The Pepsi Challenge in Syria
Two Sundays ago, The New York Times Magazine ran a cover story on and by Theo Padnos, an American who was captured in 2012 by Nusra Front, a Syrian al Qaeda organization, tortured for months and months, and eventually let go this fall. He's writing a book about the experience. There are interesting sections throughout the piece, and I recommend reading it all, because we rarely get such firsthand accounts from the War on Terror. But the section below stuck out for me in trying to parse the difference between the various groups in Syria, and for the humanity on display:
I was curious about the futures of the five people now responsible for looking after me. What if they retired from military life, I asked, went home and promised to obey the Islamic State in the future? Would the group still wish to kill them?
“Of course,” they said.
“Really?” I asked. “But why?”
“Because we are Jebhat al Nusra,” they replied.
I knew the answer to the next question but asked it anyway. “Your practice of Islam is exactly the same as ISIS — you admire the same scholars and interpret the Quran just as they do?”
“Yes,” they agreed. “All of this is true.”
“And it’s true,” I said, “that when you joined Al Qaeda, in the early goings of the revolution, ISIS did not exist?”
“Yes, this is so,” the fighters agreed.
“And now they’re hoping to kill you?” I asked.
They shrugged their shoulders. “Yes.”
“But the situation is absurd,” I said. “You’re like a guy on the street drinking a bottle of Pepsi. Along comes the Seven-Up salesman. ‘Wicked man!’ says the Seven-Up salesman. ‘How dare you drink Pepsi? You must die.’ Under the circumstances, it ought to be O.K. for you to reply: ‘I’m quite sorry, sir. But when I went into the store, there was only one brand of soft drink available. Pepsi. That’s what I bought. Where’s the problem?’ ” The foot soldiers, all in their 20s and early 30s, were regular cola drinkers and were happy I had put the matter in everyday commercial terms. Everyone laughed.
The real issue between the Nusra Front and the Islamic State was that their commanders, former friends from Iraq, were unable to agree on how to share the revenue from the oil fields in eastern Syria that the Nusra Front had conquered.
What lessons do we get reading this piece? Some of them: 1) People will find any way to justify any behavior; 2) We don't know how good we have it in the U.S.; and 3) Even when they say it's about religion, listen to Deep Throat and follow the money.