26 February 2015

The root of all sorts of societal problems, including religious radicalism and violence, is in the schools.

IN the end it all boils down to the same thing: education. I was reading an international newspaper and two articles struck me because of their similarities. One was a story about the French Education Minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem. Vallaud-Belkacem is the first woman to be made Education Minister in France. More remarkably, she is both a Moroccan immigrant and Muslim.

Vallaud-Belkacem has been put in charge of educating young French people about the dangers of radicalism, the type of so-called religious fervour that led to the Charlie Hebdo shootings. She believes that schools have a big role to play in this. And indeed she is living proof.

The minister was born in Morocco but went to France with her mother and older sister to join her construction worker father. There, her five younger siblings were born and the entire family lived in poverty in a small northern city. Vallaud-Belkacem credits the French education system with giving her the opportunities she has had, and which allowed her to enter politics and eventually be where she is now.

But she also understands that it is the poor education that most immigrant youth, especially Muslim youth, receive that drives them to become radicalised and to want to take up arms against their perceived enemies, both at home in France and abroad.

These youth are poorly educated because of discrimination. At the same time, that poor education sets them up for even more discrimination, especially in the job market. This creates frustration and anger and makes them vulnerable to the sort of easy answers that radical preachers may provide.

The other story was about Nigeria where stereotypes about the Muslim North and the Christian South abound. The author of the article, Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani, a Christian, recalled that when she was growing up, there were special boarding schools that were set up to help the different Nigerian communities understand one another. These schools offered a high quality education and had quotas for the different communities so that they had a diverse mix of students.

However, there was a persistent problem of poor education in the north of the country. The quota system ensured that many northerners got jobs but often without the same level of education as the southerners.

That same low quality education meant that the northerners also did not value education for their own people, leading to a constant downward spiral of frustration due to the lack of opportunities despite the richness of resources in the region. This thus created conflict with southerners who were more educated and thus could avail themselves of better opportunities.

Needless to say, the north is also the home of Boko Haram, a violent group that has a particular distaste for education, particularly Western-style education. The exploits of Boko Haram are now well known and suffice to say that only uneducated people would think nothing of sending out eight-year-old girls as suicide bombers.

The point of these two stories is clear: the root of all sorts of societal problems, including religious radicalism and violence, is education. More specifically, the type of education we provide our children will predict what they will do in the future. Poor quality education, that does not prepare our children for a competitive global market, will be the root of all sorts of trouble, including the kind where a 14-year-old girl thinks it’s exciting to go to Syria to marry a gun-toting stranger she met on Facebook.

We are seeing now the beginnings of the true results of our messed-up education system. Our young people are unable to think beyond what is immediate and exciting. They actually believe that you can get to heaven by killing people for reasons they are unable to articulate. These are not illiterate people but are certainly not educated in the broadest sense of the word.

On social media we find many people who are unable to reason things out, or to accept different points of view. They are absolutely certain they are right, mostly because people they see as authoritative have convinced them that authority is always correct, even when those in authority tell them to do things that are patently wrong, such as to discriminate against or kill those different from them. Not all human beings are equal, is a mantra they are hearing every day.

“All men are not equal”, by the way, was the chilling ideology I happened to read at the site of the former headquarters of the SS, the Nazi stormtroopers, in Berlin recently. And the propaganda the SS used had an uneasy familiarity to it.

And what is propaganda after all but another form of public education?

12 February 2015

The moderate person knows that you don’t need to comment about every single thing just because you cannot be an expert in everything.

OF late, there’s been a lot of talk about how moderate Malaysians need to rise and speak up against the extremists in our country. While this is certainly a much-needed call, we find that definitions tend to get in the way.

For example, everyone denies being an extremist and claims to be moderate. It seems that in this country, as long as you don’t pick up a gun and go and shoot someone, you’re not an extremist.

Those who certainly spout violent and hate-filled language are not yet defined as extremist even though their talk may spur some followers to do the worst imaginable one day. After all, if they can make the effort to go join a band of brigands who have no qualms about chopping off heads and burning people alive, why wouldn’t they be as motivated at home?

If everyone is now claiming to be moderate, there is a need to further define what would be the true characteristics of such a person. There are indeed differences between true moderates and those merely pretending to be one.

For one thing, a true moderate respects another person’s point of view even when those views are patently abhorrent. For a moderate, freedom of speech and expression is a very important value.

A non-moderate however can barely tolerate any viewpoint that is contrary to theirs and would rather they were not allowed to speak at all. If they had to engage with another group, it would only be to convince the others that they are wrong and must immediately convert to the non-moderate perspective. No middle ground there.

Secondly, the non-moderate believes that there needs to be a law for everything. Without punitive measures, they believe that people will simply all go wild and do all sorts of crazy things. For example, according to them, people cannot be trusted to not walk the streets naked if there was no law against it.

True moderates on the other hand trust that an average human being in our country has quite a bit of common sense and will not simply be anti-social just because they can. Malaysians, like most Asians, do care what people think of them and that acts as a major deterrent to any sort of bizarre behaviour. For example, gathering a large group to go and shake posteriors in front of someone’s house cannot, by any measure, be considered a common sense act and, therefore, anyone who does that cannot rightly be called moderate.

Moderates tend to speak in a careful way. Every word is considered well before spoken or written and tends not to be overblown or exaggerated because that would be immodest and therefore immoderate.

On the other hand, a non-moderate person tends to shoot his mouth off, verbally and in writing, refuse to apologise, organises people to show support with unoriginal slogans and then sits back while his boss gives a lame excuse for his bad behaviour. It stands to reason that many non-moderates are a bit lacking in the integrity department.

It might be fair to say that maturity is also a hallmark of the moderate person. The moderate person knows that you don’t need to comment about every single thing just because you cannot be an expert in everything. You especially cannot spend all your time making police reports about everything other people say and do, not least because this may give the impression that you have plenty of time on your hands and have no need to earn a living like other people.

The non-moderate, however, thinks nothing of filing multiple police reports in a single day on anything that comes to mind that they can spin as insulting to themselves. In this way they keep our already harried police force busy trying to work out what precisely their complaints are and not out chasing all manner of crooks, including those stealing public money.

In fact, perhaps we can define extremists as those who spend their time wasting taxpayers’ money by making all sorts of facetious police reports, especially those that are not actually crimes. And we should also ask why they have the luxury of spending all day at police stations, sometimes wearing outrageous costumes, without the need to have any sort of job. How DO they pay for their daily nasi lemak?

There may be other ways to differentiate the true moderate from the false one. There aren’t, for example, many publicity hounds who can convince anyone they are actually moderate in their views. They understand very well that extreme views make for good TV. So virtually anyone you see too often in the mainstream media is probably suspect.

Meanwhile, the rest of Malaysia is trying to get by on their increasingly less moderate incomes.

30 January 2015

The idea is that young children will become used to diversity naturally and hopefully grow to become adults who are respectful of religions other than their own.

FOR three consecutive years I’ve been invited to speak to a group of Norwegian students visiting Malaysia about the work that my colleagues and I do on Muslim women’s rights.

These students are learning about different faiths in order to be better able to teach comparative religion back home in Norway.

Instead of merely learning about all these religions in theory, every year, their university organises a trip for them to visit various South-East Asian countries to observe first-hand how these religions are lived and practised.

In Norway, every child learns about comparative religion from the age of six with the idea that they will grow up understanding the diversity of faiths and beliefs in their society and the world today, and respecting all the faiths equally.

The books they use are vetted and approved by the respective religious authorities, so, for example, the Norwegian Islamic authorities approve the books on Islam.

The students who came to listen to me will eventually become the teachers of those Norwegian school kids.

Lest anyone think they only get to listen to “liberals” like me, they also meet and talk to all sorts of people with knowledge on the religious landscape in our country, including in our universities.

This is to ensure that they get a balanced picture of things in Malaysia.

I was really impressed by this approach by the Norwegian government to address potential issues in a rapidly diversifying society.

Obviously, one of the ways to avoid conflict in society is by ensuring that everybody understands each other.

Including comparative religion in their school curriculum from the earliest years means that young children will become used to religious and cultural diversity naturally and hopefully will grow to become adults who are respectful of religions other than their own.

In a study comparing the English and Norwegian comparative religious curriculums and how schoolchildren reacted to them, most of the students viewed the classes positively, with one student saying, “It is important to understand religions in order to understand humans, sort of improving our social intelligence a little.”

It is interesting that Norway, with a population of under six million people, 82% of whom are Lutheran Christian, is so concerned about the possible conflict that ethnic and religious diversity might cause that from 1997 the country decided to educate people on other religions.

Undoubtedly, the concern was well-founded when in 2011, Anders Behring Breivik, a self-confessed fascist and hater of multi-culturalism, murdered 77 people, blaming Norway for allowing immigrants into the country.

Norway, too, is home to many right-wing groups claiming white supremacy and that Muslims are taking over Norway, despite being all of 3.6% of the population.

Perhaps it is in the nature of supremacist groups everywhere to make up stories about threats to their people without the need for supporting evidence.

Still, the policy of educating children about religions other than their own is a step in the right direction.

And bringing students to countries where those other religions are the faith of the majority helps to humanise those faiths, and prevents the stereotyping that extremists like to do.

It’s too bad that if anyone were to raise the issue of including comparative religion lessons in our schools, our own religious supremacists would undoubtedly go ballistic, claiming that this was a plot by a Muslim-majority government to Christianise their people, as ironic as that may sound.

Obviously, supremacists all work from the same manual.

There is no evidence that learning about different religions in school, with each (including atheism by the way) given equal weight, has led to the conversions of anyone to another religion.

It does, however, based on my experience with these Norwegian students, lead to far more intelligent questions than from those of my own faith.

Meanwhile, few people here in Malaysia are coming up with any bright ideas on how to reduce the polarisation that everyone acknowledges is a growing problem in our society.

The best that anyone can come up with is putting everyone in the same school, which would be a good solution if the standard of education in those schools was higher (as measured globally) and if everyone was taught to respect differences.

But the way they are now, even many Muslims do not want to send their children there if they can afford it.

Our children live in a multi-religious society where they won’t be able to avoid noticing that different people worship differently.

If they ask questions of adults around them, do we take our inability to answer as a personal affront or as an opportunity to learn?

The former is the arrogant way while the latter is more humble.

Which should we choose if we genuinely want peace and harmony?

15 January 2015

While some claim freedom of speech includes the freedom to offend, others claim such freedom of speech led to the violence in Paris.

JUST when we thought the year might get off to a good start, Paris happened. In three days, 20 people were killed; 12 in the original attack, five hostages in two related incidents and three of the assailants. By any measure this was a terrible tragedy, causing pain and suffering to all the families of the dead and injured.

Sadly, it will also cause lasting pain to the French Muslim community, in particular, and all Muslims elsewhere, in general, because once again, the entire community has been linked unjustly with extremism and violence.

Debates now rage about the value of freedom of speech. Some people say that in any democratic society we must have freedom of speech including the freedom to offend. Others say that it is that very freedom of speech that has led to this violence.

Like most things in life, the answer probably lies in between. Some commentators have pointed out that while satire is certainly part and parcel of a democratic society, it is usually aimed at the powerful as a way of pointing out their foibles and abuses. True satire that aims to bring justice in society never targets the weak and marginalised, voiceless people who look to others to bring their problems to society’s attention. As one tweet brilliantly put it, “I think satire should be a punch aimed up at the powerful, not a blow rained down on the weak.” I wonder sometimes what would happen if some of our rabid supremacists decided to launch a satirical magazine to draw cartoons of minorities in this country.

On the other hand, there are comments from some people that events like Charlie Hebdo “prove” that we need the Sedition Act. This is simply another way of saying that those journalists deserve to be killed because they were asking for it. If France had had a Sedition Act, they reason, then the magazine would have been stopped much earlier from drawing those cartoons, and the French Muslims would have been happy, despite being marginalised, suffering from poverty, unemployment and all the other things that generally breed disgruntlement. We seem to have a propensity to blame the victims for their troubles, much like we blame women who get raped for the way they dress or for being out at night.

I’m not sure how the Sedition Act that targets people talking and writing about local issues is going to stop Malaysians from going to join the Islamic State, arguably the most serious danger we now face.

Perhaps some people did not notice that the first policeman who was killed, brutally shot in the head as he lay wounded, was a Muslim called Ahmed Merabet. In a moving tribute to his dead brother, Malek Merabet said: “My brother was Muslim and he was killed by two terrorists, by two false Muslims…Islam is a religion of peace and love. As far as my brother’s death is concerned it was a waste. He was very proud of the name Ahmed Merabet, proud to represent the police and of defending the values of the Republic – liberty, equality, fraternity.”

More than anything, Ahmed Merabet underscored what this was really about. That this was a killing of French people by French people, not of non-Muslims by Muslims. Just as, at one time, Northern Irish people killed other Northern Irish people. Undoubtedly one set of people felt disgruntled by treatment from the other and a small number decided that violence was to be their response. To then tar an entire community, as if every single member is a likely killer, is surely compounding the injustice.

Framing this tragedy entirely in Muslim/non-Muslim terms is of no use when life is much more complicated than that. Not only was one of the murdered policemen Muslim, so was one of the employees of the Jewish grocery where two gunmen held hostages. Lassan Bathily was hailed a hero for saving the lives of several hostages by hiding them in a freezer room. Malek Merabet made the same point: “I address myself now to all the racists, Islamophobes and anti-Semites. One must not confuse extremists with Muslims. Mad people have neither colour or religion,”

Which is a really pertinent point. Only mad people think that the way to solve problems is to gun down a bunch of cartoonists. On the other hand, it is also not reasonable to clamp down on people who are already downtrodden, or who already have no outlet to air their grouses and not expect some form of reaction. We should perhaps be thankful that in our country this reaction only comes in the form of peaceful demonstrations, articles and Facebook comments.

The real lesson to be learnt from the Charlie Hebdo tragedy is that inequality has consequences. But that may be lost on some people.

02 January 2015

I WAS afraid that this first column of the year would be a depressing and doleful one. 2014 had been remarkable for its sheer awfulness, with not one but three plane accidents in the region, the worst floods in our history and any amount of angst among our people due to the words and actions of various groups. Would 2015 be better or worse?

But for every action, there is a reaction and happily these reactions have also been unexpected and gratifying.

In January, when a church was a possible target of violence, a group of people turned up to give out flowers to churchgoers and did much to ease the tension of that day. That was the birth of a group called Malaysians for Malaysia (M4M) that set out to promote unity and harmony among their fellow citizens.

M4M then went on to organise the Walks in the Park in several cities that gave Malaysians the opportunity to simply gather and do things together.

When MH370 and MH17 happened, M4M was on hand to unite Malaysians with the Walls of Hope that allowed thousands of Malaysians and others to pour out their grief and hopes for the safety of the passengers of the former and prayers for the souls of the passengers of the latter.

M4M is certainly not the only group that sprang up to bring Malaysians together, not just in grief, but also in volunteerism.

When there was a threat to shut down soup kitchens, KLites banded together to keep them going and even started new ventures to support the existing ones.

Various individuals and groups have formed to do all sorts of charity work to help the poor, the marginalised, disabled and even animals. Civil society has stepped up and is going from strength to strength, a healthy sign.

Then when the worst floods ever in our history turned several states into exact replicas of countries far less developed than us, with people stranded and starving, Malaysians truly showed how generous and kind they can be.

Collection centres for relief goods were set up in various neighbourhoods and when the calls for volunteers spread through social media, dozens showed up.

I visited one and was truly moved and heartened by not only the number of people lending their time and energy to the effort to pack and send off the goods but how diverse they were.

They were young, old, male, female and represented every ethnic group including expats. And they worked side by side and took instructions from supervisors cheerily. There are even people who have organised convoys of cars and trucks to try and reach the stranded folks on the east coast with tonnes of food and other essentials.

Nobody told them to do it, nobody ever paid them to do it. They just did it because their fellow citizens were suffering and this was the right thing to do.

You have to wonder where those self-proclaimed champions of race and religion are in these times and what they would say about these multiracial, multireligious efforts to send aid to flood victims.

Indeed one of the happiest things that has happened in 2014 is the emergence of voices calling for more common sense in the way we discuss things in our country. The Group of 25 has been a pleasant surprise and has inspired more people to speak out against extremists and racists.

Young people especially have welcomed this new development, having previously despaired of a positive future in this country.

They have responded by organising petitions and writing articles of support for the G25, most notably by a multiracial group of 33 prominent citizens and a group of young Islamic Studies graduates from Middle Eastern universities.

These developments have really brought hope to many concerned Malaysians.

So perhaps when you look at it from this perspective, things were not so bad after all in 2014, despite the major tragedies.

While we mourn those we lost, and sympathise with those who are suffering in the floods right now, we can also rejoice in the fact that 2014 was really the year that The Malaysian Citizen showed that their natural kindness and generosity enabled them to respond much faster and more efficiently than any politician can.

This is truly community leadership at its best.

For 2015, perhaps we can put our hopes in The Malaysian Citizen and therefore be more optimistic about the coming year.

Their sense of unity that arises out of a sense of fairness is fully developed.

What The Malaysian Citizen has shown is that there is no law needed to foster unity. They will unite naturally against suffering and injustice.

The only proviso is obvious: keep the politicians out of it.