Not all is well with the world. We have been bombarded with calamitous events around the globe that have made me question how our humanity is going to survive.
After the Orlando shooting, NPR’s Hidden Brain podcast replayed its episode on the psychology of modern terrorism and what drives radicalization at home. I had downloaded it ahead of my family holiday, and found time on the plane ride to listen to this fascinating report on why young people join terrorist groups. The specialist who was interviewed spoke convincingly about the allure of believing in a higher cause that unites them, as well as the potential for glory and adventure. He explained that many young people joined the Nazis for the same reason. Peer pressure also plays heavily into the equation. Young people are mostly radicalized in university cafeterias, not mosques. Most strikingly, once radicalized, people are hardened in their beliefs and cannot be convinced otherwise.
We often hear that moderation is the antidote to radicalism, and that we must persuade these wayward souls to return to the rationality of the center. However, if you think you are fighting for a higher cause, who needs moderation? Your intention is to die as a hero! Talk of moderation is boring and lame. It is the lazy, tone-deaf stuff we spout from the comforts of our first world lives, in which we have the privilege to sip iced coffees while watching harrowing live footage on a television news channel.
The podcast echoed in the back of my mind, as we woke up each morning to a new calamity: suicide bombers in Turkey, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia during Ramadan; senseless fatal shootings across the United States; a terrible act of violence on Bastille Day in Nice; and an attempted coup in Turkey. It dawned on me that the allure was not simply the glory and the adventure. These actors are drawn by the most primitive form of tribalism, which has been updated to masquerade as a modern-day panacea. It promises to be a noble cause that transcends daily existence. If this is true, then what is the higher calling for the rest of us?
During my travels, a conversation with a Turkish taxi driver in Berlin struck a nerve. He was a handsome man with a well-groomed hipster beard and an easy smile. We traded stories about our respective childhoods, and he told me about his job woes in this reunited city. He had recently been assured of a steady job as a bus driver after a successful phone interview, only to receive a call an hour later that suddenly there was no opening. He is convinced that his Turkish last name disqualified him. I don’t know if his hunch is correct, but I do know why he would think that. He recounted an unpleasant encounter with a German passenger in his cab. Because of his beard, she asked him if he was a Salafist. Her question suggested that he might be a part of the Salafism radical group, an ultra-conservative reform movement that forbids men to shave their facial hair. He retorted, “What, because of my beard, you think I am a Salafist? And what about you, are you a Nazi?” I shuddered when I heard this story. Despite his aggressive conversational tactic, I could hear sadness in his voice. Being confronted with this kind of prejudice and condemnation on a daily basis is simply crushing. Even in the democratized West, we too cling reflexively to our own tribes, seeing others only in the stark relief of stereotypes.
A week later in Morocco, I came face-to-face with Syrian refugees for the first time. I was surprised to see them there, since all the images in the media depict them escaping in overflowing boats. They were begging at the intersections of a large boulevard, showing their passports open to their picture page. One man was cleanly dressed with a pressed shirt, as if going to an office, with his wife standing by timidly. Several women were visibly worn down with their children in tow, who were playing amongst the fronds in the median. Driving by one intersection, I made brief but deep eye contact with a woman. We were about three feet apart. I could see the wrinkles around her squinting eyes, the folds of her blue headscarf, and even the dirt under her fingernails that clutched the proof of her identity. I felt the depth of her despair and the injustice of the situation. While she was standing under the scorching sun under humiliating circumstances, I sat comfortably in a passing car. I felt completely helpless about what I could possibly do in this world to make a difference.
Isn’t it high time that we inject our lives with the kind of meaning that serves as the strongest possible remedy to the world’s ills? We need big ideas that quench our thirst and sate our hunger for something that transcends and unites us all. We must shed our own small tribalism that is evident in our nation’s racial tensions and in our divisive politics. Instead, we should embrace our innate desire for connection and community.
We are incredibly powerful beings who can make a difference, starting with our own individual lives. We can stand for humanity and promote equal justice by treating others with dignity and compassion. Leading an exemplary life of public service allows others in our community to see what is possible, and inspire them to do the same. We must come together and re-invigorate the idea that we are all one. Our humanity depends on our ability to connect with each other. The time for unity of the human race is now.
Mila Atmos is a columnist whose work has been featured by The Huffington Post, Quartz, and Medium.
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