Whereas prostitution is often referred to as the world’s oldest profession and war as the oldest activity, stereotyping other communities may be the world’s oldest pastime. No group of people can claim not to have engaged in this practice, just as no community is safe from it.
(First published in the Daily Times, 17 August 2006)
In his now infamous outburst when arrested in California for drink driving, Mel Gibson accused Jews of starting all wars in history. He now blames his outburst on intoxication, swearing that he is not against Jews. But in vino veritas, booze brings out the truth, it is said.
Former Australian cricketer Dean Jones referred to the South African batsman Hashim Amla as a terrorist, but then clarified that he did not really mean it. The only possible link between Amla and terrorism is his well-known adherence to the rituals of his Islamic religion, beard and all. In his defence Jones said that some of his best friends are Pakistani cricketers, who are Muslims.
Here are two recent examples of stereotyping, with followers of two major religions, Judaism and Islam, being at the receiving end – not from each other, but from two Western celebrities, products of the Renaissance and the Age of Reason!
There are stereotypes and there are stereotypes, about Jews, about Muslims, about blacks, about whites, about every race, religion, sect, nationality, country and ethnic group on earth. Whereas prostitution is often referred to as the world’s oldest profession and war as the oldest activity, stereotyping other communities may be the world’s oldest pastime. No group of people can claim not to have engaged in this practice, just as no community is safe from it.
But perhaps no community has been a worse victim of stereotyping than Jews. They are regarded as being miserly, as cunning and opportunistic money handlers at best and as conspiratorial, supremacist war-mongers at worst.
In the South Asian subcontinent, Hindu banias share some of the stereotypes of Jews, such as being miserly, cunning and opportunistic money handlers with hearts of stone. In Hindu folklore the Muslim Kabuliwalas, or people of Kabul, are described as pitiless blood-suckers of poor Indians on account of the fact that some of them were money-lenders.
Muslims regard Hindus as lacking in courage and fighting spirit, while Hindus view Muslims as a trifle unclean, as aggressive, war-like and intolerant polygamists who divorce their wives at the drop of a hat.
In reality, not many Muslim countries allow polygamy, few Muslims can afford the luxury of multiple wives and, above all, the man-to-woman ratio would make it statistically impossible for any significant number of men to engage in polygamy. As to the perception of Muslims divorcing their wives on a whim, the divorce rate in Muslim countries is definitely far lower than in Western countries and no higher than in the rest of the world.
Polygamy is a cultural characteristic rather than an Islamic one. It is, for example, more common in certain parts of non-Islamic Africa than in Islamic Pakistan, Bangladesh or Indonesia. By the same token, in some Western countries, marital infidelity and promiscuity is much more common than in the Islamic countries. In France, many of those who can afford (and some who cannot) keep mistresses.
An Israeli newspaper recently carried a cartoon showing an Arab shooting from behind a pram with a child whereas the Israeli opposite him is shooting to protect the child behind him in a pram. Bush joined Israeli leaders in condemning Hezbollah for “hiding behind civilians”. Again, it would seem that Arabs and Muslims are cowards who love their children less.
Merging with the population while fighting the enemy is an old tactic of asymmetrical warfare adopted by all “guerilla” armies fighting much larger and stronger regular armies. The so-called partisans did so in Europe during the Second World War while resisting German occupation, the Viet Minh and the Viet Cong did so in Vietnam against the French and the US. Mao Zedong used the same tactic in China and famously described his guerillas like “fish in water”, the population being the water.
The stereotyping of Muslims since 9/11 has now reached dangerous proportions, as reflected in Dean Jones’ comment about “Amla the terrorist”. It is suggested that Muslim suicide-bombers are motivated by either a “hatred of the West” or a longing to meet the 72 houris supposedly promised in heaven. It is conveniently forgotten that the credit for being the mother of all suicide-bombings belongs to the Hindu Tamils of Sri Lanka.
Detestable as it is, some Muslims view suicide-bombings not differently than Sri Lankan Tamils, as a weapon of war, in this case a war against the West, particularly the US and UK, for their invasion of Iraq and support of Israeli occupation of Palestine. Just because a few idiots, in their pre-suicide video interviews invoke Islam and mention paradise as a reward for martyrs, it does not follow that this is the motive or the underlying cause.
The vast majority of Muslims are no different from followers of other faiths, strong in their conviction without being intolerant of others. An Australian woman, Winifred Steger, who married a Punjabi Muslim in the 19th century and lived with him (and other Punjabi and Pashtun Muslims) in the Australian outback running camel “trains”, writes in her book Life with Ali: “Ali never stinted giving when asked for any charitable purpose, he spoke ill of no one, tolerant of other religions and strong in his own.”
Ali’s Islam is the Islam I grew up with and the one I meet everyday in my family, among my friends and in the community at large. Followers of the Quran aspire for the same things as others, viz, peace, security, prosperity and happiness in this life for themselves and for their children. That also explains why millions of them migrated to the West in the first place. They did not go there to proselytize or to bomb planes, trains and buses.
Fifty years ago, even fifteen years ago, Muslims were not exploding bombs or themselves anywhere for any cause whatsoever, at a time when Catholics and Protestants in Ireland and Hindu Tamils in Sri Lanka were doing precisely that. Despicable crimes such as 9/11, London, Madrid and Bali just won’t go away through a cacophony of condemnation and a mindless “war against terror”.
President George Bush seems to have lost the plot completely, muddling along with the help of meaningless, worn-out phrases towards an elusive victory. The mother of all troubles and all terror is not Islam or even a particular interpretation of Islam, but the problem of Palestine. For religio-historical reasons, Palestine is at the centre of the Muslim psyche.
As long as Muslim youth watch the daily killing and humiliation of Palestinians in their own land at the hands of Israeli Jews armed and supported by the United States, a few of them will be inclined to lay down their lives and to kill indiscriminately to “settle scores”, if you will. Like it or not, Islamic brotherhood which transcends national boundaries is a reality which can neither be wished away nor exterminated through war.
Islamic brotherhood is no different and no worse than the affinity that Jews worldwide have for Israel, the same feeling which brings young men and women from New York, London, Sydney and Moscow to live in, fight and die for Israel. Nor is it very different from the spirit of “proletarian internationalism” which led thousands of young communists and leftists from around the world to flock to Spain to fight and die for the republican side in the Spanish civil war in the late 1930s.
By Razi Azmi