When I began my career as a journalist, working as a science editor at an online media organization that unfortunately no longer exists, I fantasized about becoming a war correspondent. I wanted to go into war zones and cover the truth about conflict. My naïve view was that all I needed was to be savvy about staying out of the line of fire. And I’ve always figured I’m pretty savvy. People at war, I wrongly thought, don’t target the people communicating the truth about a conflict they are involved in. It’s in their best interests for the truth to get out. Or so I naively believed.
It wasn’t until the middle of Egypt’s 2011 revolution when I experienced first hand and witnessed the targeting of journalists. My personal experience was fortunately very limited: a thug pounced on me and broke my video camera while filming the renowned Battle of the Camels, when men on camelback raided Tahrir Square.
But since then, I have become acutely aware that journalists are constantly targeted in my region and by people from my region. Journalists covering Israeli insurgencies in Gaza have been targeted and killed by the Israelis. Journalists covering the situation in Egypt are killed and jailed by the state for doing their jobs. Journalists covering the situation in Iraq and Syria are kidnapped and then brutally beheaded by IS militants.
And today, 12 people working at French satirist magazine, Charlie Hebdo, were killed by masked gunmen apparently saying God is Great.
Targeting journalists is not, obviously, something only people of Arab or Islamic origins do. It is incredibly frightening to me as an Arab Muslim, though, to see this happening in significant numbers in my region and by people from my region and religion.
I can’t help but see that much of this stems from a culture of enmity towards knowledge and information. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people from my culture warn against reading books not written by “trustworthy” writers. Or the constant fear I see among so many of my fellow countrymen of any “other”. Egyptian Christians have faced countless violent attacks against them over the years. Atheists in Egypt are vilified and now even jailed for their lack of belief. Shiite Muslims are attacked in my country and I understand our Ministry of Interior has a special division dedicated to monitoring their every movement. There is a constant fear that “the other” will poison the thoughts of a helpless population who will then be lured into leaving their religion of truth.
What are “they” afraid of exactly? What truths do they not want people to know? What kind of a flimsy, slimy religion do they belong to that cannot tolerate any other opinion or truth than their own? What are these values that demand that whatever they see as sacred must be treated as sacred by all, while what an “other” considers sacred, such as freedom of speech or even human life, can be viciously and barbarously attacked?
In my region and among my people thrives a culture of enmity towards knowledge and information. Religion is used time and time again, by the state and by extremists, to shield people from both. They deem themselves the only credible sources of knowledge and information. They deem themselves the only ones allowed to propagate misinformation. Only they have the right to insult, vilify and desecrate what others hold sacred.
The roots of evil and extremism are many; countless even. But one thing we, as Muslims and as Arabs, need to take a serious and frank look at is our enmity towards knowledge and information. We claim that our religion encourages both. Yet our reality is that we live in fear of knowing anything but the truths we are spoon-fed by the state and by our elders.
The senseless cruelty we witnessed today in Paris, the barbarity we’ve seen happen many times now in Iraq and Syria, and the journalists rotting in Egypt’s jails are symptoms of a deep-seated culture in our societies. My fear is that it will take generations until real change is seen.