The assault on co-existence

M.J. Akbar
What is common between the criminal complaint against Rabbi David Goldberg for circumcising Jewish boys in Hof, Germany; the ban on minarets in Switzerland; the continual attempts by some European publications to offend Muslims; the attempt to convict a young Christian in Pakistan for blasphemy she did not commit; an attack on a mosque in Missouri, USA; or, most vicious of all, the recent film that injects lies and malice into public discourse through veins nourished by hatred?
Each one is not designed to destroy the existence of the “other”. Their purpose is to poison co-existence, the fundamental basis of civilised living. Anger is not always illogical, but there is no rationale that can justify each of these instances. Rabbi Goldberg was not trying to circumcise Christians; he was practising his own faith. To target minarets as a cultural crime in an age of skyscrapers is manifest prejudice, of the sillier sort. Provocative European publishers are not defending freedom of speech, which is their much advertised explanation, since nowhere in the democratic world does the right to publish include the leeway to libel or defame, particularly when a lie can lead to public disorder. The Pakistani child was a victim, not a perpetrator — of fanatics who wanted to punish her and her kin for protecting Christianity in their theocratic environment. The bilious film about the Prophet of Islam was not made by a filmmaker, but by a bigot determined to provoke a violent reaction that would confirm in many innocent or naïve minds the image of Islam as a fountainhead of violence rather than what the word actually means, which is peace. The barbarians who killed four American diplomats in Libya duly obliged: hatred breeds hatred in an escalating cycle.
Even the most dramatic example of pure, unadulterated terrorism, the destruction of New York’s twin towers on 9/11, was initiated not to destroy America’s existence, which is impossible even within the mindset of a maniac, but to breach an emerging international order founded on mutual respect, and the equality of nations. The planes that headed towards the White House and Pentagon were not ferrying troops who had been ordered to conquer Washington. Their purpose was to generate fear, hostility and war between the two largest religious communities in the world. They succeeded, but to an extent far lower than the expectations of terrorist masterminds, and yet far more than the young 21st century could stomach. The price has been high. The Mumbai terrorist attacks in November 2008 had a dual objective: to warp the India-Pakistan engagement, as fragile as it might have been; and to incite violence in India between Hindus and Muslims. It is satisfying to report that the second wish failed spectacularly because Indians understood that such discord would mean a victory for terrorism.
The most interesting aspect of this worldwide shadow war is that both the self-appointed commanders and their terrorist troops are almost wholly civilian. We are witnessing a rare phenomenon: people outside the power structure, working largely (but not always) on their own, can do more damage to social harmony than powerful regiments led by dictators, Presidents or Prime Ministers. There are governments, of course, who are tempted to dip their hands in the sewer for political gain; and you can never rule out the unintelligent intelligence agency which believes in a strategy of destabilising civilian populations.
But governments have not, exceptions apart, been in the forefront of these battle lines. Whatever their nature, despotic, democratic or in-between, governments know that fomenting terrorism debilitates the personal and institutional advantages of being in power through blowback damage.
Even when legitimate armies are put on the field, governments calibrate the conflict. When governments fall into the grip of radical ideologues who have left common sense at the club bathhouse, the damage is startling, as was evident during President George Bush’s Iraq war.
The most dangerous of today’s conspiracies are being manufactured in small rooms lost in the labyrinths of a big city by men who will not become internationally infamous unless they succeed. We do not know how many 9/11s or Mumbai attacks have failed, but just the thought is sufficient for a shudder. Failure is not any hindrance to fanatics.
They are now being lured by the siren outreach of a miraculous technology that continues to breed new tools by the day. Prevention is the full time job of innumerable police forces, while no one has any real clue about what might constitute a cure.
This war has to be fought where it is being incubated, on the street, and in the mind. We cannot afford politicians who seek votes from a sewer. This is a malaise, an infection, a plague, a crisis that demands leaders who maintain the sanity of good doctors in the face of havoc. Violence can begin with the word, and every word must be chosen with care.


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