The attacks on Charlie Hebdo on Jan. 7th, 2015 and the murder of Deah Barakat, his wife, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, and her sister Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha in North Carolina point to extremists capturing and shaping the global narrative. What is occurring is a process by which the actions and rhetoric of extremists from one side is reinforcing a response and counter response in each case thus dragging and inflicting mental and physical pain on the overwhelming majority of the world population. The world is victimized into a state of numbness and immobility that adds more injury to the already injured human consciousness.
Violent extremists’ claims to act in the name of Islam are causing death, physical injury, and mental suffering on other Muslims first and then on targeted communities in various parts of the world. The mass atrocities committed by ISIL against other Muslims and Christians in Syria and Iraq, Coptic Christians in Libya and Western hostages leave many around the world speechless and motionless for it has crossed all boundaries and is the definition of madness. We are all walking wounded with scares and images penetrating our inner most consciousness. The violence in Paris caused wholesale suffering and trauma on all members of the French society including the 5 million Muslims living in the country. More critically, Muslims status in France and Western societies, which was tenuous beforehand, suffered a most devastating blow while the community, as a whole, was not party to the attacks. Violent extremists’ success should be measured not only in relation to body counts but also should include the deep scars left on impacted communities around the world.
The murder of Deah Barakat, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha in NC, Wade Michael Page mass killing at the Sikh Gurdwara (house of worship) in Wisconsin and Anders Behring Breivik slaughter in Norway all are situated as a violent extremist response or defense of the West against the purported ‘Islamic’ extremist threat. The violence committed against innocent Muslims, Sikhs, and Norwegians is rationalized in the rhetoric of those committing these heinous crimes as a legitimate response to what was done or being done against Western societies. In claiming this, the violent extremists in the West are but a mirror image and an ideological twin of their supposed enemies.
Extremists have managed to capture the middle and are setting the terms of debate, which in both cases is conducted by bullets, machine guns, bombs and a long trail soaked in blood. Fear, anxiety and mistrust are what the violent extremists seek and the more reactionary the society becomes the more they are in the driver’s seat. Indeed, fearful people will accept the unthinkable and suspend rational judgment at the moment rationality is most urgently needed. The global conversation and discussion (if one can call it such) has been completely taken over by violent extremists on both ends of the spectrum and the constructed narratives fits perfectly for each to rationalize more violence in response to a supposed earlier violence. Fomenting random violence by violent extremists is the core and essence of the strategy for it makes possible to recruit more adherents into the ranks and to further engage in revenge and counter revenge.
The fomented fear leads many to accept the internal violent extremists responses as a supposed defense of ‘our society’ type of logic against the external violent extremists wishing ‘us’ harm. In reinforcing each other’s actions, the violent extremists capture the political, social, cultural and religious arena in societies and then move to commit a crime against the collective consciousness of normal and peace loving people. The regular person begins to internalize the ‘us’ versus ‘them’ epistemic pushed forward by extremists at both ends. Thus, the collective public mind becomes polluted, the atmosphere is infused with otherization and violent extremism is embedded as the acceptable and rational choice to protect ‘us’ from the constructed ‘them’.
Interestingly enough if one takes the language and rhetoric of one side or the other of the violent extremists and change the wording to the opposite of each extreme you actually arrive at an identical framing for they are mirror ideological constructs. Extremist desire power and use violence to achieve it no matter what the consequences or the mayhem left behind. While the rhetoric focuses on protecting ‘values’ of the supposedly threatened society; nevertheless the central desire and motivation is to secure power and more of it if possible. Religion at both end of the ‘us’ versus ‘them’ violent extremists spectrum it is a vehicle to ride into worldly power.
At present, the problem has become more complicated as violent extremists have either directly captured seats of power or have strong allies in government positions and parliaments in the West and the Muslim world. When violent extremists claim the political landscape then cowardly politicians cater to them and begin to deploy the same defending ‘us’ from ‘them’ popular rhetoric so as to win elections or get appointed to even more ‘important’ positions. Consequently, the violent extremists become the power brokers and setting the agenda on what it means to be a citizen and how one should demonstrate patriotism and belonging toward country and religion. In most cases the demand for citizenship to be expressed in terms of xenophobia and targeting first those who refuse to accept the violent extremist ideology then afterward toward the constituted internal and external other.
In addition, the media plays a most destructive role by shining undue light on the violent extremists while paying little or no attention to the victims. The media constantly and 24/7 runs to cover the violent extremists stories like a herd of hyenas searching for an easy prey. Violent extremists play for a media, which is acting on a lowest common denominator ethic and smelling and tasting blood at every turn. The violent extremists bring more eyes and people to the coverage and with it higher ratings to media outlet that then gets packaged into advertisement opportunity for a military industrial complex ready to sell more death machine.
How to break this vicious cycle with one extremist cluster is responding to another extremist cluster with each killing as many of the innocent people to prove their extremism is of higher ‘moral’ purpose. When the only argument is strewn bodies littering streets, offices, religious sites and apartments then something is seriously wrong and must be brought to an end. Extremists should not be allowed to claim defense of any values, religious or otherwise. Civil society leaders from all walks of life should affirm and embrace all members of the society equally and not allow the violent extremists to isolate or otherwise anyone. Isolated and excluded populations are ready sites for the violent extremists at both ends and real and serious efforts at inclusion should be undertaken. The current strategy that uses the security lens in countering violent extremism is wrong and further problematizes already victimized communities.
Likewise, a set of ethical principles should be adopted and promoted globally that commit political and civil society leadership to a rational and intelligent responses to violent extremism and not allow their actions and activities to help create more extremism. Responding to violent extremism by setting extremist security structures makes it possible to provide a veneer of protection while accepting the extremist epistemic. Racially and religiously focused security manages to problematize and criminalize a class of people in the hope of catching the real extremists hiding in their mix. The extremists understood this security approach and use it to further recruit into their ranks for it illustrates how they are otherized, then urges more violent actions in response. Furthermore, it actually help push community members into further isolation and into the hands of the waiting extremists.
Lastly, the media should be held responsible for magnifying violent extremist rhetoric and focusing more lights on them rather than on the victims of all backgrounds. The media should report the facts but then give the tools to identify and develop empathy with each other in the society and celebrate human resilience and struggle in the face of adversity. Covering violent extremism is easy for blood speaks for itself while fostering hope and inspiring all to be more dignified humans at such a time is difficult and indeed heroic. Free speech includes choosing hopeful words over despair, dignity over insults, and constructive dialogue over verbal bullying. The world is awaiting individuals of all backgrounds that can dream of the impossible and setout to make it a reality. The human being is placed in this world to do magnanimous things, to soar with falcons next to the stars and touch the heavens but we must make the choices that can make it possible!