Friday, January 9, 2015

Post Charlie Hebdo

Ruben L. Oppenheimer


I wanted to write something about this when it first came out. I felt that there was something inside me that wanted to be heard. Unfortunately my first reaction was bad and did not at all represent what I wanted to say, and it hurt the feelings of my friends. Which I am absolutely sorry about. I never meant for this event to perpetuate more hate. In fact, I felt that perhaps it is time to do something about it. From both the sides.

The reason why I am posting this is because I have many Muslims friends myself, and they are one of the nicest people around. Seeing all this makes me feel unfair at how so much hate is thrown around, and how many untrue assumptions are borne out of ignorance. It makes me wonder if anything can be done to push back the growing distrust among the different communities.

Of course that is easier said than done. After all I am sure that many others have tried and fail to address this issue of rising Islamic fanaticism. Or radicalism. Whatever you want to call it. Like it or not, since the rise of Al-Qaeda and ISIS, a lot of young disillusioned young men and young women have turned to these two organizations as a way to find meaning, to validate themselves. Which is problematic, because these two groups advocate violent means to achieve their objectives. One that orders you to kill others that do not share the same faith with you.

Which itself encourages more problem. Due to how these two groups itself choose to use the religion Islam to justify their actions, ignoring the fact completely twisted the teachings of Islam in the process, many have came to associate the religion with violence and other negative connotations. In Europe itself, there has been a rise of anti-Islam movements, which views Islam as an increasing threat to Europe.

Now I understand that the issues surrounding this are more complex in nature, especially in Europe, where often the rise of extremism is often attributed more to socio-economical reasons. The native Europeans feel that they are under siege from an immigrant community, while the Muslims feel that they are actively being discriminated against. It's a vicious cycle actually, because distrust will only fuel the hate, and as the hate grows, so will the violence. The worst case scenario that could happen is an all out religious riot.

So what can people do to address this increase alienation between two communities? To not let this descend into a downward spiral?

Now I don't claim myself to be an expert or anything, and I am certainly open to constructive criticisms and discussion (which was why this post is up in the first place), but in my opinion, a simple psychology experiment came to mind. The Robbers Cave experiment. You can click up the link to read up on it, but in case it's TLDR, allow me to make a quick summary (but seriously read it).

In 1961 researchers randomly divided 24 boys into two groups, the Rattlers and the Eagles at a summer camp, and wanted to study how group membership affects inter- and intra- group relationships. The boys in the two groups all shared the same background, and had no major differences between them.

Over the course of a few weeks the boys were assigned different activities, starting with activities that bonding amongst their own group members. The two groups were purposely kept apart during the first few days, after which the researchers introduced the competitive group stage. Now here is where the whole experiment gets interesting.

In a bid to promote friction, the two groups were made to compete with each other for trophies and rewards through a series of activities like tug-of-war. Winners were given trophies and rewards, losers were denied of privileges, such as picnic time. At first the group prejudice started to name calling and taunting, but soon escalated to a stage where one group's flag was burned (sounds familiar?) while another's cabin was ransacked. It got so bad that the researchers had to physically separate the boys.

Now the interesting thing was that none of the boys were gang members, and all came from a well adjusted family. It was through these competitive events that drove them to extreme actions like this. And at the end of the competitive stage, when asked to list down attributes of members from both sides, the boys tend to view their group mates more favourably, while assigning more negative qualities to the opposing team. Common sense there.

However, perhaps the biggest twist in the whole experiment was how the researchers got the two fighting groups to reconcile with one another after the friction has been sown. Bear in mind this was after they burned each other's flag and ransacked the opposing team's cabin. The researchers introduced situations where both groups needed to work together to achieve a common goal, such as pooling resources together to watch a movie. At the end of the experiment, tensions were visibly reduced, as boys from both sides mixed more with one another. This whole experiment gave rise to the Realistic Conflict Theory.

In a way, I guess what was found at Robbers Cave so many years ago can be linked back to what is happening in our world today. Like the Rattlers and Eagles, the way how religion separates us, with different cultures such as the food we eat and the places we worship, encourages stereotypes to emerge as we are not interacting with one another. It segregates us. It cultivates and encourages stereotype because we don't interact with people outside of our group. We go to church instead of the mosque, and mix with those who share the same thinking with us. This kind of lifestyle promotes homogeneity instead of heterogeneity.

Perhaps one way to eliminate this siege mentality, or the us-vs-them type of feeling is to encourage more interfaith activities. And by interfaith activities I don't mean just sit down and talk. Forums and dialogues achieve little, that's what I think. We need to really get down and dirty to be able to mix effectively. Visits to each other places of worship for example, or the more cheesy sports activities, where people of different faith are put together in the same team.

By encouraging people who share different faith to work together and by exposing them to each other's lives, perhaps we can eliminate the barriers that gives rise to stereotypes and prejudices, and learning that we are all not that different after all. We share the same hopes and joys, and we all love equally. One of the most powerful lessons from mixing with another person from another group is learning that they are just humans like us, not as different as how some stereotypes paint them to be. 

Of course this could not effectively eliminate the class or socioeconomic differences that had already exist prior to that, like job opportunities, housing and citizenship. It would take a longer time for that, but I think this is better than nothing at all. At least it's a start.


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Another thought that I had, perhaps a slightly more controversial topic, was on how moderate Muslims could perhaps push back the radical agenda that has been gaining traction over the years. Controversial because I am not a Muslim myself,  and therefore I may not have the legitimacy to touch on this topic. However, like I mentioned, I felt that there is something to be said, so I will tread cautiously here, and if there is anything that I have said wrong do let me know. As usual, I am open to constructive criticism and discussion.

I am not sure how true is this, but I remember reading that the rise of Wahhabism, a form or teaching of Islam that is more fundamentalist and antagonistic towards other faiths, is partly to blame for the trend towards Islamic extremism around the world. According to the article, Saudi Arabia began funding this type of teaching in the 1970s, which views people of the other faiths in a negative light, and inadvertently led to the growth of radicals like Bin Laden.

Now I don't know how much of this is true (because I am no scholar and I don't have access to all the studies), but I think we can agree that there are a lot more radical teachings that are available online now to those who a receptive towards it. The axe wielding attacker in New York, the Quebec attacker, and the Ottawa shooter for example, were all Muslim converts. Meaning that they have not been raised as radical Muslims since young and told to hate other faiths, instead they were looking for a reason to hate other faiths, and found them in the radical teachings of some so called Muslim preachers.

Some may argue that without these radical Islam teachings they would still find a reason to commit the crimes that they have committed, but the fact that they chose Islam as a reason for their attacks is worrying. It is true that out of every crazed radical there are 100 more moderate Muslims, but the fact is that people who want to hate Islam, evident from the anti-Islam movements in Europe, will still use this as a fodder to push their agenda against the minorities. And these anti-Islam groups pushing their agenda would further alienate the minorities, and drive them towards radical teachings, and everything would turn into a vicious cycle. Not a good thing for inter-religious relationships.

I am sure that most of us would have heard of a famous quote before, one that says that for evil to win, all it takes if for the good to do nothing. While it is true that there are in fact way more moderate Muslims around the world than the radical ones, they are less visible than the radical ones. Like it or not, we humans tend to pay more attention to those who make the loudest noise, and unfortunately right now, it is the radicals who are making the most noise. 

With all the attacks and radical messages plastered across the web, it is not hard to let this violent side to colour our judgement against Muslims. Because all that we are seeing is the bad side, we naturally would want to view the entire side as bad. It is easier to view the entire side as bad too, because it saves processing power in our brain and it allows us to feel superior over others. It gives us a reason to discriminate and persecute. 

Which is why I thought that to stem the tide of radical messages, the most effective way is for the good Muslims, the ones who do not advocate violence against other religions to speak up. And to take action against the ones who are radical. It gives another side to the story, and perhaps with enough force, can dominate the Islamic faith instead of Wahhabism alone. Imagine how different would it be if people Google up Islam and finds 100 more messages encouraging Muslims to love as compared to the 1 that deems everyone else as an enemy? 

Two examples I can think of myself comes from Southeast Asia itself, from two separate individuals, both whom are Muslims. One was the organizer of the 'I Want To Touch A Dog' event, Syed Azmi Alhabshi, while the other was the girl (Fynding Noor) who wrote a heartfelt letter to churches and pastors affirming her beliefs in respecting other religions. In light of all the negativity that was going around in Malaysia and the rest of the world, I find these two events reassuring and that these two people were the beacon of the other side of Islam. The peace loving side that it should be. 

I think with more vocal moderates like Syed Azmi Alhabshi and Noor, perhaps the message encouraging peace and tolerance could push back against the message of hate. And perhaps in an ideal world, there would be more imams and preachers who delivers a message of acceptance, instead of messages of rejection. That is my hope. Because for every misguided individual out there who commits an attack in the name of religion, there must have been someone who encouraged him to do it. A figure that says it is the right action to kill. 

There is a battle itself within Islam alright, between the moderates and the radicals. One that I hope the moderates would win. Because I respect the Islam in which the believers are encouraged to shelter people of other faiths, not the one where they are ordered to kill. And I think it's time to preach the message of tolerance, acceptance and peace in a louder and clearer manner. To drown out the voice shouting for violence and terror.


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