By Saad Hafiz:
US Senator Robert F Kennedy once wrote, “What is objectionable, what is dangerous about extremists is not that they are extreme, but that they are intolerant. The evil is not what they say about their cause, but what they say about their opponents.” Contemporary extremists, motivated by a religious imperative, have engaged in more hate speak against a far wider category of opponents, encompassing not merely their declared enemies but anyone who does not share their religious faith, and even persons who are of the same faith but who do not share their extreme political views and theological constructs.
The dissemination of personalised hate messages is being assisted by the omnipresence and timeliness of the Internet, which can easily circumvent official censorship. Inflammatory messages can be circulated anonymously, quickly, and almost effortlessly through an especially cost-effective means of mass communication. With the sheer volume of demagogic hate-mongering propaganda being communicated, it seems as if the ‘clash of civilisations’ is being played out over the Internet.
Extremists, particularly those involved in extreme religious movements, such as fundamentalist Christians and Muslims, militant Zionists and Hindu extremists, all claim the divine righteousness of their cause. In this case, stark extremism becomes reframed in a ‘religious’ context, which can have a legitimising effect for some people. It is surprising how many people are reluctant to challenge religiously motivated extremism because it represents ‘religious belief’ or because of the sacred-cow status of religions in most cultures.
Voltaire got it right long ago: “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.” So did Bertrand Russell: “Many people would sooner die than think.” It appears that in the battle of ideas, the ‘politics of reason’ identified with enlightened rationalism, liberalism and pluralism are increasingly being drowned out by the ‘politics of fear’ underpinned by divisive religious fascism. This is reflected in contrasting comments to a recent article on the genuine concern over the stereotyping and demonisation of Muslims as ‘terrorists’ in the west, when many readers said, “We believe that ultimately we are headed to a Third World War as the Western powers are hell-bent on subjugating the Muslim world.” Other responses suggested, “Islamophobia would vanish overnight if Muslims started to behave like normal tolerant people in a globalised world.”
Extremists generally have a tendency to see the world in terms of absolutes of good and evil, for them or against them, with no middle ground or intermediate positions. All issues are ultimately moral issues of right and wrong, with the ‘right’ position coinciding with their interests. Their slogan is often ‘those who are not with us are against us’. Extremists are also quick to caricature or resort to epithets against opponents that do not have to be proved to be effective; the mere fact that they have been said or used is often enough. Extremist rallies generally include the orgy of emotion, bullying, screaming soubriquets, and even acts of violence.
What is especially worrisome is a generational transmission of hatred between ‘us’ and ‘them’, among ‘peoples’ and ‘cultures’. Children who are the most impressionable, susceptible victims of hate speech, hear it from their parents and teachers, whether it is in the sprawling suburbs of middle America or in the austere madrassas of Pakistan — how ‘they’ are planning to kill ‘us’, how ‘they’ have stolen our lands, had humiliated ‘us’. Loyal to their role models, who had been damaged by perceived enemies, the children grow up thinking about carrying out acts of revenge against ‘them’. These young people, if properly educated and given an opportunity, could instead be the mainstay against global extremism.
It is essential that all societies and governments make a concerted effort to challenge the forces of prejudice, intolerance and racism. Enforcement of hate crime laws is just one tool, which must be balanced to ensure that they do not squelch the free expression of ideas or hinder the ability to challenge contradictory and controversial historical narratives. Probably, the best antidote to hate speech is counter-speech — exposing hate speech for its deceitful and false content, setting the record straight, and promoting the values of tolerance and diversity. The forces of extremism feel threatened when someone talks back or challenges their views.
It will require decades to change the culture of hatred and violence. In this struggle, the moral high ground needs to be maintained, for example, by strengthening the rule of law and exemplifying good governance and social justice. To depart from these standards is to lower ourselves to the level of the extremists and to damage liberal democracy.