On the morning of Tuesday, 22 March 2016 Belgium woke up to two coordinated terrorist attacks on the Brussels airport and a metropolitan subway station that left at least 30 people dead and more than 200 others wounded. The heinous attack is symptomatic of the rising tide of violence that has hit Paris, San Bernardino, California, Ankara, and Istanbul in the last months. These attacks, all perpetrated by ISIS/ISIL, are also symptomatic of the terrorist group’s disillusionment with—and at the same time exploitation of—globalization: globalization (and the corresponding spread of global capital and increased migration) has raised people’s expectations—especially in the Arab world—without an equal increase in people’s returns. As expectations increase returns do not. And that has provided fertile recruiting ground, especially in an era of increased transnational migration.
Five years ago, in 2011, sociologist Felice Dassetto’s book L’iris et le Croissant claimed that, by 2030, Brussels would become Europe’s first majority Muslim city. Due to increased migrant flows in the era of globalization many Muslims settled in Belgium and, as a result of the country’s liberal policies, some radical Imams were able to preach things that their home countries—notoriously harsh on any semblance of political Islam—would have never allowed them to say. Now, Belgium apparently has the highest number of ISIS/ISIL members of any European country. For more details on European policies towards Muslim integration (or, in many ways, non-integration) please see Middle East Quarterly’s summer 2014 issue here.
Image Courtesy Of: http://indy100.independent.co.uk/article/belgium-provided-the-most-isis-fighters-per-capita-of-all-eu-countries-last-year–b1yD_bwvtx?utm_source=indy&utm_medium=top5&utm_campaign=i100
I am not a proponent of globalization in the sense of supporting unchecked flows of global capital; not every world city needs a McDonald’s by any means. Mark Allen Peterson’s Connected in Cairo (2011) puts it well, noting a trend where “First World cheap becomes Third World chic” (Peterson, 2011: 8). No, I don’t think the portions of the First World that are rejected should be exported to the rest of the world. I’ve been to Cairo, and I prefer koshari over McDonald’s just as I preferred borsht over McDonald’s in Ukraine and will always prefer döner over McDonald’s in Turkey. This is not to say I won’t dig into a double cheeseburger every now and then when in the United States—I would be a liar if I said I didn’t—but, then again, the United States doesn’t have good koshari, borsht, or döner…
And, importantly, that’s not to say that the United States doesn’t have koshari, borsht, or döner. Of course it does—and that is the positive side of globalization. I enjoy the fact that, simply by writing, I can meet people from all over the world that hail from diverse backgrounds. I can jump on a plane and be wherever I want whenever I want; I can watch a football match in any number of countries in person or on my computer if I so choose. After all, as soccer sociologists Giulianotti and Robertson (2012) note, football is a “potent and increasingly significant catalyst of globalization”. Again, this is alright with me. Interacting with people from other cultures helps us all—as human beings—together make sense of the world we live in. It can help us make sense of our lives that, sometimes, can seem so hopelessly meaningless that it leaves us wondering why we are even going to get up the next morning. But we do, because—we know—there is so much left to explore, so much more left to see that lies beyond our own doorsteps, our own cities’ limits, our own countries’ borders….
Unfortunately, at a time when the transnational global system is characterized by the diminishing importance of national borders, we are seeing an alarming retreat into—and re-affirmation of—national borders. It is ironic that international terrorists are exploiting the global system they claim to fight against to inflict violent acts on innocent people—and that we, the victims of their aggression, are willing to fall into their trap by retreating into an “Us Vs. Them” mentality reminiscent of the “Clash of Civilizations” thesis so contested in the optimistic years following the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Most people in the United States focus their ire on Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, vilifying him for his insensitive remarks towards Muslims. I will not get into that; it is well covered across the American—and global—media (the Economist ranked a potential Trump presidency a bigger global threat than Islamic terrorism (!)) and, quite honestly, the issue is bigger than just American politics. After all, the current leader of the United States, President Barack Obama, was busy attending a “historic” baseball game in Cuba (Sports and politics anyone?) in the wake of the attacks, looking more Johnny Depp in Rum Diary than Commander-in-chief while sporting his “500 dollar shades” (a fact the Daily Mail didn’t miss pointing out).
Johnny Depp on the left, the leader of the free world on the right. Images courtesy of http://www.selectspecs.com/blog/johnny-depp-and-his-sunglasses-from-rum-diary/ and http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3504209/Obama-pressure-return-home-giving-40-minute-speech-Cuba-addressed-Brussels-terror-attack-just-one-minute.html, respectively.
I will also point out that, on the morning of 22 March, 2016, American news outlets were busy reporting on the bombings at the Brussels airport with politicians from across the political spectrum offering their condolences alongside their plans to stop the global terror threat. Then I recalled that when I turned on my television the morning of 19 March, 2016, there was no news on the bombing that had torn central Istanbul apart. That’s when I got to thinking…
In the wake of the 13 November, 2015 Paris attacks many American friends changed their Facebook profiles to the colors of the French flag. These people were not French, and many of them had never even visited the country. But they did it out of solidarity. Similarly, on the morning of 22 March, social media again became a venue for expressions of solidarity with the Belgian people. Perhaps the most telling image was published by Le Monde’s Twitter feed, a piece of art made by Jean Plantureux (Plantu). CNN describes the image as “A crying person draped in a French flag hug[ging] a crying person with a Belgian flag, suggesting solidarity between the two countries. The dates beneath each figure signify the November 13 Paris attacks and the March 22 Brussels attacks.”
For me, the most significant portion of the art was the (unconscious) emphasis of the light colors of white and yellow to depict the “people”. It is no doubt coincidence—and practicality for the artist, given that white and yellow are the central colors of the French and Belgian tricolors—that made these colors so central. But it also is emblematic of a deeper ambivalence of “Western” society towards violence in the Middle East that has manifested itself in a willful ignorance of recent events in Turkey and the wider Muslim world. Yasmin Ahmed noted that “our indifference is fuelling terrorist organizations like ISIS”, reminding us that “the weight of a terror attack shouldn’t be measured in terms of the numbers hurt and killed. Each life taken to prove a political point is an outrage. But the figures stand. There were so many more lives lost in Turkey, while Europe remained mute.”
I am not here to compare numbers; that is futile and—frankly—disrespectful to the victims. I am also not here to say that people should not be disgusted by savage acts of violence or that people should not show solidarity with those suffering. It is important to share these human emotions that bind us together. But I am here to say that the commercialism inherent in some of these emotional displays sets a dangerous precedent. When corporations such as Facebook create settings for the French flag—but not for the Turkish (or Lebanese or Syrian or Iraqi or any other country’s, for that matter) flag, it is a slippery slope. When artists such as Plantureux create artwork that focuses on just two countries affected by terrorist acts—while ignoring others that are also affected—it is, again, a slippery slope. Such commercially motivated responses to tragedy risk allowing an interpretation that says “when those living in a Western European nation die it’s a tragedy; when those living in a Muslim country die it’s normal”.
It is not normal. No death by terrorism is “normal”. Perpetuating this divide—based on national and cultural borders—risks a true “clash of civilizations” and furthers the goals of extremists like ISIS/ISIL. I have traveled enough to know that there are good and bad people all over the world. Make no mistake, evil knows no religion, no race, no ethnicity, no nationality, and no geography. That is why good must also show that it is not based on religion, on race, on ethnicity, on nationality, or on geography. It is up to us—as a part of global humanity—to not give in to paranoia and stand up for and defend our ideals while recognizing that being divided will get us, the good people, nowhere.
My heart goes out to all of those affected by the events of the last week.