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Sunday, 5 June 2011

Supremacist thinking, race, religion conspiracy theories of threat: same actors, same old script!

Sharing The Nation By Zainah Anwar

There should be zero tolerance against those who abuse race and religion to promote supremacist thinking and incite hatred.

WHOSE voice should prevail? Those who perpetually see race and religion as being under threat and demand that every person who believes, thinks, behaves, dresses, acts and opines differently should be “fixed” through state-sanctioned operations (such as boot camps or rehabilitation camps), punished under the Internal Security Act, the Sedition Act, the Official Secrets Act, the Printing Presses and Publications Act, the Syariah Criminal Offences Act, or just denounced and demonised as enemies and traitors of race, religion and country?

Or those who envision a democratic and just future, where rights are recognised on the basis of citizenship rather than just race, religion, or sex?

The choice is obvious to most of us, the good citizens of Malaysia who love this country and are determined to be resilient, resourceful, and open-minded to face the challenges and realities of the 21st century.
Healthy beat: Even the innocuous fun of poco-poco is considered a threat. — Filepic
But there are demagogues in our midst who are relentless in their abuse of race and religion to stir up fear and conflict.

For what purpose? To remain in power so that their privileges and entitlements are entombed forever?

Could this escalating rhetoric of racial and religious-based recriminations be a last ditch do-or-die effort to maintain business as usual, never mind the consequences to the nation or even their own party?

Is it because the elections are coming and they remain myopic in their belief that race and religion will win them the battle?

So they endlessly manufacture many more new threats – from the innocuous fun of poco-poco to the relativism of post-modernism, from calling Muslims opposed to Umno and PAS unification as “pengkhianat Islam” (traitors of Islam) to accusing Christians of plotting to turn Malaysia into a Christian state!

Even the outdated “communists under every bed” threat is now being thrown into the cauldron of dangers besieging the Malay community. All this, of course, to add to the existing long list of threats that include pluralism, liberalism, feminism, secularism, kongsi raya, open house, tomboys and yoga.

If this is merely tiresome, one can just laugh it off. Alas, it is not. It is corrosive to the body politic and well-being of the nation. It foreshadows a downhill slide into ethnic and religious conflict. It contributes to the record outflow of capital and talent that the country is suffering now.

It has got to stop!

And yet, for years, a mainstream daily newspaper continues to be the conduit for such inflammatory, unverified, provocative stories with front page banner headlines, giving it authority and legitimacy with seeming support from the powers that be.

The Government cannot talk about 1Malaysia, economic transformation, government transformation, talent recruitment or high income country on the one hand, and on the other legitimises, whether directly or indirectly, the use of race and religion to incite fear for short-term political gain.

It is hard to understand why these same actors are trotting out the same old script that cost the Barisan Nasional government so dearly in 2008. It’s as if nobody has learnt any lessons from that political tsunami.

Since attacking liberal Muslims and ungrateful Chinese did not work in 2008, they have amended the script to add Christians and the so passé communists. Aren’t they creating more enemies instead of making friends?

Ashutosh Varshney, the Indian political scientist based in the United States, spent 10 years examining three pairs of Indian cities, one riot prone and the other peaceful, in confronting the same contentious ethnic issue.

In his seminal work Ethnic Conflict and Civil Life: Hindus and Muslims in India, he establishes three findings significant to Malaysia.

First, the role of the press. In violent cities, instead of investigating rumours, often strategically planted and spread, the press simply printed them with abandon. In studying peaceful Calicut and violent Aligarh over the Babari mosque agitation, he finds Aligarh’s local newspapers printing inflammatory falsehoods, while Calicut’s newspapers neutralised rumours after investigating and finding them unfounded.

When I was a journalist 20 years ago, my editors would not print any news – and certainly not on the front page – with alarming headlines without authoritative verification. Now some mainstream newspapers act just like irresponsible bloggers who turn rumours into instant fact, intentionally to damage reputations and serve partisan interests.

Second, Varshney finds that whether violence or peace prevails depends on the role politicians play in polarising citizens along ethnic lines. Politicians who seek to polarise Hindus and Muslims for the sake of electoral advantage can tear at the fabric of everyday engagement among citizens.

He finds that conflict erupts into violence when organised gangs are not just involved, but are also protected by politicians, thus escaping prosecution under the law for their criminal actions.

Third, and most importantly, he finds that trust built on inter-ethnic social and civic ties is critical for peace. Inter-ethnic associations in cities, such as trade unions, business associations, teachers, lawyers, doctors, non-governmental organisations and some cadre-based political parties, are decisive in preventing violence because they build bridges and manage tensions in times of ethnic conflict.

Varshney finds that a synergy emerges between communally integrated civic organisations and local arms of government. This leads to better monitoring and preventive action as these relationships nip rumours, small clashes and tensions in the bud. In the end, polarising politicians either do not succeed or eventually give up trying to provoke and engineer communal violence.

The lessons for us are clear. The sources of threat to our society and the sources of strength for bridge-building in our multi-ethnic society are clear for all to see. Thank God, again and again, many fair-minded Malaysian citizens have not risen up to bite the bait thrown out by the demagogues.

The point is our diversity, our pluralism, had always been our strength. We have a proud and long history of the races and religions living and working together. Malaysia was truly Asia. Now this rings hollow, meant only to trot out in tourism campaigns. Why is our pluralism now a threat? On what basis? Where’s the evidence? Who benefits from such a projection of threat?

What makes it mind-boggling is why these supremacist groups are given so much face and space? Think of the number of meetings held by those searching for solutions to ethnic, religious and regional conflicts that have been stormed by these “thugs”? Those of us meeting peacefully indoors, sharing our concerns and exploring possible solutions were the ones forced to abandon our meetings because they posed “a threat to public order”!

It is high time the Government unequivocally adopt a zero-tolerance policy against such agent provocateurs who abuse race and religion to promote supremacist thinking and incite hatred.

Our leaders must seriously come to grips with our new political realities and work harder to bring the message of change to its grassroots leaders. Some others do not even feel they need to be protected – by anyone. They feel 40 years of affirmative action are enough for them to stand on their own two feet and compete on their own strength and merit. What they want now is just simple good governance to enable them to thrive and for everyone to be given a fair chance to reach their full potential.

I wish these demagogues would spend their time and energy finding real solutions to real threats. For a start, how about chewing on the fact that a Merdeka Center survey found that 70% of Malays feel that the main threat to the Malay political position in the country is corruption among Malay leaders. Not the Chinese, Christians, communists, liberalism, pluralism, feminism, post-modernism, poco-poco, or yoga.

Can we please not waste any more time and emotion on imagined enemies and threats before we reach a point of no return? I know problems exist. But can we please search for solutions through rational dialogue and mutual respect, using verifiable facts, data and analysis instead of inflammatory pronouncements and conspiracy theories?