Photo By: Faridon Abida
Words By: Naseem Tarawnah
Whenever a tragic act of terrorism like the one that unfolded earlier this week in Karak happens, there’s usually a feeling of repetition; the feeling that we’ve seen this all before. But in conventional reactionary form, there’s a tendency to get bogged down in the details of an event without stepping back to understand (or remember) that déjà vu, and what’s needed to diminish it moving forward.
Whether it was the security force’s raid of an Daesh sleeper cell in Irbid back in March, the murdering of GID personnel in the Baqaa camp, the numerous attacks on the northern border, the killing of five people at a police training center, or what took place in Karak this week – many lives have been lost in recent months to a war we tend to forget we’re deeply immersed in. Behind all the gunpowder, treason and plot of these events that confound us – these events that have become the source of so much misplaced anxiety – we tend to forget this is a psychological war of ideas and it is won or lost on that battlefield.
On the one hand, we have an enemy that aggressively and relentlessly pursues their ideas, and on the other, we have an ill-defined and ambiguous vision to counter it beyond the abundant rhetoric of national unity. This is not to say that national unity isn’t important, it’s just not enough to beat back the beast of an idea that is radical Islamism. If anything, unity is usually overestimated and tends to create a fragile sense of comfort; an illusion that’s easily shattered.
We felt it shake a few months back with the assassination of Nahed Hatter, the untimely death of a Christian teenager, or even with the coming together of students, teachers and parents to burn curriculum books that were amended half-assed. The clashing of rhetoric that emerged online was a decent reminder of just how widespread extremist beliefs are here at home. While only a minority of people are prepared to take up arms, their acts enjoy a wider circle of support from people who essentially share the same beliefs, just maybe not the same resolve. There’s an urgent need to be honest about that.
Acts of terror are troubling, but what is truly distressing is the bigger picture that produces those acts. What worries me is that this isn’t a war won with guns but with ideas, and the other side is perpetually stuck on the losing end of that fight. What worries me is our tendency to go through the same old motions, but learn very little from these events when they happen. What worries me is that repetition; that déjà vu.
By and large, with every act of terror, we’ve collectively gone through the same stages of grief.
There’s the denial stage: where as the events unfold, we scramble around for any crumbs that help lift us out of this mist of confusion and shock. We ask who, what, where, when, and how – casting the ‘why’ aside in the face of a real-time, gripping tragedy that emphasizes the question gnawing away at us: how could this happen to our safe and stable country? This is the stage that has us swinging between fear and anxiety as our traditional perceptions of the country come under fire.
There’s the anger stage: whereby we condemn the act, look for convenient scapegoats (preferably high ranking officials), and demand answers from the State that tend to leave us lingering in an information void for longer than we’re used to in a real-time, digital world.
There’s nationalistic zeal stage: that knee-jerk reaction that has us proclaiming our national unity like a morning affirmation spoken repeatedly into a bathroom mirror. This fervency can manifest positively (people rally to donate blood), negatively (xenophobia, alienation of others, and/or questioning loyalties of fellow citizens), or inconsequential (social media profile photos change). The ‘united front’ rhetoric erupts, be it in the form of a hashtag or a speech from the King. Expressions of gratitude for the security apparatus tend to evolve somewhere within this stage as well.
Then there’s the acceptance stage: that point in time when the news cycle has moved on to the next human tragedy, and we begin the process of forgetting. We accept this is as a new reality, and our anesthetization increases incrementally.
This is essentially the emotional rollercoaster ride we go through every time an attack occurs. It doesn’t always happen in that order, nor is every stage necessarily experienced, but one thing’s for sure: it is a vicious cycle that repeats itself.
not only is homegrown terrorism very real, but the ideology fueling it is popular and widespread enough
I’m attempting to outline this cyclical journey to emphasize that ultimately, our goal should be to break free of it. If 2016 has demonstrated anything, it’s that the ideology orchestrating these events, and the beliefs that condone it – those ideas will be around for some time, and so the cycle is destined to repeat. It’s not a question of ‘if’ but rather ‘when’ and ‘how frequent’. The obligation we have is to limit the latter, if not eliminate it. So how do we do that? What’s the way forward? What have we learned from Karak, from Irbid, from Amman?
1) Being honest with ourselves: the need to acknowledge that not only is homegrown terrorism very real, but the ideology fueling it is popular and widespread enough. That denial needs to be overcome, and that dismissive insistence that this is just an insignificant minority needs to be eroded. When we do that – usually because we feel the need to protect a religious identity we might ascribe to – we sweep the problem under the rug to fester. That hasn’t helped.
2) The State has predominantly looked at counter-terrorism from a singular lens: security. What we end up with is heightened security, heightened fear, civil rights clampdowns, and expanding information black holes. This too hasn’t helped. What’s needed is a State with the political will to be forthright and transparent about the country’s shortcomings, assess all the different elements that have given way to extremism, be unyielding in the implementation of its plans to address each one, and be accountable to the people. This would mean putting aside the empty rhetoric, and stating, for example: we have a horrible public education system that’s in decline, we have political and economic corruption in all shapes and sizes, we have a religious narrative we’ve failed to effectively counter with an alternative, we have a majority population of millennials that are either unemployed or underemployed, we have a growing gap between the haves and have not’s, so on and so forth – and this is exactly what we’re going to do about it. Not scattered announcements, but a cohesive, interlinked plan we’re pursuing to diminish extremism. This is the process we’ll employ to tackle every factor. These are the indicators to measure progress. These are the mechanisms used to hold us accountable. No, we’re not launching yet another Royal initiative no one will remember beyond its initial press release – this is a national strategy that will be novel, measurable, transparent and accountable. And as such, everyone has a role to play, so we’re going to genuinely empower civil society, media, culture, and mold a new understanding of good citizenship.
we prefer holding on to old perceptions that, whether we like it or not, have long been shattered by current realities.
This moment of honesty, of acknowledgment, and of responsibility would be a critical moment for a country like ours. Given the level of anxiety, frustration, hopelessness, and impatience that defines everyday life for the majority of Jordanians, a moment like that would be like coming up for air.
Why does all this seem so idealistic and improbable? Because it involves words we’re generally uncomfortable with and unaccustomed to, including: honesty, transparency, accountability, and identity. Because it’s easier to live in denial. Because we prefer holding on to old perceptions that, whether we like it or not, have long been shattered by current realities. Because even the slightest admission that extremist views maybe be more widespread than we’re comfortable with, throws an entire identity into question. Because there’s just too much vested political and economic interest in keeping the status quo that it prohibits an ethos of honesty, transparency and accountability. Because the façade of reform is easier to sustain than actual change.
That moment of honesty giving way to a genuine paradigm shift – that’s just too much to ask. It’s too big a sacrifice from both State and people. And this is a country where civilians just armed themselves and literally stormed a castle’s gates to fight terrorists.Both those that wear a uniform and those that don’t, deliberately put their lives directly in harms way to fight an idea and defend their home. Yes, it may have been undeniably reckless as many have argued, but it was also undeniably courageous, and a demonstration that Jordanians are prepared to fight back when the moment calls upon them to do so.
But we’d need at least twice the courage that was on display in Karak for us to come to grips with our reality. It needs a higher sense of responsibility to do what’s necessary and what’s hard to genuinely, radically, and vigorously change that reality.
This is a war of ideas and we’re just too comfortable going through the stages of grief than to rally behind the effort of ideas needed to win the fight. And the people who have lost their lives in all these battles deserve better. Their memory and sacrifice deserves better. May they rest in peace, and may we work to find it in our lifetime.