Politics, Compassion, and Empathy
What does it take to rob someone of their humanity?
Violence, hate, and fear.
Last week a wave of violence washed through Baghdad, Beirut, and Paris. Attacks orchestrated by Daesh -- the so-called Islamic State -- left hundreds dead, hundreds more injured, and millions in mourning. This only the latest salvo from the group which is terrorizing populations in the Middle East and, increasingly, Afghanistan.
Immediately in the wake of the Paris attack I felt fear. Not fear of Muslims, but a fear of the blame that would be laid at the feet of a religion, fear at the way some would use the attacks, especially the attack on Paris, to proclaim how right they were to tell us that Muslims can't be 'Western' and can't be integrated into non-Muslim majority countries.
How right they were that the 'Muslim tide' washing ashore on Europe would eat the continent and all it stands for alive.
I felt fear for my friends and colleagues and the activists I follow, worried they would also become casualties of these most recent attacks.
Terrorism is defined as 'the use of violence and intimidation in the pursuit of political aims.' It is not simply about wreaking destruction or murdering innocent people -- terrorist acts are designed to sow fear and mistrust. They are designed not so much as a show of power as they are designed to fracture the society in which the terrorist acts take place.
Already, some European countries are planning to close their borders to the refugees who are fleeing Daesh and other violence in the Middle East and North Africa, the nations afraid more violence will come to Europe with the refugees. In the United States several states have told President Obama they will not accept Syrian refugees in light of the terrorist attack on Paris.
As borders begin closing, so too, do minds. Over the weekend a Canadian mosque was set on fire and a Sikh temple had stones thrown through its windows. A few days before the attack on Paris a Muslim woman in London was shoved in front of a train. Many individuals who are Muslim or who look as though they might be fear being out in public.
Twitter was full of hate speech directed at Muslims after the attack Friday, many calling for the 'eradication' of Muslim communities. Other users of the social media site called for Muslims to denounce the violence, apparently not seeing the countless tweets and messages not only denouncing the violence but also expressing support for the victims, their families, and the residents of Paris and citizens of France as well.
And of course there was Donald Trump's now infamous tweet and the response of the French ambassador to the United States.
The Paris attacks prompted a refocusing of the Democratic presidential debate the next day, with moderators weaving in questions focused on foreign policy when, originally, the debate was meant to focus on domestic issues.
I read an interesting article the day after the attacks, asking that we avoid the kind of blatant politicization of the tragedy that we are slowly beginning to see unfold (or not so slowly in the case of Trump or Ann Coulter's tweet asking how to say 'Dreamers' in French) not only on the right, but also on the left as well.
There are plenty on the soi-disant left also using the massacre as a pristine stage on which to exhibit their one-person morality plays. What if the attackers had been white; wouldn’t we all be talking about mental health? Don’t you know that non-Muslims commit atrocities too? Why do you care about this, and not about all the other tragedies going on elsewhere in the world? Can’t you see that all these bodies only exist to prove that I was right about everything all along?
I largely agree with the foundation of the article -- that tragedies should not become political footballs, that we should be focusing on the humanity of the victims. As author Sam Kriss writes, 'Insisting on the humanity of the victims is also a political act, and as tragedy is spun into civilizational conflict or an excuse to victimize those who are already victims, it’s a very necessary one. '
At the same time, there are people whose entire lives, their entire identities, have been politicized. People who are asked over and over and over again to condemn horrific acts committed in the name of their religion. People who, because they are Muslim or because their families recently immigrated or because they have Arabic names or beards or wear a turban or hijab, are not allowed to set aside politics because they are suspect.
They are always suspect.
What is it to live like that? What is it like to grow up Canadian or American or German or French, to watch football and go to school, to get into hiphop and to fall in love with Monty Python and yet be told over and over and over again it will never be enough? You will never be enough because of your name or your religion?
I agree we must avoid the politicization of the tragedy, but how do we do that when, already, those in power are calling for military action? How do we do that as France bombs Raqqa and Belgian and French authorities conduct raids rounding up individuals suspected of being terrorists? How do we do that when wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and Syria have worked to hasten the destabilization of the region?
I don't know.
For seven years I've been part of a project working to counter the stereotyping of Muslims. For every moment when it feels as though things are changing something happens to show just how much further we have to go.
I think compassion and empathy are the keys. Compassion not only for the victims in Paris or Beirut or Baghdad but also compassion for all those who are suffering as victims of Daesh. Compassion for the refugees who are fleeing a reality where violence is an every day threat. Perhaps having wide open borders isn't the solution, but I would argue neither is sealing off borders completely.
At the root of everything, if we want to really create change, if we are committed to creating spaces of understanding, is empathy.
It is not enough to feel sorrow for the suffering we see, we must work to understand the lives of those suffering. We must cultivate the ability to see the world through the eyes of another, to not so blind ourselves with our own beliefs that there is no room for anything else.
That's what Daesh does, blinds itself so completely to the lives of others that they cease to be human.
If we follow suit, if we close ourselves off politically and emotionally to the suffering of others, then Daesh wins. Their desire is to fracture us, to make us see anyone who is different as an enemy. So even if they never again commit a terrorist attack on Western soil, if their actions help contribute to a politics of fear and suspicion and that politics becomes our default, they win.
Paul Krugman said it perfectly when he wrapped up the column 'Fearing Fear Itself':
Again, the goal of terrorists is to inspire terror, because that’s all they’re capable of. And the most important thing our societies can do in response is to refuse to give in to fear.
I refuse to give into fear.
I, instead, focus on the stories of compassion that came out of the violence last week. Stories of Parisians opening their homes to strangers who were stranded by the attacks. Stories of Parisians offering to travel with Muslims, or those who might be mistaken as Muslim, who feared traveling alone. Stories of rallies showing support for the Muslim community.
Or of imams leading the singing of 'La Marseillaise' near the Bataclan where so many died Friday night.
I will focus on how the hashtag #MuslimsAreNotTerrorists trended on Twitter, as both Muslims and non-Muslims worked to counter the narrative that the the violence seen in Paris and Beirut and Baghdad last week was the obvious result of someone's choosing to follow the teachings of Islam.
Compassion and empathy are how we move forward. Hopefully embracing those two concepts will help us craft a politics which allows tragedies to remain tragedies and which promotes understanding.
What a terrible tragedy if violence in the City of Love helps produce a hegemonic Politics of Hate.