I was breaking my twenty hour fast when I saw the footage from Sousse for the first time, a video taken by one of the hotel workers who is heard saying, repeatedly: “aleish, aleish tugtel fil naas?” (Why, why are you killing people?). The familiar accent, and the bewildered tone of the man speaking, brought home to me what the man meant when at one point he said “ya khuya,” my brother. Because the murderer who massacred at least 38 on that beach resort was someone who could have been his brother, or mine.
Seifeddine Rezgui was someone who looked like one of my cousins. He was also someone who seemed to have decided that it was his religious duty to massacre people on a beach resort. According to some reports, he was laughing. What do you do with that knowledge?
Following the gunmen as he heads down the beach, the man filming says “haram alik” and “ya wilak,” phrases that can’t be translated beyond the antiquated “woe to you.” But even these words seemed inadequate in the face of what was happening. Something you might say to a kid throwing stones at a cat. They were jarring, like the summer postcard crime scene itself. As the hotel woker says, the people Rezgui killed were “just sitting there, tourists, on a Friday morning.”
The attack comes after a previous attack in March, killing twenty-one, and raising the same question – aleish ya khuya? Why my brother? Why are Tunisians joining ISIS, killing tourists in Sousse and blowing themselves up in Libya? The neighbours, and the parents, as with every case of horrendous violence, say they are shocked, and can only blame it on brainwashing or poverty – but that is an unconvincing culprit. It wasn’t poverty that drove Rezgue to kill, it was a twisted ideology, the same ideology that is behind Daesh killing their co-religionists in Syria, Iraq and Libya, and behind the recent bombing of a mosque in Kuwait.
I don’t often quote David Cameron, but he highlighted what linked the Tunisia and Kuwait attacks: “these terrorists tried to strike at places of hope. In a country with a flourishing tourist industry that is on the road to democracy and a mosque in Kuwait that dared to bring Sunnis and Shias together.”
Tunisia was the beginning of the Arab Spring, and the country that so far has emerged the least unscathed, even better off, but these attacks are a reminder to us that we are all suffering from the poisonous fanaticism gripping the Arab world. What is happening “over there” affects everyone.
Recently, young women from Sweden have been going to join Daesh, and again, we can only ask why. In an article on Muslims in Sweden, “The Struggle to Stay on the Middle Ground” David Thurfjell argues that the middle ground is being erased, that what is happening is pushing Muslims either to abandoning their faith or to going down an extremist route. This idea seems similar to the “moderate Muslims are silent” argument, focusing attention on the extremists and the ex-Muslims. But increasingly, I think there’s something to it. For those who don’t fall for the narrative of glory and power through brutality, simply turning away from faith makes sense in a context where religion has become so deeply connected with blood-soaked ideology. It is a trajectory that is akin to the process that I’ve gone through, going from a news junkie to someone who would just rather not know. Because there’s something bizarre about waking up every day to ask how many people have died, how many explosions, where is the fighting happening, is it near any relatives houses, is anyone we know hurt? Eventually, you have to dial it down or drive yourself crazy.
Today my neighbor came over to cook iftar with us, and she had with her three little girls, and I couldn’t help but think what the future will be like for them. Looking at the younger generation, the born-here generation, I can see that they would rather not own the label Muslim, because they would rather not have everything that comes with that label weighing down their very young shoulders. And I don’t blame them. I wish I could just have one day without thinking about the terrorists acting in the name of my religion.
My mother likes to remind us that the first ten days of Ramadan are the time to ask for mercy, the second ten days to ask for forgiveness and the last ten days for refuge from hellfire. The attack on Sousse was on the ninthth day of Ramadan, during the “days of mercy”…and all I could think was that at this point I wouldn’t blame people for thinking these pieties are some kind of sick joke. What is anyone supposed to think, faced with despicable threats like ‘Ramadan will have lots of surprises’?
Ramadan to me was once synonymous with happiness, family, laughter, plenty, gratitude. Daesh’s bid to make it a month of terror and dread by urging its followers to step up attacks means that even that is being taken away, from all of us, even if we don’t want to admit it. And no matter how many “no to terrorism” signs we hold up, we, the middle ground, the “moderates,” can’t seem to do anything to stop it.