Alarm Bells of Intolerance

The past week has witnessed alarming signs of building intolerance in the world. Are the present growing influx of hundreds of thousands of refugees from principally Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq or Eritrea into Europe and the latest series of ruthless terror killings of innocent people in Paris or San Bernardino in California perpetuated by radicalized European or American nationals from migrant backgrounds causative factors?

Earlier this week, the world has been jolted by Donald Trump’s, the front-runner in the polls for the Republican Party nomination for the 2016 Presidential elections, call that ‘Muslims should be banned from entering the United States’. As expected, this irresponsible and divisive statement likely to encourage xenophobia towards US Muslims as well as other foreign immigrants provoked widespread condemnation from Republicans and Democrats alike as well as Muslim leaders, the UN and foreign leaders. The White House said that the proposal ‘disqualifies him from serving as US President’.

Similarly, the results of the first round of regional elections in France, three weeks after the terrorist killings in Paris, shows a significant swing in favour of the far right Front National (FN) Party which has openly campaigned on an anti-immigration and anti-Muslim rhetoric. With a 28% share of the vote nationwide (compared to only 11% at the last regional elections in 2010) ahead of both the mainstream Les Republicains (27%) and the Socialist (23%) parties and more than 40% in some areas, the FN is poised to wrest at least two important regions of the newly constituted 13 regions of France in the second round of regional elections. Other contributory factors have been fears about security; the dismal economic situation with a high and rising unemployment rate of 10.6% and a higher abstention rate among the traditional voters of the mainstream parties.

Political analysts have on TV been quick to highlight the correlation of cause and effect between the marked rise of the FN among voters in France to the twin effects of the Paris attacks and the growing influx of refugees into Europe. Is there a facile and convenient amalgam being made between the arrival of refugees and migrants from ‘outlandish’ origins in Europe and the West with terrorism by those who thrive on division and conflict to promote their own rabid agendas?

On the other hand, the fact that the attacks in Paris and the US have been planned and executed by US, French and Belgian nationals in the latter cases born in these countries of immigrant parents raises fundamental and disquieting questions of trust and safety as well as legitimate apprehensions at the risks of ‘sleeper cells’ and enemies within the castle gates. The Islamic State recruitment cells dismantled in Spain add fuel to such fears. The fact that this extremism is only present among pockets of radicalised nationals in some countries in Europe does not change the pervasive anxiety.

The breaking news syndrome and race among rival media groups to be the first to inform and to overly dwell on events making headlines very often end up giving a warped and disproportionate image of reality. This over-mediatization already provides terrorists with an unintended platform of free broadcast and TV images of their misdeeds. The onus is therefore on the media to have a serious rethink about a more circumspect treatment of terrorist acts and a more responsible role in the world’s united front against terror.

Doing it together

Extremism is one of the major challenges facing the world today. Radical forces are bent on creating a religious schism and deep animosity among creeds to serve their bigotry. World leaders therefore have to address this challenge firmly but also responsibly, conscious of the divisive undercurrents of such a delicate issue. President Obama’s speech from the Oval office on Sunday last in the wake of the San Bernardino shootings was therefore appropriately firm and measured. He vowed to ‘destroy the Islamic State (IS) in a relentless, strong and smart campaign’ whilst being ‘consistent with the nation’s values’.

In keeping with their values, Europe, the United States and the West have for decades regularly allowed in a certain number of refugees and migrants from diverse countries fleeing zones of conflict or economic hardships in their countries. This has enabled them to enjoy freedom, rights and opportunities to have a better life for themselves and their families.

Migrants have very often been a potent source of generation of national wealth in their country of adoption through their hard work, discipline and entrepreneurship. Whilst preserving their rich cultural diversity, there is ample evidence that the generation of American or British or European born nationals of immigrant origin have generally fully integrated their respective societies as proudly as their local countrymen, participating in diverse mainstream activities and singular aspects of the culture of their country of adoption.

During Modi’s recent State visit to the United Kingdom, a Pipe Band made up of British born South Asians from Scotland performed in full Scottish Highland attire with kilts in tartan pattern and all in the cultural event prior to his speech at Wembley. Rangolis in the colours of the Union Jack were displayed. Imbibing local culture and creative fusion culture are all part of a healthy form of integration based on respect for each other’s rich cultural heritage.

However, it is clear that some and it is certainly a minority have opted to remain on the sidelines. Whilst respecting cultural diversity, we must ensure that no one boxes himself out of mainstream society. Some have also been radicalised. The root cause of this alienation and radicalization towards extremism must be fathomed and addressed.

The policies of the western powers towards the Middle East have been rather messy, piecemeal and inchoate. It has left a bigger mess. It has also created a political vacuum in the wake of the Arab Spring uprisings where extremist forces such as the IS have supplanted democratic movements backed by the Western powers. IS has since become notorious for its mass killings, abductions, rapes and beheading in the areas under its control. A UN Human Rights report has accused it of war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity. Millions of hapless citizens of Syria torn by civil war have thus been displaced and condemned to live in makeshift refugee camps in tenuous conditions for years since 2011.

Beyond Raqqa

We must however remember that the problem of extremism will not end with the destruction of IS in its headquarters in Raqqa, in Syria and Iraq or Libya, the country where the latest intelligence reports indicate they have carved a safe haven and are planning to use as a gateway to Europe. There is evidence that it has also found root in enclaves within Europe such as in the Brussels borough of Molenbeek, various localities in Paris such as St-Denis or Toulouse in France etc.

Any action plan to stem it within Europe must also devise comprehensive solutions to also address the sense of alienation in deprived areas suffering from poor education facilities and inadequate opportunities, high unemployment rates and a deep seated rancour owing to unresolved issues they champion such as the predicament of Palestinians in the occupied territories and the inordinate delay in urgently establishing a free Palestinian State. These grievances provide a fertile ground for those who are bent on grooming reportedly beer drinking and pot smoking youth into radical terrorists in the name of redemption.

Stemming terrorism also means opening the can of worms masking the occult financing of IS by complicit countries and organisations in the Middle East which have been publicly named recently. A sustainable political solution which takes on board all moderate stakeholders is also a determinant factor for a lasting and peaceful future for the countries of the region. Air raids cannot therefore be the all-encompassing panacea to such a major challenge to world peace and stability.

The perception of ‘biting the hand that feeds one’ is not a sustainable option for the future. The onus is therefore also squarely on the Muslim community and in particular on the millions from diverse countries who have over decades been given refuge and a safe home for them and their families in Europe, the US and other countries and are now citizens of these countries to urgently identify and weed out radicalism and extremism from their midst.

It is only through such actions from both sides that the scourge of terrorism will be annihilated and the backlash of mounting intolerance quashed. The globalised world which values our rich cultural diversity with a spirit of sharing and mutual respect and enrichment would not have it any other way.

* Published in print edition on 11 December 2015

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