Our identities, whether assumed or imposed, make it particularly difficult for us to be rational in times of conflict. A uni-dimensional view of our identity (based on religion or colour of our passport) keeps things simple; it also facilitates anger, division and condemnation of offences against human dignity.
Classic example: the tragedy in Jhelum which I wrote about last week. Or the growing number of hate speech/hateful conduct related offences against Muslims or other religious minorities in different parts of the world, including the United States.
Terrorism’s greatest victory in any society, short of defeating state machinery, is that it instils fear, division, doubt and prejudice where they were absent before. This isn’t meant to say that all humans are angels. But without the distorted message of terrorism, the prejudiced in a society have little to offer in support of their bigoted case for hatred against particular communities. Terrorism fills the public space filled with reason with fear. The fear of it then, within days of a major attack, makes nations question values they have claimed to believe in for decades or centuries.
Furthering a deep mistrust of our fellow human beings is terrorism’s greatest victory. It changes a country’s, and indeed the world’s, social fabric. Our identities become reduced to religion or nationalities — and while they are important to many they need not enslave us. But terrorism enslaves us and digs a vicious “us” versus “them” trap. We appropriate certain values as “ours” by insulting the belief that freedom is a fundamentally human value, not a cultural one. We ignore that cultures that deny freedom are based on injustices of power and oppression. Instead of sympathising with the mass of people who are oppressed by elites in societies vying for more freedom, we see entire populations as dangerous or antithetical to peace.
Ironically enough, this is how terrorists see countries, religions and cultures too: through a monolithic lens where everyone is to be held responsible for the actions terrorists feel aggrieved of. They expect all of us to be answerable and we are all declared guilty by participation in a system or association with it. Islamic terrorists have killed hundreds of thousands of Muslims — because we are deemed guilty. Terrorists belonging to the Christian faith who bomb abortion clinics or murder medical practitioners hold a similar world-view.
Professor Jessica Stern of Harvard University has written brilliantly on the subject of how terrorist movements have used all major world religions as a purported justification for violence — hence the problem is not cultural or geographic but related to issues of power and use of violence as a tool to attain power.
Our common humanity and nuance is terrorism’s greatest victim. We must not forget this. And we must resist attempts that essentialise entire cultures or religions. This isn’t about being a fan of religiosity or cultural diversity; being a human, and an intelligent one at that, demands this. Tempting as this bracketing of people might be, we should all remind ourselves how stereotypes hurt us and those around us everyday: be it gender, religion, sexual orientation, class, ethnicity, nationality, disability etc.
Every citizen identifying at some level with the developed world cannot and must not be expected to plead “not guilty” to the crimes of power. The same goes for Muslims living in Europe, USA and elsewhere. Narratives of exclusion, whether furthered by Donald Trump or an Islamist party, must be called out as creating rather than solving problems. Muslim citizens of the developed world must remain faithful to the social contract but there is no use saying this since the same reasoning applies to everyone.
History teaches us that branding entire groups or communities as suspect and placing a higher burden on them to constantly prove their fidelity to the system causes immense injustice: every marginalised group or unpopular minority (from women to communists to gays to Ahmadis, Shias) has been hurt this way. Why do we feel it will be any different now?
Furthermore, hate crimes whether against Muslims, Christians or Ahmadis or particular nationalities cannot be explained away by saying, “well this is natural after a violent attack.” This, again, is the language of terrorists. They justify attacking our cities, malls, clubs and football stadiums by citing violence as a natural reaction to violence or wars they feel aggrieved of. There is nothing to defend or explain if an American citizen is attacked in Pakistan or a Muslim man attacked in United States: we cannot buy into the “this was expected” reasoning. Not now, not ever. We must move the narrative away from violence and division. Our aim should be to emphasise the only thing we are born and buried with: our common humanity.
This will not be easy for anyone in the world to remember and practice. Division, anger and hate are easy to sell when we are confused, fearful of violence. Anchoring our rage in a monolithic view of others is and will always be tempting. Painting others as corrupting our territories, politics and economies will bring our politicians power and will give us the security of belonging through a sense of victimhood.
The elites who wield power in our countries (politicians, military etc.) and non-state actors trying to snatch that power will both benefit from narratives of division. We, the citizens of the world, must resist this narrative of division and the pits of hatred being dug for us. When we fail to see individuals as individuals we lose something. Blanket terms describing ‘them” and “others” must be resisted. Violence in language becomes violence in thought.
This process of constantly re-examining our worldview is as difficult as it is fascinating. Asking ourselves, “how prejudiced am I?” is difficult but necessary. After all we are the only ones who can best answer that question for ourselves. And the world won’t change till we change ourselves. And in life it is worth taking a shot at changing the world — or, at the very least, changing ourselves.