Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. This is not a way of life at all in any true sense. Under the clouds of war, it is humanity hanging on a cross of iron.
Dwight D. Eisenhower
Dealing with Islamophobia has become a tiresome endeavour. Though engaging in dialogue with misguided and misinformed people has to be a continuing effort, it often feels like we are taking two steps back for every one step forward. Fourteen years after 9/11, the negative image of Muslims in the media and rampant bigotry has been hardly curtailed. Widespread knowledge of Islam has certainly increased, as people are now better versed in the geography of the Muslim world and some of the faith’s central tenets, though the perception of the backwards, violent, and barbaric Muslim has persisted. Certainly, much of this is fuelled by an irresponsible media, racism, and colonialism, but I have found confronting these attitudes with apologetics to be fruitless. The work of bridge-building Western Muslims continues to be swept under the rug as the boogeymen of Osama bin Laden, Al Qaida, and the Taliban are handily replaced by the even more fearsome ISIL and other nameless, but Muslim, villains.
The heightened focus and attention on the plight of Syrian refugees has further exposed the vibrancy of anti-Muslim sentiment in the West. Hard-right fascists continue to bolster their numbers in Europe while in North America the marginalization of Muslims has become an effective campaign strategy. Western Muslims have honourably fought back against bigotry, but the effectiveness of this approach has been limited. Western Muslims feel righteous indignation over the preposterous accusations and suspicions hurled against them, however we are also beholden to significant privileges which cloud our understanding of where Islamophobia is emerging. While we enjoy some of the highest qualities of life, rates of education, security, and economic success – our brethren abroad are falling into disarray amongst the chaos and turmoil in the Muslim world. We are quick to simply discredit groups like ISIL as unrepresentative of Islam and their members as criminals while blaming Western foreign policy. However, the individuals who are fighting, dying, and suffering in the Middle East are still Muslims – they are victims of the carnage just as much as they are the perpetrators. We must begin to accept that this is also partly our mess to clean up.
We can’t simply change the subject when a bigot points to reports of sexual assaults in refugee camps in Germany. We can’t ignore the objective data that indicates a 91% female genital mutilation (FGM) rate in Egypt. We can’t turn a blind eye to the reality of slavery, ethnic cleansing, child soldiers, and other atrocities in Iraq and Syria. Certainly, Islam is not the source of these realities, and that ought to be made clear – but the actions and thoughts of Muslims are representative of the faith in this world whether we like it or not. In this era where no one party, individual, or group can claim to represent Islam or Muslims as a whole – the importance of the health and prosperity of our entire body is paramount. We really are only as strong as our weakest links.
The nature of the suffering of Muslims in places like Libya, Syria, Egypt, Yemen, Afghanistan and Iraq has evolved from political oppression to humanitarian devastation. In a country like Syria or Iraq, Muslims had been governed by successive thugs and tyrants. While the political repression was intense, the integrity and humanity of the individual was kept largely intact. Despite the inability to freely express and manifest one’s views or beliefs, people were largely afforded their respect as human beings and the conditions of life were conducive to civilization. Even in places such as Afghanistan, which has seen a half century of violence and war, people had managed to maintain their traditions and dignity. What we have now are completely traumatized societies wiped clean of knowledge, tradition, and conventional notions of humanity. Great cultural centres such as Baghdad, Aleppo, and Palmyra have been shredded to pieces. Perhaps the most egregious crime against humanity committed in these countries is the destruction of the learned class. Entire generations have been erased which would have stood as pillars of knowledge, maturity, and guidance for the youngest generation born into a terrible time of war.
What difference does it make to the dead, the orphans and the homeless, whether the mad destruction is wrought under the name of totalitarianism or in the holy name of liberty or democracy?
The young men and women who have been co-opted to join organizations such as ISIL or other professional jihadist groups must have been children at the outset of the “War on Terror.” Their mothers, father, grandparents, and teachers have paid the ultimate price in these wars. The influences that would have protected them from a life of violence and moral degradation have been forcibly extracted from their lives. How, then, can anyone claim to be surprised or perplexed when something like ISIL comes to be? Young boys who have only known war as a means to solving problems will continue to rely on war for the remainder of their lives. How can anyone expect a young boy who has seen his father and friends die before middle age to imagine living any longer? These children have been stripped of their dreams of becoming doctors, lawyers, engineers, teachers, or whatever else they could have imagined. The only education they now could know comes from either the battlefield or the mosque – and in most cases, a lethal combination of the two. Most have become more dextrous with a rifle than they are with a pen.
A lawless society leads to criminal and bestial behaviour. Where civilization and humanity are removed from the equation, man reverts to his most beastly nature. Rape, destruction, and subjugation become the norm in societies without respected moral and legal authority. It is not Islam that leads to gender or racial inequality. Middle Era societies, before the arrival of Islam, were similarly tattered and ruined by war. Islam, as a reform movement, restored the dignity of the individual and eradicated the extreme inequality of the time. I find it particularly circular and idiotic when Islamophobes call for bombing Muslim countries “into the stone age,” and subsequently blame their populations for stone age behaviour. The systematic dehumanization of Muslims around the world has been a resounding success. It is easy to claim the nobility of Islamic civilization from our safe spaces in the West. The real challenge is to restore that sense of nobility in countries where there remains no semblance of civilization. This is a responsibility that every Muslim man and woman in a position of privilege must bear.
The surreal and disillusioning nature of war mutilates even the strongest of minds. Returning a sense of normalcy to the lives of millions of refugees, embattled youth, and a national consciousness is an impossibly tall order to fill. I remain moved by HONY’s feature on a young refugee girl who recoiled in fear when asked about her mother’s whereabouts and the video that emerged of a young girl in Turkey who burst into panic when approached by a Turkish soldier. Relative to the destruction and mayhem inflicted upon Muslim countries, the events of 9/11 seem paltry – yet even that interaction with massive death scarred the collective conscience of America. Each act of terrorism or violence carried out in Western countries brutally assails the hearts and minds of its citizens. Western countries are also well aware of the terrifying effects of war on its returning veterans, with countless studies detailing the symptoms of PTSD. Armed with this knowledge and understanding, it’s mind-boggling to me that people can remain so ignorant as to lack any sort of empathy for the people of war-torn Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, etc. Imagine the scale of the trauma afflicting those millions of individuals who have been terrorized by airstrikes, night raids, suicide bombings, etc. When bullets and bombs chip away and obliterate homes, mosques, hospitals, and schools – so too do they gradually demolish the sanity and humanity of their occupants.
Restoring the humanity of Muslims around the world begins with firmly demanding the end to war. Those trapped within the cycle of violence are often powerless to change their circumstances. They are lodged within the gears of the war machine, perpetually bound to a reality of “kill or be killed,” eroding their humanity with each passing moment. Until Muslims living in the security of peace – whether that be in North America, Europe, the Gulf, or South(east) Asia demand an end to war and the restoration of order – humanity will never return to those places. Of the 1.6 billion Muslims in the world, the vast majority live in relative peace – yet the suffering of an embattled minority will dictate our place and fate in this world. In my experience, I have noticed that Muslims feel the organic bond with other Muslims all over the world. We are not so completely disjointed that we feel entirely removed from our brothers and sisters abroad. However, where we fail is in our actions to mobilize and effectuate the change we are capable of. I am a strong believer in the Biblical saying: “To whomever much is given, of him will much be required; and to whom much was entrusted, of him more will be asked.” Think about the blessings and means you have – health, wealth, safety, freedom, education, political clout. Those of us who have been given much, think about how much is required of us and the responsibility these blessings come with. Think about how little it is to give someone their sense of humanity and how great the impact of that may be.
There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.
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