Guevara-esque Revolutionaries or Armchair Activists: a Look at Social Media in Light of the Sydney Hostage Situation
By Narjas Zatat
Online activism continues to be a force of unity through campaigns and movements by raising awareness of humanitarian crises that litter the globe. In particular, this form of pseudo-journalism has its traction in the idea of a ‘global community’ that is spearheaded by the perpetuation of so-called “Western Values”. One can see this time and again, in the #BringBackOurGirls campaign earlier in the year created to campaign for the safe return of over 150 school girls that were kidnapped from the town of Chibok by Nigerian terrorist group Boko Haram. The newest manifestation of this online movement comes with the advent of Sydney’s #IllRideWithYou twitter storm in the wake of the hostage situation that took place on Monday.
However, to what extent are these micro-movements helping to affect tangible change in the western perceptions of Islam as a violent religion? Rather, do they instead create a generation of armchair activists, who dress themselves in political issues as though they would dress themselves with the latest fashion trend? It is no secret that the platform upon which we, as humans interact has expanded to encompass the digital world. Indeed over 77% of the developed world has access to the internet, and over 50% of what can be accessed is in English. The flow of information, and therefore opinions is now available at an almost supply-demand way. One such instance is the speed with which the #SydneySiege campaign shot off, and we can look to the utilisation of the Internet in this instance to question the power of social media.
On Monday 15th December Man Haron Monis, a self-proclaimed Sheikh who had hopped between Sunni and Shia ideologies for a number of years took Lindt Cafe in Sydney, Australia, and proceeded to hold its visitors hostage. After a number of demands, the most controversial of which was the Islamic State flag (IS), and 16 hours of tension, the Sydney police stormed the cafe. Monis, along with two hostages died in the process. Claiming to be an Iranian refugee who had sought political refuge in Australia in 1996 from a strict theocratic Iranian government, Monis represents an alarming trend of ‘Do-It-Yourself Terrorism’.
Pseudo-political in nature, without a clear strategy or goal, these individuals take it upon themselves, through a particularly corrosive interpretation of Islam, to partake in an act of “Jihad” by attempting to create their own war zone in the western countries that they occupy. Not to debate the theoretical variations of the concept of Jihad, the word nevertheless snuck into mainstream rhetoric as something of an anathema to Islam. A fluid concept that exists in Islam to encompass an entire ocean of meanings relating to the idea of servitude to Allah and the betterment of one’s faith, the word took on negative connotations: “Jihadi Terrorists” and variations of this statement dominate British newspaper headlines, much to the indignation of the majority of Muslims in England. And yet ‘Jihadi John’ is the quintessential image of the Muslim.
An Australian journalist, Tessa Kum, started the aforementioned campaign in the hope of helping Muslims who were dressed in religious garments to travel safely around Sydney. While this is commendable, it does not confront the bigger issue at hand, and that is the fact that these Muslims are targets of racially motivated attacks in the first place.
Religious theologian Reza Aslan argued against this bigotry, and in an interview with FOX news on the matter of Saudi Arabia’s commitment to the oppressive law that states women cannot drive, he cited political, rather than religious motivations for the law. He encouraged any interpretation of the actions of extremists and extremism to be observed through the lens of politics, rather than religion. One needs only to look at the power vacuum in Iraq after America’s “War on Terror” to see the origins of the rise of Abu Bakr Baghdadi’s Islamic State. In a debate over the question of Islam’s nature, political commentator Mehdi Hassan quotes a study where political, rather than religious motivations are cited as the dominant reason for committing acts of so-called ‘terror’. And yet the British and American media’s insistence on a platform that is based upon Samuel P. Huntington’s concept of the Clash of Civilisations creates a mentality that pits Islam against western democratic values. This not only hinders community cohesion, but it also creates an atmosphere of intolerance where the assumption is that Muslims are somehow fundamentally opposed to western values. This thesis is both reductionist and divisive, and creates an environment where it is acceptable to assume that a terrorist attack by a man who calls himself a Muslim is representative of Muslims as a whole.
Tessa Kum’s campaign is a small service to Muslims all around the world, because it introduces a counter-narrative to the Islamophobia currently permeating the western media. However it is not enough to change perceptions. What we need is a concerted effort by the political leaders of the west to cease with the war-like rhetoric that continues to imply that the majority of Muslims need to somehow answer for the actions of the minority. In the long term, campaigns such as the one in Sydney does little to change the image of an increasingly polarised world, where Islam is presented as an unviable religion, and its followers as terrorist sleeper cells.
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