“Okay then, so where exactly are you from originally?”
From my accent, it’s obvious that I’m born and bred in Britain. People can also tell just by looking at me that I haven’t lived anywhere outside my home city that is my beautiful London. To some, my Semitic features stand out, but most can tell that although I’m “white”, I don’t have the “normal” Anglo-Saxon features; not enough to identify my racial background, though. So when I tell them that my ancestral roots are Palestinian, I get mixed reactions. One of many is being told that the struggle of my native country is something people can relate to; that makes me smile, although I can’t help but feel a little guilty at times.
The internet is one of the many reasons for the increase in awareness of armed conflicts and injustice around the world. More people across the globe are watching their native country fall before their eyes, either directly or from afar. There are some minority groups which have, for decades, faced persecution for belonging to a certain race, looking different, speaking a particular language, or even believing in what they want to believe in; for this they don’t have local recognition. As much as it warms my heart to see a Muslim Rohingya in Myanmar speak up against the inhumanity being imposed on Gaza, it also breaks at their advocacy of “my” cause while they too are suffering genocidal attacks in silence.
“Caring about Palestine is caring about the whole of humanity, but it isn’t just the Palestinian race we care about, it’s the principle of oppression.” I hear this a lot and draw attention to such contradictions among fellow humanitarian activists, especially on social media. Their intention may not be to introduce racial supremacy into humanitarian campaigns, but these sentiments are so deeply embedded within certain minds that they become part of the subconscious attitude. Popular movements take precedence on social media, by their very nature, but this tends to edge others out. Looking more deeply into this phenomenon, especially issues linked to the campaign against Islamophobia, it becomes obvious that race often plays a bigger role in what is and is not “popular” than we’d perhaps like to admit.
Earlier this year, for example, three young Americans of joint Syrian and Palestinian origin were murdered outside their home. The initial absence of mainstream media coverage shook social media activists into action; they wanted to get the victims’ names known and awareness of the attack spread worldwide. It worked, and media coverage was eventually global.
In contrast, there was no such social activism when, late last year, 15 year old Abdisamad Sheikh Hussein was killed in a deliberate hit and run attack by a vehicle which had an “Islam is worse than Ebola” sticker on a window. The collision threw him into the air, almost severing his legs and leaving him to die a slow and painful death. He was a practicing Muslim. He was black and Somali. There was no viral social media outrage.
When it comes to Palestine, many members of the Muslim community feel an attachment to the cause because of the religious and historical importance that the country possesses. Jerusalem was, after all, the initial direction of prayer for the early Muslims. However, many Muslims talk about wanting a more united community and a leader like Salahuddin to lead it to glory. They forget that he was Kurdish and the suppression of the Kurdish population in countries around the Middle East has not been well publicised before the fight against ISIS became a popular topic of mass media coverage.
It’s painful to admit it, but African and Central and South Asian Muslims more often than Arab Muslims have to rely on local efforts to publicise their cause; the world doesn’t always take notice. Yemen was a well-discussed crisis in Muslim communities around the world, even before the Saudi air strikes; the massacre of Muslims in the Central African Republic, however, is not, even today.
Social media has demonstrated its potential and effectiveness in promoting causes and conducting campaigns, but the plight of Africans in particular, reveals a scary degree of racism in humanitarian activism. Some may do this out of ignorance, but self-righteousness based on racial lines is all too prevalent. It takes a “Ferguson” incident to get people to jump on the anti-racist bandwagon; less public events usually fail to appear on the social media radar in any serious way. “Trending” is not for them.
While it is understandable for people to specialise in one cause or another for academic or employment purposes, too many people operate a kind of selective advocacy based on race; this reveals an element of racial superiority complex, albeit possibly subconscious. For those who think that their advocacy of a particular cause makes them open-minded and race-blind, think again; it doesn’t. Anyone can advocate, but not all can explain or act. Going to a protest and shouting generic chants to clock up more Facebook “likes” doesn’t necessarily make you politically active, nor does it make you and your friends “activists”.
Deflate your ego, cut the rhetoric and think deeply about your humanitarianism until you can shake off the sense of racial superiority with which most of us grow up. I’m not asking for people to take an all or nothing approach with advocacy; just to realise that vulnerable human lives are not trending topics and having your media featuring on the “popular” page is not a sign of your success as a human rights advocate.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.