris is right. Don’t give ISIS the gift of your hatred, because that is exactly why armed groups kill innocent civilians. Although it may seem counterintuitive, they commit attacks like those in Brussels to foster hatred of Muslims; to make us treat them like monsters, and in the process, rally more troops to their cause.

Those who engage in such terrorists attacks are not monsters; they are normal people, caught in horrible situations. What the leaders of ISIS do is to capitalise on the plight by taking advantage of such people. Their purpose is to create an image in which people in the West fear and hate Syria, Iraq, and Islam in general.

Why do they want those things? Because if we believe the world is filled with monsters, then we will respond by lashing out at them. This, in turn, will confirm ISIS’ argument that the West constantly attacks Muslims.

This vicious cycle has to stop. If we become what they want us to become, then we fulfill their vision of the world, and in the process, make it easier for them to find more suffering people to commit their terrorist acts. If we simply adopt the language of “monsters”, do nothing to alleviate conflict and suffering in the region, and turn away tens of thousands of refugees, we will create far more terrorists than if we help the desperate and needy.

Why? Because if we become the kind of people who refuse to help the neediest in the world out of fear of monsters, then we have become exactly the kind of people that ISIS accuses us of being.

Feature Image Credit (edited): Mstyslav Chernov (CC BY-SA 4.0).