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Living in a polarised world

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By Zameer Abbas

Although divisions among the world’s population along class, income group, culture, race, religion, language, region, sect, political party, ideology and the ilk have been apparent a long time now, these have widened in recent past. This is evident from the recent political events in the world and the shifting patterns of public opinion. In most cases, mass views have registered a change towards far-right nationalism and hatred for immigrants (in the case of Europe), economic nationalism (in the United States of America), Hindu nationalism in India and Islamic fundamentalism in the Middle East and beyond. The neo-liberal world order, we were told, aimed for economic growth, international democratic engagement and a bigger role for global institutions. Post-World War-II period saw lesser intensity conflicts such as the Cold War, Israeli-Arab conflict, the Vietnam War and many other crises. As the cold war ended, American political scientist Francis Fukuyama termed the spread and dominance of liberal democracy as the “end point of mankind’s ideological evolution”. This sweeping optimism for the future of humanity was overshadowed by wars and other acts of violence that Fukuyama appeared to rule out.  

In the Indian Subcontinent, Pakistan and India held on to their perennial enmities. The acrimonious neighbours became nuclear powers in the late 90s and skirmishes over the Kargil area of the disputed region of Gilgit-Baltistan and Kashmir alarmed the world about possible use of atomic weapons. After 9/11, American invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan underscored that liberal democracy may, in some ways, have catered for the welfare needs of the masses, the foreign policy of the world powers (led by the US and Britain) was as flawed, shortsighted and devastating  as ever. Also the old US policy of propping up dictators and authoritarian regimes across the world, more so in the Middle East than anywhere, for expedient political and economic goals against the wishes of the public of those countries continued. Genocide and ethnic cleansing was witnessed during the Bosnian War and many African conflicts.

The role of the world institutions, meanwhile, has been questioned for either being supine or too servile to the whims of the world powers which control them. Ironically, with no other alternative to arbitration when it came to ending wars and negotiating peace talks, the role of world bodies like the UN, the EU and other human rights groups have been accepted as vital and states have, willingly or unwillingly, agreed to conform to their decisions or recommendations. In the words of Urdu poet Mir “the medicine was sought from the same chemist whose treatment was itself the cause of the disease”.

Much has been written about the resurgence of populism around the world. Some thinkers believe that the global financial crisis in 2008, considered worst since the Great Depression of 1930s, heralded misgivings about globalisation, free-trade and immigration. The “Birther” controversy, inter alia, during President Obama’s election campaign of 2012 was ominous of an introvert, racist and anti-immigrant America now championed by its President himself. That majority of Americans bought Trump’s vision showing that most of them distrusted the globalism and free-market capitalism espoused by president Obama and his predecessors. In Europe, Brexit in 2016 and subsequent election results and campaign agendas of the main candidates in France, the Netherlands, Austria, Poland, Germany, Italy and other countries pointed to the re-emergence of pre-WW-II phenomena resembling fascism, xenophobia, Nazism, populism and nationalism.

Research by the London-based think-tank Demo titled “At Home in one’s past: Nostalgia as a cultural and political force in Britain, France and Germany” found how a new generation felt rueful and bitter about pluralism and immigration in their countries. The authors called it “an omnipresent menacing feeling of decline; that the very best of their culture and communities has been irreversibly lost, that the nation’s best days have passed, and that the very essence of what it means to be French, or German, or British is under threat”. Nostalgia, according to Stephen Philips, a columnist at the Financial Times, “has become an engine of nationalism. It thrives on the economic and cultural insecurities thrown up by globalisation. We look backwards for a safe identity”.

In neighbouring India, the emphasis on Hindutva or revert back to an imagined version of Hinduism as the main determiner of Indianness, has become popular after Narendra Modi’s winning of elections in 2014.  BJP is the political wing of the RSS, a violent Hindu supremacist outfit. India watchers believe that Modi is likely to whip up communal tensions and anti-Pakistan rhetoric to gain more votes in the parliamentary elections due in 2019. In the past, such fanning of nationalist sentiments resulted in lynching of Muslims and attacks on Christian worship places. From the USA to India, the populist leaders are promoted by right-wing media. The critical analysis and coverage is dubbed as “fake news”.

As the populist views of the likes of Donald Trump, Narendara Modi and several key politicians and election candidates in Europe have gained traction, there is an undercurrent of resistance too. This dissent can be seen in the stances taken by the rival political parties and the discourse dominant in the national media of these countries. Political leaders like Jeremy Corbin in the UK, Immanuel Macron in France, Angela Merker in Germany and Senator Sadnors and Hillary Clinton and the ilk in the USA and Rahul Gandhi in India represent the other half of the divide; the lot that realizes the hazards of letting populist demagogues grab the reins of power. Along with politicians, media groups too seem to have realised the threat to the liberal norms and democratic values. A look at the Op-Ed pages of major international publications like The New York Times, The Economist, Financial Times, The Guardian, Wall Street Journal, The Independent, Washington Post, The Hindu, The Indian Express and Dawn etc., underlines apprehensions of political commentators. Eminenent authors and columnists maintain a condemnation of the disregard to constitutionalism and universal values by the political leaders beholden to populism for vested interests.

In Pakistan, veteran journalists like I.A. Rahman, Nusrat Javed and Raza Rumi have long maintained that our society is sharply divided among groups rooting for “blind hatred and unquestioned respect” for their leaders and respective political ideologies. This dichotomy is glaringly clear in the Pakistani social media where supporters of different political parties behave like cult members and discourse quickly degenerates into ridicule, obscenity, abuse, rape warnings and murder threats.  

In Gilgit-Baltistan (GB), the residents of the metropolitan city of Gilgit live in areas marked by sectarian segregation. Due to “sectarian migration”, once mixed neighbourhoods have almost disappeared. Though the area has not experienced any sectarian violence recently, the public lives through what researcher Martin Sockfied called “everyday sectarianism”.  As long as there are no mixed/shared public spaces, the dormant sectarian conflict poses a looming threat to the region’s peace.

The lesson for mainstream politicians, intelligentsia and the media across the world is not to forget the scourges of the past. The legacy of fascists, populists, religious fundamentalists and demagogues is nothing but death and destruction; the scars yet to be healed. In the words of philosopher George Santayana: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. Our survival lies in tolerance, diversity and pluralism.

The writer is based in Gilgit. @zameer_abbas

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