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Brussels Attacks: Now Is the Time for Moderates to Become Extreme (Guest Column)

The Brussels attacks are the latest in a string of terrorist onslaughts that have left our hearts heavier. The attacks are becoming more sophisticated, more lethal, and more adept at maiming and ending lives. We think we are wholeheartedly invested in the war against terror, yet the attacks only rise in atrocity.

Today no one is immune. There is no safe haven. And a phenomenon that has once been the reserve of the Middle East is now a global nightmare. The world’s war on terror was set in motion after 9/11. Fifteen years onward, terrorist-inspired ideas born and bred in the Middle East have taken hold of the minds and hearts of the young and desperate across the world. Today jihadists of European origin are no longer far and few between.

Stripped down to its most basic form, terrorism is the manifestation of the power of diabolical ideas. The war on terror must be waged in the fertile minds of those most likely to fall under its influence. We need weapons, but this is not only a war of arms. We must obliterate the ideas that fuel the cancer-like spread of terrorism as much as we need to obliterate armed ISIS squads. ISIS promises heaven. And therein lies our real battle.

In the early ’90s when I was in my mid-teens, my father’s name made it onto the assassination lists of terrorist groups. A prominent writer, he never watered down his thoughts nor minced his words in his own war against terror. We lived under protection, watched and guarded and acutely conscious that we were within arm’s reach of tragedy. Yet he is a man not easily derailed from his beliefs; we braced the challenge head-on. One after the other, his movies and series delivered major blows to terrorist minds.

The early ’90s was also the time when terrorists in Egypt went on a killing spree targeting famous writers and thinkers who challenged their claims to a kingdom of heaven. Nobel prize winner Naguib Mahfouz was stabbed in the neck. In Algeria, terror reigned on a wider scale; school teachers were targeted to drive generations into the darkness where they would become easy prey for mind hijackers.

As far back as the ’90s terrorists caught on to their No. 1 enemy, the power of ideas, and hence the assassinations of thought leaders who could stem their power by enlightening and inspiring their potential prey. It is time that we catch on to this reality and move ahead full throttle.

Moderate voices of the world must rise to the challenge, now is the time for moderates to become extreme. This can only bring on a transformation when their ideas are given life in mainstream media.

The passion of viral videos enlisting teenage Jihadis, ISIS’ main pool of recruitment, must be matched with equally passionate messages revering moderation and tolerance in TV, films, and predominantly online, the millennials’ go-to beacon of inspiration. It’s time we drop our futile attempts at preaching at the young folks, it’s time we get under their skin. Western media must also uproot its all too common narrative reinforcing the stereotyping of men of Middle Eastern origin as terrorists, fueling a vicious cycle of hate.

It is a war of ideas that we must take on with the ferocity and tenacity that we would regular warfare. This is the time for the world to unitedly invest in the benign forces of art, education and culture, and not only in designing intricate security systems.

The key to the war on terror lies in answering one simple question: how do you instill the burning belief in a better tomorrow in the mind of a 16-year-old, while someone whispers in his ear “heaven now”?

(Egyptian director Marwan Hamed made an international splash in 2006 with his Cairo-set “The Yacoubian Building,” which fearlessly broke Arab cinema taboos in the way it depicted homosexuality, Islamic fundamentalism and government corruption. More recently his “The Blue Elephant,” a thriller with supernatural elements, broke Arab box office records. He is in advanced development on a film titled “Assassins” about the roots of ISIS.)

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