Like anyone else in the world with a Facebook account, I’ve been bombarded for several days by videos of celebrities doing the ice bucket challenge. The first one I saw was that of Bill Gates. I then slowly began to see videos done by non-celebrities. In the beginning I could not understand what it was all about, even after watching some videos from beginning to end. Why were people throwing cold water on their heads? Why were celebrities doing it? There were no explanations in any of the videos I saw. I then saw a few media reports about the challenge. It was only then that I began to understand that it was somehow linked to a disease called ALS.
I Googled ALS and learned it was a degenerative disease of motor neurons that results in its latest stages in full paralysis. Someone eventually posted a video on my Facebook feed of a young man affected by the disease explaining what ALS was, how it affected his life, and what it had done to his mother. He said that people were doing the ice bucket challenge in order to raise awareness about the illness and to raise funds for more research on the disease.
That did not make sense to me. How does a video of a person dumping ice water on their heads create awareness about ALS or get people to donate if no one in those videos mentions the disease, what it is, or how to donate? They also made no mention whatsoever of the fact that they had donated themselves. I was just seeing silly videos of people pouring water on their heads.
And so, as is my nature, I began to get upset.
Instead of sharing the many ice bucket challenges appearing in my feed, I posted the video of the young man affected by the disease. I wrote that this was the kind of thing I would rather be seeing if people really wanted to create awareness. I also posted a video of Sir Patrick Stewart in which he sits in front of an ice bucket writing a check, and once done, takes some ice out of the bucket, puts it into a glass, pours himself a drink, and raises his glass to the camera in a toast. That made sense to me. This was someone whose aim was to show people that this was not about having fun. It was about donating money.
Now watch me link this to the deaths of hundreds of people in Gaza, including women and children, and to the beheading of an American journalist by a Muslim militant extremist.
That shit was happening and it was ugly. In addition to silly videos of people pouring ice water on their heads, my Facebook feed had also been full of pictures of dead people, including many dead children, for weeks. Actually, I’ve had pictures of dead people in my feed for months. I get pictures of dead Palestinians, dead Syrians, and dead Egyptians. I’ve ranted on and on about the unethical posting of pictures of the deceased in a way in which they are identifiable and without their permission before their death or that of their families after their death. I’ve had endless discussions on Facebook with people that do this thinking they are doing a good deed by creating awareness of the massacres happening in various parts of the Arab world. “The end does not justify the means!” I have written several times.
Then an American journalist was beheaded somewhere in Syria by a militant Muslim. The militant spoke with a British accent on a video of the beheading. I currently reside in the UK. News reports in Great Britain closely followed the investigations into finding who this militant was. They also discussed Islamic extremism in the UK, its roots, and what needs to be done to deal with it.
I had a heated conversation with my Scottish husband a few days ago as I tried to explain the roots of extremism among Muslims, including British Muslims. I was the heated one in the conversation. Actually, it was not much of a conversation. It was more of a one-sided red-faced rant by yours truly. My husband could not understand why a young Muslim born and raised in the UK would become a militant and go kill people in another country. He did not understand what they even knew about the world in order to get to that stage. I did understand it. I could relate to their anger. That anger was apparent in the way I ranted about it all to my husband. The anger those militants feel is similar to the anger felt by Muslims all around the world, I explained. One difference is in how we express it. Another difference is in our worldviews and how we think our issues need to be addressed. A third difference is in our understanding of our religion and sometimes the contexts in which we grow up. The one thing we all have in common, though, is anger. I explained that the anger stems from centuries-worth of wrongs perpetrated in our region of the world by colonial forces. “Why can’t you leave what is from the past in the past?” my husband asked. “Because the effects of these past wrongs continue till this day!” I said with an unnecessarily raised voice. “Not only that, new wrongs are being committed TODAY!”
“Well how is a country like the UK supposed to deal with its extremists?” my husband asked. “It needs to apologize for past mistakes and it bloody well needs to change its foreign policies as they relate to the Middle East!”
“People need to quietly sit together at a table and find solutions,” my husband said. “That’s what the UN is for! They sit together at a table all the time! And they come up with resolutions. What does the US do? It vetoes those resolutions! And Muslims get angrier and angrier at the continuing injustices. That leads to extremism when it is coupled with several other factors, such as a misunderstanding of religion.”
My husband did not talk much during this conversation. Every time he asked me a question I snapped back. What was crystal clear to me, having grown up in this context, was completely foreign to him. It angered me to no end.
“You can see how angry this makes me. I am an educated Muslim woman. I have travelled the world. I have a decent understanding of the world. I have been places. I have seen things. I consider myself liberal in some aspects but conservative in others. See this anger of mine? Imagine this same anger in a 17-year-old conservative Muslim who feels that he must do something to prevent the unjustifiable killings of women and children in Palestine or Syria. If the UK was being attacked by another country, many young men and women will volunteer to join the army in order to defend their nation. Muslim people around the world are our nation. We do not have the same sense of a ‘nation state’ that other people have. The nation state is a relatively modern concept to begin with. When a young British Muslim sees other Muslims getting killed, his instinct can very easily be a desire to join the army; an army that does not really exist. And thus extreme militarism is born.”
Barely two evenings after this conversation my husband and I went to a comedy show at the Edinburgh Festival. British Muslim comedian Imran Yusuf made the same exact point about extremism partially but crucially stemming from Western foreign policies. The difference between the way I explained it and the way Imran Yusuf explained it was that I did it very angrily while he got an audience to laugh and cheer.
We all have the same anger. Imran Yusuf expressed it with humor. I expressed it with a loud voice and a red face. A British militant Muslim expressed it by beheading an American journalist. The only one who got cheers of support and understanding from the people we’re all trying to make a point to was Imran.
While driving home to my in-laws’ after the Imran Yusuf show, I checked my Facebook account and it was then that I discovered that the inevitable had happened. A Canadian journalist I had not seen for years had just nominated me to do the ice bucket challenge.
I was filled by an immediate sense of dread. I wasn’t yet sure how I felt about the whole ice bucket challenge to begin with. I hate the idea of fads and doing things because everyone else does them. But what had I done? Did I believe supporting research on ALS was a worthy cause? Most definitely. What had I done beyond having that thought of conviction? I had done no more than share a couple of media articles on Facebook. Besides, I thought, there are so many causes worthy of support; worthy of me appearing on a video to talk about it. People are getting killed and jailed, for goodness sake, in Egypt, Palestine and Syria! Were they not more worthy of my voice? No, I decided. They were as worthy of my voice because all human suffering is worthy. And perhaps by accepting my friend’s nomination and taking the challenge I can send a message of my own.
I made a point of announcing on Facebook that evening that I had donated to support research of ALS. I shared a link to the site for others who might want to do the same.
The following morning everyone in my in-laws house got up and participated in my ice bucket challenge. My mother-in-law got the bucket and filled it with water and every last bit of ice in the house. My son filmed. My husband poured ice-cold water over my head. And my husband’s parents and aunt cheered in the background as I completed my challenge.
I did the challenge the way I felt it should be done. I spoke in Arabic to address an Arab audience. I had not seen any Arabic language ice bucket challenges in my Facebook feed. I explained what ALS was. I told people where they could go to donate. I nominated three other Egyptians whose use of social media I respect and who I knew found community work important. Rather than impose this particular challenge on them, I gave them four choices. They could post a silly video of themselves pouring cold water over their heads if that was what they wanted to do. They could accept an ice bucket challenge with the aim of creating awareness about ALS. They could be creative and think of a new challenge to support another cause. Or they could privately donate to any cause they feel is worthy.
Perhaps there is something to learn from a silly social media fad. It has, after all, succeeded in raising millions of dollars in donations. No war was involved. No violence was involved. Protests were not involved. Loud voices were not involved.
The young man in the video who has ALS and everyone else affected by this terrifying disease have every right to feel angry that there is no cure for what they have. Their life expectancy is in the range of five years after diagnosis, I understand. Not enough is being done to find a cure. Some of them started a silly gimmick – a social media fad that went viral. Something real became of it. There is still no cure for their disease but there is more awareness now and there are more funds for research. Find me anyone on the Internet who has not now heard of ALS. Find me anyone who has heard about ALS who does not, at the very least, feel for its victims.
Now let’s sit down and quietly discuss what we need to do to promote our causes in the Middle East.