Recently, a 21-year-old boy, a textile engineering student in Bangladesh, was arrested for circulating a message from al-Qaeda.
Another life ruined.
At this point of my life, age itself has turned terrorist, a sleeper cell capable of striking anywhere, at any time, at anyone. Meanwhile, the young, immune to those inevitable terrors of age, find other ways to spread mischief.
When we are young, we jump into life’s puddles with both feet.
Yet, when our feet get wet, it shocks us. When we are young, we look to make our lives important, we are impatient to act. If we are politically active, we are moths to the brightest headlines.
I watched the video that got this young man in so much trouble. I wondered how such a speech could inspire attention. The narrator is stiff. He doesn’t speak Bengali. The subtitles are blurred.
The guy sounds like he’s lonely and just needs a hug.
I remember taking an eight-year-old boy from the housing projects of Brooklyn to the woods, and I remember watching him meditate with a 60-year-old shaman, and they had the same visions. I remember how my life was about forests and storytellers and visions and relating to people and calling them my children. I think about the children I claim as my own who have lived ruined lives — they got pregnant at 15, killed themselves a month shy of their 20th birthday, my children who were convicted of crimes and served time and went to college, and showed promise and my children who killed people. These children were part of my “crusade”. When my “children” fell under the rubble of the socioeconomic drone strike of poverty and lack of vision in America, the organisation I created wasn’t always able to lift them to safety, and being personally involved in their lives, I mourned them.
Rasel Bin Sattar Khan, the boy arrested for circulating this poorly produced video, is less than a year older than my daughter. His life has been ruined by a bitter cleric whom he will never meet. And this video with terrible production values has gone viral because the press, myself included, is talking about it. If you need to circulate amateur videos, why can’t people spend their time watching (or making) videos like this one by a Bangladeshi-American of his generation instead?
Who grabs the headlines both here and there? I am sure each of you know of a struggling not-for-profit organisation that “crusade” to alter lives of the disenfranchised. I can give you a litany of unprofitable endeavours, failed starts, efforts, and in fact, triumphs that have changed the life of real people, every day, on the ground. And what of the “success stories” that have arisen out of those whom I gave a hand and a care in raising? Some of the most successful of them are in the military, driving the drones, dropping the bombs, acting as the political pawns of the shadow boxing in world politics.
Here in the United States we do have a Muslim population. I know Muslim kids who in the manner of teen boys are ribbed about being “terrorists”, the way other kids are subjected to friendly teasing from their friends about being “beaners” (Mexicans), or being fat. So when I listened to the Video from The Man Most Likely to Catch a Drone speaking (actually I read the subtitles), and saw all the press that his message generated, it made me think, “Does a man really need to blow something up to change the world?”
The sad fact is that terrorism works. It grabs headlines and forces policy changes. The September 11 attack on the World Trade Center changed the American concept of “Liberty” from a right guaranteed by our Constitution to the name of an airport in New Jersey. In one day, our own paranoia prompted us to follow the security example of Israel and curtail our historical freedoms to purchase a bit of security while we went and blew up the wrong country (which, in a way for us, is also a historical freedom). We tortured prisoners, violated human rights, and created situations where an American citizen sought asylum in Putin’s Russia. al-Qaeda strengthened the American police state, the Team America paradigm. When I see the likes of Ayman al-Zawahiri, it makes me wonder if he isn’t on the “Crusader’s” payroll, because it is men like him who give powerful nations the slim justification they so eagerly seek to subjugate the rest of us.
When I look at the blurry frozen image of this cleric, I can see both the grandfatherly countenance of a family man. He has a brother and a twin sister. He grew up in a comfortable, loving upper-middle class environment. It is said that he had a deep devotion to his politically active mother, and both he and his twin sister are medical doctors. This terrorist had four daughters, including one with Down’s Syndrome. He had one son. In 2001, his wife and his only son were killed in an air strike by US forces in Afghanistan. His Down’s Syndrome daughter froze to death, buried in the rubble.
The frozen man in white in the video talks so much about Muslim Ummah that I had to look up the word. I am ignorant about such things, so I wanted to understand precisely what he was saying. What I find is that al-Zawhiri has to specify Muslim Ummah, because “Ummah” is a widely defined word that could mean any body of faith. I think an Ummah can be defined as a “true and united community, in contrast to the many nations and communities.” According to al-Zawhiri, I am not part of his Ummah, because of my nationality, and despite the fact that, in God’s eyes, we are brothers. Because of my national association, I am responsible for the death of his children, and he is responsible for the death of my countrymen. On a human level, though, despite the fact that I despise his methods and his message of hate, I cry for his personal suffering and pray for his family.
My friend from the Mi’qmaw tribe of Nova Scotia has a song that goes – “How would it be if you looked at me as brother? How would it be if she looked at her as sister? Elders, as grandmother and grandfather, and all of the children as our own?” Would I send my brother to blow himself up and kill my sisters and brothers, children and grandparents? Would I willingly pay taxes to send drones to kill my daughters and granddaughters? I am no scholar, no expert on any religion, but if I maintained an attitude of fatherly responsibility about all of God’s children, how would it be? Would I really send my 21-year-old son to risk arrest in the name of promoting a video I clearly didn’t even take that much time to make?
When peace comes, when it comes to Afghanistan, and Syria, and the Ukraine, what will become of Ayman al-Zawahiri’s remaining daughters? Will they believe that the battle waged by their father was more noble than the life he could have led as a surgeon? Will they see the loss of their family members as a worthwhile sacrifice?
When will we stop slowing down for society’s car crashes, and stare in morbid fascination at all the suffering and dysfunction caused by the movers and shakers of our world? Can we, together, especially we of the media, create an environment in which the Hitlers of the world can become famous as painters, and the Ayman al-Zawahiris of the world can be so valued as surgeons that they feel no compunction to take up arms? That day will come when we stop listening to our leaders and begin to follow our own instincts as brothers and sisters. Until that day, bad production values or no, out of love, hate or just morbid fascination, we’ll all just keep listening to al-Qaeda.
Frank Domenico Cipriani is a writer and a friend of Bangladesh. He is also the founder and CEO of The Gatherer Institute — a not-for-profit public charity in the USA.