Healing the Clash of Civilisations

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In a world that has become increasingly intolerant, suspicious and viciously hateful of each other, the culmination of events at the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, and its aftermath is a painful reminder of the fact that mindless acts of violence are observed,so passionately, when borne out of religious conviction. The cycle of mayhem that has gripped Islamic nations has the world in absolute shock, as protests take on a sinister, almost vicious angle.

Angered by a provocative video that went viral on YouTube mocking Prophet Mohammad made by a US -based right-wing Christian group, muslims attacked the US consulate in the second city of Libya with the help of armed militants, killing 4 diplomats including the US Ambassador to Libya J.Christopher Stevens. The violent protests first erupted in Egypt and has since then spread across Libya, Yemen, Tunisia, Iraq, Iran, India, US and Australia.

As Senator Hillary Clinton still ponders over the rationale, “How could this happen? How could this happen in a country we helped liberate, in a city we helped save from destruction? This question reflects just how complicated and, at times, how confounding the world can be,” unimaginable psychological as well as material damage has been done, lives have been lost, and rest assured a retaliatory avenging will be very much on the cards. The cycle of perpetual violence will escalate, while the rest of us will wonder whether if it’s really worth at all.

If the protestors had seen even a glimpse of the video, they would known how amateur the movie actually is. Provocative, extremely insensitive and hurtful to millions of believers but also crassly made to the point of absolute shallowness. Its foul theatrics are definitely not the work of anyone with an iota of intelligence or creativity. In a normal world, no one would even give the video a second glance. But the protestors haven’t had a chance to do that, nor do they want to, and are consumed by extreme hatred and mob vengeance, by means of exaggeration and manipulative heresy. A B-grade movie with absolutely no intent except to provoke has done exactly that. It has become the centre-stage of political violence around misplaced notions.

When you look at the bigger picture, those who have made the movie and those who are provoked to kill as a pretext, are essentially two sides of the same coin, each feeding and living off the hate for the other. In a culturally bipolar world, where the credos of free speech, freedom of expression, and declaration of human rights and democracy are thriving, and sometimes misused in one, and in the other world, these very dogmas are so alien and are often not understood. These cultural divides are so large, that the two worlds will never see a common ground.

Everything was fine when the two worlds were separate. Each used to his own. But then the internet changed everything. And instead of building bridges and better understanding between cultures, sometimes it widens the gulf even more. An interconnected world means that it’s not just messages of hope and solidarity that pass via the social media, but also that of hate, vengeance and conspiracy.

In countries like the US, the first amendment guarantees free speech and the extent of this right is baffling to many in more restrictive societies. In movies, art, literary works and other medium – people have the right to express themselves, in whatever style they wish to, no matter how harsh the critique. No one is spared from humorous onslaught or sometimes serious criticism whether it is Jesus Christ (The Life of Brian, The Christmas critters, Dogma, Da Vinci Code), Buddha, Judaism and Islam, to caricaturing political and historical figures like Abraham Lincoln, George Bush and Barack Obama et al.

The Eastern/Middle Eastern culture, on the other hand, is more sensitive. Freedom of free speech and expression are not something they are familiar with, especially when it comes to slandering their Gods. M.F Hussain, one of the greatest Indian artists ever known, had to go into self-exile in Qatar, when he depicted a naked Hindu goddess in one of his canvases. He received threats of death and violent destruction of his art works from right-wing Hindu fundamentalists. He died an unhappy man, unable to return to India – his muse and inspiration. Similarly the Danish cartoonist, Kurt Westergaard is still under police protection for his cartoon depicting the Prophet. The fatwa on Salman Rushdie still looms large over his novel “The Satanic Verses.”

In countries like Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, who overthrew their dictators a year ago. Unemployment, economic strife and unrest is still rampant. They are so used to a culture that has set limits on free speech and expression. YouTube and social media networks are still relatively new concepts. So when a video such as this goes viral, they see it as a larger conspiracy to malign their culture and religion. All factors have played the perfect ingredient for violent retaliation. The mob does not understand the ethos of human rights or freedom of expression. All it understands is the underlying hate and insult to its sensibilities and the thirst for revenge.

These are divides that one must live with. And yet governments must do whatever it takes to respect sensitivities to pre-empt incidents that take such sinister turns. With the death of Mr.Christopher Stephens, the US has lost one of their most endearing strategists, who practiced diplomacy by building personal relationships. His affection for Arab culture and street life, whether in Syria, Libya or the Palestinian occupied territories, won him many friends and allies. He had a passion for the Arab world and its language, and he went out of his way to use it to build cultural relationships. The Middle East will miss an envoy who truly understood them.

It is also high time for some soul searching about sensitivities, and how far one should allow that to mar our humanitarian judgement. Do we have faith, no matter what religion, and is it strong enough to believe, that nothing can ever change what we truly believe? That it will stay pure, untouched, eternal, no matter what the physical world says of it? If we truly understood our faith we would know this as the unwavering truth. Nothing would offend us. What will offend possibly is our ego. And it’s time we let go of that for the larger good. The time has come. There is darkness all around us, and forgiveness is a candle; we need to meditate on the candle and let go of everything else.

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