Thursday, December 18, 2014

The Sydney siege and simple explanations: reflections

Al Jazeera recently published an article by Nazry Bahrawi criticising the "I'll ride with you" hashtag. I was under-impressed. It seems to reflect and reinforce stereotypes, even making the egregious error that the instigator was white (so what? except that Bahrawi appeared to have reflexly assumed that and even tried to make it a central point). (Rachael Jacobs, a lecturer in Education at the Australia Catholic University in Brisbane was the Greens candidate for the seat of Brisbane. Her parents were born in India, and her appearance suggests Indian heritage.) (A later version of Bahrawi's paper corrects his error.)

My fundamental criticism of Bahrawi's argument is that he seems to suggest that factors such as "religion", "race" and "nationality" are entirely discrete .. if one accepts that then you can conclude causation is all "x" and zero "y". We see the same logical flaw when asylum seekers are labeled "economic" (ie 100% economic), thus ignoring driving elements in migration such as persecution, environmental scarcity and other forms of "push" factors. Indeed, failing to see the deeper complexity of things, just picking one explanation, may be a characteristic of racism and racists.

Bahrawi asserts that it is others who see dichotomies, who fail to see nuance. He even says "Western colonisers began to think of their "Other" in one of two antithetical ways - either as a barbaric savage or a noble savage." Now, maybe some colonisers did see one or either extreme, only but is it not plausible that many people always perceived the "other" as somewhere between these poles? But, even if they did see complexity, I do agree that many representations of mass opinion are simplified, digitally, either "on" or "off".

But, even if some colonisers used to think so simplistically, are such views still common? I have certainly met racists (especially when I was a general practitioner), but they don't generally - if at all - think of the "other" in barbaric or noble terms .. they simply think selfishly. Most of the early (and shameful) racism in Australia against Chinese was economic, i.e. selfish. I don't think it was much to do with an idea that the Chinese were barbaric, though there undoubtedly were mass media depictions of Chinese as barbaric. It was instead foreseen that many Chinese immigrants would endure lower living standards, work for lower wages and thus drive down the incomes of the European Australians. Perhaps that couldn't be admitted .. alleged Chinese barbarism was instead proposed.

But even if some authorities and individuals did think in those black and white terms I cannot see the relevance to the Sydney siege. Furthermore, separation into "otherness" has no monopoly by "Westerners". The Rwandan genocide, the modern tribal barbarism in South Sudan, and indeed division among Muslims in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East easily show that.

Also, the main point of the "I'll ride with you" movement is that many people are challenging extremist views.

It is also fallacious to use arguments such as because the perpetrator of the Sydney siege is mentally unstable and a criminal (or synonyms for that) that the siege therefore had nothing to do with the Middle East (even though the perpetrator had an Islamic flag and sent messages delivered by his hostages on YouTube that he was launching an attack on Australia for Islamic State). There is a large supply of unstable people in the community, and they will reflect like misty mirrors the larger issues in the world. And one such large issue is the morass of Western involvement in the Middle East (and no doubt involvement and competition of myriad other groups there, Islamic and non-Islamic.) And there is undeniably a Muslim dimension to it all. 

The reputation of modern Islam has been greatly harmed among the non-Islamic world by actions such as the fatwah against Salman Rushdie (irrespective of how representative of Islam that intolerance is). Islam appears not only intolerant, and pockets within it seek to actively and violently enforce intolerance on non-Muslims, such as the January 2015 attack on the Paris office of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. According to an article by Suzanne Moore in the Guardian as many as 20% of the 1.6 billion Muslims in the world have some sympathy for radical Islam.

There is a strong defence that freedom of speech and satire are legitimate in democracies. I am a Buddhist. Buddhism talks of right speech and I am personally uncomfortable with some forms of satire and ridicule, including towards religious figures. But ridicule can never justify violence towards those who utter it. I utterly condemn this latest attack.

However there is insufficient recognition, especially in the West, that we need far more progress towards a global democracy. I don't know how many non-Muslims support Western intervention in predominantly Muslim countries but my guess it is far higher than 20%, a point that is rarely made.

It is irrefutable that many terrorist actions aimed at liberal values (not just here, but in Nigeria, Pakistan, France etc) come from people acting, at least in part, in the cause of Islam. I do not think Bahrawi faces up to that. He is far from alone in the Islamic intelligentsia in his seeming denial.

But, of course, numerous other groups (Israelis, George Bush-led US invasions, supported by John Howard and Tony Abbott-led Australian support, Buddhists in Myanmar and in Sri Lanka etc) also practice violence; but those forms of violence are not directed against Australian citizens (or French for that matter). It is not just the
the Islamic intelligentsia who are capable of denial.

Let's hope that "I'll ride with you" acts to ease tensions .. I think it will (slightly) .. but the underlying problems will not fade, in a world where limits to material growth continue to tighten, and where the claim that scarcity drives co-operation is true only to a point. 

At about the same time as the Sydney siege Australia cut its foreign aid, yet again. I know aid is hard to do well, but to me, the general level of Australian support (or at least acquiescence) for that cut in aid is evidence we are a rather spoiled nation that would like to forget there are other peoples in the world, and we have with very little understanding that a fairer world is actually safer for us, at least in the long run.

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