By Hadani Ditmars
As Manchester reels from a night of horror, in the aftermath of a bomb that went off in a stadium full of young people, all thoughts are with the families of the victims.
My last visit to Manchester was to speak at an exhibition of Iraqi art at the Cornerhouse Gallery, and so I am also drawn to remember Baghdad, where, last summer, more than 300 mainly young people, women and children, enjoying post-iftar amusements, were killed in a terrorist attack at the al-Hadi shopping centre.
Since the attack last night, there has been an outpouring of solidarity and international outrage, from Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham to Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, who said: “This is a direct and brutal attack on young people everywhere, on freedom everywhere.”
We live in an age of multiple terrors, from the terror of having your house demolished and your family rendered homeless under “legal” means in Palestine, to the terror of having your house blown up by a “smart bomb” in Mosul, or a barrel bomb in Aleppo, or a Saudi bomb in Yemen or an American drone in a whole variety of nations – to the terror of “regime change” in Libya or Iraq, when whole countries implode and, public health and education, rights for women and minorities and basic security vanish overnight.
And, of course, the subsequent terror of giving your life savings to a human smuggler and risking your life to escape – only to face virtual imprisonment, demonisation and an uncertain future.
Then there is the terror of growing old alone with no health insurance in America, the terror of being a young person facing a lifetime of under-employment and zero-hours contracts, barely able to afford basics like food and shelter in a some of the world’s wealthiest nations. The terror of watching horror videos of your tax dollars at work and dictators on parade on Facebook, while wondering how you will pay your rent, let alone resist the horror.
And the terror of being a tax-paying Muslim citizen in, say, Quebec City or Queens, and having friends and relatives gunned down while praying or abused while walking home with their children. Or the terror of being in the wrong place at the wrong time in San Bernadino, or almost any other city in the US, the biggest arms exporter in the world, where guns can be purchased at Walmart.
The terror of neoliberalism reimagined as a slasher flick.
While there is no equanimity of suffering, and some terrors are certainly more awful than others, there is an undeniable connection between them. They are all the terrible fruits of the industry of fear.
It’s an industry that’s undeniably profitable – see Trump’s recent $110 billion arms deal with the Saudis. Already benefiting from Western weapons to murder more Yemenis in the ongoing conflict that has killed more 1,500 children and destroyed 2,000 schools, now the Saudis will benefit from “sophisticated radar-precision guided arms”.
And Trump’s visit to Israel has undoubtedly continued the long-time American status quo when it comes to facilitating and funding violent the occupation of Palestine.
The ironies of the global “war on terror”, initiated by a nation that has funded violent Wahhabism and ongoing occupations, and spent decades undermining secular nationalist movements in the Middle East and West Asia and directly funding extremism in places like Afghanistan (where the Taliban’s Qurans are printed in the American Midwest) and fomented violent sectarianism in Iraq, are not lost on many commentators.
But Islamophobia, the knee-jerk, illogical reaction to a “war on terror” that has killed thousands of Muslims, is as much an industry as the network of crime and arms sales that prop up global terror.
They are two sides of the same very profitable coin.
To decry one is not to support the other – it is to remove the thin veil that separates them and reveal what lies beneath.
Here in Canada, after an “anti-Islamophobia motion” passed in the wake of the Quebec City massacre, Muslim scholars and community leaders are already facing the vitriol of right-wing racists rallying around “free speech” issues.
And one only has to read the often terrifying comments sections of virtually any story with a Muslim theme in leading English or French language dailies to realise that the virulent spirit of anti-Semitism of our terrible mid-century moment is now being re-visited on men, women and children who happen to be part of the billion-strong global community of Muslims.
When I published my first book on Iraq, Dancing in the No Fly Zone, about pre- and post-invasion realities, employees of a neo-con “thinktank” tracked me down on Amazon, and called me an evil “Saddamist” – apparently for documenting conversations with Iraqi women who spoke about the terrible new post-invasion violence against women by fundamentalist militias, and expressed nostalgia for the pre-invasion days when their daughters could walk to school safely, while there was also subsidised day care.
All this despite the fact I was actually expelled from Iraq by Saddam’s regime for writing critically about it.
Recently, Islamophobe trolls on social media called me an “apologist for Islam”, for suggesting that blaming Islam for the region’s woes may be rather simplistic and misleading.
Spot the difference? Whichever “enemy” happens to suit the status quo – whether Western-backed police state bogeyman or well-armed and funded criminal networks of terror – is ripe for demonisation as a way to “otherise” the people we are bombing and invading and turning into refugees, even as we are making deals with their leaders.
It’s ironic too, being called “an apologist for Islam” – as if Islam itself, more than other faiths or movements that wielded ideology as a weapon should require apology – considering my great-grandparents were Christian refugees fleeing Ottoman oppression in what was then Syria and what (after some imperial border shifting) is now Lebanon.
And yet they came from a village known for its interfaith harmony. Even at the height of the civil war, Muslims and Christians from Karoun would go to other villages to preach peace and tolerance and brotherhood.
The day I met Lebanese-Canadian artist Jamelie Hassan in the imperially named London, Ontario (kind of the Canadian commonwealth equivalent of Paris, Texas), and had strong Arabic coffee with her, was a special one – realising as we sipped ahweh holoh that her Muslim grandfather and my Christian great-grandfather had done the same thing every day as neighbours in Karoun.
But in the new world of dispersed diasporas and cultural isolation, racism and materialism are the new oppressors, wielded as weapons by the merchants of fear.
So why should I, great-grand daughter of Christian refugees, care about Islamophobia? Because it distorts the real political and human rights issues at play in the region and the world and falsely casts them as “religious” ones.
Because my ancestors were part of a persecuted minority in a dying, bloated empire that used them as cannon fodder for imperial wars. Because I care about secularism and democracy and peaceful co-existence. I’m not sure how this makes me an “apologist for terror”, or an “anti-Semite” as I was once called for writing an article about a women’s centre in Gaza, or a “Saddamist” or any number of “otherising” names empire likes to foist upon us.
While alt-right White supremacists continue to play the “blame Islam” card for the evils of this world, they fail to distinguish between Islam, the faith of a billion human souls, and the criminal terror networks – and they fail to note that most acts of terror perpetrated in the name of Islam in the West are carried out by troubled young citizens with criminal records, direct experience of racism, and often serious mental health and addiction issues – or, as in the case of recent incidents in Germany, by soldiers posing as Islamists to discredit refugees.
Shouldn’t we in the West look to our own society’s failings before condemning the faith of a billion people?
In the end, the vision of Islam as an unbending, fundamentalist monolith is shared by both Islamophobes and the extremists they decry, and both feed into the profits of arms dealers, human traffickers and recruiters of disaffected young men from Manchester to Mosul, and from Leeds to Libya.
Like Charlton Heston’s anguished cry at the end of the classic 1970s dystopian film: “Soylent Green is people!”, I say: “Terrorism is us!”
The sooner we stop terrorising each other, and connect the dots between our shared – if somewhat inequitable – experiences of oppression, the less power we give to the tandem ideologies of the international fear factory.
Let us sit, like old neighbours from the global village, and share coffee and stories. We have nothing to lose but our imagined labels for each other and the terror of feeling powerless.
Hadani Ditmars is the author of Dancing in the No Fly Zone: a Woman’s Journey Through Iraq. A former editor at New Internationalist, she has been reporting from the Middle East for two decades.