Print Edition - 2017-03-08  |  The Guardian

Fundamentalist hate is poisoning politics

  • We were ambushed in Bangladesh by the sort of group the west’s populist leaders claim to oppose

Mar 8, 2017-

I have no memory of the attack, but the pictures of my husband’s bloody, motionless body on the street, me next to him pleading for help, the four large stab wounds on my head and a sliced-off thumb, will remind me forever of the hatred and intolerance that changed my life.

Our assailants, armed with machetes, were Islamists who on 26 February 2015, ambushed us while we were visiting our homeland, Bangladesh, for a book-signing trip. They hacked my husband, Avijit Roy, to death and left me gravely injured.

Why did we deserve such violence? Because fundamentalists were threatened by our writings—on science, philosophy and criticism of religious dogma—and they identified us as enemies of Islam. This week, I attended another book fair in The Hague, organised by the Hague Peace Project and Muktomona (our blog which was created by Avijit as a freethinking platform) to commemorate the second anniversary of Avijit’s death—at a time when our world seems more polarised than ever.

Though a diverse group of people were present—atheist bloggers from Bangladesh who had fled the country to avoid Avijit’s fate, threatened and tortured LGBT activists from different parts of the Muslim world, representatives from marginalised Muslim immigrants in the Netherlands, concerned Dutch activists and intellectuals—we were all the victims of a similar kind of hatred and fear.

Because while on one hand we are seeing the rise of religious fundamentalism in many parts of world, on the other we are seeing the revival of xenophobic nationalism in the west. Though these groups look like polar opposites, they actually share many core beliefs and actions.

Religious fundamentalist movements are reactive. They have an enemy or a set of enemies (real, semi-real or fictitious) who they perceive as an existential threat and whom they are very hostile to. Fundamentalists like to see the world in a binary fashion: us v them, good v evil, moral v immoral, right v wrong.

Have we not heard the same kind of rhetoric during Brexit, during Donald Trump’s election campaign or in the statements from European far-right leaders such as Marine Le Pen, Frauke Petry in Germany or Geert Wilders in the Netherlands? I believe so. Because they are also reacting to something they see as “Islamic fundamentalism”—in reality immigrants, minorities, you name it.

Consider Trump’s travel ban. Why were Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which together were home to 17 of the 19 September 11 attackers, excluded from the list of seven countries? Are these countries too rich, too important to American business or strategic interests? Why did he present the ban as a pressing policy issue? Because such a populist decision plays to the fears of his core rightwing voters. If Islamic State or al-Qaida are reacting to western “modernity”, imperialism and national and cultural grievances, is Trump not reacting in response?

The president has also created a set of enemies. He says Americans are under attack from Muslims, that Mexican rapists and “bad hombres” are stealing jobs and creating an existential crisis for the US.

He maintains a classic dualistic vision of us v them. This can take many forms: west v Muslim, American v migrant, liberal media v him, successful men v women. In his worldview, minorities are forced to live as second-class citizens in religiously fundamentalist countries. He has successfully instilled that same fear into the minds of many minority communities, including Muslim Americans, African Americans and Latinos.

And just as Wahhabi fundamentalists want to return to the time of Muhammad, when the world operated under a strict moral code and they can make Islam great again, Trump desires to make America great again. In Europe, too, we are hearing the same kind of discourse: take back control, reclaim our sovereignty, give Holland back to the Dutch, and so on.

Victories for Brexit and Trump are already helping to legitimise the false notion that terrorism, immigration and refugees are the biggest problems people face. Now hateful reactionary populist messages are threatening to dominate the world order. It appears unreal to many of us, but it should not be a surprise. We have seen the pattern through history, that dogma and hatred overtake reality during times of perceived crisis.

Neoliberal policies and global mobility of labour, information and capital through globalisation have created a modern economic crisis on a global scale, characterised by unfathomable levels of income inequality. This economic model has failed not only the vast majority of people in poorer countries, but also the working classes in the west. This has given rise to intense distrust towards mainstream political systems.

Muslim-majority countries are facing their own problems. Post-imperial social and economic legacy, as well as the politics of religion and oil, is often blamed but the lack of reform within Islam itself has played a critical role in the rise of fundamentalism, which has flourished in countries that lack mature political and economic structures.

I have seen how a new and vulnerable nation such as Bangladesh has slowly given in to fundamentalism, not driven by religion so much as by local and national political power struggles.

I fear we are seeing a revival of the damaging “civilisational” clash from all sides. Osama bin Laden peddled it too. But pay attention to their central arguments and it becomes clear that we are not really experiencing a clash of civilisations, rather a clash of two populist and reactionary ideologies exacerbated by a global crisis. The irony is that despite employing different rhetoric, they share so much common ground.

Published: 08-03-2017 09:27

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