We must take back the reins from extremists by getting to know one another.
“We don’t have enemies, I repeat, we don’t have enemies. We have people who don’t know us,” eulogised Imam Hassan Guillet at one of two ceremonies for those murdered in a Quebec City mosque terrorist attack two weeks ago.
After speaking about the six killed, the 17 children left without their fathers, the six widows and the 19 wounded, the Imam rhetorically asked:
Did I go through the complete list of victims? No. There is one victim. None of us want to talk about him. But given my age, I have the courage to say it. This victim, his name is Alexandre Bissonnette. Alexandre, before being a killer he was a victim himself. Before planting his bullets in the heads of his victims, somebody planted ideas more dangerous than the bullets in his head. This little kid didn’t wake up in the morning and say, “Hey guys instead of going to have a picnic or watching the Canadiens, I will go kill some people in the mosque.” It doesn’t happen that way.
Day after day, week after week, month after month, certain politicians unfortunately, and certain reporters unfortunately, and certain media, were poisoning our atmosphere.” Bissonnette, the 27-year-old politics student charged with six counts of murder and five counts of attempted murder is a white French Canadian who by some accounts appears to be a rabid anti-immigrant nationalist.
The attack on the mosque, Donald Trump’s veiled “Muslim Ban” and the spike in hate crimes in the immediate aftermath reveals the underlying bigotry and provides evidence of how too many have been emboldened by rhetoric that has mainstreamed anti-Muslim hate in the West. Demonisation of Muslims has a long history in Western politics and popular culture arising out of the Crusades and the legacy of colonisation, but it is now reaching a fever pitch. In the North American context, a discourse initially fuelled by a well-funded network of professional merchants of hate on the fringe infected a small segment of the Republican Party in the US and Harperites in Canada, but has now reached heights never before imagined by most analysts.
The new bigotry is rooted in the culture of fear and targeting of Muslims nurtured by too many in positions of authority on both sides of the border since the early 1990s, but most aggressively since 9/11 in the “war on terror.” This legacy of “othering” and dehumanisation prepped the populace enough for Trump and other politicians in the West to tap into. The silver lining from the past few weeks is the overwhelming support and solidarity shown by non-Muslims to the Muslim community. In both Canada and the US, people have come out to condemn the terrorist attack on Muslims as well as the so called “Muslim Ban”. Lawyers, activists, civil society groups, religious groups, universities, even businesses have publicly expressed and demonstrated their solidarity. As of writing at least five states have sued the Trump administration to oppose the “Muslim Ban,” while numerous cities have declared themselves sanctuary cities where they will not cooperate with federal authorities in taking action against undocumented immigrants.
There is much to learn from this for the Muslim world. You can substitute the language of the imam at the beginning of this article and the same can be said about the hate that is preached by many in the Muslim world. Too many have been brought up on the extremist narrative of “us” versus “them” which harkens back to the darul harb (“abode of war”) and darul Islam (“abode of peace”) era of Islam which Daesh and those of its ilk seek to recreate. The persecution of non-Muslims or those deviating from a particular interpretation is rooted in this worldview which sees Muslims and non-Muslims as inherently and irreconcilably adverse to each other.
The dehumanisation of those who are different or perceived to be different has reached disturbing levels in the Muslim world. The entrenched nature of this really struck me recently when I was asked to peer review an academic paper written by a professor of Islamic law at a reputable University in the Muslim world. Rather than challenging or questioning the very idea, the professor was rationalising why under certain iterations of Islamic law the punishment for a Muslim who kills a non-Muslim is less than if he had killed a Muslim. The fact that we are still having such discussions speaks volumes of the work necessary to bring the populace out of this mindset.
The influence of such views among a segment of the religious leadership which is then conveyed to the lay public partly explains why we don’t see anywhere near the public outcry or opposition to the persecution of religious and other minorities whether it is by the state or even fringe groups. Dividing and conquering is one of the oldest strategies of those who seek power at all costs. The only way to overcome this is to see the humanity in all of us and appreciate that we all bleed red and feel pain.
What we are witnessing today is a clash of extremisms where the extremists in both the West and from the Muslim world are addressing and responding to each other. They are now increasingly monopolising the discourse and driving conflict. They are leading the world to a catastrophe because the silent majorities have ceded the forum to them, been shut out or are simply too busy to notice.
As prominent journalist Glen Greenwald notes: “It is often the case that extremists on both sides of a protracted conflict end up mirroring one another’s attributes, mentality, and tactics. That is precisely what we are now witnessing as anti-Muslim crusaders in the US adopt the same premises as ISIS and its allies.”
I would just add that it is not just ISIS in the Muslim world and it is not just the US in the West. It is time for the majority of people from both camps to wake up, shake off their indifference and take back the reins from the fanatics. The first step, as the Imam Guillet implied and the Holy Quran instructs: “People, We have created you all male and female and have made you nations and tribes so that you would recognise each other. The most honourable among you in the sight of God is the most pious of you. God is All-knowing and All-aware.” (49:13)
Published in The Express Tribune, February 10th, 2017.
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