A researcher recently asked a French jihadist why he wanted to blow up the American embassy in France. He responded with a commonly expressed desire to rise against the persecution of Muslims around the world. Probing deeper, the researcher unveiled the real reason behind his path to violence: “well, I was walking down the Boulevard de la Republique with my sister, who wears a hijab. She was window shopping, and she didn’t look where she was going, and she bumped into an elderly Frenchman, who spit on the street and said, ‘You dirty Arab.’ And then I knew I had to join the jihad.” These crucial moments which define the course of our lives are often years in the making.
When the world witnessed the fall of the World Trade Center towers through the lens of terrorists declaring the destruction of innocent lives in the name of Allah, racism and bigotry against Muslims worldwide took on a whole new shape. Yet, this escalating negative perception of an entire faith only formed the foundation for a mass movement of jihadists across the globe. As ISIS rose from the ashes of the Al Qaeda in Iraq, a decade of bigotry had already created a generation of disenfranchised youth open to its cause. To create a global phenomenon, ISIS masterfully transformed jihad from a fringe concept to an accessible and compelling calling for individuals seeking purpose in their lives. The ISIS movement is fueled by a simple message: your society hates you, so come and build a new world order with us. “Us versus them” is a powerful message in galvanizing movements, and this narrative has inspired youth from all across the globe to join ISIS. Over 36,500 foreign fighters — 6,600 from Western countries — have flocked to Syria from more than 100 countries to join the movement.
Adding fuel to the fire is Donald Trump. Equally masterful in his art of persuasion, Trump has managed to direct the legitimate grievances of the white working class American to create another unexpected phenomenon of our time. Opportunistically seeking an enemy as a means to expand his sphere of influence, he turned to what he refers to as “radical Islamic terror” as an easy target. In other words, “us versus them.” In December, after the attacks on Paris, Trump controversially stated that he would ban all Muslims from traveling to the United States, called for a federal registry of Muslims, and promised to “take out” the families of terrorists. His remarks have since triggered hate crimes against Muslims across the country. Muslims in Western societies now risk being shot when returning home their places of worship, leaving them helplessly caught between the hatred of members from their own society on one hand and the perversion of their faith on the other.
History has shown us that one type of exclusion and hatred begets another, yet we now stand again at a critical crossroads. Will we allow the perfect storm that is forming to wipe away the very inclusion and dignity that our society has fostered over the past generation? Or will we rise above to preserve what our forefathers have endeavored so hard to build?
Every negative action triggers another, forming a cycle that escalates into perpetual violence: at some point, ISIS will inspire another atrocious act of violence in the Western world, opportunists such as Trump will spark more racism and bigotry against Muslims and thereby relegate them to the fringes of society, and ISIS will be able to reach even more disenfranchised young men and women seeking a place to belong. The last time a cycle of hatred happened at this scale led up to a great world war.
Eric Hoffer, the social philosopher who focused on fanatical and extremist cultural movements during WWII, was known for saying “though they seem to be at opposite poles, fanatics of all kinds are actually crowded together at one end. It is the fanatic and the moderate who are poles apart and never meet.” If Hoffer were still alive, he may even agree with those today who are making the comparisons of both ISIS and Donald Trump to Hitler.
There is much at stake at this inflection point in our history and the coming months will define what is, and is not, acceptable in how individuals treat one another based on their beliefs and appearances. As movements of hatred grow, the values they stand for will eventually be embraced in our mainstream society as normal and irreversible for decades. Take Jaelyn Young for instance, a beautiful young African American who graduated high school with honors, is the daughter of a police officer, and served as a high school cheerleader. She was stopped at the Triangle Regional Airport in Columbus on August 8th, 2015, in an attempt to join ISIS in Syria. The ability of ISIS to entice even the most seemingly unlikely individual showcases how they have crossed a tipping point: now individuals of all castes, creeds and religions can subscribe to a violent faction because it has somehow construed itself as a symbol for adventure and belonging.
Attempts thus far to hinder these movements have not succeeded. Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican presidential candidate, recently re-entered the political arena to incisively call out Trump for his “bullying, the greed, the showing off, the misogyny, the absurd third-grade theatrics”. His intervention only made Trump supporters more likely to vote for him. The US Government’s own counterpropaganda campaign to ISIS, Think Again Turn Away, has all but failed. These solutions, perceived by their intended audiences as paternalistic messages coming from the establishment, fail to grasp the root cause of the outstanding grievances.
The forces of divisiveness and hatred are winning over the forces of unity and inclusion because hatred has been rebranded as a means for attaining the very empowerment and dignity we all seek. Somehow, xenophobia and bigotry have become “making America great again” while those who carry out acts of atrocity in the name of ISIS genuinely believe they are serving humanity. The masters of persuasion behind the rise of Donald Trump and ISIS have successfully executed the most compelling perception changes of our time, with tribal unity at the core of the irresistible gravitational pull that they have created.
Those who stand for division are crowded together at one end of the spectrum, united proudly behind their cause, while the same has yet to be said for those who stand at the other end of the spectrum. We see a vast field of grassroots activism and countless individuals supporting noble causes such as the integration of Syrian refugees into Western countries, and taking on racism and bigotry in innovative ways. However, these efforts have yet to be united under a single banner, thereby amplifying their impact and recognition in society in the same way that ISIS and Trump have so. Now, more than ever, our shared future depends on those who stand for solidarity and inclusion to unify as a tribe that can begin reversing these monumental shifts of division in our society. And the message needs to be loud and clear: let’s stand for a world where everybody is heard, included and empowered for change. A world that where the polar opposite of what extreme hatred stands for can flourish.
To be sure, there are already large-scale civil movements standing against hatred such as #blacklivesmatter and #notinmyname. These movements deserve applause for their courageous and important stance, yet the fact that conservatives who blame Black Lives Matter for violence against US police officers suggests that the solution has yet to move beyond creating an unintended consequence of another “us versus them” mindset.
Instead of rejecting individuals, let’s reject ideas. Let’s cast aside the notion that it is acceptable to exclude anybody based on their beliefs or appearances, and let’s stand for an inclusive society where everybody feels they can belong. Every human being shares in common a point in their life where they experienced that sinking feeling of being left out or left behind. These moments of rejection may inspire some of our darkest thoughts and fears, yet our very own common humanity through these experiences creates a common ground on which we can all stand together.
This is the world we are building at WeUnify, starting with the establishment of a chapter network to bring like-minded individuals together to foster social inclusion in our local communities. In a time when powerful forces want to see humanity divided, it will take unwavering determination, rebellious creativity and fearless compassion to bring forth the burning desire within ourselves to energize action towards something better. The world is full of possibility when we start with our common humanity as a bridge towards social change.
Join hands with us in building these bridges today.
About the author: Henry Chim is the Founder of WeUnify, an organization dedicated to creating a world where everybody is heard, included and empowered for change. WeUnify unites millennials to work together and directs them to foster dialogue, outreach and stories for social inclusion. Henry tweets under @thehenrychim.