I was born and raised in Ontario. I have European lineage. I am a Muslim. I am a Westerner. I feel the sorrow and the confusion of both caught within the so-called war on terror. With a foot in both worlds, I can see how both are looking and talking past one another, without a great deal of introspection.
Let me start by saying I condemn the horror in Beslan. I felt sick to my stomach watching the news and cried when I saw mothers burying their children. Yet I remember the same feeling in my stomach the day Russian tanks rolled into Groznyy and flattened a city of more than a million people. I condemn that, too.
I condemned the attack on New York City, and I condemned the thousands of children killed in Iraq. I've condemned the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, and I've condemned the brutal occupation of East Timor. After each subsequent atrocity, one community looks to the other to condemn it unconditionally. In one form or another, someone from the ”guilty by association” community speaks out against what happened.
But those asked to do the condemning most likely had nothing to do with the atrocity and don't appreciate the insinuation that they support the slaughter unless they explicitly deny it. While this game of condemnations will unfortunately continue, it is likely to do little to prevent the next atrocity. Rather, an inward examination on both sides needs to begin.
Civilian attacks, hostage beheadings, and the murder of schoolchildren are so far removed from Islamic principles that we in the Muslim community have a difficult time believing that it could be ”one of us.” As such, we force ourselves to view the news at best as intentionally uncontextualized media coverage and at worst as conspiracy theories.
Rare is it that we reflect on how we got to a point where the perpetrators of these crimes don't see themselves as the radicals and extremists that the rest of the community does. The Muslim world needs to recognize that, somewhere in the legitimate struggle for emancipation and self-determination, a line has been crossed.
At the same time, occupations, collateral damage and prison torture are equally far removed from democratic principles, such that we in the West have a tough time believing the extent to which they are happening. As a result, we have a tendency to assume that ”the other side” must be exaggerating or even fabricating their grievances, leaving us susceptible to the simplistic rationale that they ”just hate us,” and this blind rage can only be dealt with a sweeping yet blunt sword.
The ”West” needs to acknowledge that, somewhere in the legitimate desire for human and economic security, a line has also been crossed. And crossing the proverbial lines has led us collectively down slippery slopes in opposite directions, from where we are now able to dismiss unthinkable horrors without losing too much sleep by saying: ”Yes, it is terrible. But don't forget about [insert appropriate atrocity here].”
Although it shouldn't, it needs to be said that the vast majority of Muslims are appalled by what is being justified in the name of their religion. The vast majority of Westerners, meanwhile, deplore the civilian death toll we have racked up in the name of freedom.
I know it needs to be said because I have heard people say the exact opposite.
Clearly, the vast majority of humanity does not think butchering others is a good idea, and yet we are somehow caught in this whirlwind of simplistic rationalizations for murder as the body count climbs.
The only way I see out is to painfully examine our own complicity in the problem. How did it come to this? How did we not stop it?
In today's globalized world, no one can claim complete immunity from the events on the planet. I understand the paradox within which I live - condemning the occupation of Palestine while living on land that was taken from the First Nations. Yet I, we, Muslims and Westerners, cannot allow ourselves to be paralyzed by such contradictions. Rather, let them spur us into action to rectify what we can within ourselves and our own lives. It is too easy to cast blame on someone else and believe that the roots of the problem lie elsewhere.
”Be the change you want to see in the world,” Mahatma Gandhi, a great Eastern thinker, once said. Voltaire, a great Western thinker, warned: ”As long as people believe in absurdities, they will continue to commit atrocities.”
Tim Weis is an Edmonton-based environmental consultant and advisory board member of the Council on American-Islamic Relations Canada.