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Second Stories with Alex Allison: ISIS, Ferris Wheels, and the Violence within

July 19, 2015 No comments

If you have not yet met Alex, her introduction can be found here. Alex is not employed by MDF Instruments, but is a volunteer blogger who shares her experiences with the MDF community monthly.

ISIS, Ferris Wheels, and the Violence Within

by: Alex Allison

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” ~ Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad/Roughing It

“This weekend I visit Chamchamal,” I informed my Kurdish friend. We were draped over a Scrabble game with a group of other college-aged English-learners, stuck to wooden chairs with sweat from the summer Iraq heat.

“Texas. You’re going to Texas,” he grinned.

“Texas? No. No no no. Chamchamal,” I said. Chamchamal is a village in northern Iraq—known locally as a dangerous, semi-tribal space replete with guns and explosives.

“Ah. We call it Texas.” His hands became pistols, and he drew them from his belt and laughed. “Like the Wild West. Hollywood.”

I froze mid-word. “I’m from Texas,” I said. “I’m from Texas—and it’s not like the Wild West. At all.”

My friend raised his eyebrows.

“I mean…some people have guns,” I said.

I wondered, then, as we kept playing and laughing, if the typical, American perception of Iraq represents reality as much as the old Hollywood westerns represent modern Texas—not much at all.

Before I traveled to Iraq, I associated only three words with the country: War. Bombs. Desert. Only three words—all I knew—a result of my own ignorance, my easy-swallowing of what the media and Hollywood told me.

After working for two summers with Preemptive Love Coalition, an organization that provides heart surgery for Iraqi children, Iraq seems much bigger, much more complex, than it did composed of those three words.

For example: The first thing I noticed when I stepped off the plane was the abundance of Ferris wheels. Iraq, or at least northern Iraq, brims with Ferris wheels.

The Ferris wheels taught me this: stereotypes are not necessarily untrue—but they are incomplete. There is danger in only believing, only pursuing one story.

And this thought confronted me—and confronts me still—on June 10, 2014, when a terrorist group called ISIS captured the second-largest city in the country. Since then, they’ve been hurting people in pursuit of power—beheading children; starving entire ethnic groups; executing uncooperative Muslims in mass; warning Christians and other minorities to convert to a radicalized Islam, pay a “protection tax”—or die.

Meanwhile, my friends and I were as far away from ISIS as Pepperdine is from San Diego—waiting, choosing to stay, and asking ourselves, “How can humans do this to each other?”

I recently came across a quote—traditionally attributed to British theologian G.K. Chesterton—that led me to an answer. While he was living, a newspaper apparently sent out letters to the public, asking, “What’s wrong with the world today?” G.K. Chesterton responded simply, “I am.”

I am what’s wrong with the world today.

How can humans do this to each other? I don’t know—but I do it to my roommates, my parents, my friends, and those strangers, every day.

The violence starts with me—just as this genocide in Iraq began as violence in one person’s heart.

Pursuing only one story about a person or people group is its own sort of violence—a dispossession of explanation, a refusal to consider the whole. Pursuing only one story allows us to accept the traditional villain narrative—it gives us someone to hate, someone to blame.

I confess I have hated ISIS—I’ve hated how they’ve choked my friends with fear, how they’ve snuffed out hospitals and how their presence may soon force my 18-year-old ESL students to pick up guns and fight them.

I also don’t know anyone in ISIS—I only know what the media has told me. But the media is just like Hollywood—as a limited organization, it can never tell all the stories.

I am also to blame. Thus far I’ve only shared one story about ISIS. Here is another: Many of the people fighting for ISIS have been persecuted and disenfranchised by the Iraqi government since Saddam Hussein fell in 2003.

For ten years, they were marginalized, regarded as the Other, viewed from the lens of only one story. And now they’re doing the same thing in return.

These facts do not excuse their behavior—there is no excuse for what they’ve done—but they help explain it. Back and back and back—people groups in Iraq have been hurt, only to respond by hurting others.

May the cycle end this time.

May you and I seek to explain each other instead of retaliate—may we seek more than one story, may we reject the traditional villain narrative and the crisp news headlines and grasp quickly the complexity and multi-story of the human race.

May we acknowledge and eradicate the violence of the single-story within our own hearts—and may Iraq, one day, be known as a country that brims with Ferris wheels.

Posted in: blog