Burden of choice

The news started trickling in from different parts of the Western world that younglings spanning different economic strata are queueing up the airline counters purchasing one way tickets to Turkey, Syria and Iran. A few months from then the inevitable Facebook posts from the ones that left their home towns and countries that they have joined the ISIS brigade and living the life of ultimate purity and virtue, and on the side serving the greater purpose of Almighty Allah of beheading the infidels, jolting their parents, neighbors, educators, politicians and psychologists. How could this materialism loving kind now be a part of a murderous brigade, when their origin stories were not even from the usual impoverished, immigrant and marginalized sections that soldiers of such militant organizations often hail from? Sometimes it was quite the opposite. These young ones came from white, well to do and often highly educated, and more importantly non-Muslim families, which flew in the face of conventional theories that clash of cultures, religions and ideologies were at the heart of the strife that currently gripped the Middle Eastern region. But the recent events of youth that do not fit the classic mould - Muslim, detached, disillusioned and neglected - lining up to join the ISIS ranks spins the well established theory in a completely different direction. In a recent shocking incident that shook up the civilian society, four British teenagers were caught on airport cameras purchasing tickets (one way) to Turkey with an update a few days later of their statuses that they have willingly become the wives of ISIS fighters after voluntarily converting to Islam. What gives?

Is information revolution, courtesy the myriad of electronic plugins and tools, that has the humanity tangled up in an inescapable web of data dump, already on a downward spiral of diminishing returns? In the present era, where any piece of information can be summoned at will at the speed of the thought, the tools that facilitate such instant access to the information merely solve the first part of the puzzle, conveniently ignoring the responsibility (or transferring the responsibility) of disposing (or using) that information in a responsible manner. And this is where the inundation of information is playing such a spoilsport with the impressionable minds. In a recent incident, a young Muslim software engineer, born and brought up in liberal part of India, Bangalore, gets picked up by the national security agencies after being fingered by the British intelligence for playing a key role indoctrinating young people by spreading propaganda of ISIS over Facebook. This is not the usual persecution mindset of the minorities in the country (which they are entitled to, to a certain extent) who feel aggrieved at the injustices meted out to the community by the system. Bombs planted in sensitive areas, making a hit list of top leaders, rallying their troops with the 'us vs them' anthem - these old common strategies are at least understandable, if not justified, in this context. For a Godhra massacre, a retaliation through a bomb blast on a famous temple, for the perceived partial treatment at the hands of the administration, the usual rabble rousing through incendiary speeches by the communal leaders, the tit for tat riots, all these have roots in societal grievances and the different forms of expressions - violent, peaceful, non-cooperative - are merely outlets against the perceived repressive behavior of the society. But what has a Bangalore software professional sitting in the comfortable confines of his corporate cubicle earning a good paycheck every week got anything to do with a society, culture and an ideology that is thousands of miles away in the border regions of Iraq and Syria, other than the commonality in the religion that they practice? And considering that there are thousands of different strains of the religion practiced all over the world, each brand influenced by its own culture and locale, what is in that version of Islamic Caliphate that ISIS promises to achieve through its brutality that is drawing the young folk from both the Eastern and Western folds like moths to fire?

The answer is pretty simple and it does not lie in the usual sociological factors of poverty, repression and unemployment (though their contributions are pretty significant). The solution lies in the realm of psychology - it is the lack of choice, it is the absolutism, it is the convenience of not having to sift through the dizzying choices of everyday life that is in fact the key selling point of ISIS. Come, live in a soceity where there are no ambiguities, the rules are written in stone and are immutable, life is black and white and there are never any grey areas, a deed is either good or bad, a thought is either pure or vile, and the law is just and unforgiving. And who would gladly signup for such a sales pitch? It is quite apparent that there are quite a few takers for it, considering the number of affiliations and offshoots of ISIS that are popping up all over the Eastern world at an alarming pace. Earlier, the terror group du jour used to be Al Qaeda, whose mission statement was to rise up against the wretched West and its materialism and ISIS went one step further and simply declared a war on choice, regardless of which society is offering it - East or West. Which brings to the fore the question, whether the current generation considers choice as a liberating concept or an enslaving construct. The usual nostalgic harking of the old times when things were seemingly 'simple', the regular wailing over the current times when things are a lot 'complicated and complex', has choice at the heart of all heartburns. Where once there was just one, there are no so many, and the burden of having to choose the right one out of so many, like sifting all the chaff for one single morsel of grain, and sometimes to live with that choice for the rest of the life, obviously got the better of these fringe folk who just couldn't handle that responsibility and instead preferred to choose a place that is devoid of any alternative. Want to get married? No problem, here are a few thousand profiles to choose from. Want to buy a TV, car or something as simple as rice? A hundred options pop up each one, just as luring and enticing. Want to relax? Pick one of the few hundred channels on TV, or a few million sites to choose from on the internet. The abundance of choice and the consequences of having to live with it after the choice is made and the ensuing guilt of not having made the right choice are what is driving the weak to a place that simply relieves the responsibility, burden and the guilt of stumbling through the options. Join ISIS and all the choices are already made for you. The state tells you what to eat, how to live, whom to marry and who to fight. There is no dancing, no singing, no outlet for individual expression. There are no TVs, no internet, no movies. Women cook and breed, men kill and plunder. Ah! the good old times!

The huge societal pressure that the individual feels both while making the choice and living with it, particularly in a free society, can sometimes feel overwhelming, stifling and constricting, which is quite ironic, as choice is meant to open up than close in. But choice is here to say. There is no closing the lid on the Pandora's box and humanity better learn to live with it than try to figure out how to get around it, or worse, eliminate it entirely. And the pool of possibilities is only going to grow wider in the coming days thanks to the technological innovations that is happening at warp speed. In human evolution, every generation gets its own share of brand new issues that the previous generation didn't have to tackle. If information is the burden of the current generation, employment is to its prior generation, oppression and imperialism to the one before, poverty, famine and epidemics before that, all the way back to sheer survival. At no point in time was society in a safe, stable and contended state with strife being its perennial operating mode, firefighting crises that are sometimes its own creations and sometimes, fall outs of unrelated events. And so, this generation gets saddled with addressing the questions that overwhelming choices bring along. This is free will tested to the extreme. The road forks at where there are the choices take the person in two different directions - make proper choices and feel empowered and be a constructive part of the society or feel stifled with the opulence of options, crushed under the weight of variety, turn ascetic, militant or even homicidal to the point of suiting up to eliminating the marketplace altogether. In this context, the younglings caught in the airport cameras heading to the Turkey border, that British teenager arrested for recruiting activists for ISIS, the Bangalore software engineer who never faced persecution in his entire life and yet signed up to spread the word of ISIS in South Asia, and the multiple Indian youth who have been caught crossing into Bangladesh border to finally land up at Syria only to be counseled and released to the cognizance of their parents, appear more as aberrations who had trouble with more than one option on the plate. And the antidote for such schizophrenic behavior is more psychological counseling than wartime tactics, which aims at inculcating and cultivating the habit of accepting more than one idea and warming up to the fact that absolutism has no relevance in the current age of moral, social and cultural relativity, and that plurality, diversity and variety are the only ways forward for humanity.

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