I am angry. Angry and sad. Those horrible murders in Orlando. The terrible violence in Syria. How I hate intolerance. Everything about it riles me. The primitive audacity to write someone off because of his sexuality, religion, ethnicity or gender. It is infuriating and tragic.
The violence itself is utterly disgusting. But the climate in which this takes place and is received adds to the anguish. Some responses to these horrors promise to repeat and escalate the events, as we anxiously await the next incomprehensible bloodbath to rock our worlds.
The ‘us’ versus ‘them’ rhetoric is damaging and more importantly, it just doesn’t hold up.
Most Muslims condemn yesterday’s attacks. Of course they do! But why do we expect ‘them’ to apologise just because some lunatic pledges allegiance to ISIS, a similarly lunatic fringe organization which enjoys very little support among Muslims in the Middle-East, in spite of its insistence to speak on their behalf?
Every time extremists strike, who happen to wrap themselves in the cloak of Islam, there is a backlash against the Muslim religion, which comprises of over a billion people. A ‘war of civilizations’ is evoked. ‘Western values’ are under threat from people who want ‘us’ to return to the Stone Age. Was the shooter in Orlando attacking ‘our way of life’ or ‘our’ civilization?
The Dutch Prime Minister Rutte stated in his response to the Charlie Hebdo murders in Paris that “Westerners will not have their freedom taken away from them.” We are presented with an almost apocalyptic image of a ruthless enemy, randomly threatening ‘us’ and ‘our’ values. Their blind hatred of us manifests itself in barbaric acts of beheadings and cold-blooded executions in broad daylight. They are against freedom of speech, equal rights and diversity and, worse, they have settled among us. This is one of the realities of immigration, as Nigel Farage and Donald Trump would undoubtedly argue. The enemy within can strike at any give time, at any give target. Very frightening indeed.
One of the key misunderstandings of any debate drenched in the emotions of grief and anger is rooted in the desire to assign blame. Someone needs to be punished, evil needs to have a face. As extremists veil themselves in religious doctrine, it becomes tempting to point the finger towards that religion and to start looking for clues within it. It is also politically convenient, as it simplifies a reality which is much more complex and in which our own leaders and their predecessors have a very large part.
The truth is, anyone can find or interpret the long ancient texts in any way they like. Hence Islamic State militants can claim they are acting according to the Koran and so can peaceful worshippers rejecting violence. “Islam is the religion of the sword!” “No! It is the religion of peace.” Critics and defenders alike coin these phrases, citing verses from the Koran or the Sura’s. In fact, Islam, or any religion for that matter, can be both, a religion of violence or of peace, a source of stability or of conflict. It is the people who practice this religion and who are themselves products of their historical circumstances, who define how it manifests itself. These are the elements which give religions their specific content in a given period of history. Religious interpretation and thus religion’s social function changes all the time depending on circumstances.
This is the reason it is pointless to establish whether a certain religion is inherently inclined towards violence or not. It is other elements that define this. If you look towards the content of the Koran to understand why some adherents of Islam are committing hideous crimes in its name, you are essentially making the same mistake the extremists are making themselves by treating the religious book as the end of the discussion.
It is important to recognise that religious expression constitutes the distorted surface of much deeper-rooted societal complexities.
In a world in which terrorist attacks perpetrated in the name of Islam are (perceivably?) increasing, there is an important context to consider. This might be inconvenient, discomforting perhaps. While it is quite easy to identify evil as a force external to us, confronting us as ‘the other’, it is less straight forward to see the evil coming in our direction as something that in a very real way is a part of ‘us’. Religious fundamentalism is reciprocal and in understanding radical extremism in its Islamist form, we cannot afford to ignore the West’s relationship with for instance the Middle East, but also other parts of the world where Islam is a dominant force. Are we to understand the extremist phenomenon, it is imperative to explore the ways is which imperial domination by the West and its client regimes have consistently denied ‘Western values’ to the various peoples of the Middle East throughout the twentieth century. The region is now tarred by violence and it is this violence which breeds terrorism more than anything else.
The failure to consider this and Western hypocrisy vis-a-vis the Middle-East leads to the double standards we are now seeing. It is stomach turning to hear British, Dutch and French politicians condemn what they have dubbed a ‘war on freedom’.
This is precisely the war they have been waging for more than a hundred years.
At the end of World War I the Middle East was carved up among the French and English imperialists, in spite of promises of self-determination. The discovery of oil had made it convenient to back ‘stable’ dictatorships, arm them to the teeth and to then do business with them. Not only were brutal regimes kept in power, borders were drawn up in such a manner, as to ensure the most effective form of domination: Divide et impera.
Numerous attempts at winning back freedoms or of nationalising their communities’ riches were thwarted, either in covert operations by intelligence agencies (the overthrow of Mossadeq in Iran 1953; the Ba’ath takeover of Iraq in 1958) or in blatant military interventions (1956 Suez war, 1991 Gulf War). In the process Western powers had groomed local elites whose loyalties were bought (the house of Saud first and foremost) to suppress any discontent among their people and become part of the imperial game.
When a resurgent Arab Nationalism became a real threat to imperial interests in the 1950’s and 60s the West backed tiny, sectarian religious organisations in a cynical attempt at undermining this home-grown emancipatory force. As all forms of political organisation were stifled and suppressed, religion became the sole vehicle through which feelings of discontent could be channelled. Some of the longer term consequences are indeed being experienced today.
And what to make of staunch Western support for ‘the world’s last colony’ Israel, a nation that is founded upon ethnic exclusivity, expropriation and military expansionism lasting well into the present. Israel is now the world’s fifth military power and the region’s only atomic one at that. It’s army regularly crushes Palestinian resistance, whose dreams of independence are now but a relic of a once very powerful Pan-Arab ideal.
The interference and exploitation is not something that lies in the past, in spite of what some of the rhetoric about Islamic terrorism might suggest. Any attempt to contextualise Arab anger by pointing towards this legacy of Western interference is often arrogantly dismissed as irrelevant, accompanied by accusations that you are justifying violence by looking at history. In recent decades we have seen the brutal UN sanctions of the 1990s, imposed on the Iraqi people and causing over half a million deaths, especially among the most vulnerable: women and children. Other Western interventions have been equally disastrous for the region, as we have seen the disintegration of Libya and the shocking proxy war in Bahrain in which a popular uprising was quelled by Saudi weapons coming straight out of American and British weapons factories.
The illegal invasion of Iraq, causing over a million (initial) casualties, according to some estimates, is still being felt by today as its blowback product, the so called Islamic State is sweeping into the power vacuum, feeding off the despair left by invasion and war. And I won’t even begin to talk about the newest episode of Western aggression: drone warfare. This has enraged local communities and has wreaked havoc, causing thousands of civilian casualties every day. The list goes on and on. French commando’s and bomber planes are operating in Mali, images of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay and Abu Graib, rendition flights, the CIA torture report etc. etc. etc.
A picture emerges.
The ‘Western values’ that our politicians are now so vehemently defending don’t belong to the West at all. Freedom is a universal desire. It is precisely the West that has made freedom so hard to achieve for a lot of people around the world. Instead the West has created its Dracula, its alter ego, the mirror image of its foreign policy. It has provoked and provoked and provoked. Now it has to reap the consequences of its own random violence that it has always so elegantly sugar coated and wrapped up in lies. Terrorism is (largely) a product of the repeated violence, incursion and betrayal visited upon the Islamic world throughout the last century.
So let’s not let them blame the Orlando shooting on Islam or Muslims. Perhaps it has something to do with homophobia in the US. And what about gun control? Lets confront our leaders with their own responsibilities and lets demand of them to abandon their drone warfare, their oil politics and their business with dictatorships. I am not Charlie, I am a Palestinian, who suffers the consequences of military occupation and death every day. I am the unnamed Iraqi, Syrian, Egyptian and Saudi who suffers under Western backed dictatorships. I am the LGBT community which lives in fear in most societies as a result of bigotry and intolerance. I am all of them, every day.
No justice, no peace!