The terror attack in New York City this week [on 10/31/17] was heartbreaking. I was sitting in my office at the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani, where I teach academic writing. I had not yet seen the news. One of my students, whose family is from the disputed areas around Kirkuk and whose house and business had been burned down by PMU/Iraqi forces during the sixteen hour battle on October 16, 2017, came into my office hours to see how I was. He assumed I had already heard about the attack. I got on Google and began skimming. Tears flooded my eyes. Immediately, I was back in NYC during 9/11 watching the city I loved and called home change forever. My student felt really bad for upsetting me. I told him he hadn’t, that what I was experiencing was a transference of feelings from 9/11. At the same time, we both said that he, and all the people in this region, experience terror attacks almost every day and that they are used to it. In fact, the day that Stephan Paddock shot and killed 59 people in Las Vegas was the first time since 9/11 that the number of casualties in the US topped the number in Iraq.
President Trump’s reaction to Tuesday’s attack in NYC was predictable: calling for the death penalty for Sayfullo Saipov and calling him an animal. He did neither for Stephan Paddock. Trump is also calling for changes to the immigration policy now whereas in the wake of the Las Vegas massacre, he said it was not the time to talk about policy changes on gun control. Instead of investigating the causes of this tragic attack, Trump was quick to blame Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, who cosponsored the Diversity Visa Lottery Program, through which Sayfullo Saipov entered the US. However, Sayfullo Saipov was radicalized in the United States, not in his country of origin Uzbekistan.
Uzbekistan is a country with a horrible human rights record and hundreds of political prisoners, widespread torture and almost no freedom of speech. The prior authoritarian government of Islam Karimov, who had ruled for almost 27 years, suppressed religion. Therefore, today’s media which characterizes Uzbekistan as a “hotbed of Islamic religious extremism” is irresponsible at best.
Sayfullo Saipov came from a prosperous secular family in Tashkent, Uzbekistan’s capital. He graduated with a degree in finance, worked in a hotel, and applied for a US green card, seemingly to pursue the American dream. He wasn’t radicalized until he came to the US. Once in the US, he struggled to find employment perhaps due to his lack of English skills, didn’t have roots in a community, and found himself on the margins of society.
When people are stuck in poverty, experience social isolation in their home communities and do not assimilate, they often turn to other groups to find a place to belong. Asim Qureshi, research director at CAGE, an independent advocacy organization working to empower communities impacted by the War on Terror, questions “When are we going to finally learn that when we treat people as if they’re outsiders, they will inevitably feel like outsiders, and they will look for belonging elsewhere?” Belonging feeds self-esteem. This behavior is something ISIS understood very well in its early days and capitalized on it for recruitment. This is why I wrote “V”, to help people understand why Westerners might be drawn to jihad with the hope of starting a conversation on how to address terrorism’s root causes of social isolation and discrimination. The answer is not to close our borders, spew hateful rhetoric, or advocate for indefinite stays in Gitmo. These tactics will only perpetuate terrorism.