A tale of two cities: Victims of one barbarism

Our greatest weakness in the fight against extremism is to favour some victims over others.

Every major global landmark was decked out in French colours, writes Rasool [AFP]
Every major global landmark was decked out in French colours, writes Rasool [AFP]

I observed the two terrible atrocities committed by the extremist movement, known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), while in London. This may ordinarily be the stuff of headlines that impinge on your soul as all stories of untimely, random and horrific death and destruction should: They must interfere with the busy-ness of your own life.

But the actions of this particular extremist group and its antecedents have long ceased to impinge in the same way as other stories of death and destruction. This is because these atrocities and acts of barbarism are committed in my name, by people who pray like I do, eat how I eat, read the same texts and claim to follow the same God that I do. So in addition to the outrage every human being should feel, people like me – Muslims – also have to battle to ensure contradistinction with such barbarism and its perpetrators. We have to proclaim: not in our name!

French Muslims speak out against ISIL attacks

This act of contradistinction says “I am different!” and “I am against!” It is an act of reclaiming the symbols, rituals and values of our faith and to deny extremists any legitimacy or even a minority share over our faith.

Contradistinction is not an act of obsequiousness, laced with apology and the reeking of guilt. The few, shared characteristics should not elicit, at minimum, suspicion of the innocent, or at worst, the equally barbarous idea of collective punishment.

Colonialism, genocide and slavery

It is for this reason that so much of the world continues to coexist with people of a particular colour, religion and origin despite their complicity in, or benefitting from, colonialism, genocide and slavery.

Also read: Without initiative, Paris attacks will change nothing

But contradistinction is necessary in a world where people are judged, not by the content of their character but by isolated characteristics. It is necessary through contradistinction to establish deeper levels of complexity and meaning in a world where people express themselves with limited characters and with a simple choice of like or not.

Contradistinction is necessary in a world where people are judged, not by the content of their character but by isolated characteristics.


Contradistinction is also crucial in an attempt to surprise victimised communities with empathy and solidarity so that their victimhood does not become testimony to the mistakes and atrocities committed by their governments or their ancestors or those with whom they share isolated characteristics.

Contradistinction is a battle with your own soul: a battle to quell your own ambiguity and ambivalence. Atrocities such as those in Paris are always stalked by the darkness of memory of historical and contemporary missteps. So when your instinct inclines towards “I told you so,” your better angels should let the light of human empathy and solidarity shine through.

Conferences are the places to unpack history, not funerals. Funerals are the places to celebrate the equal worth and value of all human beings and the sacredness of all life. Funerals are the places to reflect on the fragility of life and the pernicious must of death. Funerals are the places to mourn loss, not least the loss of our humanity. 

Ambiguity and ambivalence

In the context of death and in the desire to restore the equal worth and value of all life, the headlines I have read in the course of a terrible week for humanity intensified my ambiguity and ambivalence and, therefore, the battle within my own soul: “Bibi’s Excellent Washington Adventure!” “All is forgiven, Mr Modi!” “Hezbollah bastion attacked!” and “Carnage in Paris!”

Soldiers from the Belgian army patrol in the picturesque Grand Place in Brussels [AP]

Indeed, extremism knows no religion, colour or shape. Extremism can often appear palatable because it stands at the head of a government or wears the garb of victimhood.

More often than not, extremism prefers to be free of responsibility so that its carnage is unfettered. Whatever its appearance, extremists are the alter ego of its fellow extremists, and often the best recruiters for each other.

Contradistinction requires that we must be different to, and against, all extremism. Habib Battah in a blog published in Al Jazeera, sharpens our ambivalence and ambiguity, and therefore the battle in our own souls, even further. He illustrates how the victims of the same barbarous, extremist group are not accorded equal value in the global public imagination.

ISIL attacked Beirut on November 12, killing over 40 people, and attacked Paris on November 13, killing 130 people. For Beirut, no monuments were lit up in the Lebanese colours and no major president interrupted his schedule to express outrage and condolence.

Every major global landmark was decked in French colours and, led by US President Barack Obama who decried the Paris bombings as an “attack on all humanity”, every major president rose in solidarity with France.

Also read: ISIL and the illusion of a clash of civilisations

In contrast, the Beirut victims, living in a Hezbollah bastion, were not deemed worthy of such an outpouring of support and sympathy.

Lebanese army soldiers stand guard at the scene of the twin suicide bombings in Burj al-Barajneh, southern Beirut [AP]

Beirut’s massacre

Some media, in their analysis of Beirut’s massacre, even suggested that it was a matter of time before such an attack would take place because of the predicament of the Shia community living in a Hezbollah stronghold. They hoped that this community would now come to question the Hezbollah mission in Lebanon.

Instead of the fulsome and justified outpouring of sympathy for the powerless victims, imagine an analysis of the Paris tragedy saying that it was a matter of time before France’s colonial and militaristic chickens came home to roost and that this was a predicament of a nation that bans the headscarf in pursuit of the strictest laicite.

This is unacceptable by any standard and should be condemned if it were ever to be used on the victims of New York, London, Madrid or Paris. But this is the tale today of two cities suffering under one barbarism.

If we are to fight extremism successfully, then we must fight all extremism, value all victims equally, condemn all perpetrators and decry all actions that reek of extremism.

Our greatest ally in the fight against extremism is moral consistency. Our greatest weakness in the fight against extremism is to favour some victims over others. The unsustainability in the fight against extremism is to nurture the cub and then to fear the tiger.

The greatest homage we can pay the victims of Beirut and Paris is to find the courage to be unwavering in our resolve to defeat ISIL and all extremism, and simultaneously to advise allies to close the factories of extremism by tempering the intolerance of their theologies and the attachment to their victimhood.

Ebrahim Rasool is the former South African ambassador to the US and founder of the World for All Foundation.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.


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