I’m afraid to say we reap what we sow. When you brutalise people, they become brutal. Someone needs to break the cycle.
So I see dissent is now extremism. To speak of a decade of crimes is to inhabit the world of apologists, falsely claiming victimhood. To speak of grievances is to tell a lie: Ali Ismail Abbas was not half incinerated by the reign of terror of Shock and Awe; there was no invasion of Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya under dubious circumstances; our governments did not arm and train the rebels we now claim to be fighting; unmanned aerial vehicles are not patrolling the skies of coutries we are not at war with, assassinating marked individuals and their famiies; refugees from barbarity are not being turned away; claims of torture and forced rendition were unfounded; we are not allies with nations exporting an intolerant ideology all around the world; we do not sell weapons to governments with terrible human rights records; our government has never failed to condemn the practice of blowing up entire apartment blocks to kill individuals with alleged terrorist affiliations; there was no recession caused by gambling money lenders; there is no poverty in our lands; there are no food banks, no homeless, no destitute in our streets; everything is beautiful; nothing is wrong. There are no parables to reach the powerful. Even the Archbishop of York is an extremist today.
More on the Freedom of Expression debacle: France arrests a comedian for his Facebook comments, showing the sham of the West’s “Free Speech” celebration – by Glenn Greenwald
So I have withdrawn once again – or at least I have closed the door to Facebook. So I am heading for the hills once more – metaphorically speaking. It used to be that in times of crisis we would pull together and seek refuge in like-minded company. But on the internet this time, all we encounter is extreme polarisation. I don’t want to be a part of it. The perpetual cascade of news, opinions and stupidity is too much. The flood of excuses, conspiracy theories and discovered double-standards helps nobody – it just makes us reactionaries.
It was a tough decision. There are those I benefit from immensely, who I will miss. They have become true friends, although thousands of miles may separate us. But sometimes it is necessary to pull the plug – to go Cold Turkey, if you will – when the harm seems to outweigh the benefit. For me, the internal agitation to constantly check for updates, feedback, responses and the latest news. The new micro-rituals of reaching for a phone, or tablet, or switching tabs on the web browser to just quickly check, fifty times a day. A habit first thing in the morning and last thing at night. A growing dependence – an egocentric urge to be always connected to others elsewhere. No time for a break, for quiet reflection, for pause for thought, for silence. It is said, “A wise person once said nothing.” Social media makes no space for nothing.
For me, it was becoming like an addiction, preventing me from venturing out for the evening prayer. Or from making time for supplication and reflection. I could spend hours every evening doing very little, except follow a steady stream of articles, videos and unfounded, spurious claims. There would be no time to read a book. No time to study or learn something. In short, perhaps I have wasted two years of my life.
Yes, I make it sound so bad. What an incredible exaggeration! In truth I have benefited from the experience. I have made new friends. I have benefitted from others. But there is a balance, and sometimes it is hard to get that balance right. Years ago I took the same approach to another addiction. Some people viewed my response as an extreme reaction, but for me it was one of the best decisions I ever made. If you lack the self-restraint which allows you to act with moderation, sometimes the only course of action is to shut down the avenues to return to it completely.
Even now I am feeling the cravings for the news feed, but I am determined to turn back the clock a little, to that era before permanent connectivity. Who remembers the 1990s, or a time before that when we could exist without this perpetual narcissism? Yes, we should live in the age we find ourselves in, not in an imaginary past. But so too must we discover a way of living that provides equilibrium. For me, right now, the way ahead is to make time away from the glowing panels of glass. To make space for paper, driving rain and nothingness. An interlude away from the noise which populates too much of our lives.
At last, something for Muslims to celebrate from Israel, other than its contribution to the high-tech smartphones in our pockets: Israeli law prohibits illustrating Prophets in a way that would hurt the feelings of believers.
I think we can be fairly certain that the target was chosen carefully — not as an attack on Freedom of Expression – but as a means to divide communities. And it has worked.
Just as many commentators have presented the false dichotomy that to be against the atrocities is to unwaveringly support the right to offend at whatever cost, so another artifice has emerged: exasperated by the vulgarity of a publication without boundaries (except French law), we forget our own opposition to murderous extremism, stumbling — as we seek to liberate ourselves from the ravaging rampage of the semi-free press — towards a mistaken accommodation of an ideology which a day before the shooting we were confronting with ferocious antipathy.
Passions are running high and all of a sudden we find ourselves steered off course by the prevailing winds. The rift is widening; the polarisation increasing. It’s time to take stock, to pull back, to take corrective action. Don’t be like the waves of the sea, blown and tossed by the unceasing wind.1
- Words etched into my mind from the New Testament’s Letter of James. ↩
The BBC has proved without a shadow of doubt this week that European lives are worth more than others’. But then the thousands of refugees left to drown off the coast of Europe over the past five years already knew that. If the BBC afforded as much coverage as we witnessed on tonight’s evening News to every incidence of violence and depravity, might we then begin to humanize the other and engender positive change in our world? If only. We have witnessed thousands of civilians killed over the past year, amongst them journalists, writers and artists, but we would consider it unusual for an entire News broadcast to be dedicated to commemorations of the dead.
Europeans in modern times, perhaps, have much to be proud of: rule of law, peace and security, freedom of religion, freedom of expression, social compassion, fairness and justice, relative economic stability… But not all is well; an unpleasant arrogance pervades our psyche. We view ourselves as superior folk, with a superior political system, absolved of our history. We stand at the pinnacle of civilisation, we believe, gazing down at the barbarians from beyond our borders who wish us only harm.
The BBC’s coverage this week has not been journalism as we have come to understand it. It has been the weaving of a narrative: an explanation of events, not objective reporting of mere facts. It has been a secular sermon for our times: jingoistic and contrived. From Firdos Square in Baghdad, to Tahir Square in Cairo and Taksim Square in Istanbul, the BBC has refined its story for times of change. Today the crowds of Place de la Republique and Place de la Nation must be revolutionaries facing off not just the three criminals who gunned down innocents, but an evil ideology intent on the destruction of our way of life.
I pray this part-fictitious retelling of the week’s events does not become the legend that informs the decade ahead, like the events that informed the decade past. I pray that it will not be our Patriot Act, hastily confirmed amidst the high passions of the hour. I pray our Vince Cables and Will Selfs will stand witness against the maddening clamour of the worst part of ourselves. The Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill is already well on its way through parliament. I pray that those minded to block it on the grounds of civil liberties will not be browbeaten into hysteric agreement by the impassioned histrionics of the narrators.
Like all peoples, we in Europe must reach into the wealth of our traditions to view ourselves with more critical eyes. Faith is not about grand cathedrals, synagogues and mosques, but about the state of our hearts. It is not about identity and belonging – for God will judge each of us individually – but about how we live our lives. Our leaders have been too ready to view war as the solution to our external problems, although all the evidence opposes this conclusion: in the wake of our wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, we have left a trail of destruction. Our leaders have been all too ready to balance the books, without providing any balance in society. And as individuals, we have been all too ready to be led by the story tellers in our midst.
Faith teaches us to turn on ourselves to make society better. It teaches us to look and reach within. To purify our hearts of selfish desires: of envy, pride and dishonesty. To become compassionate souls, who attend to the poor and weak, who look after orphans and the infirm. To become just individuals, who fight against corruption and oppression. To become those who are mindful of God, and of the rights of others, be they rich or poor, young or old, friend or foe. To become those who contribute positively to society.
In this time of strife, the people need healing parables, not patriotic calls to arms. In this time of difficulty we need to be reminded of those stories of old on which we claim to have built our nations. Of the sheep herder who ministered to the despised leper. Of the Samaritan who rushed to the aid of the injured man. Of the Prophet who forgave those who attacked him, who freed slaves and gave of everything he had to the poor. We do not need the BBC to bring us a new revolution. The change we need comes from within ourselves.
We claim the good amongst us and disown the bad.
Those before us claimed both and sought their redemption.