Many worry about the risk of violence after the US election. But most Americans have no idea what it’s like to live through political unrest or what to about it. We asked members of our team who've lived through political violence and war what Americans should know.
AFNAN: Civil wars don't just start out of nowhere. Take this as your responsibility to end hate that may lead to war.
HOST: “It could never happen here.” It’s a common sentiment—or maybe a desperate hope—that many Americans will cling to as they head to the polls in what is easily the most polarizing US election of our lifetime.
The risk of post-election violence is the highest it’s been for nearly 150 years. More than a third of both Democrats and Republicans say violence would be justified to achieve their political aims. And of course, this election comes at the end of a year that has seen a pandemic shake us to our core, economic collapse, protests over the killing of Black women and men by police, armed militias taking to the streets, and even a plot to kidnap the sitting governor of a US state.
“It could never happen here.” Friends, it already is happening.
This is new and, frankly, unsettling territory for many of us. But it isn’t new for many of my friends and colleagues here at Preemptive Love, who have lived through political upheaval, violence, and even civil war.
The Love Anyway podcast is on hiatus for now, but I wanted to sit down with a few of these colleagues to ask what their experience has taught them for the moment we’re in—and what they want Americans in particular to know, to stop the spread of violence before it’s too late.
One quick note: as you might expect, we’re having conversations like these remotely, to reduce the risk of COVID-19, so the audio quality is not always ideal. But you can find a transcript of this episode on our website, at preemptivelove.org/election.
HOST: Dhuha, one of our tech hub managers, was born in Baghdad. Eruptions of violence first drove her family from their home and neighborhood into other parts of the city in search of safety. Ongoing violence eventually caused them to move across the country. Dhuha has seen first hand the way we talk about each other—the way we portray those different from us, to each other and in the media–has broad implications.
DHUA: Many of the propagandas were like: if you vote for this guy, he’s going to protect your kind, because it’s so easy to manipulate people based on their emotion, based on their feeling of loneliness, and that feeling of needing protection. And that's why this kind of thing is very dangerous. Because once you block that logical part of your mind, and you think, “This person makes you feel like you can only survive if you affiliate yourself with them,” then you completely block your head from seeing all the other facts. And that's why a lot of these propagandists were very successful.
That fear of the other, and that fear of, “Oh, my neighbor doesn't share my same beliefs. So I have to be wary of them.” Once you get on that road, it's very difficult to backtrack.
INTERVIEWER: So for people who are feeling lonely and alienated and vulnerable…
DHUHA: That’s everyone, to be honest. That’s literally everyone.
INTERVIEWER: Yeah. People who are more in tune with that, though? I think they tend to operate out of fear.
DHUHA Yes. Like, if you're not a part of something that's violent to an extent, someone else who's violent is going to come and get you. That's also one of the main reasons the things that happened in Mosul happened.
HOST: Mosul was Iraq’s second largest city before the war with ISIS. For years, the mostly Sunni population felt neglected and marginalized by the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad—a situation ISIS was all too happy to exploit.
DHUHA: People of Mosul are very marginalized. No one can blame them, honestly. When another group that was also violent, but seemed more affiliated with them, joined, there wasn't so much conflict, because it somehow felt safer—until things started really going downhill. Right?
That's the problem, that it always happens gradually. There's always this metaphor—that, you know, if you put a frog in a pot, and you slowly heat the water, by the time it boils, the frog is just gonna die. And he's not going to be able to make it out.
INTERVIEWER: So, you are sitting right now in Iraq. Knowing what you know, what advice would you give to American voters?
DHUHA: It's not too late to actually make a conscious choice. It's not too late not to act in fear. Actually, people shouldn't be acting in fear. They shouldn't let their emotions be played.
I think this is a turning point. Because once you have a huge amount of people losing faith in the system, it becomes very difficult to vote. But there is no need to be hopeless. There is no need to act on desperation and fear. There is no need to let someone else—a system, an algorithm—play with your mind. We all go into valleys every once in a while. But it's important that you don't drag yourself down a pit.
HOST: Nareen, also a tech hub manager in Iraq, grew up in a part of the country where regional politics is dominated by a decades-long rivalry between two main political parties. The situation between parties became so volatile that it sparked a civil war, which impacted virtually every family in the region.
NAREEN: When I think about it, why are they being so intense it comes to—like, I know, it's like two parties that are there. But I exactly feel the same way, as we have those two parties here in Iraq, where it led to war, where it led to violence.
It’s 2020, and people are evolving. But at the same time, you never know how war can change countries and change people's destiny. If they don't stop whatever is happening now, I'm sure it's gonna lead to war—because if, if the propaganda that is happening for the election, is that harsh, I'm not sure how the outcome would be.
HOST: Nareen is also keenly aware that whatever happens in the US won’t just affect the US. It will have global repercussions.
NAREEN: Yes, people from the US will not be happy. But it's not only the US. If they go into war, the world is going into war.
INTERVIEWER: You talked earlier about the impact of propaganda. Now, I've only been here for seven years. But I see the effects of propaganda from decades ago, still having an effect today. Do you see that too?
NAREEN: Political parties have become like a religion for some people here, especially here. Like, I don't know if it's the same in the US. But when your family is supporting a party, and you're supporting another one, it's actually like a taboo. You can't do that. You have to follow your family.
If there's one advice, I would say—it's very hard, actually. But I think, when I think about it, from this place, from what I've been through, I think: it's never worth it. It's not worth those words that people throw at each other. It's not worth those violence acts that people do against each other.
HOST: The next voice will be a familiar one for some of you. Ihsan has risked his life repeatedly to help Iraqis of every background in their most desperate moments. He has lived through the Persian Gulf War, the 2003 invasion, the insurgency that followed, and the rise of ISIS. And some of what we’re seeing in the US right now? It looks hauntingly familiar to him.
IHSAN: Yes, I mean, seeing those rallies, actually, with people with guns and, you know, like, really equipped—the same picture that we used to see here with militias in Iraq—when I saw those photos, yeah, I felt like... it feels like this is how the days when it started here, actually, in the beginning. You know, even if it's for a cause, or even if it's for some kind of a situation that is happening, that can develop to something that exists for a long time and becomes normal. Now there’s a lot of calls to disarm those groups and to dissolve these militias. But feels like a little too late, you know?
HOST: There is another similarity between the US and Iraq: the deep—and deepening—sectarian divisions, and the way these divisions are exploited by those in power to pit us even more against one another. The main divide in Iraq, between Shia and Sunni branches of Islam, is a bit more complicated than some of the sectarian divisions in the US. But Ihsan sees an important lesson in them. Up until 2003, power was concentrated in the hands of a Sunni-dominated government. Sunnis are the minority here in Iraq, and yet it was the Shia majority who were among the oppressed. That dynamic flipped entirely when the US ousted Saddam Hussein and replaced him with a Shia-led government. Now, many Sunnis find themselves on the receiving end of oppression. And this whole system is propped up by the politics of fear—namely, the fear that the “other side,” whoever that may be, is out to get us.
IHSAN: A lot of them were afraid. A lot of us were afraid at that time. We had Saddam in power for 30 years. And Saddam oppressed the Shia and yeah, did all kinds of terrible things. And I think everyone knows that. And they use it: “Do you want another Saddam? We came to help you, to save you.”
And they kept feeding the people with all of these words. It's just for them. It’s, uh, power and money. And we then end up in a kind of a circle or a chain reaction that, you know, like—you can't get this to stop. There is no kind of return in this, unless you really change yourself, change the inner self.
HOST: So what do you when you realize the path you’re on is bringing you closer and closer to war? Well, you can give up in despair, resign yourself to the seemingly inevitable. Or you can find a different path.
IHSAN: A lot of people actually decide now to not elect anymore, not to go to the polls not to participate. Because they feel—they regret that moment, because they had decided to buy whatever those guys were selling. And since then, they just feel that, “I don't want to be that. I don't want to go and buy more of that.I already regret it. I already feel that I made my biggest mistake, maybe for not just my generation, for the generations to come.”
Some of them feel, “Oh, there is—no, I will not stop here. I see what I did. I see what's wrong I made. And now I need to stand and say something or change something.”
And that's why you see a lot of people going in the protests right now, trying to change something and fix what's been broken since that time.
I mean, the violence solution only leads to more violence. And we had a lot of violence, and we’re just tired of this kind of circle that we need to break. Because it's the other product that they want to sell us too: you know, when you can't sell words, they will sell wars. Then you end up without a choice.
HOST: When Afnan graduated from university with a bachelor's degree in international studies, she did so as a US citizen. But Afnan arrived to the US as a second-generation refugee. She was born in Saudi Arabia after her parents fled the civil war in Somalia. She grew up in Damascus, Syria, and in 2008, fled with her family to the US. Afnan is very familiar with the impact of sectarian violence.
AFNAN: So it was when the murders of Ahmaud Arbery and, you know, George Floyd, and everything was happening. We went out, we protested. And a week later, there was a KKK rally with their horses downtown. And people started texting each other, “Stay in. Don't go out.” And that just made everything so surreal to me. You know, it was like, “Oh, I felt safe in America.” You know?
You come to America. And you're like, “All right, war is done. Like, you're not gonna ever deal with this.” And then you see police brutality, and you see a KKK rally. And it's just like: when is it going to be over? You know? When are we going to put down the weapons and start talking to each other and treating each other like humans, you know?
As a person whose life was shaped by war—my parents were born and raised in Somalia. And I was born in Saudi Arabia and then moved to Syria. And the only reason they moved from Africa to the Middle East was because they were escaping war themselves.
So my anxiety as a person who experienced the aftermath of war—this is very troubling, what's happening in the United States. Just the idea of othering others is, it's the core of what's happening right now, you know? It's very unique, because the United States is a very individualistic, like, society, where even families are fighting now. I'm not used to that. For me to see people deleting their own grandmother's off of social media, canceling cousins, which is very different from where I come from. So it's easier for Americans to just be like, I'm deleting Aunt Betty from Facebook, which is like, I think it's making me even more nervous now.
As a person who lived under a dictator, I had to get up every morning and pledge allegiance to a dictator, knowingly. I mean, I was young, but we had to do it. The adults didn't know any better, either. They didn't have options. They couldn't vote him off or anything like that. So for Americans, my advice is: because we have that privilege of voting, that's the right thing to do. And it's your responsibility to save your country.
It's very sad to see that some people are choosing to not vote, or some people are, like, still not believing that their vote can make a difference. Because some people don't have that voice. They don’t have that privilege. You know what I'm saying? Where I'm from, you just go to that parade, and you better support, or you're gonna go to jail, you know? So for us to take that for granted, it's kind of troubling to me. I find it very hard to, like, communicate that to my fellow Americans, because they've never experienced it. They've never seen war and the aftermath of war and what's at stake.
INTERVIEWER: White America hasn’t seen it.
INTERVIEWER: Lots of Americans have seen it…
INTERVIEWER: ...if white America was willing to be open to hearing these other voices.
AFNAN: Absolutely. Yeah. Usually my conversation is with white American—usually, like, young college students, or, you know, just in their 20s. It's almost like a trend to be on the other side of the spectrum. Like, you're either just deleting all your Trump supporters on Facebook, or you’re a white supremacist. There's no, “OK, we can sit down and talk and engage in conversations and honor our humanity and listen to our fears.” Because this is all because of fear. Right? Everything that's happening right now. I feel like it's literally people freaking out.
INTERVIEWER: One of the things that has been particularly disturbing to me has been seeing militias out publicly on the streets. carrying weapons, most recently, you know, in Michigan—what happened last week in Michigan, working towards and promising violence to overthrow their state government. It felt an awful lot like what I have seen in Iraq and what you would have seen in Syria. And somehow, most Americans don't realize that when you normalize militias, it can become something else.
AFNAN: During, like, the civil war in Syria, people used to chant, “Assad, or else will burn the country.” For me, I'm seeing that same—it's almost like the same vibes right before things go down.
We are in a very, very serious space right now. Unless you’ve experienced it before, it's hard for you to, like, to think about it as, “Oh, that this could go wrong. This could end up in, you know, a civil war, or people could get hurt.”
It's so easy to be like, “You’re a Trump supporter.” Or, like, “You’re an Assad supporter. I'm not gonna even give you that, you know, space.” But you would have to develop that sense of that, like—just thinking of the person as a human, right? “I'm not gonna call you, like, by who you support or what party you're with, or whatever.” That’s not who you are. You're a human who has feelings, who is fearful, who probably, like, is also very nervous and anxious about, you know, what's happening.
Once we start seeing people, and honoring their humanity, and just looking at them as human beings, and just intentionally listening, you know? So when I'm talking to someone who's blatantly like,” Muslims shouldn't be here. They need to go back to wherever they come from,” and I'm like, “But I'm a Muslim American, so I belong here.” And for them to listen to that and, like, to sit and just marinate with that—I've seen a couple of people who were like, “Wait, wait, you are American. Like, you know, and you have the same rights as me.” That makes me feel like there is some hope,when it comes to just engaging in conversation and listening and intentionally, like, relating to others.
INTERVIEWER: It's easy to dehumanize a big group of people. But once they meet Afnan, it’s very hard to dehumanize a person who's right in front of us.
AFNAN: You can just hear about someone and what they did, or whatever, and just immediately judge. But when you hear their story, like, you can't—you cannot deny their experience. Some people try. And some people really succeed at gaslighting and telling you, “Well, that's not how it was.” But you weren't there. I know. And I experienced it. And it's my story that I'm telling you. It's easier for people to, like, relate when there's a story with that. But when you're just commenting and deleting and blocking, like, there’s no—humanity is lost in all of that.
It's very easy to be in that victim—like, you know, “I'm the oppressed. So, you know, I shouldn't be out here, like, doing the most because I'm the one who's oppressed.” We have to be strong enough to be like, “OK, I'm oppressed. But what am I doing? Who am I oppressing? You know, who am I reflecting my trauma on?” And I see that a lot.
INTERVIEWER: That’s hard. That’s hard, Afnan.
AFNAN: Mm hmm. Absolutely. It’s really hard. And it's something that I've been working on, because for a long time, I would look at these conversations as, “Well, that's not me. Like, I've had it worse than, like, you know, my white friends. So whatever.”
But once I realized, “OK. I can also be an ally to the LGBTQ+ community. I can also be an ally to other communities that are being oppressed. You know, the trans community. There's a lot of ways that we can all just recognize and reevaluate how can I be an ally, even though I'm oppressed? I have to put—not put my pain aside, but do the work for all of us.
HOST: The choice facing many of us is more than a choice between two candidates or two parties. It’s a choice of what kind of people we want to be, and what kind of world we want. Violence is possible, maybe even likely, in the aftermath of the US election. But it is not inevitable. Someone can choose to break the cycle. To resist the urge to strike. Someone can choose to see “people to be loved” instead of “battles to be won.” And that could be the spark that changes everything.
For now, I want to leave you with the same challenge from my friend Afnan that you heard at the beginning of this podcast. If you’d like more resources to help you wage peace in this polarizing moment, visit preemptivelove.org/election.
AFNAN: Fear leads to war. Civil wars don't just start out of nowhere. This is the beginning. So look at each other as humans. Honor each other's humanity. Put your fears aside and look at the big picture and take this as your responsibility to end hate, you know, that may lead to war. It's easier said than done, but it's still our responsibility. So we can't just drop the ball on our whole future, you know?