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.