Tornados can wreak plenty of havoc though they can be predicted. But what do you do when deadly weather patterns become wholly unpredictable. One moment you’re lying on a beach, next moment you’re running for your life. This seems more like the case now with religion-inspired terrorism. Calm followed by a bang. Then calm again… till the next bang.
So it was on this June 12 in Orlando, Florida. Another day, another city, another Muslim — and lots of deaths. Yes, Omar Saddiqui Mateen was a Muslim. Not a pretender, not even a hired gun by the evil US government to depict Muslims as insufferable fiends; he was Muslim, nothing more, nothing less. He did not storm into a gay bar with an AR-15 rifle and automatic shotgun because he just incidentally happened to have woken up on the wrong side of the bed. Death was very much on his mind that day, as he blazed his guns with all the deadly passion of a man who has suddenly found himself in fatal opposition to a culture that may have adopted him, but to which he could never possibly adapt. Thinking himself, perhaps, a warrior in some otherworldly battle, Omar Mateen, himself a licensed security guard, fired several rounds from his automatic assault weapon, taking down 49 and injuring several more. Before his calculated onslaught, he made sure to dial 911 and pledge allegiance to Islamic State, while also putting a good word for the Tsarnaev brothers (Boston marathon bombers). This was, to date, the deadliest mass shooting in American history.
Several decades ago, another man, from another time, found himself similarly pained as an outsider in a culture almost entirely orthogonal to his vision of morality. Spending most of 1949 in Greeley, Colorado, this sundry gent from Egypt was miserably aghast at what he saw — the American looseness, the heady modernist abandon, the swing dance and the jazz music. This he deemed a satanic symptom of the predicted end of days. His dark, dreary lamentations were eloquently captured in his helpfully titled book, The America I Have Seen: In the Scale of Human Values. Here is a brief excerpt:
“The American girl is well acquainted with her body’s seductive capacity. She knows it lies in the face, and in expressive eyes, and thirsty lips ... and she shows all this and does not hide it.”
Not much a ladies man, he — Syed Qutb — directed his gaze at politics and agitation instead, becoming the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt; laying fastidiously the groundwork for modern-day religious extremism. His works would inspire extremists of all stripes in the years to come, including Osama bin Laden.
And this is where we arrive at the crux of the matter. Ever since the fall of the Ottoman Caliphate, Muslims the world over have been in some form of agitated flux. With the nation-state overlay pressed upon lands spanning centuries of complex denominational history, there has been a constant effort on the part of many Muslims to sculpt for themselves a unique identity from the debris of their collapsed wholeness. This effort has so far been in vain. All political attempts to reclaim Islam in the public sphere have, at most, yielded them tertiary influence. This is not to say extremists are in any sense consigned to the fringes, just that the tiller has mostly remained in the hands of relatively left-leaning secularists, supported often by Western regimes. The religious parties in Pakistan and the Brotherhood in Egypt are examples of this trend. We are now witnessing the second generation impact of this phenomenon, where young men, disillusioned with the political process, are doing privately (and more lethally) what the previous generation failed at doing publicly: instituting an opposition to what they see as the demonic liberal secular West. Not surprising, then, that most recent cases of high-profile incidents of radicalism have all involved young men — Faisal Shehzad, the Paris attackers, the Boston bombers, Omar Mateen and so on.
For Muslim immigrants, it gets more complicated. The immigrant Muslim (particularly Pakistani) experience is anchored around the ‘myth of return’ i.e., this is only temporary and when things get better they will ultimately return to the motherland. This has some serious ramifications vis-a-vis raising children, because the mindset, often, is to not only not assimilate but the opposite i.e., raise them in a cultural bubble to preclude any potential integration issues upon ‘return’. These cultural concerns are typically animated by moral concerns around sex, drinking, drugs, etc., and are addressed by strict religious education. Far stricter than what the parents themselves went through or what their children’s peers back in the motherland are experiencing. The net effect is an identity crisis superimposed upon an extremely puritanical religious outlook — the key ingredients for radicalisation.
As for the latest shooting incident, the fallout is predictable: Muslims will come under more scrutiny — expect yourself to be ‘randomly’ selected more frequently at airports. Donald Trump’s support will ratchet up. After all, the man calls spade a spade, at least in the minds of those who lack the capacity for nuance. In moments like these, rage seeks the most accessible conduit, which only binaries can offer.
Here’s the thing though: regardless of how fantastically boorish, incoherent and silly Trump is — and he is all that — he’s grazing a truth that’s hard to digest: the Muslim community is posing unique liabilities in most of the world right now. This doesn’t, for a moment, legitimise the waterfall of pabulum which gushes inordinately out of Trump’s mouth each time he so happens to open it. Nor do Muslims owe an apology every time something like Orlando happens. For the most part, American Muslims are a fairly well-behaved people. Crime rates are low, literacy and employment rates are high. But surely some intense introspection, especially at the parental level, is definitely in order. Today the Muslim world screams for a counter-narrative, and a reconciliation of long-standing issues that cut to the sharp of their very identity.
Published in The Express Tribune, June 17th, 2016.
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