Saturday, August 16, 2014

Profound Insecurity -Reflections on Simple Narratives in a Era of Discontent

Reading and watching the news about Iraq lately has gotten me thinking again. The rise of ISIS the decimation they have caused, and the change they are bringing to an already volatile region of the world prompts me to contemplate the future.

I don't just wonder about the Middle East. I wonder about the world. It seems no matter where you go people are insecure. People in the United States, the country of my birth and nationality, are insecure about jobs, the economy a growing income gap and the growth of the security state. The shooting of yet another unharmed black teenager, this time in a small town in Missouri, has once again shown how much the so called 'Land of the Free' still has to do to address longstanding racism. People in Egypt, a country I lived in for two and a half years, worry about more street protests and violence as the army backed government their grapples with Islamists dismissed from power. Thailand, the country I was raised in and live in now, has undergone a military coup and the curbing of many rights. 

This time, whatever we might want to call it, seems to be one of deep unease. Perhaps, we people of the world feel it more thanks to the explosion of media an social media allowing us to instantly learn about tragedies in places on the opposite corner of the globe. I certainly think their have been more violent and tragic periods of history.

Nevertheless, we are grappling with so many issues in an interconnected world where deep divides between and within nations, states, cultures and religions.

With insecurity so rife, with so many across the world struggling to fill themselves and avoid repression it becomes easy to turn to extremes.

Insecurity seems to go hand in hand with polarization and bigotry. Being in Egypt before and after the less extreme but still delusional Muslim Brotherhood came to power, I saw how easily the message “Islam is the Solution” won over a poor, uneducated and desperate population who longed for change but had no clue how to truly achieve it. ISIS, though perhaps relatively small, leaves a large impact because it is united, because it has a clear digestible and nostalgic vision which resonates with a significant portion of the population. Going back to a supposed Golden Age, the Caliphate, which no one remembers never existed, offers escape into fantasy. And for many, that fantasy that simple story is all they live in.

Groups like ISIS resonate because their philosophy as a correspondent Nick Berg put it: “It promises everything” and yet at the same time ultimately, “it delivers nothing”.

Yet it would be utterly unfair of me to point at the shortcomings of Islamist and Jihadist ideology alone. For I also saw the same, narrow mentality of absolute certainty in conservative relatives of mine in the United States. Insecurity over a changing America prompts the same urge among some to idealize the stained history of the United States. Founding Fathers are deified, their humanity as forgotten as easily by Tea Partiers and Neo-Cons as the true nature of the Caliphate is by ISIS and Al Qaeda. We blot out or gloss over the injustices of Manifest Destiny, Slavery and Jim Crow only to be shocked back to the reality they have created when young black men are gunned down in the street by police officers...if then.

Simple stories, simple narratives exist within all the countries of the world. In Ukraine, Spain, Thailand, Brazil we see them embraced only to see their returning grasp strangle their hopeful embrace to death. Easy to recall and easy to remember, they offer escape. Yet ultimately they cannot provide answers to the complicated and intertwined issues we grapple with. Open eyes, open ears open eyes a willingness to see our failings and shortcomings as well as those of people of TV screens thousands of miles away from us. These are what we need if we're to start seeing the world for what it is. Hopefully, if enough of us to do this it will be a step in the right direction.

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