Monday, November 16, 2015

Of Names and Neighbors

I am deeply saddened by the lives lost to recent terrorist attacks in Ankara, Sinai, Beirut, Baghdad, and Paris. There are truly no words to encompass the horror of the tragedies that continue to unfold - with or without media attention - in the wake of terrorist organizations like Daesh. My deepest condolences go out to the families and loved ones whose lives are forever bereft of that smile, that laugh, that hug that no one else can give.

This was originally intended to be a post on my Facebook wall. However, I had to pause after writing the first paragraph, because in the age of social media it is far too easy to skate over grief and suffering in the rush to make a statement. After taking 48 hours to sit with the suffering of fellow human beings, I find myself writing a very different post than I originally intended. It turns out that grief is not meant to be a doormat on which I step perfunctorily before launching through the doorway of impassioned political diatribe. Rather, grief is the home into which I am invited to enter as a guest, to break bread at the table of suffering. 

During the Passover Seder, the youngest person at the table asks, "Why is this night different from all other nights?" The beauty of the ritual that follows is the way in which it narrates the transition from a story of suffering to a story of hope. The shadow side of that story, however, is that most other nights at the table of suffering are no different at all. The bitter herbs we eat are not a symbol of hardships past, but rather the seasoning baked into humanity's daily bread of difficulty and loss.

Having taken a little time to enter that home and share that meal, here are some thoughts:

1. The greatest tool of exploitation is division. Organizations that hold power undermine resistance by keeping potential allies at odds with one another through fear, isolation, and misinformation. This is true of oppressive regimes that use propaganda and systematic violence to consolidate power against the nefarious Other. This is also true, though less obvious, of seemingly democratic institutions that trumpet liberty and justice for all. And more to the point regarding the recent terrorist attacks, this is true of media conglomerates who profit off of fear-mongering and sensational misinformation.

When we are tempted to criticize others on Facebook for failing to post about the bombing in Beirut or the series of bombings in Maiduguri, let us remember toward whom our critique should be leveled.  The fact is that those events got little play in any of the major news outlets in the United States, and that is a systemic bias that must be challenged. Such systems are not challenged by haranguing users of social media who are showing compassion for others, but instead by directing our money and media usage in ways that subvert the monopoly held by media corporations that employ the same tactics as oppressive regimes.

2. Symbols are powerful. The symbols woven throughout the Passover Seder have connected Jewish celebrants across millennia. The French flag superimposed on Facebook profile pictures is meant to elicit compassion and solidarity, while the black flag used by Daesh is meant to inspire both allegiance and fear. These types of symbols appear in every culture and every society. 

The most widely used symbol, however, might be language. Words embedded in languages are symbols that carry culturally and societally specific meanings. Naturally, there are different words in different languages that are meant to denote the same object or concept. However, the same word in the same language can have different meanings based on different contexts. Language is often at the heart of contested power gradients between the powers that be and resistance movements. 

That is why I used the name Daesh above to refer to the group that occupies territory in parts of Iraq and Syria, and is suspected behind several of the terrorist attacks listed at the beginning of this post. I learned the term from a friend who had recently returned from several months in Lebanon and Jordan, where it was used with a derogatory connotation by all of her Arab friends. There is an interesting explanation of the Arabic meaning of Daesh as both acronym and subversive pun here (along with a somewhat rambling critique of Orientalism in the anglophone media), that I do not have the linguistic aptitude to confirm or deny. However, I find the blogger's most compelling argument for the use of the term Daesh in her quotation of Syrian activist Khaled al-Haj Saleh: "The people who suffer most at the hands of Daesh should decide what they are called." 

In our counseling classes, we talk frequently about the need to respect how people want to be identified. This is necessary because self-identification of people in marginalized communities is often articulated in resistance to dominant narratives that are used to oppress and subjugate. Will me using Daesh instead of other acronyms bring a stop to the atrocities being carried out by that organization and their allies throughout the Middle East? Of course not. But, changing the words I use to describe them does in fact invoke a transfer of agency - no matter how small - from the oppressors to the oppressed who are resisting them. There is power in even such small acts of solidarity.

3. Asking how to put a stop to groups like Daesh also requires us to ask what are the conditions by which people who identify with Daesh have been shaped to become capable of such atrocities. It is far too easy to brand people as monsters and dismiss their actions as inhuman. The reality is that such people are undeniably human, and that should scare us. Why is it so much easier to discuss how the influence of white supremacy shaped Dylann Roof into a mass murderer than it is to understand how jihadist indoctrination causes children to hate their own family? How can we link the influence of patriarchal notions of masculinity to Elliot Rodger's killing spree, but ignore how the legacy of colonialism that contributed to riots in the suburbs of Paris in 2005 might position Paris high on the list of targets for jihadist terrorists?

To be clear, I am not blaming the victims of the Paris attacks by pointing to colonialism. Nor am I saying that the oppressive influences of toxic ideologies excuse acts of murder and terrorism, which are ultimately the result of choices made by perpetrators of violence. However, I am saying that no solutions will be found if we do not examine these events at their roots. 

We must come to understand how our very own institutions and social constructs are feeding global cycles of violence by continually assaulting the psyches of marginalized people. We must acknowledge that the Islamophobic atmosphere in the United States after 9/11 has not only fostered conditions under which a cynical, xenophobic billionaire can be a leading presidential candidate, but also cultivated an environment where Ahmed Mohamed's father hopes that moving to Qatar for his son's studies will mean Ahmed can be "accepted by that country". 

As a future mental health professional, I am asking why young men from Minneapolis and young women from London and Colorado left to join Daesh. How are their actions connected to the fact that they are all people of color? How are teenagers in particular vulnerable to Daesh's recruiting techniques? If we are not asking these questions, then we are turning a blind eye toward the pain and alienation that helped shape neighbors and classmates, cousins and sisters, into jihadists and mass murderers.