Pinch yourself. Awake! The Internet is like Alice in Wonderland, a strange unreality, so unbelievably true. The maddening clamour of decapitated voices call to folly, chaos and the obscure, like a cloudy magic-mushroom induced alternative dimension. This tenacious entanglement is a web indeed, a pretender to reality, an exaggerated representation of a billion souls unfiltered by the constraints of worldly life; of eye contact, the weather forecast, the human touch.
A voice from within whispers, “Drink me,” and all of a sudden we are incredible characters on a tiny screen, engaged in amazing trancelike adventures, so fictitious that soon we believe that our lives in this alternative realm will never be held to account.
It scares me that so many appear willing to answer the call of an unknown entity, its impeccable social-media savvy unmatched; unquestioning masses in a stupor obeying without reflection, pledging allegiance to an idea made true only by its own propaganda. Verses of the Qur’an are passed on like business cards. Hadith are launched from great silos in a tale of shock and awe. To the young and uninitiated it is ever so convincing. But the rest of us have seen it all before.
Every time an army emerges in the East, its black flags a fulfilment of prophecy, the overexcited look on in wonderment at their messianic saviours and rush to pledge allegiance to the amir. At the turn of the century, it was the Taliban’s turn, celebrated by the naive as the perfect Islamic state. On the nascent internet, viral petitions were circulating by email, condemning the bedraggled band of students for its violation of women’s rights, but activists were undeterred, responding in kind with propaganda of their own. Then, as now, it was the Muslim’s duty to support these men without question; the Northern Alliance would become the great infidels to be vanquished, and after that the world.
But, just as it was not the last time, nor was it the first. In our own time, at the turn of the Islamic Century on 20 November 1979, a small band of heavily armed men likewise saw themselves as fulfilment of a prophecy about the end of times. It was the first day of the year 1400, after all, so significant and telling that it could only be true. After months of dreams, doubts and visions, the time had come to act: they would overthrow the House of Saud. With ecstatic self-belief they stormed Masjid al-Haram during the Hajj pilgrimage and made for the Kaaba. Here was the long awaited and promised Mahdi — Mohammed Abdullah al-Qahtani — the saviour of the Muslims. Then, as now, all the sincere Muslims of the world were supposed to pledge their allegiance the new Caliph. But instead blood flowed in that holiest of places and it became just another footnote in a long history of uprisings sold as the redemption of a nation.
But this time will be different, say the young activists, like the Zealots of Qumran on the edge of the Roman Empire 2000 years ago, clinging fast to prophecies of antiquity. Today’s Muslim does not need to study history, ancient or modern, for everything they need to know has been expounded by links fed via Twitter. Today’s Muslim does not need to ask questions, to scrape beneath the surface, to verify the news that has reached him. He will not ask, are these people friend or foe? He will not trace down IP addresses, lookup whois data on a domain. He will not wonder if it is a sophisticated honey trap, a malicious stunt, a family feud, sectarian hate-mongering, a counter-offensive, a rabble of bandits or even just an apparition created online, far removed from realities on the ground.
Many are confused — and rightly so — for on the internet truth and falsehood is irretrievably combined. Extremists spew hate, we learn one day, only to learn another that the extremists were counter-extremists fighting on the frontline of the war on terror, bringing down yet another extremist, who it turns out had extraordinary links to the security services. A young impressionable man reads of the tragic suffering of women and children overseas and is determined to go to their aid, we learn one day, only to learn another that he has been sucked into a dangerous war, unable to tell who is an innocent anymore. The kind and sincere have always easily been led astray, but in theses times, with these technologies, misguidance is boundless, uncertainty is the only certainty and time has no worth; everything is instantaneous. There is no time for reflection, no time to pause for thought. Patience is a virtue for which there is no time today. You must decide where you stand, here and now. Too late: it’s all over.
One hundred years ago, a small band of Serbian nationalists took action into their own hands, with a plan to assassinate Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, in Sarajevo. With that burst of bullets, Gavrilo Princip accidentally sparked a war spanning continents, resulting in 16 million dead. Knee-jerk reactions by politicians across Europe resulted in one of the deadliest conflicts in human history.
And that’s the trouble with narrowly defined, self-declared noble causes: there is very little nobility in them at all. Just transgression of all boundaries. Only disaster lays ahead. Pinch yourself now, before it’s too late. Awake!