This article is part of the IP 2021 series, in which we publish abridged, general-public versions of the academic papers presented in the Euroculture Intensive Programme. This year’s topic was Religion.
By Anna Oliwia Wierzbicka
On ne touche pas aux choses d’Alsace.
“Do not change anything in Alsace.” These words, attributed to the king Louis XIV, may never have been expressed by him, but they can be seen as evidence of the specific attitude of the French crown towards Alsace over the centuries. This attitude has lasted to this day, to the times of the French Fifth Republic. And one of its manifestations is the Concordat of 1801, which regulates the relationship between the state and four religious denominations in Alsace-Moselle (a region that consists of three departments: Haut-Rhin, Bas-Rhin and Moselle) until this day. It is still in force despite the adoption of the State secularism in France in 1905 by the French Law on the Separation of the Churches and State(Loi du 9 décembre 1905 concernant la séparation des Églises et de l’État), prohibiting any influence of the State on religious matters and vice versa.
Last January (2019) I had the opportunity to get in contact with the European Women’s Lobby in Brussels. There, I discussed the current situation of women’s right in the European Union, focusing on sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR).
The EWL, which is the biggest European network of women’s associations, aims at influencing the general public and the EU decision-makers in support of women’s human rights. It is continuously working to ensure every woman’s dignity and the respect of SRHR in the Union.
Here are some reflections following my contact with them.
Looking back at the events and debates that occurred across Europe in 2018, we are likely to notice that, on some issues, the European puzzle is rapidly falling apart. For several decades, the different puzzle pieces have been struggling to get closer through a long and demanding process of integration, but recently many of them have started to outdistance and even to crumble. Brexit was just the most evident expression of breach and disagreement, yet the EU appears quite fragmented also in other domains, including women’s rights – and especially SRHR.
Gender-based violence, surrogacy, pornography, abortion – the facets of SRHR are numerous and intricate and thus require a deep analysis. This article will concentrate on violence against women and right to abortion in Europe, as these topics have been in the limelight during the past year and have caused great disagreement among the member states, contributing to the breakdown of the puzzle.
First of all, it is important to recall the strong commitment of the EU to women’s rights. The Treaty on the European Union (TEU) upholds the principle of gender equality and non-discrimination (Article 2), whereas the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) confirms the political commitment of member states to fight against all forms of domestic violence (Declaration 19 on Article 8). The Charter of Fundamental Rights warrants people’s right to dignity (Title I) and equality (Title III) and includes specific provisions on people’s right to physical and mental integrity, outlawing any form of discrimination on the grounds of sex.
These (founding) documents present concepts and positions in a dreamlike manner – but do the reality of the EU and the actions of its decision-makers correspond to them? Continue reading “Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights: The EU’s failure on violence against women and abortion”→
The EU’s motto is “United in Diversity”, which means that it is a shared community, but member states also preserve their national characteristics. At the same time, this motto can also sum up one of the biggest problems of the EU: the definition of the limit between having common laws and undermining a country’s sovereignty. LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transsexual) rights are a very delicate part of the EU legislation, trapped somewhere between universal (and EU-protected) human rights and national sovereignty. The EU – opting towards an ever-closer union – is trying to bring together its member states with social policies in order to reach an integrated society also on the cultural level, and not only on the economic and monetary ones. On the other hand, anti-LGBT/pro-traditional family groups often use the argument of sovereignty against the common EU LGBT framework. This is what partially makes this issue of LGBT so complicated: some people argue that this minority should be protected with a stronger mechanism at EU level, while others say that it would undermine their countries’ sovereignty.
The European Union law mentions the issue of LGBT only in terms of discrimination: discrimination based on sexual orientation is illegal and rights pertaining to this aspect are protected in the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU. NGOs and civil right organizations are fighting for the rights of the LGBT people. However, since the attitude towards sexual orientation is considered to be a cultural-societal-religious issue, the EU has not established a compulsory legal framework in any of its member states. On the other hand, it can be argued that this is not a societal issue but one of fundamental rights. When learning about LGBT in the EU, it also becomes clear that the main obstacle in not introducing the civil union and same sex marriages in some European countries is the predominant position of religious values in that state.
This article explores the complex issue of LGBT rights in the EU and the member states by examining the issues’ cultural and human rights facade. It will be illustrated with one case, namely the recent case of Coman-Hamilton (Relu Adrian Coman and Others v Inspectoratul General pentru Imigrări and Others). Continue reading “LGBT & EU Legislation: An Overview of the Recent Developments”→
During my whole life in Europe, I did not know that I was white. I knew I had pale skin and light eyes, but this was because my father was a ginger. Then, when applying to an American university for the first time, I had to indicate my race and ethnicity in the official paperwork. I learned that I had to tick the box that said “White/Caucasian.” Then, within a couple of weeks on a Midwestern campus, Americans made me understand that I was white – not only in the literal, but in the racial sense of the term. Together with my fellow exchange students from Europe, we decided pretty fast: Americans are obsessed with race. Race is everywhere; in media and political discourse, in art, in peoples’ minds. In my classes, African American and Latino students repeatedly reported racial discrimination by white police officers or in job interviews. Friends advised me to avoid specific neighborhoods – black neighborhoods.
Before going to America, it would have never occurred to me to even use the term race. Race may apply to dogs, or horses. But humans? No way. To me, groups of people were rather characterized by their different cultures, traditions, values, and beliefs. For example, I knew that I, myself, was European. As such, I identified as an heir of centuries of European culture with its Greek and Roman heritage, Christian traditions, secular art, Enlightened thinking, modern science and technology, as well as the more recent belief in liberal democracy.
When looking at the actual ideological debates in Europe, I now wonder if Europe is not as obsessed with culture as America is with race. Just as most Americans take “the” five races (white/Caucasian, black/African American, Asian American, Native American/American Indian, Latino) as naturally given, most Europeans tend to think that one can distinguish between clear-cut and mutually exclusive cultural communities, such as the European cultural community, the Muslim cultural community, the… well, it often stops here. Against the backdrop of current issues such as the so-called refugee crisis, the term “European culture” is only used in order to contrast European culture with Muslim culture. In so doing, the speaker suddenly forgets about the cultural diversity within Europe, as well as the negative prejudices toward other European nationalities (e.g., the humorless Germans, the lazy Greek, the arrogant French, and so forth).
In Europe, the cultural category has very clearly replaced the racial category that is still used in America. Culture is hereby seen as something that is inborn in individuals or trained at a very young age, and therefore cannot evolve, transform, change. I often have the impression that it is understood exactly like race was conceived of during Europe’s darkest periods – as a biological determinism that decides good and bad, superior and inferior. As a consequence, Europeans seem to be experts in exercising cultural racism – they prefer to declare that a certain culture is not compatible with Europe, instead of a certain race or ethnicity. This wording might seem more lenient, but has the same meaning in the end.
So what is real, and what is a mere construction? Race? Or culture? Maybe neither. Or maybe both. Looking at the lived realities in the United States and in Europe, one has to conclude: in the US, race is real. It is real because it has real consequences on peoples’ daily lives, and entire personal narratives. In Europe, on the other hand, the belief in incommensurable cultural communities is gaining ground in a manner that this social construction is real as well, because it influences how Europeans perceive other parts of the world. Yet, with regard to current issues such as the refugee crisis, we could try to put our convictions into question. Is Muslim culture really as opposed to European culture as right-wing populists and racists want to make us believe? Are cultural values unchangeable?
In Europe, the so-called refugee crisis (better: refugee protection crisis), revealed deeply grounded reservations of Europeans against Islam and Muslims. Across the Atlantic, Islam is currently a controversially debated topic as well. Also in the United States questions about the Islam and the influx of Muslim refugees dominate public debate: How to deal with a religion in whose name fundamentalist groups such as Al-Qaeda and ISIS commit violent terrorist attacks? How to deal with a religious group whose culture is perceived as fundamentally different from Western values? In this climate of uncertainty, a general feeling of mistrust, fear, and hatred against Islam and Muslims is gaining ground. These feelings are usually subsumed as Islamophobia, that is, according to researcher Serdar Kaya, “unfavorable prejudgments of Muslim individuals on the basis of their religious background.”
To name just a few examples: In his victorious campaign for the presidential elections of 2016, President Donald J. Trump called for surveillance against mosques and this week, the Trump administration banned people from mostly Islamic countries from entering the United States. While editorial cartoons in American newspapers regularly express attitudes that are hostile against Islam, some authors even bring claims forward that Islam does not deserve religious freedom protections under the First Amendment of the American constitution.
Especially in contrast to Europe, the U.S. have always claimed secularism and religious freedom to be at the centre of American identity. The hostility now expressed towards Islam does not fit in the dominant national narrative. How could Islamophobia evolve in the US? And is it indeed a new phenomenon?
In the decades prior to the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Islam and Muslims were hardly on the political agenda in the U.S. Apparently, no coherent image of ‘the Muslim’ and the religion had been constructed in this period. Also, Americans did not have explicit negative sentiments against Muslims. American indifference towards Islam might be explained with the design of American secularism that declares religion to be a strictly private matter. American identity is therefore, as Zolberg and Woon put it, “no longer anchored in Christianity narrowly defined” but because of the massive influx of immigrants around the 20th century, developed into “a more diffuse deistic civil religion that easily embraces other faiths.”
Post-9/11: The Muslim as Security Threat
In the context of ideological and geopolitical struggles in the Middle East such as the Palestinian armed actions, the hostage crisis in Iran, as well as the Iran-Iraq war, Muslims were increasingly depicted as aggressive individuals that were easily seduced by ruthless religious leaders from the 1980s onwards. In the aftermath of 9/11, this conflation of Muslims and terrorism was fueled and has now gained significant ground in public debate. Hence, Muslims are now mainly associated with the fundamentalist positions of Islamist terrorist groups and are often framed as a threat to the safety and security to American society. Accordingly, Islam is constructed as an inherently violent and intolerant religion. The image of the Muslim as an extremist criminal and of Islam as a violent ideology is successfully enhanced by right-wing populists such as Donald Trump who exploit people’s anxieties for their own electoral successes. Moreover, Islamophobic sentiments were reinforced by further terrorist attacks in Madrid in 2004, London in 2005, and Paris in 2015. In the course of these events, Muslims became seen as both a threat from the outside (Middle Eastern terrorists attacking the Western world) and from within (so-called “homegrown terrorists” planning attacks, as has happened in France in 2015).
The Muslim as Cultural Other
At the same time, the Muslim is increasingly constructed as a cultural Other in America, especially by anti-Islam think tanks. Muslims are depicted as an out-group that is essentially “un-American”. This perception was revealed first and foremost in the political debates related to Barack Hussein Obama’s presidency. Many prominent voices implicitly questioned if a Muslim could ever become president of the U.S. – even though in Obama’s case only his father identified as Muslim. In addition to that, the presumed anti-American character of Islam has also been articulated in the controversies on banning Islamic Sharia law as a source of American law.
Muslims are not only perceived as different, but also as a threat to American culture and identity. In the aftermath of 9/11, multiple books have been published that contribute to the spread of conspiracy theories of Muslims planning to dominate the world. These theories, e.g. in America Alone: The End of the World as We Know It by the Canadian author Mark Steyn (2006), use the relatively higher population growth of Muslim minorities in Western countries as a key argument to predict the decline of Western civilization.
American Islamophobia – Not as New as One Might Think
Many political analysts argue that American Islamophobia is not a recent phenomenon, but that the terrorist attacks rather served as a catalyzer for a longstanding fear and hatred of Muslims in America that preceded 9/11. Hence, although the anti-Muslim discourse became visible only after 9/11 in America, it has a longer history. In fact, American Islamophobia embraces cultural tropes that predate the US itself: British Islamophobia that developed during the colonization of Islamic parts of Asia fuelled Islamophobia in the US. As a consequence, Muslims usually had to fight for their whiteness in order to get naturalized – even if they were phenotypically white. Once arrived in the U.S., the Muslim minority has been regarded with the same suspicion as any other religious minority such as Catholics, Jews, etc. Last but not least, the Islamic religion might have also played a role in racial discrimination against people of color throughout American history and still in the 20th century. All in all, it seems as if the anti-Islamic propaganda of the post-9/11 era merely revives old racial and religious prejudice.
“… a complete and total shutdown of Muslim Immigration” (Donald J. Trump, December 7, 2015)
In Europe, the so-called refugee crisis (better: refugee protection crisis), revealed the deeply grounded reservations Europeans had against Islam and Muslims. Across the Atlantic, Islam is currently a controversially debated topic as well. The religion and its followers are challenging American society in many ways: How to deal with a religion in whose name fundamentalist groups such as Al-Qaeda and ISIS commit violent terrorist attacks? How to deal with a religious group whose culture is perceived as fundamentally different from western values? In this climate of uncertainty, a general feeling of mistrust, fear, and sometimes hatred against Islam and Muslims is gaining ground. These feelings are usually subsumed as Islamophobia, which is, according to researcher Serdar Kaya: “unfavorable prejudgments of Muslim individuals on the basis of their religious background.”
To name just a few examples: In his campaign for the presidential elections of 2016, Republican candidate Donald J. Trump called for surveillance against mosques and a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the U.S. While editorial cartoons in American newspapers regularly express attitudes that are hostile against Islam, authors also bring claims forward that Islam, uniquely, does not deserve religious freedom protections under the First Amendment of the American constitution. Continue reading “Islamophobia: Made in America – A New Phenomenon? US Elections and Discrimination”→
In my last article we discussed what terrorism is and how the Islamic State got to where they are today. A brief conclusion highlights how terrorism is a method to obtain political power by executing acts of violence directed at civilian targets with the aim of spreading fear amongst a state’s citizens. The process leading up to an act of terrorism may be referred to as radicalization. Today, much is being made about radicalization on the Internet and how violent extremist groups are using the platform to spread their messages worldwide. This article will explore some of these narratives as well as discussing the methods in place to prevent and combat radicalization.
The use of propaganda in conflicts is nothing revolutionary, however what differentiates contemporary extremist propaganda from previous forms is the method of communication. When Al Qaida initiated their large-scale propaganda campaign in the early 2000’s they were dependent on existing media outlets to convey their messages. Rather than having to submit material to established media outlets such as Al Jazeera, today it is possible to distribute messages through an array of outlets online. What this form of communication has enabled is that violence promoting groups may spread their ideologies to an audience of proportions unheard of previously. Twitter, in 2016 alone, removed 235 000 accounts that have been deemed to be supportive and active in the distribution of terrorist-related content.
Since the 2014 self-declaration of the Islamic State’s caliphate [a form of Islamist government representing the political unity and leadership of the Muslim world] the terrorist organisation has rapidly expanded its global propaganda campaign. At the centre of this campaign is Dabiq, the online magazine written in seven languages by IS own media outlet, Al Hayat. Dabiq aims to offer an insight into the “daily life” of the caliphate and combines gruesome images from the battleground with religious discussions and examples of IS built infrastructure. One example of this are articles where converts to the Islamic State offer “sincere words of advice” to former Christians who have converted to Islam, in turn attempting to establish a link between the terrorist group and potential recruits. Outside of Dabiq, IS have released two issues of Rumiyah – Rome – which focuses less on the theological discussions than Dabiq. In the latest issue of Rumiyah readers are offered a discussion on the psychological and practical problems one might run into before conducting a “just terror attack”. Promoting the knife as the weapon of choice, the reader is offered religious guidance aimed at legitimizing the tactic as well as a practical discussion on pros and cons of different types of knives. IS and other self-proclaimed jihadist groups have previously spread these types of “terrorist-attacks for dummies”, for those interested, instructions for bomb-making are only a few clicks away. IS also produce an Arabic newsletter, as well as French periodical Dar al-Islam.
In 2015 I analysed IS propaganda in comparison to Al Qaeda’s and found a clear distinction between how the two groups have presented themselves through outward directed messages. What the study revealed was that IS presented an identity in accordance with a martial role. A martial role, which is one of two aspects of Arena and Arrigo’s theory “the terrorist identity” emphasises military strength and the overwhelming sense of uniqueness within a group. This uniqueness if founded on the establishment of the caliphate and control of a geographical area. IS control of an area spanning across northern Iraq and Syria,(an area roughly the size of the UK) is a clear distinction to other self-proclaimed jihadist-groups. Although Al-Shabaab and Boko Haram are active in specific areas of Somalia/Kenya and Nigeria/Cameroon/Niger/Chad respectively, these groups do not hold uncontested territories in which they are able to produces and uphold infrastructure as IS have. If you are interested in reading more about the self-presented identities of IS and Al Qaida,click here.
Nevertheless, IS have over the past two years gained recognition for the gruesome propaganda videos, which borrow influence from western culture, such as video games and movies. These videos include countless executions, decapitations, public crucifixions, the tossing of HBTQ – persons off buildings, the Jordanian pilot burnt to death in a cage, and suicide bombings. In a new study from the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point a group of researchers and military personnel, including leading terrorism researcher Bruce Hoffman, have examined over 9,000 official media products produced by the Islamic State. The study revealed that over 50 percent of produced media focused on issues outside the Islamic State’s borders. These issues contain walkthroughs on how to perform terrorist attacks – such as the one presented in this article –, fatwas calling for attacks against westerners, and several articles condemning and establishing their enemies as the generalizable other. However, new studies are revealing that the group’s presence on social media platforms is reducing.
However, with IS presence reducing on American social media accounts,far right extremist groups have increased by 600 percent on Twitter .Right-wing extremist groups such as the Nordic Resistance Movement (Nordiska Motstånds Rörelsen – NMR), which is predominantly active in Sweden and Finland, presents an often overlooked threat to a nations security. In Sweden the NMR are attempting to frighten city officials and journalists. In Borlänge, the movement’s Nordic hub, officials have been greeted by their front steps covered in blood and in southern Sweden a municipal official had his car lit on fire and garage door covered with the NMR’s symbol. Meanwhile in Finland, the government is attempting to pass legislation which would enable the banning of extremist groups. The new legislation is a response to the death of a 28-year old that died of wounds he received at a NMR demonstration. If you are interested in the rhetoric of right-wing extremists in Europe read my colleague Sabine Volk’s insightful article on the subject.
The counter-narrative method may be divided into three areas; direct counter-narratives, aimed directly at the messages released by extremist groups. Alternative narratives offer an alternative understanding of the narratives released by extremist groups aiming at delegitimising the violence aspect within a group’s ideology. Within the alternative method the messenger, i.e. the person/group delivering the alternative message must retain a high level of legitimacy within the intended recipients. In the case of takfir-salfist jihadist, Imams and other Islamic religious leaders may condemn the fatwa’s produced by the Islamic State and produce fatwa’s condemning violence by drawing references from the Quran. More so, the experiences and knowledge of former members of right-wing extremism has proven to be an effective method for engaging the target audience in preventative discussions. This type of messenger is also gaining traction as a deterrent in jihadist recruitment. The third counter-narrative method is the development of media- and information knowledge and critical thinking amongst youth. This tactic is particularly popular in the Nordic countries. However, despite the new databases, knowledge centres and support for counter-narratives, there is little to no evidence supporting the effectiveness of direct counter-narrative campaigns as part of a radicalization prevention strategy. Rather than acting as a preventative measure the removal of extremist content online, which is a common aspect of counter-narrative campaigns, and messages directly targeting extremist content, are dependent on the publication and distribution of extremist propaganda. Therefore the method is heavily reliant on extremist groups, rather that setting its own preventative agenda.
Another problem facing current preventative campaigns is the difficulty in measuring their success. Security details will always be able to measure the amount of casualties in terrorist attacks and the figures regarding the roughly 30 000 foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq have been waved across most international media outlets. The amount of individuals who have not been radicalized is intangible, and existing measurement tools are inadequate. However, leading actors within counter-narratives such as the British think-tankInstitute for Strategic Dialogue are developing instruments for measuring counter-narratives outreach. Nevertheless, measuring likes, comments and shares on social media will not highlight the amount of individuals that have not become radicalized.
Although current research paints a gloomy picture for those encouraging counter-narrative campaigns, those promoting alternative narratives and media- and information education have a more positive outlook. Research in the Netherlands, the United States, and the UK, has pointed towards the potential that alternative narratives may be developed as part of complete anti-radicalization campaign. More so, the application of media and information education in youth is likely to develop the critical thinking amongst a state’s citizens, in turn making them more resilient to anti-democratic narratives.
There is no such thing as a quick fix when it comes to countering radicalization and recruitment to violence promoting extremist groups. However, by combining preventative measures with deterrent methods, which are known as soft vs. tough methods, it is possible to create a long- and short-term strategy to combat terrorism and violent extremism. In this, the internet remains an important battleground.
Eric Hartshornewill be back next month with his editorial asking if either Soft or Tough methods of countering radicalisation are more effective. For Eric’s article on the history of terrorism, click here.
With a significant pro-choice victory in Poland as the country’s conservative PiS government performs a U-turn on restricting access to abortion in the case of incest, rape, fatal foetal abnormality and risk to the mother’s life, it is easy to forget that the EU still has one State in which very few of the above constitute a legitimate cause for abortion.
Last year the Republic of Ireland became the first country to legalise same sex marriage through a popular referendum with an overwhelming victory, which seemed to signal a new liberal turn in a country many people across Europe and the world associate with conservative Catholicism. Yet Ireland, despite calls from the EU, the Council of Europe and the UN, has retained one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the world, where fatal foetal abnormalities and rape are not considered legal grounds for the termination of a foetus and where, even in the cases where woman’s life would be endangered by seeing a foetus to term, a woman might be denied the necessary treatment. Enshrined in the Constitution of the Republic of Ireland (Bunreacht na hÉireann) the Eighth Amendment prevents a woman having an abortion because the foetus is considered to have an equal right to life:
The Asian Century is a debated concept which posits the idea that the 21st century will be led by the Asian continent from an economic, political, and cultural perspective. Supposedly, the previous 19th and 20th centuries, have been the British (European) and the American centuries respectively. The AsianDevelopmentBank is so confident of such an accomplishment that it published a report in 2011 titled “Asia 2050: Realizing the Asian Century.”
The implications are plentiful and, unsurprisingly, global. Yet this article aims to move one step beyond the above discussion. Over the past few weeks, several articles have focused on the possibility of a shift of power in Eurasia, from different angles. The first piece, “Black Wind, White Snow: Imagining Eurasia”by Casey Michel was published on TheDiplomat website, which referred to a recently released book reflecting on the Russian concept of “Eurasianism.” The notion was apparently coined, or at least, co-opted by the Kremlin and surrounding bodies as a way to promote and promise a brighter future to the disillusioned post-Cold war generations. The outcome of this attempt at normative construction has been mixed, according to Michel, but an overall aura of pessimism is perceivable across the book, suggesting that the imagined Eurasia may stay in the Kremlin’s mind.
Still, due to its strategic position and regional influence, it is crucial to consider the role of Russia in any potential Eurasian ‘coalition’.
The second and third articles tackle the issue from a more inclusive perspective and, perhaps startlingly, depict two opposite scenarios. The first one is from George Friedman, an expert in intelligence and international geopolitics, who wrote an article for Forbes claiming that the “Last time Eurasian Instability Was This Bad Was Before World War II”, describing several factors to justify such a dire prediction. A few examples are the supposed failure of the European Union, followed by the Russian and Middle Eastern crisis, in addition to the aforementioned slowdown in both China and Japan’s economies. The only exception, according to the author, is India, but that country alone will not be able to stop a ‘grand’ destabilization affecting the whole Eurasian continent.
Such a vision, in my opinion, is rather unconvincing, especially when considering the economic and geopolitical self-interest of the majority of the Eurasian countries. Their goal is, mostly, to pursue peaceful means of gain, being well aware that armed conflicts can bring far more disadvantages than benefits. A notable exception may be North Korea, for obvious reasons.
The last article, which I particularly enjoyed, provides a more optimistic view on the phenomenon. Graham E. Fuller, a former senior CIA official, wrote for TheWorldPost (partner of the renowned HuffingtonPost) an article entitled “The Era of American Global Dominance Is Over.”Such a bold statement from an American citizen may sound preposterous to some. Yet it is another piece covering the position of Eurasia, seen as an increasingly relevant one in this article. The author recognizes that the term itself may remind the readers of a geographical feature more than a political one, Eurasia as a sole, vast landmass. The author sees it as more than that. The central reason why Fuller thinks that the US is failing to deal with Eurasia is its stubbornness in ignoring the mega-continent “rising force” which is attracting more and more nation-states to its sphere. The article then mentions several economic, military and political reasons that support the author’s well-articulated stance. Nonetheless, the recurring theme is that the current century has seen the demise of Western global dominance and that the US should accept it now in order to take advantage of such power shift, while is still happening.
This last article appears to be the most convincing when you look to the latest global developments. A change is indeed happening, and although it does not mean that the US is not going to occupy a predominant position, their position is certain to be less hegemonic.
The above articles may not follow a common pattern and they likely originated from different pitches. Still, they have all been published in the past few days which may be a peculiar coincidence or a hint of an upcoming geopolitical trend. Regardless of that, it is unquestionable that the current European situation may benefit from additional transcontinental collaborations and a more balanced, multipolar power redistribution may benefit all the global players in the long run.
I’m walking in the plaza, basking in the sun. I can practically smell the sea from here…
I blink again.
I’m back in our old house, peering out the foggy window. It’s late. The house has a rickety, wooden fence whose small gate constantly makes a horrible, creaking sound whenever it’s windy outside. It’s pitch dark, but a strange luminescence from the other side surrounds the edges of the door, an eerie white shine that makes me even more terrified of the light than I am of the dark.
I can see the door move every so slightly, and squeak back to smash against the fence, producing that rhythmic nuisance.
The leaves on the trees are dead still this time, though.
I feel a chill run down my spine. I thought it’d never happen.
I blink for a third time.
Mercifully, I wake up in my own bed this time, drenched in sweat. The electricity’s been out for a couple of hours already, with no signs of returning any time soon…
It’s been about two months now since I’ve been back home, in Lahore. The heat is as unbearable, the bazars as dirty, and the roads as crowded as ever. But it’s not really the same. I have moved on in the time I was away, and so has Pakistan; regrettably, though, it has done so for the worse.
Everything that could’ve gone awry, indeed has. Yes, there are new roads, new buildings, and even a new democratic government, but the troubles run deep. You can make cosmetic changes to the country’s geographic sprawl, but nuisances like corruption, dishonesty, laziness, and a general aversion to truth, are hardly solved by anything less than commitment and dedicated effort.
Everywhere I look, I see a landscape marred by various issues. I can only talk about so much here, and I will chart out some problems in the coming lines, but how’s this for starters: Pakistan is on its way to become a water-scarce country by 2017; that’s not 20 years from now, it’s just a university term away. And for a country that derives a fourth of its GDP from the agriculture sector, and employs a major portion of the labor in the same, that should be setting off all kinds of alarms in the policymaking halls. But I’m yet to see this issue come up in any debate.
And there’s no solution to the massive electricity shortage problem either. Pakistanis want their light bulbs (and air-conditioners) to stay on 24/7, but due to the enormous debt the government owes to the power-generation companies, that’s not a possibility anymore. Also, since no one is willing to pay higher tariffs for electricity (which, very crudely, equals to more revenue and less debt for the government) we, effectively, have 12-hour days where the manufacturing sector has all but packed its bags, the laptop batteries have given up, and the children are late for school because their uniform is not ironed on time.
Moreover, we are facing what I call the ‘Population Epidemic’. Pakistan has close to a 190 million (!) people living in its territory; that’s about two-thirds of the total US population living in an area slightly less than twice the size of California. We’re the world’s sixth largest population, and incidentally, the only global scale on which we’ve consistently stayed close to the top, beaten only by Brazil (Pakistan is 146th on the HDI rankings, and spends a measly 2.5% of its GDP on health) and we’re growing by a rate of 3%. Contraception, despite being relatively cheap, is not readily available, and since a sizeable majority considers birth control ‘un-Islamic’, there isn’t much hope of its widespread use anyway. The Pakistani middle-class has reached a critical mass, beyond which the rules of supply and demand are going to go out of the window. More people have more money, but there’s less and less stuff to buy. And then there’s the preferences: people would rather have their gardens trimmed up nicely, and roll around in expensive vehicles than ensure that their children are educated and have an open worldview. The purchasing power structure’s also biased towards screwing the services industry. Take this instance: a Euro would buy you a haircut, or one liter of fruit juice. Likewise, for 50 Euros, you can have someone clean your house, tend to your garden, and wash your dishes and clothes on a monthly basis, or, you could just buy a nice pair of jeans. And then some people are mystified as to why anyone would leave when Pakistan has it all?
But even the biggest issues cower beneath the mightiest issue of them all: Religious Extremism. There was a time when no one ever bothered to ask their friends what religion or sect they belonged to. You’d chant The Lord’s Prayer everyday in the school assembly, and then go offer the Friday prayer, all without a hitch. Sadly though, it all seems like a long forgotten dream now. Pakistan was never a particularly liberal country, but now, all ground for debate and discussion on matters of faith has been completely lost. Everything from your web browser’s history to the size of your beard, from the number of children you have to the color of your underwear, from the way you pray to the way you have sex… everything is a public issue, the boundaries between the private and the public never really existing from the very beginning. Being ‘secular’ is almost an insult in a country where the extremists are seen as brave and uncompromising defenders of religion. People who are against such hijacking of religion, in turn, are lynched and burnt at the stake, though thankfully, only metaphorically… for now, at least.
The consequent terrorism such thinking has ensued also paints a gruesome picture. It might seem extremely callous of me to say this, but any day withouta terrorism-related incident in Pakistan now just seems… abnormal… incomplete, even. Close to 50,000 Pakistani lives have been lost as a direct cause of terrorism since 9/11, and yet there’s no end; the situation seems to be only worsening with time. Many (foolishly) believe that the Kraken of religious extremism, the most visible and recent manifestation of which is the Pakistani Taliban, will go back to sleep once the US withdraws its troops next year from the neighboring Afghanistan, but of course, that will never happen. The US is negotiating its withdrawal after a job not even half-done; Pakistan doesn’t have this luxury. Even if with the American and NATO presence, terrorists can carry out their activities (including bombing schools, hospitals, government buildings, prisons, army installations… and last but not the least, funeral processions) with such ease what would happen when the situation was otherwise? Afghanistan would swiftly fall to the Taliban (it already has) and the last twenty or so years would’ve been for nothing. With the porous ‘border’ (I’m not sure the term qualifies) between Pakistan and Afghanistan, the secure base of an entire country (plus a considerable chunk of Pakistani land) at the Taliban’s helm, and, regrettably, a cheering majority on both sides of the Durand Line that only disagrees with the means used by the extremists, and not their intent, this breed of religious extremism is here to stay. Forget about booze and music and sex and ‘immorality’ (whatever that means nowadays); in Pakistan, facial hair is going to become an issue of life and death in the near future.
In a country where Muslims are not afraid to kill other Muslims even on funeral processions, what hope is there to stop the persecution of minorities, religious or otherwise?
Living in Pakistan, then, is like living inside a ticking bomb. I wonder how much time’s left is the only question on my mind over the constant tick-tock of suicide blasts, jailbreaks, and executions.
Tick – The Bury-Your-Head-In-The-Sand approach only works when the hyenas are chained up…
…not when they are digging into your flesh – tock.
The Pakistanis worried about the threat of extremism have God on their side.
The extremists have God, and a suicide bomber vest.
But whose side is God really on, you ask?
Whichever side wins, naturally. Ever seen the losers laying claim to the Almighty?
Tick– “Hell is the impossibility of reason.”
Welcome, then, to the Islamic Republic – tock.
Tick – the hair on my neck’s standing on end…
I’m peering out the foggy window once again.
The door slowly screeches open, allowing the light to pierce through the darkness.
The demons enter.
I blink furiously.
They don’t stop.
Syed Rashid Munir, Senior Writer
Rashid teaches Political Science and International Relations at the University of Management and Technology, Lahore, Pakistan.