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The Hindu Notes for 18th October 2018

Myanmar and the limits of pan-Islamism

The paradox of Muslim solidarity is that its global character is dependent on the West, conceptually and politically

Since Myanmar’s latest bout of violence against the Rohingya began in 2012, there has been a slow uptick of outrage in the Muslim world. But it was only recently, once international observers described what was happening there as an ethnic cleansing, that Muslim concern became more vocal than protests in Europe or the U.S. In the past, Muslim-majority countries such as Bangladesh and Malaysia, at the receiving end of refugee flows from Myanmar numbering in the tens and even hundreds of thousands, have acted forcefully to prevent the Rohingya from entering their territories.

But last year everything changed, with Bangladesh, Turkey, Malaysia, Indonesia and Pakistan at the forefront of international demands to stop the flight of refugees from Myanmar and alleviate their suffering. Behind this change lay a number of causes, from the humanitarian, political and economic emergency created by the influx of refugees among Myanmar’s neighbours, to growing Muslim protests around the world at the treatment of the Rohingya. The crisis also presented an opportunity for politicians to claim leadership in an otherwise fragmented Muslim world by demanding relief and justice for the Rohingya.

Turkey’s President made strong statements about the crisis, putting it at the top of the agenda at the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation. His wife made a highly publicised trip to Bangladesh to be filmed and photographed in Rohingya camps, while donating and promising more Turkish aid. Turkey, Indonesia and Malaysia also competed to deliver assistance in Rakhine state while engaging the Myanmar government in talks. The Bangladesh Prime Minister spoke about the plight of the refugees at the UN and demanded safe zones for the Rohingya in Myanmar.

Yet both Turkey’s President and the Bangladesh Prime Minister use the same accusations of Islamic terrorism against their domestic opponents as are levelled against the Rohingya in Mynamar. And they do so for the same reason, in order to de-legitimise suspect minority groups and political opposition in their own countries. Like Myanmar, these states are all heirs to the ‘War on Terror’, deploying its language and practices to forge a new politics. What we are seeing is not disagreement between Muslim and non-Muslim states on the subject of the Rohingya, but instead fundamental agreement on a narrative of counter-terrorism that has been globalised beyond American control.

The Rohingya cause represents the return of states to leadership roles within the Muslim world, and it has made Islamic unity possible for the first time since the sectarian bloodletting of the Syrian war, to say nothing of the divide between Saudi-led and pro-Iranian movements across West Asia. All over the world, bar Afghanistan and Somalia, states are triumphing over their religious critics to champion Islamic causes long held by the latter. By suppressing such groups in the name of counter-terrorism, however, these states have also adopted their narrative of Muslim victimisation.

The victim’s tale

Non-state groups had been among the first to promote a narrative of Muslim victimisation, with jihadis as much as liberals drawing from a familiar humanitarian repertoire in which suffering demands an immediate and therefore violent response. But this storyline only dates back to the aftermath of the Cold War, beginning with Muslim mobilisations over the fate of the Bosnians during the breakup of Yugoslavia. International Muslim causes had earlier been political rather than humanitarian. They called for the establishment of certain kinds of states, rather than emergency measures to guarantee a people’s survival.

In the ideologically defined conflicts of the Cold War, groups like the Palestinians emerged as political heroes rather than simply humanitarian victims. But nowadays they, too, are seen by their supporters as representing a humanitarian cause. This is due to their loss of an institutionalised political identity with the creation of the Palestinian Authority as an Israeli partner and the sequestration of Gaza. It is therefore their Israeli enemies who ironically are the only ones to grant Palestinians a political existence, by considering them actors motivated by ideas freely adopted rather than by purely biological needs.

Humanitarianism today is premised upon a distrust of politics, which is blamed for every crisis humanitarians seek to resolve. This means that any relief or intervention deemed to be political is condemned as hypocritical. Indeed, hypocrisy has become the gravest charge in the lexicon of liberals and militants alike. And it is the humanitarian or anti-political character of Muslim outrage that has allowed states such as Bangladesh and Turkey to appropriate it, just as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State had done before them for very different reasons.

It is not simply state violence that has muffled the voice of non-state actors in mobilising Muslims globally. Their outrage over Rohingya suffering has been viewed with suspicion among Muslims more widely. Pakistani newspapers have levelled accusations of hypocrisy against the religious and militant groups that specialised in charging others with it. And so Islamists outraged by the treatment of the Rohingya are reproached for their own violence against non-Muslim or sectarian minorities. Signalling the decline of such actors, this mistrustful response illustrates the internal shifts in Muslim opinion and protest.

European midwife

The narrative of Muslim victimisation is arbitrary in its application. Palestinians, Bosnians and now the Rohingya might enjoy global attention as victims of this kind, but not Uighurs, Somalis, Yemenis or Chechens. The lack of Muslim solidarity in these cases cannot be attributed to politics understood as hypocrisy. Neither are they explained by the economic interests that are often thought to underlie such hypocrisy. They must instead be understood in terms of familiar storylines. Only a crisis that can be attributed to western imperialism, or Zionism understood as its surrogate, is a candidate for global Muslim solidarity.

Muslim outrage over the persecution of the Rohingya follows a familiar script. Like all such global mobilisations, whether prompted by the victimisation of fellow believers or Islam itself in alleged insults to its prophet, these demonstrations of solidarity are midwifed in the West. This was the case with the first global mobilisation of Muslims in 1989, against Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses. It is only books, cartoons, speeches or desecrations in Europe and America that give rise to Muslim protests globally, with similar publications or events in other places possessing merely local significance. Similarly, it is only those wars and humanitarian crises receiving either positive or negative attention in the West that end up as Muslim causes worldwide.

This trajectory illustrates the consequences of Western political and economic dominance. Since colonial times, Asians, Africans and Latin Americans have had to relate to each other through Europe and America. But such mediation also suggests the intimate way in which Islam’s globalisation is linked to a West often seen as its enemy. As Myanmar but also Bosnia and Kosovo demonstrate, global forms of Muslim solidarity are not only prompted by calls for humanitarian relief in the West, but also favour the kind of military intervention whose deployment by western powers Muslims otherwise criticise.

Linked as they always have been to the West, global forms of Muslim protest are transient and easily dissipated. The ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya having been accomplished by Myanmar, and Muslim politicians with their constituencies around the world having had the chance to denounce it, the matter can be dropped until Rakhine’s violence and refugees once again attract the interest of a European or American public. The paradox of Muslim solidarity is that its global character remains dependent on the West conceptually as well as politically, even and especially when it is explicitly anti-western in form.

Faisal Devji teaches history at Oxford University

Advantage Bolsonaro

As the final round of a polarised election nears, Brazil’s future tilts towards the far-right

Anticipation is in the air. Three weeks divide the first round (October 7) of the Brazilian presidential election from the second (October 28). In the first, the far right’s candidate, Jair Bolsonaro, won the most votes, a convincing 46%. His closest challenger, Fernando Haddad of the Workers’ Party (PT), earned 29% of the votes. Had Mr. Bolsonaro won over 50% of the votes, he would have become Brazil’s eighth president since the fall of the military dictatorship (1964-1985). However, there are as many as those who voted for him who are not for him, saying that they will never vote for him. The hashtag — #EleNão or #NotHim — continues to resonate. But, many people fear that in the time left, Mr. Bolsonaro might appeal to enough of the deeply polarised electorate to win.

Regional pull

Polling data favours Mr. Bolsonaro. Datafolha announced that 58% of voters favour him over the 42% who are with Mr. Haddad. In the country’s northeast, the centre of Brazil’s Afro-Brazilian population, Mr. Haddad has a clear lead, while in the populous and more prosperous south-east, Mr. Bolsonaro wins by a considerable margin. It will not be easy to alter this margin. Nonetheless, the PT is struggling to build a ‘national anti-fascist front with the left and progressive, humanist and liberal democratic sections’, says Professor Monica Bruckmann who teaches politics at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. The PT, she says, hopes to attract the 54% who voted against Mr. Bolsonaro in the first round. Mr. Haddad and the PT, she adds, warn that a victory for Mr. Bolsonaro will mean a ‘regression to the darkest days of authoritarian governments in Brazil and in Latin America’.

Dark days ahead

Evidence of these ‘darkest days’ has not had to wait for the final election result. In Salvador, a Bolsonaro supporter murdered a 63-year-old man who had said he voted for Mr. Haddad. In Nova Iguaçu, a 41-year-old transgender person was attacked by Bolsonaro supporters who chanted, “such trash should die.” In Porto Alegre, a gang of men attacked a 19-year-old woman who was carrying an LGBTQ flag and had an anti-Bolsonaro sticker; they carved a swastika on her skin. In Copacabana, along the beach, men without shirts and in military fatigue pants jogged in formation down the avenue for Mr. Bolsonaro. At football matches, the cheer has gone up — Bolsonaro will kill all queers. Several reporters have also been threatened and attacked, according to the Brazilian Association of Investigative Journalism (Abraji).

Mr. Bolsonaro, a military man, has surrounded himself with military men, which include the vice-president, defence minister and infrastructure minister. Mr. Bolsonaro has said he would give greater powers to the police and the armed services to tackle crime. He is on record as having said that the main problem with the military dictatorship is that it did not kill enough people. Ugliness governs the Bolsonaro camp.

Why would more than half the Brazilian electorate elect a man who wants to reintroduce a military dictatorship to the country; someone who is vicious against women and homosexuals? The parallels with U.S. President Donald Trump are easy — both men are open in their intolerance and fantasise about using the hammer to shape society in their image. But, there is something specific in Mr. Bolsonaro’s rise. He has emerged — for the elite — as the antidote to the left-leaning policies of the PT and — for the middle class — as an angel, a Seraphim (as Ms. Bruckmann put it), against violence.

The extreme right

There is no question that Brazil’s oligarchy despised the governments of the PT (2002-2016). During this period, the PT under Presidents Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff used high commodity prices to conduct a modest redistribution scheme for the very poor. Hunger was defeated, and educational opportunities opened up to the most marginal sections (Mr. Haddad was the minister of education in both the Lula and Rousseff governments). Ms. Rousseff’s impeachment — a legislative coup — and Mr. Lula’s arrest — a judicial coup — pushed the PT out of power. Polls show that if the judiciary had not denied Mr. Lula from running in this presidential election, he would have won outright in the first round. Prof. Valter Pomar, who teaches international relations at the Federal University of ABC and a leader of the PT, says the ‘normal’ right encouraged the extreme right to overthrow Ms. Rousseff and ensnare Mr. Lula. They thought that this extreme right — represented by Mr. Bolsonaro — would do their work and then get out of the way. Of course, Mr. Bolsonaro is going nowhere.

Democracy does not appeal to Brazil’s oligarchy. Terrible violence in the country (175 murders a day in 2017) has turned some of the middle class towards the hardness of Mr. Bolsonaro and against the PT’s progressive values. It is this combination of the oligarchy — which controls the media and has depicted Mr. Bolsonaro as reasonable — and the middle class that is pushing him forward. It is still possible for the verdict on October 28 to go against Mr. Bolsonaro. A quarter of voters did not cast their ballot on October 7, despite voting being mandatory in Brazil. If they do come to the polling booths, it will be hard to predict this election.

Vijay Prashad is the Director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research and the Editor of ‘Strongmen’

Labelling, the new illiteracy of our times

Instead of reading and understanding a piece of writing, labelling it as ‘leftist’ or ‘rightist’ is the practice today

Today, we are under the dangerous influence of a new form of illiteracy. According to the Census, “a person aged seven and above, who can both read and write with understanding in any language, is treated as literate.” We are now seeing a form of illiteracy creeping on those who are literate and this has to do with the term “understanding” in the above definition. Today, under the influence of digital technologies and a dominant visual culture, are we reading (and seeing) with less understanding?

The art of reading

This new form of illiteracy has to do with certain incapacities of reading and writing. Reading is matter of fact and habitual; yet it has many hidden dimensions to it. Reading is more than seeing words. It is about making sense of words, about discovering and constructing meaning. The meaning of the words we read are not gathered from dictionaries alone. They are also created from our memories and experiences. The meaning of every sentence is dependent on the context in which it is used.

If reading is so complex, how is it that we read so effortlessly? The strategies of reading have to be taught and they become part of our habits of reading. For example, we often take for granted the relation between reading and writing, or writing a sentence from left to right (say, in English). Even this simple practice of writing has deep cognitive consequences. When we read from left to right, our experiences of reading are different than when we read from right to left. We also tend to read, like this article, from top to bottom. These practices of writing deeply influence how we make meaning of what we read. Experiments have shown that our notion of time as moving from left to right has a strong correlation with the way we write. People who write from right to left (as in Urdu or Hebrew) tend to understand time as moving from right to left.

Reading practices have always been culturally influenced. Every age has had different strategies of reading. Even the pleasure of reading silently, which is so endemic today, was not always the social norm since reading aloud was a common practice in various medieval societies. It is said that ancient libraries had people reading out aloud and shouting across tables, which is quite unlike our idea of a library today.

The act of labelling

What really is the dominant practice of reading today? What are the skills of reading that are part of public practices? A troubling practice that has crept into our contemporary reading practices is the act of labelling instead of ‘reading’. When we read we discover and/or create meaning of what we read. One easy way of discovering meaning is not to struggle through reading but through the act of labelling. Labelling is a way of saying that the article is about something without even reading it. It is remarkable how so much of our reading gets judged by the act of labelling. To show that you have read an article, all you have to do is say that this article is ‘leftist’ or ‘rightist’ and it is as if all meaning then becomes transparent.

Labelling is the new illiteracy of our times. Labelling is an obstacle to really understanding what is being said and how it is being said. It is also a lazy and unethical way of reading. The motivation for labelling is not to learn and understand but to attack without justification. It is a symptom of how a literate people can become dangerously illiterate when labelling replaces understanding.

It is the spread of labelling as a form of social reading that has also contributed to the spread of hate in our society. If you do not want to hear what a woman has to say, all you have to do is to label her as a ‘feminist’. Similarly, if you do not want to be persuaded by the reasonable arguments of those who are concerned about so many things going wrong around us, all you have to do is to label them ‘anti-national’. This habit of labelling has become so deep and endemic that we will not read a book or an article if the author is labelled in a particular way. Everything in our society today has been reduced to labels: Left, Right, man, woman, Brahmin, Dalit, Hindu, Muslim, and so on. Labelling is our new social disease of illiteracy.

Two events that happened over the last few days are a good illustration of this illiteracy. One was the attack on a play, performed in Bengaluru, titled ‘Shiva’, about the LGBTQ community. A bunch of hooligans stopped the performance as they objected to the title. If you thought that we are reaching new levels of absurdity with such ‘protests’, at around the same time the government sent a circular to all universities that implied that government-funded teachers cannot be critical of the government. There is really no difference between the hooligans and the ones who created this rule. Both groups are illiterate and don’t know how to read a play or an article. They are labelling instead of understanding.

The freedom of interpretation

We are often told that artists, activists and some academics misuse the freedom of expression to say what they want. But what about the reader or the spectator? They are also using a ‘freedom of interpretation’ to interpret what they want in the text or the play. What is the responsibility of hearing, reading and seeing? It is ironic that the hooligans as well as the representatives of this government want complete freedom of interpretation, but do not want to allow freedom of expression.

These acts are unethical because the task of a democratic society is not only to protect freedom of expression, but to also protect and enable the freedom of interpretation. Like all freedoms, this freedom has to be used ethically. This is exactly what intolerant people as well as the government are not capable of understanding.

In the case of the play, the few people who are labelling it without reading or watching it are misusing the hard-won freedom of interpretation for their personal ends. Similarly, the government is behaving in an intolerant manner by passing a rule that the faculty cannot write any critical articles about the government, its actions, its policies. How should the government read these critical pieces? They can be read as being against the government or, equally, they can be interpreted as helping the larger society by pointing out the mistakes in policies or governance.

The problem is not the articles that are critical about the government; rather, it is about the way those articles are being read by those in the government. These authoritarian responses are not just against art in the public domain or university teachers but against the very ethos of literacy itself.

Sundar Sarukkai is Professor of Philosophy at the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru

Unclogging our oceans

India can emulate innovative solutions from across the world to tackle the problem of ghost gear

In March 2018, fishermen hauled 400 kg of fishing nets out of the sea in a few locations off Kerala’s south coast. There are many such reports of divers regularly making underwater trips just to extract nets that have sunk to the ocean floor off India’s coasts, ranging from Tamil Nadu to Maharashtra. The problem of ghost gear (any fishing equipment that has been lost, discarded or abandoned in water bodies) has grown from a fishing fallout that people had not heard of to one that is now difficult to ignore.

Consequences of marine debris

And rightly so, for the consequences of marine debris are many. Between 2011 and 2018 alone, the Olive Ridley Project, a U.K. registered charity that removes ghost nets and protects sea turtles, recorded 601 sea turtles being entangled in ghost gear near the Maldives, of which 528 were Olive Ridleys — the same species that come in thousands to Odisha’s coasts to nest. Other casualties worldwide include whales, dolphins, sharks and even pelagic birds.

In 2016, when a team of marine biologists reviewed 76 publications and other sources of literature on ghost gear from across the world, they found that over 5,400 marine animals belonging to 40 different species were recorded as entangled in ghost gear, or associated with it. This analysis also showed a huge gap in data from the Indian, Southern and Arctic Oceans, prompting the team to recommend that future studies focus on these areas.

Yet, two years later, there are still no data pertaining to the extent of prevalence of ghost gear off India’s coast. And data is crucial here, for the detrimental effects of these nets also spillover into other countries and oceans. Ghost nets are often ‘ghost fishers’. Ocean currents carry them for thousands of km across the ocean floor, ensnaring, injuring and drowning marine life and damaging live corals along the way. Discarded Indian and Thai fishing nets, for instance, have been fished out of Maldivian coasts, reports a study that examined 74 separate ghost net collections between 2013 and 2014.

The Hindu recently reported that scientists at Kochi’s Indian Council of Agricultural Research-Central Institute of Fisheries Technology studied ghost nets in Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala and Tamil Nadu. However, the results of the report, which were submitted to the Food and Agricultural Organisation of the UN in April, have not been released yet. According to the scientists, the government is also currently preparing a national ghost net management policy.

While that would be an extremely welcome and timely move to tackle the growing ghost gear phenomenon, a larger question remains. When bigger violations, such as large vessels fishing where they are not supposed to, are not checked, would a policy on the management of ghost nets be implemented, asks Divya Karnad, a marine biologist. The effects of ghost nets are evident and tug at heartstrings. Images of turtles tangled in nylon and of beautiful blue oceans blemished by a mist-like white net floating about highlight the plight of marine life and prompt immediate action. But the consequences of overfishing, using nets of the smallest mesh size, and illegal fishing are far less visible, though more worrying. Entire fishing communities are affected by these actions, especially in developing countries like India where the demand for fish keeps rising.

Transforming used nets

But that does not mean that the problem of ghost gear should not be addressed. There are numerous innovative solutions to tackle it, if we can learn from projects across the world. In countries like Canada and Thailand, fishermen retain their used nets; these are recycled into yarn to craft socks and even carpet tiles. For the first time in a developing country, a gear-marking programme is being tested in Indonesia so that the trajectory of gear, if it drifts away, can be studied better. Outreach and education among fishing communities would be crucial along with policy-level changes.

In one instance in India, ghost nets hauled from Kerala’s Kollam have been used to pave roads. This shows that transformation is possible, though more efforts to make the process more organised across the over 7,500 km of India’s coasts, as well as inland water bodies, are the need of the hour.