Last weekend a friend and I attended a religious event called Ashura, in remembrance of the death of Mohammed’s grandson, Hussein. I went for a variety of reasons. I wanted to build relationships within Beirut’s Shia community. I wanted to learn more about their faith. I wanted free rice pudding.
Several streets in my neighborhood were closed for the event and barricaded for safety reasons. Lebanese Military guarded the outer entrances, while mosque-affiliated security guarded the event itself. When we arrived, the sun had set and the service had already begun. Music played over the loud speakers as a circle of men beat their chests in grief. We watched from the sidelines for a while before deciding to go in.
We made it about five feet before we were stopped and told to wait outside. Confused and afraid of causing offense, we retreated back to where we had previously stood.
A middle-aged man, who was about my height and had kind eyes, jogged up to us. “You want to go in?” He asked.
“We were told to leave…” I explained. He shook his head, said something to the guy I now assume was head of security, and lead us back into the event.
Afterward, we hung out with our new friend. He explained that we were originally kicked out because someone suspected we were affiliated with Daesh (ISIS).
To be honest, I got way too much of a kick out of this. I told everyone I encountered the next day. I told my roommates. I texted my dad. I even mentioned it while on a date. I felt that I finally had become what I always wanted to be: physically intimidating. Those bi-weekly pushups were paying off, and I was not mad about it.
People’s responses were somewhere along the lines of, “You? ISIS? Ha! Wow, must’ve been the blonde hair.”
To which I would respond, “I know. I know. Maybe it was my New York snarl? Who knows?”
My amusement was of course a little off-color for two reasons. One, it fails to validate the fear that plagues Shia Muslims when they plan large gatherings. And two, it perpetuates the idea that “terrorists” or even “ISIS” fighters all look the same, and I mean this beyond just racial profiling.
The security guy at that event recognized something that many of us fail to: it's the ideology that is dangerous, and that ideology can infect anyone's mind.
Example: A couple weeks ago, Iraqi Military captured a 16-year-old German girl in Mosul. She was allegedly fighting for ISIS
When we stop seeing it as a battle against an ideology, we start down a dangerous path. It can obviously lead to islamophobia, xenophobia, racism, and all those terrible things, but it’s also wildly ineffective in the long-term fight against extremism. On a small level and on a larger, policy level.
- We neglect the possibility of others being inspired by extremists’ ideas.
- We begin to believe that with the eradication of all fighters, or a harsh crackdown on an “at risk” group, we will finally be safe.
- We risk adding to recruitment narratives.
- We ignore potentially successful non-violent counterterrorism tactics.
This is perfectly exemplified with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s battle against extremists, which is brutal and I’m convinced creates more extremism than it destroys. But it also predates him.
Example: Look at the strategy of Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s dad, which involved the bombing of Hama and the death of 20,000 people in one day in order to eradicate the Muslim extremists from Syria in the ‘82. Now, look at the state of Syria today. How did that work out?
We cannot neglect the fact that, like during the Cold War, we are battling ideas.* This battle must include more than just bombs and bullets and reach beyond the usual suspects. It must eliminate the soil in which those ideas thrive by relieving the pain of government oppression of marginalized groups and promoting education, pacification, healing, reconciliation, and restoration. This is pertinent in any reliable long-term approach.
So maybe I should stop laughing about being a "suspicious character," maybe. Because in reality, my blonde hair doesn’t make me any more immune to a terror group's ideologies than a red-less wardrobe would make me immune to Soviet Communism. However, I still think I probably give off an if-there’s-an-airstrike-I’m-hiding-in-the-cupboard vibe, and that, my friends, is a perfectly reasonable thing by which to judge me.
*This is not to say that US foreign policy was good during the Cold War. Later, I'll write more about how certain actions and policies during this time actually helped create the current political landscape in the Middle and Near East.