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Don't Panic: ISIS, Terror and Today's Middle East

It’s miserable outside. The remnants of hurricane Patricia have thoroughly drenched Ottawa. Everything feels damp, especially the Centretown United Church. As I walk down the red-carpeted aisle looking for a seat I realize how full it is. Most of the 12 rows of wooden pews are occupied and I have to ask a group of people to move so I can squeeze past. I put down my coffee and umbrella, and settle myself into the uncomfortable wooden seat. I’m here to listen to Gwynne Dyer discuss his book Don’t Panic: ISIS, Terror and Today’s Middle East with host, Adrian Harewood from the CBC.


Harewood’s introduction includes a lengthy, laundry list of Dyer’s credentials; Ph.D. in Middle Eastern history, a member of the order of Canada, the list goes on. If the full house wasn’t enough of a clue, such an introduction shows that this man knows what he is talking about and people want to hear him.


Dyer and Harewood take a seat at the front of the church; behind them are stained glass pictures of crosses and large organ pipes that reach up to the ceiling. The discussion begins with the title of the book: don’t panic. Harewood questions whether it is truly reasonable for there to be no concern regarding ISIS, but Dyer is happy to clarify: “Well if we were in Lebanon, or Jordan, or Syria, yes panic,” extending his arms out and addressing the audience, “I mean you don’t panic!” He points out the 8,000 kilometres that separate Canada and Syria is a more than comforting barrier.


The conversation, guided by Harewood, discusses the history of ISIS, the geopolitical landscape of the Middle East, and how the West fits into everything. How a record of discontent between the treatment of Shias and Sunnis, and Western influence in the Middle East helped create the monster we know today as ISIS. It’s eye opening to see how ill prepared the West was. Entering Iraq with thousands of soldiers, but a handful of people who could speak Arabic. Rounding up everyone who looked suspicious, which according to Dyer was everyone male and under 60. This tactic gave many extremists the opportunity to network and recruit.


Dyer also discusses his support of Justin Trudeau’s stance to pull out of Syria. That the risk of ISIS capturing a Canadian fighter and publicizing some horrific torture over the Internet would not outweigh the minimal impact we’re currently making.


With the closing of Dyer’s remarks, Harewood opens up the floor to questions. Arms shoot into the air, many people eager to ask Dyer his thoughts. It’s remarkable to see the wide variety of topics people are interested in and how they are tied into Middle Eastern issues. The first to receive the microphone is a man seated in the first row. He quickly states he is more panicked now than he was before the talk, to which Dyer jovially tells him to relax. The next girl is a young lady who’s more interested in sharing how the Iraq war impacted her rather than asking a question. Another gentleman points how climate change in the Gulf has furthered tensions by moving people into urban centers and increasing unemployment. Others are concerned with the refugee crisis. The variety of questions demonstrated the complexity of the issue.


Stepping out into the puddle spotted sidewalk, I couldn’t help sharing the sentiment of the man in the front row. There was no resolution, no easy answer. I left with lots of questions and thoughts bubbling in my mind. I also left with a copy of Don’t Panic, I’m not entirely convinced the contents will be as persuasive as the title, but I’m looking forward to finding out.