By Kabir Taneja
About 3000km across the Arabian Sea from India's western coast, a conflict has been raging far away from eyes of the world. The civil war in Yemen, the poorest nation in the Middle East, has seemingly fallen through the cracks of global diplomacy, and the country despite having a half-hearted peace process, seems to have largely been left to its own devices.
Yemen was, and perhaps still is, a stronghold of Ansar al-Sharia, also known as the Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). However, the current crisis in the country is between the Saudi Arabia-backed government in the capital Sana'a and the Zaidi Shia rebels known as the Houthis, which are known to have the support of Iran. At the peak of the conflict, India evacuated more than 4000 people from Yemen, including more than 900 foreigners from 41 countries.
Today, violence in the country continues, but remains unrepresented in global headlines due to other, larger conflicts and issues such as Syria, Iraq and now the increasingly frequent terror strikes in Europe.
Thousands of innocent victims are left un-mourned by the wider public, as if their being killed in a particular geography makes their death somehow acceptable.
Terrorism and its place in public discourse, as a subject to be absorbed and understood by the masses, is possibly one of the most under-studied topics today. With the rapid rise of social media over the past few years, consumption of information relating to issues such as terrorism, specifically in complex regions like the Middle East, is not limited to a select few. However, this information is also being used to propagate the increasingly divisive politics of the left and right.
Social media reactions to terrorism or acts of terror make for very interesting case studies. Never before have the masses been able to opine with such freedom on platforms that allow millions of others to read and share their views. News channels, newspapers and so on today are being challenged by people directly as the internet, often via Smartphones and tablets, offers unprecedented, and often alternative and raw access to information.
However, such access and fluidity in information flow comes with certain shortcomings. The role of radical Islam as a driving force in global terror is un-contestable, but who its victims are also needs to be put in proper context. In the recent past, the horrors of terrorism have been condemned in a very selective manner. Thousands of innocent victims are left un-mourned by the wider public, as if their being killed in a particular geography makes their death somehow acceptable.
There is scarcely any recognition in Western and even Indian discourse that Muslims are the greatest victims of radical Islam.
Of course, it is understandable why terror strikes in European centres such as Paris and Brussels caused such an outcry worldwide. The Middle East has struggled with intense violence for decades now, while such attacks are a shocking new reality in Europe. Today, the people in the continent are often sympathetic to the plight of the incoming refugees from countries such as Syria but also harbour immense reservations. "I really don't want our lifestyle to change," a prominent German journalist told me last month during a discussion of how Islam is challenging the "European way".
It is not just the Syrian crisis which is causing great discomfort in Europe, so much so that the very idea of the European Union is coming under duress due to the hundreds of thousands of incoming refugees. It is imperative to remember that millions of Europeans are also disillusioned by the fact that a crisis like Syria has been raging for years now without an end in sight. Hundreds of thousands of people have perished in the conflict, reduced to mere numbers in historical logbooks.
More than 100 dying in Baghdad, more than 80 Hazaras being killed in Kabul or the Syrian crisis getting so out of hand that the United Nations has to call for weekly 'time-outs' from war in order to deliver humanitarian assistance are matters that are as important as the spike in pro-Islamic State attacks in Europe. Terrorism needs to be understood and condemned in the sternest manner as a political problem with socio-religious connotations.
Why are popular monuments around the world lit up in the colours of the French or Belgian flags, but never in those of Afghanistan or Iraq?
So, why is it that Paris and Brussels get much more sympathy than Aleppo or Baghdad? Why are popular monuments around the world lit up in the colours of the French or Belgian flags as a gesture of solidarity after terror attacks, but never in those of Afghanistan or Iraq? Why don't you and I feel as appalled by the daily death tolls in Mosul and Qamishli as we do by the lone wolf attacks in Munich or Normandy? Many theorize that the reason is that such acts are just not expected to happen in free and liberal Europe. But again, it needs to be understood, that the West's interests in the Middle East have almost never brought any stability, instead creating deep social and political vacuums where today terror outfits like the Islamic State thrive. Freedom and liberty do not automatically translate to peace and security -- it depends on who the freedom is being delivered to, and often, at whose cost.
The public discourse on the issue of Islamist terrorism is very fragile in itself. Not only is the understanding of political Islam, with all its parts and pieces, pedestrian at best, there is also a sense that the people in the Middle East have made their own mess, never mind that many prevailing problems are rooted in colonialism. There is scarcely any recognition in Western and even Indian discourse that Muslims are the greatest victims of radical Islam. The discursive construction of terror has taken on an inward, collapsing form rather than an outward expanding one where knowledge and information play crucial parts. And perhaps this is also a big reason why, along with global political failures, we are collectively failing to tackle this problem.
The question that this piece is attempting to raise is not new, but it bears repetition. I may also be accused of succumbing to "whataboutery", which is a phenomenon when people ask others why in condemning one wrong, they aren't condemning other atrocities as well. The answer to this question is very simple. Idealism, morals, ethics are all secondary to the debate on terrorism. That's because this debate is primarily political in nature and if one is partaking in it, one should be aware, at least on a basic level, of what exactly is going on. This is necessary for public discourse to be meaningful rather than for it to slip into predictable political banter over a few beers for the middle classes.
Kabir Taneja Journalist, scholar and researcher
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