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A billion marionettes

September 19, 2012


Angry protesters strike a poster showing a portrait of US President Barack Obama during a demonstration against the anti-Islam film. – Photo by AP
Angry protesters strike a poster showing a portrait of US President Barack Obama during a demonstration against the anti-Islam film. – Photo by AP

For thousands of years, the empire from Afghanistan in the west to modern day Pakistan and India in the centre, and Sri Lanka in the east was collectively called India. At the zenith of the Mughal rule, in modern Gross National Product (GNP) equivalence, India was the greatest economic superpower of the time. Though after the decisive Battle of Plassey in June 1757, the East India Company took over the rule of this economic juggernaut of the Middle Ages. The shares of the company were owned by private individuals with no direct control from the British Government.

In comparison, there is no present day private company that has a whole country as its asset, let alone, the asset being the greatest superpower in the world.  The East India Company had a 250,000 strong private army in India. In 1835, East India Company issued its own Indian currency – effectively becoming the dejure state of the land. Around 200,000 strong of the East India Company private army were sepoys, local Hindu and Muslim soldiers. The rest of the 50,000 officers and soldiers were British.

In 1853, new “Enfield” rifles were introduced. To load the rifle, sepoys had to bite the cartridge open to release the powder. The cartridges were pre-greased with tallow. This was supposedly either derived from beef or lard (pork): offensive to the Hindus and Muslims respectively. Thus rumours started circulating that the British sought to destroy the religions of the Indian people. The narrative went as follows: as a way to ensure the destruction of religion, the East India Company is forcing the native soldiers to become unholy by biting the bullet. The hired guns of a mercenary army chartered by a private company were fine with murder of their brethren on the behest of faceless stock owners but not so comfortable with biting the bullet first.

This was an instance of the political entrepreneurs whipping up religious frenzy to gain specific objectives. A revolt spread throughout the expanse of India to reinstate the Indian aristocracy to power. From Bengal in the east to Punjab in the west, Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims started militant rebellion. Though the rebellion lasted for a good many years, it did not yield intended consequences. The rebellion leaders were all captured and killed, and the British Crown dismantled East India Company and began the 100 year direct government rule of India. Everyone who supported the rebellion and their communities were completely disenfranchised, starved of all opportunities and lived in insolated poverty for the next 50 years.

The rumours of religious dishonour or breach of holiness have become much more frequent in the last two decades. In September 1988, the Indian writer of Kashmiri Muslim origin, Salman Rushdie, published his second novel, Satanic Verses. The novel took a swipe at arch angel Gabriel and questioned whether he was transferring revelations with the highest possible fidelity. The novel led to immediate controversy. A fatwa and a bounty were issued by the Iranian supreme spiritual leader. This played into the sectarian dynamics of Islam. The Muslims are divided between two large competing sects: Shiite and Sunni. Iran is a Shia theocracy. In response to the Shiite fatwa, the Sunni Islamic world responded in hurried catch-up with global riots and protests. Also as a reaction to the fatwa, a blanket ban was placed on the book in several counties.

Surely, the fatwa was not all about the novel’s apparent fairy tale humor in obvious bad taste. The Iranian Qum elite, through this carefully orchestrated move, achieved a definite upper hand in Political Islam, gaining a grudging endorsement of the new Shiite regime in the Muslim world. In the midst of heated reaction to the recent YouTube videos the long dormant fatwa on Salman Rushdie Iran has reissued with a raise in the bounty money on his life to USD 3.3 Millions.Even though Salman Rushdie has declared the video to be outrageous and doesn’t have the remotest link with the recent violence.In quick succession, Hafiz Saeed of Lashkar-i-Taiba (Army of the Righteous) has threatened to close down the US consulates in Pakistan.

However one looks at it, this is not a considerate and coherent response to the YouTube video. Slapping fatwa’s right and left of the issue will not stop the problem. Neither would threats from the likes of Hafiz Saeed shore up the image of Muslims everywhere. The YouTube video is the lowest imaginable instance of cyber bullying by an obviously deranged individual. A rational response would be to use this unfortunate instance to explain the great faith of more than a Billion people, reach out across faith lines, send out clerics to the western media forums and provide a counter narrative to those who have no other reference point to the Islamic world than news of Muslim rage. This uncontrollable rage is not helpful.

The phenomenon of Muslim rage is attributed to cartoons, teddy bears, Facebook pages, YouTube videos, little known priests in retirement home states, irretrievable writings on burnt pages and home movies instead of greasy bullets. These are orchestrated reaction to any perceived snub at all, anything that can start the chain reaction of rage, riots and right wing jingoism.

To better understand the phenomenon, it is a dyadic exchange taking place on social media between the origin of the rumor and those who receive it. It is attempted communication across cultures gone awry. The nature and origin of the rumour is of one of the following types:

An act of omission: Say a failure to verify or report whether animal fat grease on the bullets in 1853 was beef and pork. It could hardly be both. To this day, no one knows which it was.

For the sake of Art: In the twentieth century art has to be shocking or should reveal a hidden truth. For the people producing caricature images or movies about Islam, it serves both the purposes. It is shocking as it claims that a whole segment of world population is violent and strange. But it is not true by assertion. Ironically the response to the works: violence proves the thesis of the art work as true.

Professional Pranksters: Feckless individuals who gain vicarious pleasure out of the mayhem that follows these incidents. The YouTube video with origin attributed to an Egyptian Coptic Christians is a case in point. The objective is clear: to en-flame emotions and incite violence. Make no mistake these pranksters are in equal number on both sides. Equal number of cases can be cited where members of the Muslim community planted such evidence to start the rioting for vested interest.

On the receiving end, there are different reasons why people in the Islamic world seek bloody revenge. Virulent rioting breaks across majority of the 50 Muslim countries, spilling invariably innocent blood.

It is not about the original offense but Economics: People are revolting against food prices, cost of living, and overall lack of opportunities. This argument can be made about every such event. Even in the Indian Sepoy rebellion of 1857, the sepoys are said to be revolting against lack of promotion opportunities to officer rank. Though present day riots are not in imperial colonies, the argument is made that the West could do more to lift them out of poverty, same as for the sepoys serving in East India Company. The question is why be so coy, why not call what it is instead of using this excuse of religious offense every time.

The West has to be taught to respect us: The West would not respect the Islamic world. This theory is further corroborated with every such incidence, another vindication of Islam being under siege. In order to restore the “lost” prestige, it is important to go out and do something so revolting, repulsive and violent that people causing disrespect think twice before committing “disrespect” again. Sounds far fetched?

It is the failure of US President’s Middle East policies:  The angry rioters are reacting to the US foreign policy. It is a show off to the US, the street power in the Middle East. Usually the US embassies and diplomatic missions are targeted by mobs to send a grotesque message. The recent US support of the Libyan democratic government defies this logic. The free citizens of Libya used their new found freedom on the people who helped provide it. The crime was heinous and unprovoked but also belies betrayal of a friend to Libya.

It is dissatisfied youth reacting to local despotic rulers: Barring a few, almost all Muslim countries are without longstanding democratic traditions. The youth do not have channels to direct their anger on a regular basis. These incidences are rare outbursts when it is “okay” to come out and express rage. It is when the state apparatus looks away; the wealthy in the society are also sympathetic, so the dissatisfied youth simply go berserk.

Whatever the motivation or facts behind the rumor or the justification for the reaction, these mass religious frenzies happen too often to continue unchecked. The toll on social life, damage to property, and mounting innocent victims count, escalates with each passing year. As it is a dyadic exchange, if either side stops, the issue is dead. Such random rumors of alleged disrespect must be taken to international courts and tried for defamation rather than taking it out on the streets.  Either the systems can be tuned to squash such rumors upon origin or the Islamic world be informed that everything is not a grand conspiracy to destroy the Islamic faith. If anything, this rage is the greatest threat to the faith in several centuries. Nonetheless, strong International public discourse channels have to be established that deny or clarify the claims of religious disrespect.

To check the offenders, it is the duty of democratic societies to censure and condemn actions that can be offensive. As part of the diverse polity of nations everyone understands this obligation. Then why are such episodes becoming increasingly frequent? However the variables at play are factored in, it comes out  in the interest of extreme right wing everywhere to continue inciting such violent episodes. As these events create panic among mainstream public, and allow the right-wing agenda to take over the conversation. The right wing either in the West or the Islamic world uses such incidences to muffle the mainstream voices and become relevant. Everyone else either shuts up or scampers for cover. The hawks in Western governments push for a hard line; which is reduce or severe ties with Islamic world. If this Muslim rage continues, fewer westerners would visit Islamic countries, and reciprocally much stricter visa restrictions for Muslims to travel outside the region. For once tourism, trade and foreign direct investment from the Western countries will dry up. Far less workers from the Muslim world will be able to go and work in the West and send back the billions of dollars of remittances to their home countries.

The modern products, soft wares and services are modularly developed. Each module has a set of units developed and designed in independent companies operating in different countries. The modules are brought together in another third party location. The distributed value creation is through off-shoring, out sourcing and subcontracting across countries. An average global value chain is composed of thousands if not tens of thousands of first, second, third and onward tier selection decisions. Sophisticated models are used to evaluate risk factors before every single supply chain decision. The Muslim world is not a monolith. Rather it is stratified on several levels. The wealthy Muslim majority states including Malaysia, Turkey, Qatar, UAE understand the risk calculus and will side with the west to remove the volatile countries from critical supply chains. Already global supply chains are actively selecting out countries with risk of disruptions. There are several international high tech companies, with multimillion dollars development offices in cities including Lahore and Karachi weighing the risk of internet blackout. The companies that haven’t already rolled back their offices, are working on contingency plans and alternative locations to direct the work flow. No country can continue to have open relationship with the rest of the world and also have convulsive seizures in normal life.

The state machineries turns a blind eye to the rage and the violence. It is to gain points with the right-wing or put up a show for the West – the bogeyman of Islamic radicalism. The support is slipping; bogeyman diplomacy is not working anymore. It is the duty of progressive media to stand up to the tyranny of rage. Say we are also hurt and disgusted, but this is not the way to react. Because in the long run predictably sustained and frequent violence from such incidences will strengthen the Islamist parties, sideline the mainstream and eventually pave the way for radical Islamists takeover. Is the reader ready to pay this price?

The average Muslim, going about her daily life, is cracking under fatigue from repeated instances of such traumas and the subsequent disruption in normal life. The sense of victim-hood gets hammered into the collective psyche with every episode. It is as if a billion souls have been turned into these marionettes, the traditional dolls that are held straight up and made to perform intended moves by playing the strings. The strings are managed by the controller, appropriately called the “manipulator”. It has never happened in human history that so few, with no talent, skill or good sense to speak of, can manipulate the lives of billions with their feckless actions.

The author specialises in risk analytics.