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Sisyphus’ Lament

Can Muslims be victims of terrorism?

SINGAPORE—An old friend in Davao described how Eid al-Fitr had a more anxious mood this year. He wondered if Ramadan bombers might have struck the Philippines as well. Why are we not even conscious of our brethren’s fears on their holiest holiday?

It means nothing to most Filipinos that a bomb went off in Medina (Saudi Arabia), Islam’s second holiest city, near Ramadan’s end last July 4. It is a passing note that Ramadan attacks in Iraq, Turkey, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia and elsewhere in Saudi Arabia killed over 300.

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I felt the gravity when a friend told me how horrified she was because her relatives were in Medina on pilgrimage and she could not reach them that night. Fear for family amplified her already great sense of sacrilege.

In great contrast, more Filipinos seem to feel for the United States’ #BlackLivesMatter debate, after a woman livestreamed her black boyfriend lying in their car after being shot by a police officer, and after a black sniper then shot 12 police officers. Perhaps our suspected drug pushers are really black, or we enjoyed the movie “Straight Outta Compton” more than we admit.

Likewise, shock over last year’s Paris terrorist attacks was unmistakable. Everyone’s Facebook profile pic was immediately overlaid with the French flag. Photos of the Empire State Building and Sydney Opera House lit up in France’s tricolor went viral. After Facebook activated Safety Check, I was heartened to reach out to Parisian friends I had not spoken to in years. But I paused when a couple of friends brusquely reminded me that they had recently visited but lived nowhere near Paris.

I watched a teenage cousin similarly get caught up in the social media moment. When Facebook was criticized for not highlighting a bombing in Beirut, she shared a “Pray for Beirut” graphic. As other incidents were cited, the confused teenager shared a graphic praying for Paris, Beirut, Japan, Mexico and Baghdad.

New York Times columnist Ross Douthat argued that global cosmopolitanism is a myth because so-called global leaders are homogeneously Western-educated liberals with roughly Christian values. To see the impact, look no further than my confused teenage cousin. She was certainly not posting “Pray for Istanbul” or Eid al-Fitr greetings last week.

Logically, though, she should have been. We have a significant Muslim minority, and the last administration spent much of its political capital trying to pass the Bangsamoro Basic Law. Manila was a Muslim state before Spain colonized our archipelago, and Miguel López de Legazpi was met by Rajah Sulayman. Indonesia and Malaysia are a stone’s throw away and key partners in countless issues—from our maritime dispute with China to our peace process.

In great contrast, Filipinos have no natural ties to France and our Catholicism is not even of a French flavor. Nor have we ever experienced any analog of US debates on slavery’s legacy or the right to bear arms, which does not exist in our Constitution. All we have is infinite exposure to Western media.

We are only beginning to understand how social media has changed the way we perceive the world, especially those who still disbelieve how Mocha Uson’s blog can be more powerful than Inquirer editorials. After seeing perceived democratic anomalies such as the surprise Brexit vote and Donald Trump’s rise in the United States, one key lesson is how emotion circulates more virulently than fact on the internet.

These trends are so worrying that the World Economic Forum has published articles identifying internet misinformation as a key risk for modern societies. We are only beginning to recognize the formation of echo chambers, where social media algorithms group like-minded people together and mutually reinforce their existing ideas, instead of pushing them to consider alternate viewpoints.

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Most alarming of all, unless emotion is addressed, the more hard fact is presented to them, the more people in echo chambers entrench themselves. Normally authoritative findings become distrusted and dismissed as confirmation of conspiracy theories. Indeed, Brexit proponent Michael Gove prominently dismissed 10 Nobel Prize winners’ warnings with, “I think the people in this country have had enough of experts.” Patently false and baseless news can spread in a democracy, and emotional touchpoints can—and have been used—to manipulate electorates.

It is thus impossible to rally a modern democracy around an important idea without first engaging it emotionally. We must admit that too many of us might care more about who actor Baron Geisler is picking a fight with this week than the details of our peace process.

We are overdue to question how social media can nudge a teenager who has never even been to Europe or the United States to grieve over attacks in Paris or American racial issues, instead of commiserating with Southeast Asia’s Muslims over unprecedented Ramadan bombings. Beyond teenagers, why have none of our national political or religious leaders sent this simple but crucial message of empathy?

Intellectually, attacks on Medina and other Muslim cities must force us to reevaluate stereotypes, such as how we reflexively link Islam and terrorism. We must see through biases that taint everything from our peace process to how we understand broader issues such as Southeast Asia’s regional security and Europe’s refugee crisis.

Emotionally, though, until Facebook profile pictures change and hashtags trend, we have yet to internalize how our fellow Filipinos feel after the equivalent of a bombing at St. Peter’s Basilica on Christmas Eve.

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React: [email protected], Twitter @oscarfbtan, facebook.com/OscarFranklinTan

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TAGS: Bombing, Islam, Muslim, opinion, Ramadan, Saudi Arabia, Shooting, terror, terrorism
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