At times of increased tension, both ISIL and racists in the west are taking a similar path to polarize the public. I’d propose an alternative approach to avoid a bleak future with limited civil liberties.
Coming back from a medical mission that treated the unfortunate Syrian refugees in Jordan, I could imagine the customs and border protection officer denying my entrance to the country of my citizenship because I am a Muslim. “I am sorry, doctor, but the rules have changed since your departure,” he would say. Sitting in that cold waiting room waiting for an airline to take me somewhere in the world, my past 18 years would flash in front of my eyes. This is a situation that I hope would never transpire.
Born with blue eyes and fair complexion to a father from Latakia, a town on the coast of Syria, and a mother from the heart of Damascus, I can’t say that my experiences have been similar to other Arabs or Muslims. I have witnessed, however, the horror of 9/11/01 and the backlash experienced by many of them and even by non-Muslim Indians wearing turbans. We are living today in similar times with high tension since the Paris and San Bernardino attacks. Of course these cowardly attacks do not represent Islam just as the Oklahoma City bombing does not represent Christianity. The heart of the matter, nevertheless, is that we are all falling into a ploy leading us to believe in a clash of civilizations or religions.
In 2011, a group of Syrians started a nonviolent uprising against the injustice and lack of political liberty imposed upon them by the Assad regime. They were met with brutal force. Unfortunately, some started carrying weapons to defend themselves. Many neighboring countries, with blessing from major world powers, added fuel to the fire by allowing foreign fighters to enter Syria. ISIL in Syria was, therefore, formed. The latter, however, does not represent Islam nor the Syrians. Its extreme ideology has been supplemented by spectacular, horrific and televised acts of terror. Since then, the whole world determined that it is the enemy and countless countries commissioned airstrikes in Syria with no regards to civilian lives.
Meanwhile in the West, there is a rise of fascism with racist slurs and religious bigotry. It is built on a rhetoric that ignites fear and rage in a population that is not familiar with foreign events, and leads to alienation and cornering of minorities. Hate crimes are on the rise and Muslim minorities are finding themselves in a defensive position. Two of them with sick brains in San Bernardino adopted an extremist reaction. By doing that, they validated the racist rhetoric and assessment and, thus, increased its popularity.
Both ISIL in the Middle East and the racists in the West have the same agenda: polarizing the populace into an “us against them” mentality. With every televised horrific ISIL act and the ensuing bombings, more civilians in the Middle East are turning to ISIL for safe haven. On the other side, with every racist action in the west, more Muslim youth feel alienated and regress into an extreme religious propaganda available all over the Internet and thus more join an extremist organization. This closes the loop on a vicious cycle. Unfortunately, the media is falling into this trap like many of us. They are overplaying and overanalyzing every action and contributing to the division.
Sitting in that cold room, I could remember abandoning the medical specialty that I loved the most because it was popular among American graduates and choosing a less popular specialty. I could recollect practicing in an underserved area with a salary below the reasonable wages for my specialty for several years. I could remember the countless number of US patients that I treated from the heart without ever asking them about their religion or nationality. I would wish that people stood together across all religions and races and stopped this slippery slope. I would hope that instead of bombing Syria, we shut down ISIL’s social media and bank accounts, arrested their oil exports to Europe and halted the flow of weapons to Syria. I would desire that we called out racists when we saw them, that we wrote to the media when they produced biased reports, that we networked with each other and rallied to tell the country and the world that that was not the trajectory we wanted for humankind. I would wish that we built bridges, not destroyed them.