Month: November 2015

Online Extremism: Starring YOU



The latest terrorist attack in Paris was different from previous terrorism related crimes perpetrated by Muslim extremists. There was a decidedly different feel to the crime itself, the reaction by the media, the posturing by western governments and, possibly the most transformative reaction, that of the public, especially in the online world.

In our quest to pair our personalities with technology via social networking profiles and smart phones, we have created a polarization unmatched by any real world interactivity. In the recent past, left and right wing ideologues were easy to spot. They were loud, brash, hateful, judgmental human beings. They targeted each other with dogmatic self-assuredness, recycling their own statistics, their own talking points and their scripted rebuttals to the counterarguments of their ideological opposites. They hogged the newsfeeds, the hash tags and the mainstream media coverage by following one easy to remember method: be loud. To the non-ideological, this became our entertainment and our sources of information. We may not have contributed to the noise, but we were following it intently.

Right wing zealots were always the easiest to spot online. They have very little time for politeness, very little need for opposing views. We used to watch them sing from the same playbook on issues like immigration, taxes, climate change and, of course, Islam. Before the Paris attacks, most of us shrugged at their repetitive musings about Muslims taking over the planet, and now many of us have joined in their chorus. Among these new members of the anti-Muslim flock are actually well minded people. They were not dogmatic conservatives-in-waiting, lying dormant until the piper played his flute. They were regular people, even progressive in their views, who reached their tipping point after seeing the macro reaction to the 129 dead Parisians. We will get back to them in a moment.

Left wing zealots, just as crazed and indignant as their right wing cousins, can sometimes be trickier to spot, mostly because centrists and some moderate conservatives hold many of their values. Their list of important issues includes the opposing viewpoints held by right wing zealots, especially in regards to climate change, and most especially in regards to Islam. To them, Islam is not just off limits, it is already a victim of worldwide disdain, and any criticism should be viewed through the lens of this ongoing state of victimization.

And so, post attack, both these groups were out in full force. Everything was fairly predictable. The right was posting memes, videos and photos that propped up their predispositions about the Muslim world. They referred to Syrian refugees as a poison being plunged into the veins of western societies and the eventual Islamafication of western cultures. The left were draping themselves in the French flag, virtually, and showcasing their humanity by demanding the world not criticize Islam in the wake of the tragedy.

Then it happened. Moderates and normally quiet onlookers began taking sides. Some questioned why countries like Canada were even considering taking in a single refugee now that all those people lay dead in Paris. Other moderates and normally quiet onlookers were openly accusing people of racism and bigotry for discussing the impact religion has on the world. In essence, those who normally watch were suddenly propping up the two fringes that normally take up all the oxygen. It was and continues to be a strange evolution in our online behaviours, where our opinions are now so extreme that they lose their value, their substance.

We should not have to run to the fringe when we want to talk about Islam. We should not be burning down mosques and beating up mothers for wearing a hijab. Simultaneously, we should not yell racism if we discuss the role of Islam in terrorism. Repeating tag lines like “Islam is a religion of peace” is a dangerous way of burying a problem, and not unlike the way we bury our brothers and sisters after a zealot decides to attack.