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In search of a new identity

  • Published at 08:18 pm November 7th, 2017
In search of a new identity
For more than a decade, the liberal media has been extremely comfortable with branding terrorist acts undertaken by radical Islamist organisations as “Islamic terrorism.” Apparently, it helped them distinguish Islamic terrorism from other types of terrorist activity that simultaneously haunts the world. Of course, what it implicitly achieved is that it created a constituency within the uninformed citizenry that Islam is a violent religion and that Muslims cannot co-exist within a liberal social order. So, no doubt, many in the US and Europe are extremely comfortable with President Trump’s divisive policies on the basis of religious and national identity, because their personal fear and anxiety concerning their own securities have been used to secure support for a bigoted political philosophy. And now, in a vain attempt to look fair, the liberal media categorises the boy who committed murder in Canada as a “Christian nationalist,” and the monks who commit genocide in Myanmar as “Buddhist extremists.” Yet, the key question is this: Is it really necessary to bring the religious identity of an individual or a group when they commit an inhuman atrocity? Then why not also use the same standard when an individual or group shows an act of kindness? “A Muslim man dies under a train while trying to save a young girl” or, “a Christian billionaire donated all his wealth to eradicate malnutrition?” Are we only good or bad because we prescribe to a particular religion? Can’t a person be well-behaved and kind because he or she chooses to be treated the same way? Or should we say that all generosity that defines their lives is mere homework for some afterlife that they might believe in?
If terrorist acts are presented to us with a religious or ethnic tag, it carries the risk that a large segment of the citizenry will accept wrong narratives
And how can we rule out entirely that the kindness or cruelty that guides our individual motivation is not inspired by other factors, like the quality of parenting, education, social inclusion, or the quality of their neighbourhood? Most importantly, is this the best lens through which we evaluate societal problems in 21st century -- 600 hundred years after the Renaissance? Seeds of division Even if one scientifically explores these issues, a large body of scientific evidence now confirms that a complex set of personal, social, and economic factors predicts why people or groups might indulge in violent activities. In fact, a large pool of empirical evidence now highlights that mental disorders, social exclusion, joblessness, and prolonged exposure to violence in communities can enhance the propensity that individuals succumb to a violent lifestyle. Then, why is it that acts of cruelty, done in the name of some political or religious cause, should only be labelled by that religious or political identity, when so much plurality exists within the behaviour of all people in every religion or political ideal? This issue is also pertinent because how we frame social or political problems will largely influence how citizens collectively decide to solve it. As Professor Richard Thaler -- who was recently awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics for his contribution to behavioural economics -- demonstrated on numerous occasions, human rationality is weak, and how problems are presented to us fundamentally shape how we approach the solution. Thus, if social disorders or terrorist acts are presented to us with a religious or ethnic tag, then it carries the risk that a large segment of the uninformed citizenry will accept grossly wrong narratives, such as black people are more violent or Islam breeds violence. Moreover, this will likely sow seeds of deep divisions that are harmful for social cohesion, and will facilitate political decay across all societies. A minuscule element In this context, I think the liberal media sincerely needs to stop with their overindulgence in one’s religious identity while portraying or framing their cruel (or even kind) acts. If a particular organisation undertakes terrorist acts, then one should label the organisation carrying out such an attack -- such as “IS bombs” or “LTTE strikes” -- and avoid the temptation of using a narrative that vindicates a larger segment of the society. There are many factors that can guide our individual outlook of life, and the kindness or cruelty we bring to the world -- our religious identity is just a minuscule element of that story. Over the years, misplaced narratives emerging after each and every act of terrorism that occurs have fuelled large divisions within many multi-cultural societies, and have allowed bigoted populism to take centre stage in the political space. This is perhaps the most unfortunate phenomenon that one has to reconcile with in the present era, and we must take all precautions that these social fault-lines do not endure for long. Dr Ashikur Rahman is a Senior Economist, Policy Research Institute.