It is a joy to lose myself in fiction most days and sometimes it is a relief. Today, it just felt like frivolity. A blanket of darkness has settled on the world stage. It feels as if social structures are crumbling around us, yet still we carry on with our daily lives as if in a bubble. In the West, by accident of our birth, we are privileged and safe, for the moment. We are faceless armies of men and women who tumble out of bed in the morning, put on the uniforms of our employers, earn a living and care for our families. But others aren’t so lucky.
I have been alternately avoiding and immersing myself in the news lately. As I grow older, the inclination to hide from the headlines increases. With the amount of media we are exposed to daily, you’d have to be living in a vacuum to have missed how fraught with danger the world is right now. It is easier than ever to obtain accounts of conflicts from around the world. All it takes is a click. But shocking headlines no longer have the power to move us. We have become desensitised to the vast number of deaths. We are so fatigued by the endless reports of death on our flickering screens that our empathy has been castrated.
We project our own truths but armour ourselves against perspectives that are not our own. We have become bellowing isolationists. Tragedy has become part of our global consciousness. We accept it, welcome it even. It serves to reinforce our sense of what is right and what is wrong. Reports from across the globe bring momentary despair. Then we shake off our leaden thoughts and try to forget that somewhere the blood of men, women and children not unlike us is seeping into the earth. There are exceptions. Twitter and Facebook are awash with calls for action in conflict zones and solidarity with the victims, but how effective is this armchair activism and can we find ways to translate it into concrete outcomes?
I have begun to feel complicit in the shady morality that allows acts of violence that we are currently witnessing to continue. Tell me, is it anything more than a happy coincidence that we are born into conflict free zones? What right do we have to tranquility while shells rain down on the people of Gaza? How can we sit by while political strife escalates to such a degree that hundreds of thousands of Syrians are displaced from their homes? In what world do people kill or maim in the name of religion or force others to submit to their faith? Surely history has taught us that we have a responsibility to intervene when minorities are being systematically persecuted? How can it be acceptable today for one country to annex part of another?
In truth, even in established democracies, we are only ever a few short steps away from civil unrest. Take the London riots of 2011, for example, after the death of Mark Duggan, or the events in Ferguson, Missouri. In what kind of civilised society is an unarmed man shot dead when he is in a defensive position? We may convince ourselves that these troubles are not on our doorstep, but we are not immune to conflict.
I’ve been very aware, for example, that anti-Muslim sentiment is gaining ground in the West. I am a Shia Ismaili Muslim. Since September 11th, on the rare occasions I’ve discussed my religion I’ve felt the need to explain how liberal and progressive we are. I don’t wear a headscarf (as if that should matter) and was free to decide who I married, you know. In actual fact, I’m proud of my religion. I’m especially proud of the development work Ismaili organisations such as AKF and AKDN do. But the term Muslim has become synonymous with inequality, zealot and terrorist. 2001 was the last time I hung prayer beads from the rearview mirror in my car. Over a decade later, in which the 2005 London bombings occurred, Lee Rigby was killed (2013) and violent Islamist factions have been increasingly active, I find I am still unable to state my religion in unfamiliar company without caveats.
Only now it seems that apologies and explanations are expected of Muslims in general, that is, from the peace-loving kind. Haven’t you heard? If it is indeed a peaceful religion as we claim, liberal Muslims shouldn’t be hiding in the shadows. We should be denouncing the actions of jihadists. What you forget is that the West is my home too, and I have 100 per cent more in common with you then I have with Islamist extremists. I am not the other. Religion is only part of my identity. Yes, I stand with you against the violent actions committed in the name of Islam, but you are mistaken if you think I hold any sway with the perpetrators. You see, I am more hated by him than you. I suffer with you. I bear the shame for his deeds although he twists my religion to serve his purpose and to manipulate his followers.
Complex historical and sociopolitical factors created the environment for the global conflicts we see at play today. Difference continues to drive a wedge between communities in even the most sophisticated societies. The world pulses with fear and greed, yet surely all most of us want is to be loved, to be safe from harm, to have food in our bellies and the chance for our families to flourish. Who needs complexity when it can be that simple? There is enough disease, poverty and environmental disasters for us to tackle without us fighting each other.
I wonder how much our collective consciousness could achieve if we acted as one, if we checked our egos and power play at the door and tried to rediscover our humanity. No one has the right to take another’s life. There is no absolute power. We are all answerable for our actions and that includes members of the establishment who make the wrong call. And it certainly includes the madmen in our midsts.