The sanctity of life, lost in politics

Abdullah Hamidaddin
Abdullah Hamidaddin
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Hundreds of people have fallen dead in Egypt and many more have been injured. Most were supporters of the deposed President Mohammed Mursi, many were allies of the government and a number were probably bystanders who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Sadly, the tragedy goes further beyond those individual losses. Each tragedy has created a catastrophe for every single widow, widower, orphan or parent who has lost a dear one. Many lives have been changed forever. Many dreams were destroyed. So many hopes were vanquished.

Thousands have also been detained by the Egyptian authorities and others will soon be arrested and some will disappear forever. Who knows what conditions they live in? Who knows how their families are coping? Who knows when they will regain their freedom, if ever? Who knows and who cares?

Millions of Egyptians have little interest in politics yet are now struggling to survive each day. Their political indifference has not sheltered them; some may be starving, many may sleep hungry and people like you and I may be deprived of the minimum conditions for human living. Who stands for them? Who highlights their agony? Do they even matter?

Violence at such a scale has a knock on effect. Its victims are not only people. Violence can also target the social fabric; creating possibilities of other forms of long term violence.

Perpetrators of violence need to justify it to themselves. They also need to legitimize it for those watching. In some cases, justification and legitimization do not strain the social fabric of a society, such legitimization attempts can actually strengthen society if their words are carefully chosen to avoid wholesale demonization and mass dehumanization. But this is not what happened in Egypt. The military may have had a plan to depose and contain the Muslim Brotherhood, but in the battle of words, in the front of the “hearts and minds” campaign, it was total chaos. Words matter. In this case, their misuse may have damaged the social fabric not only of Egypt but also of non-Egyptians.

The frame of mind for those participating in this war of words was a Hobbesian zero-sum, kill or be killed type of politics. They operated in terms of “are you with me or against me?” “Do your words support me? If what you say does not justify my actions then it only incriminates me!” “Either you concede to the total dehumanization of the opposing side or you are against me.” “Either you accept they are demons or you become one.” In such a situation any attempt of humanistic analysis is shunned. Any realistic political analysis is rejected. Doubting the inevitability of bloodletting is now immoral. Ultimately such a battle of words tarnishes the idea of being an Egyptian, infects social trust, erodes the value of human life, and defeats the voice of conscientiousness. In the long run, the victims will not be merely those individual lives suffering on the Egyptian ground. We shall all be victims in one way or another, sooner or later, whether we are Egyptians or not.

Imagine a group of friends who unanimously decide to kill a member of their group. They will start by justifying the action to be committed. They will probably bring out the worst traits of the targeted member; how evil, bad, and cruel he is. They will even prove that he deserves to be killed. They will list all of his past flaws and mistakes. Then, eventually, one of them will commit the deed. And now that he is dead, imagine the group trying to go back to living as friends. It will be impossible. Even though the group did agree on the necessity of killing one of them, they have overlooked an important fact. The “words” they used to justify the killing were lethal enough to kill the bond that binds their relationship. The “words” terminated the possibility of any future trust between them and stripped the meaning of friendship them. The “words” they used to justify killing their friend will recreate their relationship. And this is what is now happening in Egypt. I doubt even those on the same side will ever fully trust each other. I doubt whether various groups will trust other groups. I strongly believe everyone will look to the other through the prism of the exclusionary, demonizing and dehumanizing words that infested the media for the past few weeks.

However, it only gets worse. The evil of killing goes beyond annihilating an individual’s life. It also exterminates the idea of the sanctity of life. This fact had been recognized by societies for millennia. More than one religion considers that the murder of one man is equivalent to the murder of humanity. They do not deal with murder only as an aggression against an individual; rather they regard it as an aggression against the very sanctity of life. Traditional punishment does not mean to punish the perpetrator only, but also maintain the idea of the sanctity of life. And as the violence continues in Egypt, the accompanying “words” of justification and legitimation work in exactly the opposite direction. As bullets kill people on the ground, words kill the idea of the sanctity of life. And here there are absolutely no winners, only losers.

It gets even worse, the degree of radicalization this war of words will lead to is going to be unprecedented. And the potential terrorists to be born out of that may make al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula a sweet memory. But why is that?

In general, radicals and terrorists are created through initiation processes. One of the most important steps of that process is to situate the radical/terrorist squarely against a government and/or a society. The first generations of radicals/terrorists were mainly outcomes of persecution by despotic regimes. But it was not the persecution that gave them birth, rather the way they explained the persecution to themselves and their sympathizers and even more importantly, the way their contenders spoke about them.

Perpetrators of violence need to justify it to themselves. They also need to legitimize it for those watching

Abdullah Hamidaddin

The radical/terrorist is a product of his view of himself and the view of his adversaries. Both views are important. The radical/terrorist’s view of others has to be mirrored by them. So the radical/terrorist creates a story convincing himself that his life is worthless in the eyes of the authorities he resists, he can never trust a government, and that he is being sought after and will never be given a chance. His story can only take full effect when the government mirrors it: confirming he is worthless, never to be trusted, and should never be given a chance. Once the “other” adopts your story of yourself then you are born and once the adversary of the radical/terrorist adopts his story then he is born.

In the past, the number of people who were intensely engaged in creating a story and mirroring it was limited. This process was mostly confined to the radical/terrorist and the authorities. Each had their own support groups, but they, too, were limited. More importantly, the story was about those on the ground. The audience was never part of the story. Not today. The same story which created the radical/terrorist in the past is not hidden but circulated through social media. That story, which in the past was adopted only by the government against a select group, is now a story adopted by a wide spectrum of a community and against another wide spectrum within the same community.

In the past, no one witnessed the persecution, the torture, and the insults. No one was there to openly take sides while looking into the eye of the victim. In the past no one was present to applaud for one and to lament another; to justify one action and to sympathize for another. Most things happened in dark rooms hidden away behind thick walls. Not today. The killing, the violence, the chaos is all happening in the presence of an audience. Someone is killed on the ground and someone else applauds while another cries. Now the audience is part of the story. It is no longer only about those on the ground, it is also about the audience. Now someone in the audience will come out, believing that his life is also worthless in the eyes of the authorities and society, that no one in society should be trusted, that it could happen to him anytime, that there are no principles that can protect him. Now someone in the audience is ripped to be radicalized or even recruited. And that someone will not be from the thousands of victims on the ground; rather from the tens of millions on the benches.

When I read all the papers and the tweets and listen to the news on the radio or see them on the television regarding the events occurring in Egypt, I feel that all sides have lost. Each side has planted the seeds of radicalization and terrorism by their mass, dehumanization and bulk demonization. Each side speaks of the killings and arrests as though they speak of exterminating and getting rid of rodents or insects. It reminded me of Rwanda: when people were actually being called cockroaches. All those who participated in this verbal orgy of bloodletting will never be the same. They have all been left with a trauma. They will all come out with a loss of the sanctity of life.

Today, I am afraid. I am worried. I read what has been said and I see its impact on others. And I do not feel safe.


Abdullah Hamidaddin is a writer and commentator on religion, Middle Eastern societies and politics with a focus on Saudi Arabia and Yemen. He is currently a PhD candidate in King’s College London. He can be followed on Twitter: @amiq1

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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