Saturday, February 28, 2015

A Chilling Effect

It's more than a month now, since the horrific murders of the cartoonists at the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. The debate that has ensued since, on issues of free speech and the place of religion and religious extremism in western society, has had a chilling effect that is troubling. Many defenders of free speech came out in solidarity using the term Je Suis Charlie, despite not agreeing with the long established tone and content of the magazine. In my last posting I gave my reasons for supporting them for expressing their intellectual views through caricature. There have been many others who have danced around the issue of free speech, by condemning the murders but at the same time saying that they were not "Charlie" because they found them to be overtly racist and xenophobic. By doing so many writers and commentators sent mixed messages on where they stood on the idea of free speech and where they saw its limitations. The audacious response from Charlie Hebdo to publish the image of the Prophet Mohammad on their cover page after the murder of most of its senior staff, sent a signal that there are no boundaries to intellectual freedom, there never can be, if we are to live in a mature free society. The chilling effect caused by opposing views is beginning to have dire consequences as the propaganda war heightens and the culture war sees no reasonable conclusion. This week there was another victim. A blogger was hacked to death in Bangladesh for expressing his views on Islam and atheism.

The Paris incident, created a troubling environment leading to a state of paranoia, very similar to what America experienced when a few maniacs flew airplanes into lower Manhattan on a grisly September morning. The response by certain groups in Europe is invoking the ghosts of a past whose diabolical legacy is still fresh and ever present in the shadows. Antisemitism has steadily been on the rise in Europe for sometime now, and now Islamophobia threatens to single out another minority group. Many Jews in France and Germany have openly expressed fear for their safety, and many Muslims are now beginning to express the same sentiment. In Dresden, Germany, the marches held by a group called Pegida or as they call themselves "Patriotic Europeans against the Islamisation of the Occident" have been disconcerting. The marchers commit no violence and say nothing overtly racist, although the protests draw Neo-Nazi tourists from all over the country. Many counter demonstration are also being organized but the fear and mistrust of the "Muslim" continues to grow. In polls taken across Europe and America the numbers who think Islam is not compatible with the west is rising. In France according to a poll conducted by Pew Research, 56% think Islam is not compatible, and in America it is 44%. These are disturbing statistics, which clearly show that people are responding to a mass hysteria being created in the media by its coverage of terrorism and the brutality that is being doled out onto our conscience, by the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. The stigmatization of a whole group, due the actions of a few, seems to be becoming an accepted norm.

The 9/11 attacks, the invasion of Iraq, the failed Arab uprisings, the perpetual Israel/Palestine bloodletting and the horrific destruction of Syria and the birth of a medieval cancer called ISIS, have all taken a steady toll on people's perception of Islam and the two billion or so of its followers. Like most religions and faiths, Islam is practiced and followed by people all around the planet in as disparate ways as any religion. While the Qur'an is what binds all Muslims in identity, the Islam practiced in Africa is culturally different from that embraced in Bangladesh, India or Malaysia. You have Shias and Sunnis and countless different sects within Islam, whose value systems are as varied as Hasids, Orthodox and Reformists in Judaism or Protestants and Catholics in Christianity. There is liberal Islam as followed by the Ahmediyyas, there is conservative Islam and then there is the militant kind. The militant one seems to be garnering most attention on the front pages, distorting ones view, breeding ignorance and disdain.

There is no question some Islamic countries in the middle east have not moved with the times. Women in Saudi Arabia and other countries in the region are treated as second class citizens and homosexuals are largely considered non-existent and or deviant. In Qatar, Kuwait and the UAE, a slave economy generates wealth and prosperity that is un-Islamic in every way possible. In Egypt a democratic movement sprang and crumbled returning one of the largest Muslim nations on earth back to the old guard with a military dictator firmly in control. Even though Iran has the most liberal youth among all Muslim nations, their voice has been silenced by the clergy and the zealots. In Turkey, democratic Islam is as western as can be, albeit under threat from hardliners. Malaysia and Indonesia the most populous of all Muslim nations have been successful democracies for many years and coexist peacefully with other religious groups. India, with one of the largest Muslim populations in the world in numbers, has been democratic since 1947, despite sporadic ethnic conflict. The Islamic world is diverse, but the perception that is propagated is something skewed and distorted.

Another perception that Europe is being over run by immigrant Muslims who are not assimilating is a very prevalent one. The numbers prove otherwise. The Muslim population of Europe is less than 6%. France has one of the highest Muslim populations mostly as a result of its brutal colonial incursions into Algeria and elsewhere in North Africa. The United Kingdom has 4.6% and Germany about 5%. The history of Muslims in Europe is ancient and most have coexisted with the laws of the land, but on the margins, distanced and discriminated. In France assimilation has not been easy or made conducive and has posed serious problems giving room for radical elements to take root causing mayhem as witnessed at Charlie Hebdo. The conclusion being made by many that Islam is not compatible with the west, is a recent one. And is a reaction to a paranoia that is rapidly spreading, which if not addressed with ration, could cause more mayhem.

Austria's parliament passed a law this week titled the"Law of Islam". This law bans foreign funding of Islamic organizations and requires any group claiming to represent Austrian Muslims to submit and use a standardized German translation of the Qu'ran. Other religious groups are exempt from this law and its passing met very little resistance in the overwhelmingly Roman Catholic nation. Many of Austria's half a million Muslims are of Turkish descent. Many of their Imam's are financed by Turkey. It seems like this clearly discriminatory law was passed in the present climate, in response to a fear that is engulfing Europe.

Some commentators in America have been very vocal about their views on Islam creating a schism that is breeding paranoia. The FOX News Network has made it their mission to frame Islam as a backward religion that is not compatible with western values. Recently when President Obama refused to use the word "Islamic Terrorists" in order to separate the word Islam from violence and not feed the propaganda machine of ISIS and the hardliners, FOX News was relentless in calling him  dishonest and shifty. Rupert Murdoch, the Chairman and CEO of News Corp., the parent company of FOX News, in response to the Charlie Hebdo attacks did not flinch to stigmatize all Muslims as baring responsibility for the violence being perpetuated in the name of Islam. Others on the left such as Bill Mahar and Sam Harris have called Islam "the mother lode of bad ideas", while in the same breath acknowledging that a majority of Muslims do not endorse violence, but the religion does, and is being interpreted for those purposes alone and not many are speaking out against this corruption. While those who disagree, point that Islam is a religion of peace and harmony and has nothing to do with violence, and the clash of words and ideas goes on unabated. Through this noise what filters through is mistrust. Partly because there are is no one influential and rational filling the gap.

The theological debate of what Islam is or is not, is vast and complex. If Islam for a moment is to be considered as "the mother lode of bad ideas" then so should Christianity and Judaism as they are all essentially Abrahamic religions sharing similar content. Therefore this statement is misleading, shortsighted and counterproductive, especially when large numbers of people subscribe to these ideas with deep faith.

The reality is that all religions have hardline elements within them that are becoming more and more influential. The hardliners are primarily clerics who believe in an interpretation of their religion that is absolute, that does not reflect the times. Christians have their conservative clergy and so do the Jews, and every other religion which is resistant to change. The hardliners within Islam in the recent past have become more powerful and influential than ever before. Financed by conservative nations like Saudi Arabia and Qatar some Imams, Sheiks and Mullahs have hijacked the debate and are exercising their power, with devastating effect using the internet and their pulpit. They are consciously and deliberately spreading a message that Islam is not compatible with other religions and systems of governance, and therefore a culture war must be waged against those who they perceive are insulting and undermining of Islam. Therefore it is the sworn duty of every Muslim around the world to wage Jihad (religious war), against those (mainly the west) who seek to diminish their religion and therefore their identity as a people. The examples they use very legitimately and powerfully, are the indiscriminate and illegal wars waged in Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine and now Syria, where countless Muslims have perished at the hands of western powers. Other examples used are the immoral westernization of their society and the colonization of their lands by western military bases all to subdue, seduce and dominate their tribe. These are powerful ideas to the young and impressionable who seek an identity and conviction beyond their current one that is conflicted, discriminated and disillusioned. Much like how Hitler devised a program to brainwash and conscript the youth of Germany to form an army of pure bred Aryan killing machines, the ideology of ISIS and other clerics is similar. To create a Islamic utopia based on a draconian vision, that is all consuming, merciless and sociopathic in every sense of the word. The Taliban achieved this utopia for a while in Afghanistan and now ISIS is attempting to establish one in the heart of the middle east.

What is not widely spoken about and cloaked by many extremist Mullah's is the overwhelming number of innocent Muslims who perish everyday, as a result of the violence triggered by their militancy and terrorism.

There is a small but sizable population that is influenced by this rhetoric. There are those who are willing to take action, by joining groups such as ISIS or Al Qaeda. There are some who are willing to support this cause from the shadows. But an overwhelming majority do not pay heed to this violence that is spreading within. But if we are to create an environment of fear and mistrust of all Muslims, by being careless in the kind of rhetoric that is spewed on our television channels and social networks, more will gravitate to the other side, making groups like ISIS gain legitimacy. When powerful people like Robert Murdoch, in their ignorance cast dispersions on a whole group of people, they behave no different than the extremist Mullahs, who make a living brainwashing people to commit violence.

As the wars escalate in Syria and Iraq, and ISIS creeps into our daily lives by committing more and more brutal acts of violence, it is very important not to lose perspective. And it is the obligation of those in power, in the government and in the media, to provide perspective and caution. The extremist elements within Islam are minuscule but like any cancer they are a danger and must be dealt with a firm hand both intellectually and otherwise.

There are real threats that are emerging as this war escalates on various fronts and like in any war the casualties are the innocent. Avijit Roy, a Bangladeshi blogger was hacked to death for being atheist and expressing secular values in a democratic Muslim nation that is politically polarized. Raif Badawi, a Saudi Arabian blogger was arrested in October of last year for insulting Islam as he posted critical remarks about powerful religious leaders on his blog. He was sentenced to ten years in jail and has been ordered to receive a thousand lashes. The first fifty were delivered on January 9th in an open square in Jeddah. Three young Muslims were shot and killed in North Carolina, USA by a deranged man. While some called it a hate crime, others a dispute over a parking space gone extreme. The reality is, in the present climate, if the killer was Muslim and victims were not, there would be no hesitation in calling it a "terrorist act". A grandfather from India who was taking a walk in an Alabama suburb was found to be suspicious by some residents. The police were immediately dispatched, and a frail 57 year old who spoke no English was roughed up, leaving him paralyzed and disabled. ISIS continues to shock and nauseate by committing extreme brutality against innocent civilians. These are all victims of a paranoid, violent and deranged society being created in many parts of the world because of extremism on all sides.

With all that is going on in this world, it seems like we are at a crossroads. Compared to previous centuries, even though a majority of the world lives in relative peace, there is a growing perception that things are at a tipping point. The reality is, there are both existential and physical threats out there. If not addressed rationally by one and all, they can easily spiral out of control. There is a line in the recent Ridley Scott film Prometheus, where a character says "big things have small beginnings". The poignancy of this sentence and what it can encapsulate, is powerful and is something one has to be vigilant about at all times. The mass extermination of Jews in Germany during the second world war started as a small deviant, diabolical and delusional idea inside one person's mind. If one is not careful, small misguided ideas can have big devastating effects. It is what it is.