I was 16 years old. Twenty-five years before Christchurch – on February 25, 1994 – a terrorist snuck into a mosque and opened fire on worshippers as they knelt in prostration during Fajr (dawn) prayers. He killed 29, including seven children. Some of those who survived were left with life changing injuries.
There will be a coming article – inshallah – to talk about the Ibrahimi Mosque Massacre (also known as the Cave of the Patriarchs Massacre), and how its aftermath shapes our world even today. But this article is far more personal – the first in a series I plan to write after Christchurch. The series is not really about the massacre itself, mind you – it’s a deep dive into radicalization, exclusion, faith, and – in a very personal way – into a past self.
Twenty-five years is a long time ago, but this is where I found myself as the earliest images of the Christchurch massacre streamed in. You learn to live with flashbacks when you live with PTSD, but this one was different.
The media coverage was important, but also frenetic, and I chose to step away and withdraw. I didn’t want to feed the frenzy or get caught up in it, and didn’t want to make those flashbacks worse. I second-guessed myself every day and itched to write something. The frustration increased every day. Later, I came to think of the frustration as a sign that I’m disobeying a baser instinct. Frustration became a sign of some hard-won wisdom.
While I didn’t tweet much, I still went online to read. And I found the coverage very frustrating. People with no background or experience in radicalization (or of being radicalized) suddenly wanted to comment. People with zero experience in extremism suddenly wanted to rack up retweets. And combine that with the microcelebrity culture we have on here and you have people who forget about the massacre and make this a personal fight with other tweeters they dislike.
(Pundits: you really ought to pundit less. You don’t have to comment on everything. Take a break, sit one out. You aren’t and can’t be an everything expert. It’s OK to once in a while say “I don’t know enough about this to comment on it”. It’s OK to just come online and ask questions and wonder about answers rather than, you know, punditing.)
Is It About Ideology?
But out of everything that frustrated me about the coverage, one thing topped the list: The focus on ideology and manifestos. Ideology and manifestos are a distraction.
Yes – you heard it from me, the ideas guy – my organization sees one of its roles as ideological change, and several bios of mine point to an Arab Spring Manifesto (which my co-founder Ahmed Gatnash and I wrote, but never published, because I got arrested in the middle of writing it). I’m an ideas guy. But I’m also someone with a first-person experience in radicalization (and deradicalization). And I’m telling you – ideologies are a distraction.
Mind you, I’m not saying ideologies and manifestos are unimportant. Something can be very important, but a distraction nonetheless, because it diverts your attention from something equally (or more) important.
Ideologies are products. Manifestos are like marketing materials – brochures and sales pitches. Neither the marketing materials nor the product itself would exist if not for a customer with a deep primal need that the product satisfies. Lots of people are talking about the product and the marketing material – all good. Too few are talking about the customer.
A radicalization-free future isn’t one where there are no radicalization manifestos or extremist ideologies. These are ideas – and you can’t kill an idea. No – a radicalization-free future is one where for all the attempts to sell the product, there’s just no market for it. You can advertise it all you want, but nobody will buy. Conversely, no matter how much you try to “counter” the product – ban it, criminalize its advertising campaigns, strip its customers from citizenship, or build send its salespeople to a concentration camp – so long there’s a market, it’ll continue to sell. You’d just have created a black market. You may have raised the price, then, but it’ll continue to sell.
I’m – again – not saying all that works isn’t important, because it is. I have the deepest professional respect for those who work on studying, understanding, and countering extremist ideologies and material. But “the customer” is this other deeper, more foundational matter that’s just as important, if not more important, and not enough people are talking about it. Why? Perhaps because it’s a minefield. Any attempt to talk about the customer is taken by angry hordes as an attempt to justify his action. As if, say, explaining the mechanism of addiction, or the psychology of the addicted, is tantamount to “justifying drugs”, or “apologizing for addiction”.
But it’s not just that. Understanding the customer requires lots of insight into the psychology of said customers – insight that’s bound to be subjective. It requires ex-customers to come forward and turn their analytical tools inwards, aided perhaps by, well, 25 years of distance.
I Was Once A Customer
I was once a customer. A perfect customer, and one who bought the product hook, line, and sinker. One who not only read all the marketing material, but tried to write some too. In coming articles in this series (which I’ll also be tweeting as threads over on Twitter), I’ll talk about the customer.
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