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The “unreal” can still help to hurt: Literature must inform ISIS policy

President Obama recently said the necessity of dealing with the Sunni militant group, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), forces us to look into the “heart of darkness.” Obama being the intellectual that he is, it makes sense that he’d cite a classic work of literature. However, it does not make sense that he’d cite Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” as the plot of the book and interpretations of it don’t quite fall into alignment with what Obama presumably meant by the reference: that the militant group is representative of the worst part of the essence of humanity.

Despite that the metaphor doesn’t fit quite as well as Obama’s speechwriters thought it would, the use of a literary reference reminds us of a glaring absence in the body of information we as a country use to make decisions and move forward. When considering courses of action, we look to historical events, like how interactions with a particular demographic motivated action in the past. We look to precedents set by policy, how the decisions made in the past and policies enacted contribute to the situation at present. We look to the projections of experts: those on the region in question (e.g. the Middle East) and those on the particular type of conflict in question (e.g. terrorist groups).

There is one thing missing, though. One thing we don’t leverage to our advantage nearly enough (at all, really): literature.

It may seem obvious that politicians and policy makers tend not to use fiction and imaginative works as a basis for policy formation. The events taking place in books and short stories are constructed; they fit into a narrative structure and have the cushion of being limited to a particular amount of space, so impacts of actions within the story can be measured relatively purely.

Perhaps put more crudely, fiction is made up. It’s not real. It makes little sense to base decisions with the potential to significantly impact the real lives of people on a story that’s come out of the mind of a person.

While the literal events of a narrative may not be true, literature still does a lot to teach us about life and empathizing with our fellow humans, which can make an especially large impact when bridging gaps between people who may never actually interact due to geographic and economic barriers. Literature teaches us about humanity: that we all share something, some of the same essential materials, even if we look nothing alike and share no cultural understanding. Particularly provocative (and often controversial) works can provide access to insight into minds which might seem utterly incomprehensible. For example, part of the reason that people have found a work like Nabokov’s “Lolita” so disconcerting is that Nabokov was able to humanize a misogynistic pedophile, someone we might otherwise not understand.

It would be smart to look to literature, leveraging its ability to allow us to empathize with dissimilar emotional states to our own. If we better understand what we might consider to be warped psychologies or twisted thought processes, we will be better able to address conflict involving such entities. As we can learn from Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War,” it is only by beginning to understand the enemy, as uncomfortable as that might be, that we can effectively deconstruct them.

In the case of ISIS, many different international entities are deeming it necessary to stop the organization as quickly as possible. If this is an honest urgency, it’s time to pull out all the stops. We cannot fight effectively if we cannot even begin to understand and empathize with ISIS’ perspective. Literature can help us do this. While there may not be one particular book to capture the situation as it stands, a reading list to begin a literary exploration of an extremist mindset ought to include anthologies “Beirut 39” and “Tablet and Pen,” Lorraine Adams’s “Harbor,” John Updike’s “Terrorist,” Pearl Abraham’s “The American Taliban,” Robert Byron’s “The Road to Oxiana,” and Salman Rushdie’s “The Satanic Verses.”

This is not to say we ought to disband looking toward policy precedents and historical events, but that adding the lens of literature’s lessons to that which impacts policy would greatly improve the prognosis of our efforts against those we cannot currently understand. Once we get a better idea of their reasoning capacities, we’ll also have a better idea of their most vulnerable spots and will be able to hit them where it hurts most.

Contact Mina Shah at minashah ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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