Drowning out hatred and extremism with the language of love and compassion

As I write this, Israel has declared a seven-hour unilateral truce in Gaza.

Aug 07, 2014

Anil Netto

By Anil Netto
As I write this, Israel has declared a seven-hour unilateral truce in Gaza. This came a day after a UN school in Gaza was bombed (last Sunday), prompting a strong rebuke from French President Francois Hollande. On the same day, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) tweeted, “We vigorously condemn today’s Israeli strike and find it incomprehensible that such violence has happened again.”

Even Israel’s strongest ally, the United States said it was “appalled by today’s disgraceful shelling outside an UNRWA school in Rafah sheltering some 3,000 displaced persons, in which at least ten more Palestinian civilians were tragically killed”.

The coordinates of the school, like all UN facilities in Gaza, have been repeatedly communicated to the Israeli Defence Forces, said the US State Department. “The suspicion that militants are operating nearby does not justify strikes that put at risk the lives of so many innocent civilians.”

So far, more than 10000 houses have been destroyed in Gaza, over 350 children killed by the bombing. Over 1200 people have been killed (including more than 350 children) on the Palestinian side while the death toll on the Israeli side is over 50, most of them military personnel. One journalist reported that there are 269,793 displaced people in 90 UNRWA schools across Gaza, an average shelter population of 2,998.

Meanwhile, the UN reports that one third of the hospitals in Gaza are damaged. Gaza’s hospitals have reached breaking point as they struggle to cope even as medical supplies run out.

But it is not just schools and hospitals that are being attacked; symbolic, strategic and economic targets are also being destroyed. For instance, Gaza's sole power station has been hit, so have government buildings, while 88 mosques have been damaged. Fishing boats and agricultural sites have also been targeted. Even the home of a poet and an artist were destroyed.

All this amounts to collective punishment imposed on the people of Gaza, and not just in terms of the loss of human life but also the suffocation of their economic autonomy, cultural heritage and even their religious institutions. This seems calculated to undermine their autonomy and their ability to survive as an independent nation.

Violence targeted at specific communities is not limited to the Holy Land. Further north, we have the Islamic State extremists attempting to wipe out the ancient Christian and Muslim heritage of the vast region they control. Monks have been driven out of their monastery, while Christians in Mosul have been warned to convert, pay a religious levy or face execution. Ancient Muslim shrines have been destroyed.

After what amounts to religious cleansing in ancient Mosul and surrounding areas, now the Islamic State forces are training their sights on Baghdad, which in turn is now preparing for war. Is all this the logical conclusion to the illegal invasion of Iraq in 2003, when critics warned of unintended and broader long-term consequences?

But it is not just Christians who have been targeted and killed by the extremists. The Islamic State also boasted that it had carried out mass executions in the northern Iraq city of Tikrit. They claimed that they had executed 1700 Iraqi soldiers, believed to be mostly Shia. (The Islamic State extremists do not consider Shias to be Muslims.)

Meanwhile, some have even questioned the credentials of the Islamic State leader, Abu Bakr al-Bagdadi. In 2005 Abu Bakr was captured by the US military. But after he was freed soon after, he reportedly went on to become the head of “al Queda’s Iraq branch” and assumed control of rebels in Syria as well. Conspiracy theories have emerged over his sudden rise.

At home here in Malaysia, we do not have anything on the scale of the violence and extremism that we find in the Middle East. But some right wing groups continue to stoke ethno-religious tensions using words calculated to appeal to primordial sentiment. They use the supremacist language that borders on the fascist.

Such extremist and chauvinistic language raises the temperature. It threatens to undo the image of Malaysia as a multi-ethnic and plural nation that celebrates its diversity, which is what our tourism promotion agencies like to portray in their ads overseas. And it could plant the seeds of hatred that could foster turmoil in the longer-term.

These right-wing groups appear to be capitalising on the insecurity felt among many — over lacklustre economic performance, rising household indebtedness, unemployment and the growing income divide — to draw in supporters. Instead of criticising rampant corruption and poor stewardship of the nation’s resources, the spokespersons for these groups prefer to channel such resentment and divert it to “The Other” — usually groups that are not of their circle, ethnicity or religious background.

Meanwhile, national leaders remain quiet, refusing to chastise such rhetoric, their elegant silence apparently seen as consent to the damaging sentiments expressed by these groups. The government should act to counter the narrow ethno- religious propaganda put forward by these right-wing groups and show that the diversity that we have in our nation is something to be celebrated.

But we have much to be thankful for, though. We have groups working at inter-religious dialogue, including the dialogue of everyday life, reaching out to The Other, including strangers, the dispossessed and refugees. For instance, more Malaysians are expressing solidarity with the homeless and lending a hand at soup kitchens which cater to the dispossessed and the homeless.

The question now is, who will triumph in the end? Those who prefer the language of hate, violence and demonisation of The Other? Or those who choose the language of love, reaching out to ‘The Other’ in compassion, justice and solidarity.

It seems obvious what our choice should be, but often and sadly, those working for peace and justice seem to be in the minority. Their voices are often drowned out by the shrill voices of hate and prejudice that find a ready home in media that choose to highlight the sensational.

It is time we stood up and joined hands in reaching out to our fellow human beings in peace, love and fellowship and let our collective voices for peace and love be heard.

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