By Alex Frandsen, editorial columnist
Ramadan is about righteousness. Ramadan is about learning to empathize with the suffering of others. Ramadan is about stripping down the material parts of yourself to bring forth kindness and devotion. Ramadan is about family.
This year, however, the Islamic State group attempted to hijack the month-long Muslim holiday. It took its illegitimate brand of Islam and unleashed it in the form of mass murder, with tragedies occurring across the Middle East.
Six people were killed in Jordan. Six more in Lebanon. 42 in Yemen. 44 in Turkey. 22 in Bangladesh. Then, saving the worst for last, the group took 250 more lives in Iraq on July 3. After doing some incredibly depressing math, that adds up to an inconceivable 370 souls lost. Three hundred and seventy people with families, with hobbies, with passions, with memories. All gone forever during one of the holiest parts of the Muslim calendar.
And you probably didn’t notice.
A few news reports on Twitter might have caught your eye, and you may have even spent a few minutes swiping through articles, perhaps shaking your head in sadness. But you didn’t truly notice, like we all did after the terror attacks in Paris last year. There was no flag filter ready to add to your profile picture, not even after the Baghdad attack, which nearly doubled the death toll of the catastrophe in France. There was no # نحن العراق (#WeAreIraq) and no around-the-clock news reporting. The attacks slipped by, registering with Western countries as just another blip of violence in the Arab world.
But it’s not all your fault. Contrary to the many hot takes bashing those who threw up the French flag filter but were silent in the aftermath of attacks in non-Western countries, failing to fully feel the impact of the tragedies this past Ramadan is not a damning account of your character. It is a sad result of the system each of us is embedded within.
Surrounded by tweets and posts and talking heads at all times, we are all more engaged with media than ever before. In fact, it would be fair to say that we have simply moved into total media immersion. And despite the journalist’s credo of fairness and equality of coverage that many reporters purport to swear to, the media is biased. The successes and plights of the white Western world are covered exponentially more than those of minorities. The mainstream media are catering towards a much narrower stream than they say, and that stream probably tastes suspiciously like pumpkin spice and Christianity. Things are changing for the better all the time, of course, but at the moment the West is still quite far away from truly diverse coverage.
Coverage of violence is no exception. Media outlets here have consistently shown an intense fascination with the mass murder of white people while giving a fraction of that attention to any tragedy involving people with black or brown skin.
So it makes sense that your newsfeed didn’t blow up with outrage and anguish after those 250 were killed in Iraq. Our whole lives, we have been surrounded by a culture and press that is designed to make events like that feel foreign and distant. When someone is blown up in Europe, we are put into their shoes, with outlets detailing intimate and relatable parts of their life. It’s an exceptionally easy exercise for the media, given how similar our lifestyle most likely is. When someone is blown up in the Middle East, it is just another headline.
But just because our collective lack of attention to the Ramadan deaths is understandable does not mean it is acceptable. The only way to start making a murder in Iraq just as horrible as a murder in France is by each of us taking personal responsibility over what we focus on. That is much easier said than done, but it is possible. A crucial step is educating yourself on cultures different from your own and making a real effort to cut through stereotypes we have been fed forever. Diversify your timeline and try your best to stay out the echo chamber of social media, which makes your tiny world seem like the whole planet. There is no better tool for combatting ignorance than exposure.
In a globalized world, our empathy cannot remain so inward and contained. The system telling us where to direct our sadness might be broken, but that doesn’t mean our awareness has to be, too.