While I don’t usually take to social media or other inter-web forums to vent out the average frustrations a Muslim experiences in today’s world, I have become increasingly skeptical over the last two years of whether I even enjoy that privilege anymore. This is not your average rant on how I get treated differently because of the colour of my skin (which I do), or how I get racially profiled at every airport for a ‘random check’ (which happens without fail) or even how the mere sound of my name gets me pushed aside from being taken seriously in any liberal arts discussion (it’s Usama, what were my parents thinking?). No, this is a qualitative discourse on how my life is systematically made to be worth less, in both emotional value and shock value, to the average reader of the news.
Let me begin by saying I may be part of the problem. I don’t openly mourn my slain brethren every time one of them dies in a suicide bombing in some seemingly Middle Eastern war-torn country. I hope and pray for them, but I rarely put up profile pictures or attend a vigil, if the incident was so lucky as to have one in the first place. The fact of the matter is that the shock value of a death is awfully less than it was ten years ago, in any incident regardless of motivation, outcome, and location. I despise generalising that the world has become increasingly numb towards the value of a human life, yet it is true. I fail to identify who is to blame when the world population is pushing the envelope beyond 7.5 billion people while two of the world’s largest employers are the United States Department of Defense and China’s People’s Liberation Army. We are born to hunt by nature and raised to kill by nurture, so it should come as little surprise that in a time where lives are quickly becoming numbers and losing faces, a life lost is less mourned.
But my real problem lies not with how human life is losing value – call me a skeptic but I have made peace with that. My issue is rather with how unfairly it is being done throughout the world. Lives lost are not equally dealt with, mourned, or even treated the same in terms of coverage. The phenomenon of ‘white privilege’ has been taken beyond life to even death. Yes, we all saw the online debates that arose when an attack in Paris allowed Facebook users to change their photos to support “Je Suis Paris” (I am Paris) but when an equally horrific tragedy happened in Somalia or Afghanistan, no one as much batted an eye. The Paris shootings brought together world leaders to join hands in a picture-perfect show of unity against terrorism, which was then followed by unhesitant and indiscriminate bombings to those they believed to be the perpetrators. Such unity has not been seen as a reaction to recent attacks, however, perhaps because most of them did not happen on Western soil.Take the suicide bombing at the airport in Ankara, Turkey, on June 28. On the precipice of joining the EU, Turkey’s tragedy was in a state of limbo when it got a half-hearted response from the global community but still evoked a strong but economic-minded response from the media, which focused on the fact that the most important aspect of Turkey affected by this event is tourism. Another recent attack was the suicide bombing in Baghdad, Iraq, which happened on July 3, and killed nearly 300. However, I am yet to see a transparent flag come on my friends’ display pictures to stand in solidarity or pray for Baghdad.
To me, rather than a Facebook picture, transparent is an accurate description of the current state of the media as it is not hard to see how skewed news is, with unbiased journalism seldom to come by. Take, for example, the BBC’s headlines for two different attacks. For Paris, it was “World Shows Support” but for Iraq, only “Iraq Mourns…”. Is this simply a coincidence or rather an act of honest journalism on BBC’s part to represent how the world actually responds to two different tragedies? Regardless of the answer, the media is, to a great extent, the portrayal of a world its sponsors would have us believe in rather than what it really is. And this, I believe, is where lies the problem.
I cannot blame the media for the unfair standards of coverage where attacks in the Middle East are under-reported while those in the Western world are hyper-sensationalised. When it hits home, it hits hard. But I can, however, blame my better, well informed friends for not doing more. Changing profile pictures to different flags and using hashtags for trends are merely metaphors for assigning someone’s slain life some online importance. Said importance can be also be estimated by proximity of attack to an individual or relation to victims of attack, for example through affiliation to a certain community, which quickly indicates how likely someone is to even care about an attack if at all even know about it. I, myself included in this phenomenon, fail to objectively see why I even mourn attacks close to home since I fail to mourn others who died just the same elsewhere. I failed to mourn Paris just as the same I fail to mourn Baghdad today because essentially we have turned human life into nothing but likes. My skin has been thickened and hardened against my own today because of how western media picks and chooses the tragedies it truly mourns. As someone who identifies as Muslim, I use my own because the recent wave of attacks in the last ten days of Ramadan were all in Muslim countries. While the total death toll for all of these is still tentative (but has already crossed 400 in Bangladesh, Turkey, Baghdad, and Saudi Arabia combined), I note the absence of unity among world leaders against these attacks. If such a show of unity had happened, the news would have taken social media by storm and once again, unfortunately, received value by the number of “likes” posts about it get. Every time one of us posts about an attack on social media, we crave and yearn for likes, a gesture that seems to symbolise social acceptance, a numerical validation at that. The amount of “likes” something receives seems to dictate the attention and importance it gets, which further seems to convince us to jump on the bandwagon and feel part of society for a certain cause. Social media trends now dictate what we attach importance to, and as trends change daily, so does the importance we give to human life and values.
The Institute of Economics and Peace reported that 82% of all deaths worldwide attributed to ‘terrorists attacks’ in 2014, which amounts to almost 18,000 deaths, were in only five countries in the world: Iraq, Pakistan, Syria, Nigeria, and Afghanistan. Based on this statistic, as someone who primarily lives in Pakistan, I am 80% more likely to die in the next terrorist attack than the overwhelming majority of the world. I do not fear death and I do not become uneasy at the thought of an attack, but what does agitate me is how my life will be trivialised in some headline’s body count, reduced to a statistic without a name. The world will never know that I, as a Muslim, suffered too.
When we grieve over a global tragedy, we must all give a second thought as to why it affects us so much or so meagerly. So spare me the “like”, spare me the re-tweet and spare me the re-blog, for I do not deserve it if all my brethren did not.
This article was written by Usama Shahid. Please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org to get in touch.
Photo Credit: Usama Shahid