As the Tables Turn

TDS buttonIn the past week, waves of protest against the imposition of VAT on higher education brought Dhaka to a standstill, causing the denizens to take notice. For a change, private university students were leading a movement that was fast gaining ground among young urbanites. Supporters’ argument was simple, “Since education is not a commodity, it cannot be taxed.” For two months, the resentment simmered before finally blossoming into a full-fledged urban movement after several protesters were injured by police firing.


Now that the government has judiciously announced a reversal of the decision, there is a sigh of relief, not only because it’s good for education, but also because we all love to see young idealists win. Their cause was noble. Their character seemed apolitical. Their manner was non-violent. In Bangladesh, there is nothing more we could ever hope for from political demonstrations.

The protesters got the basics right: their demand was simple and unanimous. Ancillary topics like, withdrawal of VAT from school fees or demands for the de-commoditisation of higher education, failed to dilute the oneness of the demand. These were students rallying for a cause that directly affected them and then, returning to their places once the objective had been achieved. That is exactly what ‘citizen activism’ is. That is also precisely what ‘student politics’ should be.

It demands our admiration that young protesters, without structured leadership, managed to keep the issue focused and buoyant. A key feature was their use of creative slogans, pronouncements and their propagation through media. Instead of violence and fear, the protesters used creativity and intrigue to hold the attention of the onlooking, virtual Bangladesh.

The virtual world did not disappoint. They offered instant empathy, massive online propagation and opinion-shaping pressure to heave the cause into mainstream discussion. Once again, the much-scoffed, most-logged-into Facebook was in the thick of things, spreading updates, reporting law enforcement abuses and showcasing bold statements by protesters. The protests brought to the fore a myriad issues including the commodification of education, private universities’ not-for-profit status vs. shrewd business-practices, comparative social-statuses of public vs. private university students and the utility of non-violent movements in the region. It was unanimity on the VAT issue that made these necessary debates possible.

The unanimity may be attributed to the fact that the movement grew out of apolitical origins and would be over before it could be co-opted. Two decades back, apolitical movements would have been unthinkable in Bangladesh. The connection that students had with Bangladeshi politics dates back to well before the Language Movement. But in the post-independence era, young activists seemed boxed inside their respective ideological tents, re-emerging only for causes that affected tribal interests. They remained focused on control of resources and territory. The main rivals nurtured a culture of ‘showdowns’, a form of violent street demonstrations (a possible legacy of the anti-British revolutionary tactics of the 1930s). That is why, in 2015, apolitical and non-violent demonstrations are a novelty; a very modern adaptation. They signify a growing social belief that change is possible without violence and that governments are now amicable to such manners of exchange.

It is imperative that our political leaders take notice, because all governments must evolve with their citizenry. And if our citizen demonstrations are non-violent, then governments must learn to abandon their habitual ‘quell or dwell’ strategies and engage with them. If citizens raise legitimate demands in a civil manner, governments must be open to dialogue. Emerging leaders must note that instead of remaining quarantined to the virtual world, the movement successfully merged street activism with online consensus-building. Dealing with sophisticated methods of opinion-shaping requires a change in vision and tactics. New messages of pragmatism, in new methods of dialogues, through new media, must be conceived and employed. The alternative is guaranteed – political obsolescence.

Future activists must take note too: a non-violent model of popular protest has triumphed in Bangladesh. But let us acknowledge that this was an isolated, urban phenomenon. Not all groups will be homogenous and not all issues will go viral. Making complex issues mildly entertaining and graspable is a major role of the modern reformer. Issues of greater gravity will demand that the offline, rural hinterland be included in decision-making. That, in turn, will call for greater tolerance for socio-economic diversity, a different tone and greater patience.

The “No VAT on Education” movement has some obvious similarities with the 2013 Shahbag Movement. Both emerged spontaneously out of the collective consciousness, reflected a distaste for the prevalent political culture and its trail of violence, provided popular avenues for activism, grew as polycentric phenomena and succeeded in achieving their immediate goals. The other important similarity is in that the legacies of both remain unclear. While Shahbag did manage to influence legislation – it could not elucidate the demand for historic closure and a future roadmap that young Bangladeshis wanted. Likewise, the No-VAT movement may have achieved its immediate goal. But can it usher in an age of active citizenship and civil exchanges between rulers and subjects? When it comes to the legacy of popular non-violent movements, can form become more important than content?

Those of You on a Civilizing Mission

Those of you on a civilizing mission – listen up.

You! Yes, you …who regularly risk mockery when you refuse to litter in unlivable cities. And you, who would rather give leftovers to the hungry than dispose of them at the restaurant. And you, who are also part-time teachers to your household help. You, who hop off rickshaws when going uphill. You too, who are intent on finding worthy recipients for your hand-me-down textbooks. And you, who protest food adulterers on the streets. You, who compulsively tighten faucets and turn off stoves in order to conserve.

Your campaigns mean more than you think.

Let it be said that presuming to civilize a civilization that is thousands of years old, can raise suspicions about delusions of grandeur; about a (brown) savior complex. But I urge you to brush aside such discomfort or hesitation; the People will learn to see it as the price of social activism. You, the do-gooders – let me tell you that even without knowing it, Bangladesh needs you to step up. Now, more than ever.

Bystanding locals will enjoy the spectacle and take photos. But to actually get their hands dirty, they need a cultural shift. (Photo courtesy: Clean Up Dhaka)

An activist from the Clean Up Dhaka group in her element. Response to the initiative has been mixed: locals will enjoy the spectacle and take photos, but to actually get their hands dirty …to really commit, they need a cultural shift. (Photo courtesy: Clean Up Dhaka)

Those of you on a civilizing mission – you know who you are. It is you, who are thought outlandish because you insist that domestic-help should not only eat the same food, but also at the same table. It is you, who refuses to cross an empty street, because red lights mean ‘stop’. It is you who are made to wait half an hour in Bangla time fashion because you got to the meeting five minutes early. It is you, who calls out the queue-jumper at a super-shop. It is you, who points out that proficiency in foreign languages does not equal having learnt their virtues and manners. It is you who refuse to give up positions of morality in the face of ancient traditions and cynical cultures.

You are on a civilizing mission if you are still spelling out why ridiculing celebrities for marrying dark, homely spouses is not okay. You are on the mission if you call out aunties who post about Sheryl Sandberg but insist on marriage over career for Bengali girls. You are on a civilizing mission if you suffer in endless queues because your refused to pay a bribe. You are on a civilizing mission if you post about modern apartheids, not because you hate the aggressors, but because you truly feel for the victims. You are on a civilizing mission if you criticize royal crimes not because you secretly serve the vizier, but because of the principle. You are on a civilizing mission if you tell people about the differences between what is just and what is legal. You are on a civilizing mission if you can overcome the discomfort of talking about intrafamilial and marital rape. You are on a civilizing mission if you preach that the son shall not bear the sins of the father; or devour the fruits of his labor.

It is you who turns into a temporary traffic-controller at an immobile intersection. It is you who turn collective opinion against ad hominem attacks on social media. It is you who gives up your bus-seat for someone more deserving. It is you, who embarks on Facebook crusades to find homes for puppies. It is you, who stops to kneel by the old beggar lying listless on the sidewalk. It is you who insists on crediting original authors and artists in this age of misinformation, plagiarism and instant sharing. It is you, who accepts a slap and a scratch while stopping a street fight. It is you, who develops a free traffic app, not to lure in VCs, but just to help. It is you, who rush to sites of humanitarian disaster, armed with only able limbs and bleeding hearts. It is you, who are still prepared to make personal sacrifices for collective gains.

You are the modern, deconstructed prophets.

Those of you on a civilizing mission – don’t get caught up in politics. You will find resistance against honesty and altruism, more than you will find against crime. There is an idiom in Bangla that roughly translates to “to live off the family and drive cattle in the forest.” It points to the altruistic pursuit of higher, collective goals at the expense of one’s worldly support systems. If idioms are any reflection of cultural wisdom, then this culture probably views selfless altruism as ultimately foolish. Centuries of feudal rule have taught us that, rulers and subjects must be at constant loggerheads. What you can have for yourself is only what you can cheat the ruler and the neighbors out of. We are yet to emerge from that dystopia in to a society where cheating the system is not the norm. Sadly, it has turned us into believers in: “apne baachle baaper naam” (ask about your father only if you yourself are saved first).

In contrast, yours’ is the journey of a hermit: selfless, unsung and apparently pointless. But hold on to your ‘no harm’ principle and soldier on. You may be campaigning for royalty for local musicians. Or you may be seeding documentaries or e-books of expensive texts. Even these two diametrically opposite activities may have the common, noble goal of civilizing. So don’t bother with ideology or approval, as long as your goal is true.

Those of you on a civilizing mission – know, that your journey will be neither smooth nor appreciated. It will not be smooth because you will find your subjects reluctant and because your private energy and resources will be spread thin over collective challenges. It will not be smooth because beneficiaries of dysfunctional systems will put up resistance.

Still, do your bit and expect nothing in return. If you are hoping for recognition, funding, popularity or a career – then this appeal is not for you, because you are not on a civilizing mission. But if your actions are indeed selfless, remember that it is not up to you to save the world. But it is up to you to brighten the day.


Those of you on a civilizing mission – don’t lose patience. When you see people unmoved by children’s death or by hunger that makes grass palatable, don’t stop believing. When you hear death warrants issued from the pulpit, don’t lose faith. When you read about unborn children getting shot, don’t forsake your post. When you see societies petrifying into a state of perpetual callousness and indifference, don’t lose hope. You know what they don’t.

When the hundredth drop of water cracks a boulder, it was not the last drop alone that did it but all the previous drops that came before it. Dripping water hollows out stone, not through force but through persistence. Be persistent like the water and you shall break the stone. Even if you make no breakthroughs, you will be one of the ninety-nine water-drops that catapulted the last drop into a revolutionary event. You will be the giants on whose shoulders future missioners will stand and see further.

Those of you on a civilizing mission, please stay the course. You, who are on the verge of surrendering the crusade against classroom bullying, please rant on. And you! You, whose dedication to preventing people-cruelty (against people or animals) can only be described as ‘religious’, please keep fighting tooth and nail. You, whose pestering of VIP vehicles on the wrong-side is running out of steam, lumber on. And you, whose protest against segregation of drivers / chauffeurs at lavish weddings is raising some authoritarian eyebrows, go on rebelling.

You, who are disrupting and lecturing bikers on the sidewalks, keep walking your path. And you, who are chronicling the history of the present, keep making history. You, who are choosing pens over swords in the battle of ideas, defend your lines. You, who are waging wars against underage marriage, keep resisting the advances.

Those of you on a civilizing mission – be reminded that anarchy, pessimism, cynicism and indifference cannot be the natural state of any nation. Understand that we only know what we have seen. If you show us a better way, we will follow. And please know that you are being watched. Emulated, even. The very ones, who think yours’ is a lost cause, are watching on anxiously, wondering at what level of success they should join you. And know that countless others are watching you – trying to get past awe, brush off hesitation or break off historic shackles.

Remember that while explicitly thanking someone is not a part of Bangali culture, we are not ungrateful. Your efforts are not in vain. Even if you fail miserably, your choosing to swim against the current will have been an act of rebellion. By every definition, you – and not talkative grey-haired men with circular logic on television – are our civil society. All of you people creeping ahead with your personal development agenda, on your private civilizing missions, please forge ahead.

This piece originally appeared on The Dhaka Tribune. – Dystopian Hyper-Consumerism and Pushy Advertising

Reblogged from

It was an entertaining skit.

It opens with an animated evangelist (played by a dashing Bollywood leading man) talking about the dangers of stress and how it drains us. To the applause of an enthralled, glazed-eyed audience, he presents a man quivering uncontrollably – tap-dancing even – from extreme work-related stress. With the uproarious consent of the crowd, the evangelist introduces the poor specimen to Miraculously, the man stops shaking and starts browsing through shopping items. He is instantly relieved of his stress and bathed in a halo-like glow. As the plot winds up, he is seen drowning in a deluge of delivery crates and boxes.

“One Click Therapy.”

This is the comical, over-the-top television commercial from, an online marketplace. While undeniably funny, the positioning idea is discomforting, if not problematic. Once we get past the comedy and the antics, the message of the commercial is darkly dystopian. It seems to say: if earning gives you stress, spending will relieve that stress. Meanwhile, here’s an app just for that.

This is also a typical example of ‘pushy advertising’ – an outdated, preachy and prescriptive mode of communications that only worked in the past because the level of advertising had not reached the point of saturation. While brand messages are increasingly becoming simple and to-the-point, that hardly means the modern consumer will fall for desperate cries of, “Spend here! Buy me!” Especially the ones armed with Smartphones and transacting on online marketplaces.

But the sense of discomfort evoked by the Evangelist TVC goes beyond the lack of sophistication. The premise, message, media and format are all important elements in analyzing it. While it is not uniquely sinister, it certainly is representative of how pushy advertising still remains in shoving products down people’s throats. If we dig deeper, the institutionalized hyper-consumerist agenda begins to emerge. The following are four criticisms of the content and form of this particular TVC.

1. The Premise is Dystopian

Literary dystopias are alarming because they are suddenly sprung upon us. Real life dystopia sets in gradually. It’s the same case with the hyper-consumerist Society.

Let me oversimplify.

The math is simple: Equation 1 – overwork results in incomes and contributes to the build up of stress. In equation 2 – spending removes the stress, taking the income and leaving behind products (meant to include goods, services and experiences).

In the grotesque model above, ‘spending’ acts as a counterbalance to ‘work’ – eventually, eliminating both stress and income from people’s lives, leaving with them with an endless array of products. It is not enough that our modern production-driven, profit-focused capitalist machinery creates conditions where people are over-worked to the point of being stressed out, it further demands their earnings are returned as a price of what has been produced.

The race for limitless production only makes sense as long as people give in to mindless, hyper-consumption. People comply because everything that they desire, starting from elections, education and religion to entertainment, literature and sports, has been turned into commercial ventures. Almost every act is a transaction. Think about it, even to read this post, you probably have had to trade your email address and personal information at some point.

Naturally, this growth-obsessed system leaves people feeling drained and in need for material rewards. The endless choices of colors, shapes, flavors and variants result in the illusion of choice and reality of decision fatigue. Advertising like’s constitutes and perpetuates what is a self-sustaining, exploitative system.

2. The Problem is not Frivolous

The website is positioned as a remedy to work-related stress. “One Click Therapy”. In the process, it makes light of ‘stress’, portraying it as a condition characterized by uncontrollable crazy feet.
While it is largely scoffed at in South Asia, developed countries recognize stress as a silent epidemic. Sadly, that leads me to base my arguments on information made available in those countries. But the patterns are telling. Childhood stress is now linked to self-harm, anorexia and bullying. In adults, it is a real medical condition that can lead to mood swings, manic depression and even suicidal tendencies. And it is not a fringe symptom; work-related stress is on the rise as people are expected to do more with less in a shorter period.

In the TVC, the misrepresentation of stress is problematic; but it is even more problematic to imply, even in jest, that it may be treated through online shopping. It is an irresponsible claim that the brand cannot possibly deliver on. Stress is a postmodern epidemic, and hardly a laughing matter. For a modern, tech-savvy brand to completely overlook this fact is appalling.

3. The Solution is Misleading
Retail therapy is a dubious solution. It works if you are Keira Knightley. But if not, experts advise caution. Research confirms that it creates temporary feelings of wellbeing and relief. But the way it works is that instead of clearing the mind, it distracts it. It brings in new information to shroud any particular challenge, frustration or grievance causing stress. But unlike with meditation, which can include concentrating on the challenge at hand, the mind is temporarily distracted and unburdened. The stress always returns, often with the vengeance of dissonance and remorse of impulse purchases.


Example of a print advertisement from the ‘One Click Therapy’ campaign.

With retail therapy, resources are often diverted away from more pressing causes. When purchases are made mainly, and chronically, for mood enhancement, side-effects can also emerge. Those given to compulsive buying can experience high levels of anxiety, powerlessness, conflict and frustration. And that is to speak nothing of the month-end credit-card bills. Everything in retail therapy detracts from a closer inspection of the origins of stress.

Even if retail therapy is assumed to be the best treatment for stress – over meditation, psychological evaluations, consultation and therapy – appears guilty of callous behavior. To unequivocally claim, that its online marketplace has the capacity to allay stress, is scientifically and medically improbable. That the format is comical, does not mitigate the seriousness of its claim.

4. The Insight Ignores Emotions

Lastly, let us acknowledge that the TVC was meant to be theatrical and crass, a spoof of multiple genres. But even its attempt to be crass lacks sophistication. Advertising magazines and blogs have lauded’s unique insight of ‘retail therapy’. But what they have missed is that the subject i.e. the stressed individual – so easily pacified by things to buy – is in fact a caricature of the common working-man.

That, in turn, makes the audience feel belittled. We all consume, but we never want to be reduced to mere, gullible consumers. This emotional aspect was altogether ignored in the advertising. Yes, it may be seen as clever. But is it clever for its own sake? Is the joke on its own consumers? Are we supposed to identify with or feel sorry for the shaking man? Is it promoting Consumerism, and a social satire of it, at the same time? Should we be encouraged into, or offended away from, retail therapy?

There is little sense in picking out out of thousands of similar pushy brands that are constantly urging people to spend. The pressure to conform to expectations of hyper-consumption is manifesting itself through politics, commerce, art and culture. This is the price of infinite growth.

Personally, I do not advocate greedily hoarding every penny earned. Spend, by all means. But when we are pushed to buy and then buy some more, we need to stand back and consider what we are being asked to give up in return.

Adnan R. Amin is a brand and strategic communications consultant. He has worked with McCann Worldgroup, Unilever and Saatchi & Saatchi. Connect at, @adnanramin.

Constructing Islamophobia: The #Shoebat Detail

Walid Shoebat is a good man.

Disenchanted by a life as a Palestinian terrorist – who firebombed an Israeli bank and went to jail – Shoebat left Islam and became a Catholic Christian in the USA. He also founded the Shoebat Foundation in Pennsylvania and today, dedicates himself to unearthing the evil within Islam and create awareness about persecuted Christians.

The facts that the bank that he allegedly attacked has no record of being attacked, that no family members ever heard of his terrorist activities, that the Israeli jail has no record of incarcerating him and that his ‘foundation’ is not recognized by the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s office – are irrelevant. Undeterred, Walid propagates his vision from the pulpit of

Recently, on this website, Walid’s son Theodore Shoebat posted about how a Christian boy was beaten to death by Muslim men in Bangladesh, along with a horrific video of torture. This tragic event did take place in Bangladesh. The inhumane torture of Rajon, a 13-year old boy was inexplicably videotaped. The video went viral on social media, leading to popular demonstrations and the eventual arrest of the culprits.


#JusticeForRajon was tweeted thousands of times and Facebook was inundated with angry posts after the incident in Bangladesh.

The tiny, innocuous detail that Shoebat added was the word ‘Christian’. Almost everyone in Bangladesh would know this is an unnecessary and concocted detail. The boy was not Christian. Of course, you’re thinking, but, the men WERE Muslims! Yes, they were. But to say Muslims killed Christian boy subtly implies that it was their Muslimness that led them to commit the crime. In reality, it was a dispute over an alleged theft. Theodore’s headline, “Video Shows Muslims Tie Christian Child to a Poll [sic] and Beat Him to Death and Laugh About It” – paints it as a Islamic problem; as an outcome of Muslim hatred against Christians in Bangladesh. The report hijacks a tragic murder and employs it in creating the impression of a hate-crime and maligning a religion.

Deliberate and sensational misinformation spreads quickly. It was the same in this case. Websites like Republicbuzz & JewsNews, forums like Linkis and Disqus and social media sites like Forum for Middle Eastern Understanding quickly picked up on the story. Others drew parallels with terrorist killings. One sinister lie has now had thousands upon thousands of views and comments.

There’s already enough division and hatred in the world, Shoebats. No one – neither Muslims, nor Christians – need you and your ilk adding fuel to the fire.

The Death of Rajon

Adnan R. Amin:

[WARNING: explicit/graphic topic] a tragic, blood-curling video surfaced on Bangladeshi social media recently. It showed a boy of twelve being beaten to death. In latest updates, absconding killer has been arrested in Saudi Arabia and is currently being extradited. Here’s to demanding exemplary punishment.

Originally posted on Alal O Dulal:

Thirteen year old Rajon being tortured. Images taken from video uploaded by his torturers. Source: Dhaka Tribune. Thirteen year old Rajon being tortured. Images taken from video uploaded by his torturers. Source: Dhaka Tribune.

The Death of Rajon

by Adnan R. Amin for

A thirteen year old boy has been beaten to death.

Samiul Alam Rajon had studied up to the fourth grade and used to sell vegetables to make a living. His father is a microbus driver by profession. He and unnamed accomplices were suspected of stealing a rickshaw van. The boy was beaten, poked, tortured for nearly half an hour, resulting in his death.

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Return of the Other: Thoughts on Human Divisions

Reblogged from

These are a layman’s thoughts on Human divisions. The innumerable slits, cuts and boxes that divide people, century after century, are of our own devise. Given the wars, skirmishes, riots, discrimination, apartheid, systemic-racism and sexism thriving in our post-modern societies, the jubilant theme of ‘celebrating diversity’ seems more like wishful, sentimental rhetoric, witnessed only in artificially conjured greenhouses; it feels like talk not walked. To foster Tolerance, if not true Diversity, the roots of division need to be examined and understood again and again.

1. Xenophobia: A Sort of ‘They’

“All good people agree,
And all good people say,
All nice people, like Us, are We
And every one else is They:
But if you cross over the sea,
Instead of over the way,
You may end by (think of it!) looking on We
As only a sort of They!”
Rudyard Kipling

Mutual mistrust between people of different races, ethnicities, communities or tribes – I will argue – is only human. It would have sent shudders through upright spines when Neanderthals first laid eyes on a band of modern humans. Even had they known it, they would not have been comforted by the fact that the difference in their DNA was a mere 0.12 percent. Sure, in time, they would even interbreed. But one may speculate that a tribalist instinct would have remained in both camps. That is human nature for you: we fear the Unknown. We compare, we distinguish, we discriminateEven in the post-Enlightenment world, this phenomenon manifests itself in the form of irrational fear, hatred, and suspicion of Others: aliens, foreigners, infidels, atheists, homosexuals, Aboriginals, immigrants, midgets, hermaphrodites and so on. This fear has a name.


The Primitive Roots of Xenophobia: Clearly, Xenophobia is culturally-inculcated and socially-transmitted but it also has historical roots. During primitive times, humans noted the benefit of intra-group cooperation that went beyond selfish motivations or wanting to help close kin. Pooling energy, efforts and resources – even among strangers – achieved better survival or economic results for a group. Thus cooperating with strangers set humankind apart from animals.[1] It also led to the development of social institutions based on common goals and ambitions.

But this cooperation often stopped short of an ‘outsider’ i.e. a non-member of a defined group. Such interaction was more likely to bring harm (or loss of profitable exchanges), rather than benefit. It is also possible that outsiders were viewed as ‘free-riders’ (an Other), not party to the group’s cooperation norms, yet intent upon getting a share of the group’s public goods. It was in the group’s and the individuals’ interests to thwart this attempt. This exclusionary behavior also strengthened the coherence of groups.

other in popculture

It’s easy to assume xenophobia to be a fancy term for racism but that would be confusing. Firstly, racist mentalities are a type of xenophobia. And secondly, despite its dictionary meaning, in common parlance the word ‘racism’ has become inextricably intertwined with the American experience of the white oppression of black peoples, thus altering its political implications. This is partly why terms like ‘reverse racism’ and ‘white guilt’ emerged in Western discourse on Racism.

While ‘racism’ has been used to describe many other instances of discrimination, the sheer volume of discourse, cultural depictions and artifacts produced about American racism often skews its meaning. Thus the economic exigency of 17th century America is brought to overshadow the xenophobia that was systematically cultivated to rationalize slavery (e.g. Negroes have no souls). Xenophobia, on the other hand, is a larger, wider and more common phenomenon, so common that we often do not recognize it in ourselves. Ironically, the reason why we don’t find the word ‘xenophobia’ in books quite as frequently as we do ‘homophobia’, ‘racism’ or ‘Islamophobia’, may just be that xenophobia is so universal a syndrome.


I will also contend that generally, such fear or hatred is not very intense, unless triggered, shaped, nurtured by confirmatory opinions or experiences. Learning, dialog, interaction, art and travel may largely allay it, as evidenced in highly cosmopolitan cities like New York or London.

So it can be said that people tend to have a categorical awareness of other races, genders, ethnicities, religion and/or tongues (variations in lesser discriminators – castes, professions, hair colors, addresses, church affiliations – hypothetically, will create weaker impressions). And that leads to a comparison with only other dataset available: people’s own. Are they shorter? Are they louder? Do they sleep naked? Do they think and dream like us? Are they as principled? Do they have the same goals? Do they worship our God? Do they like Robin Thicke? Do they subscribe to my notion of propriety and tradition? Do they hate me too?

Naturally, this cannot be an active cognitive process. Or else most people would just stand around processing new data as they encountered new individuals. It is more like PRISM, running in the background lapping up conversations and ‘intel’ to be stored under particular categories. The level of activity varies with – among other things – the intensity of the interaction and the perceived, inherent appeal or significance of the observed specimen. Some psychologists argue that distinguishing between ‘Us’ and ‘Them’ is a neuro-psychological capacity.

It has been demonstrated that even grouping based on trivial distinctions like ‘the color of shirts’ create strong in-group favoritism (Tajfel, 1970) People choose to associate with others who are similar to themselves in some salient respect. Among the salient characteristics on which this choice operates are racial and ethnic identification, and religion.[1]

In another study, exposure to (unfamiliar) faces of African American males (by comparison to the faces of European Americans), European American subjects exhibited heightened activation of the amygdala, an area of the brain associated with fear processing (Phelps 2000).

Either way, in the long term, this leads to the formation of stereotypes, which are meant to act as a template for understanding Others, but are often ethnocentric, misinformed, prejudiced and injudicious in general. Common examples stretch from drawing inferences based on hair color (blondes are dumb) to professions (lawyers are crooks), from economic status (the poor are lazy) to nationalities (Canadians are boring). Herein lies the beginnings of ethnocentrism: the attitude that one’s own group or culture is superior to that of others’.

2. Othering: Leaders As Stepmothers

Human collectives have long relied on ‘Others’ to give meaning to their own existence, preferences, traditions, practices, beliefs and behaviors. How they view a particular Other is naturally tinged by Xenophobia, Ethnocentrism (superiority complex), racial bias, prejudice etc. As groups evolve into tribes, empires and nations – leaders must organize and consolidate their identity, mythologies and heritage; simultaneously, the need to better define corresponding Other(s) also becomes more urgent.

Leaders of tribes, empires and nations have long been proffering such distinctions. In fact, leaders have indeed been cultivating it to Otherize (i.e. make distinct as aliens) inconvenient, intractable or threatening minorities. Othering (orOtherizing) is useful: not only can it provide a canvass to contextualize the dominant identity and thus improve social-coherence, it can also deepen divisions, fuel sectarian violence and unify an apathetic collective. Fanning a hatred of or distaste for Others has also proven to be an extremely effective electioneering strategy (e.g. pandering to anti-immigrant sentiments). Thus, through leaders’ actions, a society’s superiority, in relation to an Other’s inferiority, becomes ingrained in legislature, history, governance and foreign policy.

How the 'Ours' and 'Theirs' lenses change worldviews (illustration: Tom Gauld)

With systematic Othering, it is the difference between groups that becomes prominent, and not what binds them together. The result is an overly-competitive environment, reduced inter-group collaboration and group members who prefer group gains to his/her own benefit or to that of the Others.[1]

All nations that came to believe that they possessed the one, absolute Truth, have used that belief to elevate themselves above neighboring tribes and nations. The Jewish ascribe(d) to the notion of the ‘Chosen People’. By definition that meant that the rest had not been chosen and were, therefore, unworthy. Hindus subscribed to systems of caste that helped divide and distinguish its believers. In 6th century Arabia, Muhammad Ibn Abdullah – by defining specific faith parameters to be considered a ‘Muslim’ and thus separating true believers from non-believers and traitors – started a tradition that Otherized all other faiths. Combined with subsequent East-West conflicts and conquests, Islam’s exclusivist nature may have laid the foundations for a massive counter-Othering project to take place in the 21st century. In this century of nation-states, Othering reduces a target community (or a group of Others) to the point where action against it can be justified, even celebrated as national achievement.

Laws are only one of the ways Othering is implemented. Black Codes (1865, USA), Chinese Exclusion Act (1923, Canada) Nuremberg Laws (1935, Germany), Apartheid Laws (1948, South Africa), Absentee Landlord Laws (1950, Israel) and Anti-LGBT Laws (2013, Russia) are visible symptoms of a course of Othering adopted against each relevant group. At the time, each of these provisions were used to glorify and protect a group, by demeaning and attacking another. That is the essence of Othering.

Naturally, Othering is more often used against weaker races, nations, tribes or communities. This is the privilege, the prerogative, the fetish and the destiny of majority rule. Othering is achieved through various means: portraying Others negatively in national myths, commissioning and producing ‘knowledge’ of Others, indoctrination of fear through education, consistent & selective demonization of Others, portraying rivalries with (and treachery of) Others, holding Others responsible for collective misery, surveillance & policing of Others, shaping of media narratives, influencing of art, literature & cinema and sustenance of a general environment of fear.

Nazi propaganda poster

The Hutu used ‘Human Virtues‘ to slander the Tutsi in Rwanda. Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich chose ‘Purity of Blood‘ as a discriminator to Otherize the Jewish community. Before that, ancient Romans considered the ‘degree of civilization’ – as illustrated by the term ‘Barbarians’, used to contrast Roman citizens – to Otherize the Turkish, Persian or Germanic peoples.

Hutu extremists used a foul-mouthed ‘Hate Radio‘ that directly issued kill orders. Nazi Germany unleashed a hate campaign that has virtually become a model for dehumanization. “Today,” Hitler proclaimed in 1943, “international Jewry is the ferment of decomposition of peoples and states, just as it was in antiquity. It will remain that way as long as peoples do not find the strength to get rid of the virus.”

Having a distinct fear of Others may not be harmful per se. But an inevitable outcome of systematic Othering is that it reduces people: it essentializes them down to a race, gender, ethnicity or caste. This, in turn, opens up avenues that lead to what I will call the “4Ds ofOthering”: discrimination, demonization, dehumanization and domination.

Discrimination may be thought of a preliminary phase where an Other is clearly separated from a (usually superior) group. Consider how White people working abroad are dubbed ‘expats’, while all others are ‘immigrants’. Note howmore stringent visa requirements apply for citizens of developing countries. Dehumanization examples abound in recent history. Some are explicit and oozing with hate. In the instances cited earlier, there was systematic Othering of the Tutsi, Jewish and Oriental peoplesThe Jewish people were dubbed ‘rats’ and the Tutsis, ‘cockroaches’. [4] The self-proclaimed Herrenvolk (Master Race), in describing the Polish, called them “an East European species of cockroach.”

Figure: the 4Ds of Human Cruelty (building on Zimbardo's Lucifer Effect)

Other dehumanization attempts are more sophisticated in nature and operate under the guise of civility. Until the 1920s and 1960s respectively, women and Black people were not allowed to vote in the USA. In 1947, the French instituted a two-tier parliament as an attempt to include Algerian Muslims in decision-making. But they made one European’s vote equal to seven Muslim votes. Until this day, the Saudi government bans women from driving. Such legislation only reinforced the prevailing notion that women / Blacks / Muslims were a subhuman species.

Whatever the manner, the end result of dehumanization is that it makes cruelty against the target population permissible. In case of the Jewish people in Germany or Tutsi in Rwanda, Othering escalated to virulent hate-campaigns, ghettoization, oppression and bloodshed against the victims, without decisive soul-searching, opposition or rebellion on the part of the aggressors. It may be said that dehumanization of the Other had been completed in these societies, allowing citizens to condone, or at least tolerate, actions against a dehumanized minority. This is what Philip Zimbardo (of the Stanford Prison Experiment fame) calls the ‘Lucifer Effect‘.

What must be noted is that periods of motivated, systematic and institutional discrimination, slander and dehumanization preceded violence and bloodshed in each case. It was not generic xenophobic reactions, but organized campaigns of hate with political motives that enabled the violence to take place. Othering is, therefore, a deliberate exercise of political power.

3. The Others: Browns Are the New Blacks

In 1967, while China was busy detonating its first Hydrogen Bomb, British psychedelic rock band Pink Floyd released their album Pipers at the Gates of Dawn. During the same time, in the United States, mobs of white parents were trying to turn away black children from newly-desegregated schools. Today, such outright, naked racism is quite unthinkable but this indignation is a 1970’s trend. We need to recognize that a powerful idea, leadership, legislation, bloodshed, civil disobedience and endless dialog had to come together to root it out of a modern, 21st century, democratic society. There may be two lessons here. Firstly, to even modern societies that Otherize, it may seem like the perfectly normal and ethical thing to do at a given time. And secondly, the primitive and spontaneous nature of Xenophobia (first component of the Othering funnel) means that it is routinely overlooked in evaluating how progressive a society is.

While, in the West, systemic racism against blacks has been largely reduced, new ‘blacks’ have sprung up in every direction. With rising immigration, mixed marriages, human trafficking and study abroad programs, largely white nations have been flooded by Hispanics, Asians, Arabs, Africans and Indians. Note that I use the social, non-scientific, construct of ‘race’ to describe these new Others. This is merely to convey the idea that the racism may appear diminished because its targets are more diffused, underlying reasons more varied, and forms of oppression more sophisticated.

In the 21st century, every nation has a hierarchy of Others: a ranking of the reviled/resented to the highly preferred collectives. This is a fundamental identity component of the nation state. In addition, there is a consensus – enforced by superpowers, economic blocs, supranational organizations, organized conflicts and corporate media – identifying a global hierarchy of Others. As it was with Eurasia and Eastasia in George Orwell’s ‘1984’, declared rivals consolidate the identity of a society (what do we stand against?) and thereby improve goal-coherence. Manipulation of information allows consistently blaming an Other for society’s miseries (e.g. immigrants stealing jobs, bankers siphoning off savings etc). Thus the Other is the constant, governmental scapegoat.

Because Othering is a deliberate exercise of political power, the responsibility to pinpoint the Other and highlight the factors that set them apart invariably falls on the powerful. Because wealthier nations can invest more in Othering, their narratives are more likely to make it to the mainstream. Thus, in the post-Soviet, unipolar world, the United States and its closest allies have emerged as the final arbiters of who is an ally and who, an Other.

Lost for Words: Appropriation of Descriptive Terms

A key problem in the global narrative on discrimination is that current patterns do not fit the template of (anti-African) racism, which is irredeemably imbued with historic meaning and significance and, as such, does not lend itself to current forms of discrimination. The tragic saga of slavery, overt discrimination and oppression of the progeny of African slaves in the USA has virtually appropriated the term ‘racism’ in Western narratives. Perhaps, it is deemed too deep a historical wound to have to share nomenclature with other, regular tragedies. However, in doing so, ‘racism’ has been stowed away on a pedestal as a historic phenomenon, to be studied, researched, featured in blues songs and recreated in Hollywood.

Secondly, racism has become politically appropriated to describe the white experience with transplanted, black populations. In some view, slavery is a sacrifice made at the altar of economic progress, necessary birth-pangs for the US emergence on the world stage. That is precisely why so many (mostly white) commentators asserted that “racism is over” after Barack Obama was elected to the Oval Office. For those not on the receiving end, it is easy to think that a black president cancels out centuries of crimes against humanity with its deadly historical, legislative, social, attitudinal and educational legacy. The modern racism narrative is not as much an upheaval against discrimination, as it is an apology for such events of the distant past.

There have been attempts to conceptualize modern divisions. For instance, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia may be treated as more specific or semantic attempts at overcoming the severe limitations on language. But unlike ‘racism’, where the reason for discrimination is built into the term, Islamophobia only describes symptoms, not root causes. Unlike racism, which could be retroactively understood to mean a quasi-unified set of policies, practices & attitudes, these terms are immediately applied to events on a case-by-case basis, causing boundaries (of meaning) to remain in a state of flux. This renders them weak and unstable as a framework for analyzing modern patterns of discrimination.

Currently, if you do an online search for xenophobia you will see that it relates almost exclusively to recent stories from South Africa, where (black) South Africans are attacking and killing Somali, Ethiopian and other migrants. While this is indeed a spurred on by xenophobia, a world that understands discrimination based only on ‘race’ runs the risk of coming to understand xenophobia as being intra-racial. Like with ‘racism’, this term too is being appropriated to apply to a particular time and space. What this all means is that the language to describe and analyze other varieties of discrimination is being drastically constricted.

To recap, a chain-reaction of Othering (discrimination, demonization and dehumanization) and subsequent oppression has repeated itself over and over again in world history. Building on xenophobia, Othering is a deliberate process used to political ends. As Othering intensifies, it spills from political rhetoric onto legislation, media, education, commerce, literature and art, which come together to form a system that decisively, irrevocably disenfranchises a (weaker) group. In an increasingly polarized post-WWII world, the USA and its closest allies have the power to dictate which group/nation is an Other.

Muslims – having inherited the curse from the Soviets – have been the target of a strong wave of discrimination over the last three decades or so and especially after the nearly-mythological 9/11 attacks. The ‘Muslim World’ (not a geographic entity but an approximation of a spiritual unity) has been singled out by the War on Terror, causing anti-Muslim sentiments to percolate into various spheres of public life. These symptoms have been given the label of ‘Islamophobia’ – a catch-all term to embody and explain away every anti-Muslim sentiment, content or act. But by applying the Othering framework, I will argue that ‘Islam’ is not the root-cause for Islamophobia; rather it has more to do how Muslim immigrants are systematically Otherized and how they are viewed as a result of such a process.

The Problem With ‘Islamophobia’

Islamophobia is an inadequate concept. Consider that 100% of Islamophobic sentiments, speeches, incidents et cetera – almost by definition – take place in Western, non-Muslim majority countries. Islamophobia is a notion that has its roots in the West, presumably because it was necessitated by events that transpired in the West. In the UK, Islamophobic attackers were found to be predominantly (75%) white males (Hopkins, Peter 2014). But let us note that roughly 1400 years of Islam in the so-called Orient did not give rise to it; virtually no Muslim was ever accused of being Islamophobic. It manifests itself as domestic, garden-variety backlash against Muslim immigrants (Others), for perceived large-scale or international aggressions by their coreligionists. Almost invariably, it takes place in a non Muslim-majority, white land. Islamophobia, then, is a construct wherein native Westerners come to terms with their attitudes and behavior towards Muslim immigrants. To apply the same framework to incidents in Muslims countries is to ignore the age-old domestic, political conflicts.

Secondly, all of the Islamophobic attacks – operating under the assumption that the ‘Muslim Ummah’ connects all races, sects and colors of Muslim – are retaliatory and symbolic. They are carried out in non-Muslim countries, against Muslim immigrants. It is noteworthy that in popular perception, a Muslim is of a non-White ethnicity and an outsider regardless of his/her citizenship status. Thus Islamophobia, residing in non-Muslim minds, is a system of reconciliation of fear and hatred towards Muslim immigrants.

In Islamophobic acts, Muslims are mere subjects to whom horrible things are done. It is also a construct widely accepted by the same immigrant community to showcase their victimhood and thereby obtain concessions or be viewed with empathy in foreign lands where they seek to settle down. Had these attacks been carried out against blacks, they would be called racist. Had Muslims carried out these attacks, they would be labeled terrorists. But white supremacist terrorists are kept away from these regular Othering narratives and dubbed Islamophobic. Perhaps the phrasing succeeds in apportioning part of the blame to Islam.

Thirdly and most crucially, Islamophobia only has meaning when studied as a response to global terrorism. Terrorism provides a sort of preemptive, sociological rationalization for Islamophobic attacks. For example, anti-Muslim attacks increased 500% following the Charlie Hebdo massacre. Similar spikes were recorded in the aftermath of 9/11. But as it stands, ‘Islamophobia’ is an inadequate term for analyzing scenarios where Othering or violence is used as a tool of aggression, and not only as retribution. It undermines Western excesses in Muslim lands. To understand how Muslims are being Otherized, situations must be extricable from the black-and-white narrative of ‘Islamic’ terrorism and the binary lens of good vs. evil that it hinges on.

Due to these limitations of the current understanding of Islamophobia, I shall continue with the framework of ‘Othering of Muslims’. While Western accounts from the early 1300s demonstrate a measure of respect for certain Middle Eastern peoples, this vanishes with the decline of the Islamic Golden Age and the rise of an industrialized Europe. Edward Said’s seminal work on ‘Orientalism’ argues that this culture of stereotyping Eastern peoples arose as a rationalization for Western colonialism and therefore provides a broad understanding of the Othering of Orientals. Said critically examined the binary relationships of subject and object, of the dominant Occident and the inferior Orient. He noted how laws, fact-finding missions, books and anecdotal accounts of the ‘Oriental man’ depicted him as a man with low morals, little courage and infinite greed. To understand the European view of Orientals, consider this statement about eighteenth century colonizers: “By the process of Othering, the colonizers treat the colonized as ‘not fully human’, and as a result, it dehumanizes natives. Othering codifies and fixes the self as the true human and the other as other than human. The Colonizers consider themselves as the embodiment of “proper self” while label the colonized as “savages”” (Moosavinia et al, 2011).

It is only in the past century, coinciding with waning European colonialism, that we see the USA involved directly in dealing with the Muslim World. The USA, unlike European countries, was a colony itself and that has had important ramifications for brand of Orientalism it has produced and engendered. Said argues that there never having been American colonies in the Muslim world or other avenues for direct contact with what is thought of as the Orient,  American Orientalism is very indirect and made up of broad abstractions (as opposed to experiences). It is much more an intellectual exercise. It is no surprise then that the line of reasoning used to Otherize Muslims today, is of an intellectual nature. And we see evidence of such Othering in a variety of social expressions.

The first aspect to examine is that of the origin of national myths, dramatic anecdotes or narratives that serve as nations’ symbols. ‘Manifest Destiny’, ‘American Exceptionalism’, ‘Muslim Ummah’, ‘Clash of Civilizations’, ‘Mao’s New Democracy’ are some other examples of political myths. Until modernity, most of such myths were deeply infused in religious morality and/or royal imagery. In modern times, myths are more terrestrial and borne by memorialized heroes and eulogized martyrs. The Orientalist ‘white Savior’ myth, now frequently reviled and discredited, served to posit the greatness of Europe over other continents. A diverse range of characters and organizations have been used to further this notion, starting from the British East India Company to Lawrence of Arabia, from David Livingstone to Tarzan. The so-called ‘USA as the World Police’ or ‘Democratization mission for the Orient’ are newer derivations of this very view.

The latest, shared myth emblazoned on collective memory, began with the destruction of the Twin Towers in the terrorist attack of 11 September, 2001. The blatant attack ‘by Muslims’ was recorded, relayed, interpreted and forever embedded in the global psyche. The story that followed has defied detractors, swept aside scientific evidence and helped legitimize at least one illegal war, to become an enduring instance that epitomizes ‘Muslims vs. America’ sentiments. The post-9/11 political and media narratives clearly articulated that ‘Muslims have attacked America’ (hence, they are not one of us). A second theme that flitted across televisions screens was the notion that Muslims are inherently violent, and as such, may be considered guilty until proven innocent. In the decade that followed 9/11, this myth has dominated the conversation and served as an able wingman to the US national security hegemony.

The power of national myths lies in their extraordinary ability to interpret the past, generate consensus and guide policy. The 9/11 myth has made ‘terrorism’ the dominant framework for illegitimate, political violence. It has inextricably associated terrorism with Muslims. But its greatest achievement may be turning Othering of Muslims into a profitable industry, complete with its own thinkers, producers, advertisers and consumers.

Satirizing the JetBlue profiling incident (illustration:

It is in the shadow of the 9/11 myth that Islamist terrorism started gaining disproportionately high mentions and preventive funding. Until today, the FBI’s ongoing sting operations (targeting Muslim, would-be terrorists) consistently elude the label of ‘entrapment’; mosque trawling programs are authorized. Profiling of Muslim-looking persons is now a recorded practice. Notice how each example serves to overplay crimes committed by Muslims.

A second aspect involves knowledge production. A millennium of overt conflicts between what may be imagined as East and West, starting with the crusades, continuing through colonialism and culminating in WWI, has coincided with a massive imbalance in knowledge production. This was buoyed by Guttenberg’s invention of the printing press. As much as Muslim nations enjoy delving in their glorious past of empire, wealth, knowledge, scientific discovery, art, literature and technology, the plain truth is it is over. The current monopoly on knowledge production operates from the United States and Europe.

The market economy is rapidly privatizing knowledge. Copyrights, patents, closed communities of academics and price tags on journals – among other factors – have created a finite pool of acceptable knowledge that, instead of circulating in society, stands stagnant in echo chambers, offering itself to paying consumers. The price tag gives it legitimacy and the suppression of dissent is completed by labeling everything outside it as fringe or conspiracy theories. To seal the deal, any one not subscribing to this knowledge orthodoxy is not admitted into academia. Presently, this vulnerable body of knowledge is being distorted by corporate motives, leading top oil companies to fund environmental research and pharmaceutical companies to contribute to knowledge that favor their products. In 2005, more than half the scientists at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agreed that “commercial interests have inappropriately induced the reversal or withdrawal of scientific conclusions or decisions through political intervention.” This testifies to frequent political interference in academic work.

It is not difficult to imagine the outcome when strong-willed state agenda meets weakened standards of academic rigor. For example, despite a surge in terrorism research and literature that suggest the opposite, a majority of ‘experts’ and mainstream media continue to treat terrorists as purveyors of mindless violence and devoid of any rational thought (the academic consensus is the exact opposite). This omission of rational motives behind political attacks and insurgency – problematized as terrorism circa 1973 – only magnifies the appearance of irreconcilable ideologies. Today, Terrorism experts constitute an “industry,” funded and organized by the state and other elite interests (Chomsky 2001).

Interpretive Hegemony: the power to ascribe meaning to persons, acts and events is virtually equal to the power to shape the Past.

Terrorism is only one field where Western knowledge production is monopolizing meaning. The history, culture, beliefs, conflicts and wars of the Orient are sometimes described and interpreted by Western ‘experts’. When Western experts are called upon to explain everything from African poverty to the Arab Spring, from Indian gods to Iranian people, it reinforces the interpretive hegemony. ‘Native’ experts are almost always Western educated. The entire system has been made foolproof by the advent of Internet searches, which, theoretically, have the power to limit the spectrum of content accessed by a user.

Another major contributor to knowledge production has been mainstream media and entertainment. The “Top 12 Television Channels in the World” list does not contain a single Eastern name. Besides Al Jazeera, there are very few international news channels that are not based in the West. Media reports use leading questions as their premise, such as are Muslims to blame for terrorism?” or “is the Qur’an inherently violent?” As seen in media reporting of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, by essentializing Muslim perpetrators, their Muslimness is instantaneously held accountable.


It is here that we start to see the processes of demonization (reminder: demonization starts with the under-reporting of good deeds and over-reporting of crimes by a targeted community). According to Dixon and Williams (2014), past research has documented that news programs over-represent African Americans as criminals and over-represent whites as victims and officers (Dixon & Linz, 2000a2000b; Entman&Rojecki, 2000; Gilliam &Iyengar, 2000). A similar, contemporary study reveals that Muslim perpetrators were much more likely to be portrayed as terrorists (81%) than to actually be terrorists in U.S. society (6%)[11]. However, the finding that in the U.K., Muslims give most in charity, ahead of Jew and Christians, is largely ignored in programming.

Fictional content in the realms of art and literature also play their part in Othering. For long, Subcontinental peoples have been portrayed as servile, Africans as ignorant and Middle Easterners as violent. In movies, Muslims are portrayed as villains, traitors and people of low morals in general. The cartoon Aladdin originally featured a song that referred to a place where “they cut off your nose if they don’t like your face”. Shaheen (1997) notes that in contemporary Hollywood movies, Muslims (especially Arabs) were represented as entities trying to get hold of media conglomerates (Network, 1977), demolish the world’s economy (Rollover, 1981), kidnap Western women (Jewel of the Nile, 19850), direct nuclear weapons at Israel and the United States (Frantic, 1988) and influence foreign policies (American Ninja 4:The Annihilation, 1991).

Muslims thus become villains who die at the hands of white heroes. They become physically, militarily and intellectually inferior enemies, backward peoples hungering for the democracy and freedom of the white man, or petty, corrupt warlords and mercenaries without a just cause. They become minions stirred to action only by the likes of T. E. Lawrence.

The movie portrayal of Muslims becomes even more interesting when we consider that governments and intelligence apparatus often directly influence historical/political movies. The CIA regularly organizes tours, provides resources, obtains rewrites of scripts and places former agents as ‘advisors’ on movie-sets. A number of rewrites were requested and obtained by the agency for ‘Zero Dark Thirty’, based on the hunt for and end of Osama Bin Laden. For another example:

“[Former CIA agent BiltBeardon took the advisory role on] Charlie Wilson’s War, the story of US covert efforts to supply the Afghan Mujahideen with weaponry during the Soviet occupation of the 80s. In reality, this was a story that ended badly, as the Afghan freedom fighters helped give birth to the terrorists of al-Qaida. In the movie, however, that was not the case. As Beardon – who had been the CIA man responsible for the weapons reaching the Afghans – observed shortly before the movie came out, the film would “put aside the notion that because we did that [supply arms], we had 9/11″.” (The Guardian, November 14, 2014).

A New Phase of Othering

There’s been a paradigm shift in the Othering campaign.  Anti-Islamic content and acts are not only tacitly allowed, they now have their own market, with financial investments and incentives. Milder forms include sheltering, recognizing and glorifying persons with Muslim heritage who can be utilized to further a broad criticism of Muslim culture and orthodoxies. Salman Rushdie, Ayan Hirsi Ali, TaslimaNasreen and Malala Yousufzai are widely viewed as the faces of dissent-suppression, genital mutilation and general repression of women (respectively) in Muslim countries.

A more virulent form of paid Othering takes place through institutional support for anti-Muslim activities. A study by the Center for American Progress identified seven think tanks and/or charitable foundations that had disbursed US$42.6 million to Islamophobia think tanks over 10 years since 9/11 (Fear, Inc. 2011). These recipients, in turn, draft policy-briefs, write articles, produce documentaries or develop websites that further the ‘America vs. Islam’ narrative. Creeping Shariah Laws and the Ground Zero Megamosque are two stories that stemmed from this very myth.

There is also anecdotal evidence that anti-Muslim initiatives and campaigns receive institutional support. After the Charlie Hebdo massacre, the magazine received more than 30 million Euros in donations – including from states and mega-corporations. It is reasonable to speculate that the expectation – if not the knowledge – that anti-Muslim propaganda will garner funding and/or support – is out there. That is why Jon Ritzheimer, the organizer of the anti-Islam protests in Phoenix, USA in 2015, promptly came out with a plea and a crowdfunding plan. Because he had risked so much in going up against the Muslims, he reasoned, he should receive US$10 million. Whether Ritzheimer got the money is irrelevant. But the fact that he feels so entitled, says something about prevalent expectations from American citizens.

But all of the above is ignored in mainstream conversations. The Islamophobia lens ignores aggression and only purports to address backlash against Muslims. It portrays anti-Muslim aggressors as monsters or deviants, stirred to action by their own bigoted/hateful worldview, but never motivated by group/community sentiments. It steers clear of the terrorism label, designating white perpetrators (such as Stockham, Breivik or Roof) as lone actors or mentally handicapped individuals. The Othering framework, in contrast, recognizes the role of the state in reinforcing xenophobia and thus contributing to unleashing a series of events that are retroactively dubbed ‘Islamophobic’.

Elected to the unenviable position of ‘Global Other’ to the fabled, undefeatable, indefatigable West, the Muslim world has been forced to grapple with its own ancient power vacuums, fractures and ossified myths. While all eyes are on Muslim communities, they will do well to remember that such major shifts in global relations do not come about organically. Such policy shifts have to be conceived, planned and executed with statesman-like vision, general-like strategy, merchant-like wealth and soldier-like strength. What that means is that between two social collectives, heightened rivalry, jingoism and hatred have to be cultivated. This realization has the power to shift popular perception away from the prophets, presidents and propagandists who claim that people’s happiness, freedom and development are constantly being obstructed by faceless nemeses.

It would be a stretch to conceptualize a world without Othering. I hold that, in this regard, Huntington was not too off with the core of his ‘civilizational conflict’ hypothesis.  He and I part ways in our thinking when it comes to the motivation and forces that cause these conflicts. In the end, I think a major thrust comes from economic, not civilizational, forces. Othering is profitable for some. The resulting allegiances, famines, revolutions, sanctions, credit structure and rebuilding profiteering are strong economic incentives. For the power elites – whoever they may be – continuing along the divisive route is the rational choice.

Quick Recap of Key Arguments 

As any patient reader might have noticed, my essay tries to tie together three salient points: there are now global ‘Others’, Otherized not only for ideological or cultural, but also trade and cooperation reasons. This is indicative of a strong hegemony of thought on the global stage and, with the possible exception of the Nazi Party, never have so few done so much to demonize so many. Islamophobia singles out alleged criminals like Craig Hicks (the Chapel Hill shooter, 2015), labeling them as monsters and aberrations. But the Othering framework takes into account the role of state machinery in creating requisite environments and fomenting xenophobia.

Secondly, the growing xenophobia against Muslims should not be expected to convey meaning all by itself – it is better viewed as part of a pattern of periodic Othering for political motives. Then the flimsy and inadequate construct of ‘Islamophobia’ can be contrasted against historic instances of Othering and thus, perhaps, be understood as a politically motivated campaign on a massive scale. Such a frame – elaborating on the impersonal nature of anti-Muslim matters – could potentially stem impassioned resistance and thus help the ailing stream of conversation between Muslim immigrants and natives. It can also help undermine the radical premise that America is at war with Islam. Thirdly, I touched lightly upon the hegemony of knowledge production and the various means employed to sustain this hegemony. While there are much better informed and argued critical analyses of the ethnocentricity of knowledge production and dissemination, the phenomenon itself forms a part of the Othering framework as propounded in this essay.

Even today, Rohingyas in Myanmar, Tamils in Sri Lanka, Biharis in Bangladesh, Kurds in Iraq, Hazara in Afghanistan, Uighurs in China, Aboriginals in Australia and Canada and dozens other such groups still face grievous discrimination. Unlike the African-American community, their voices are seldom heard.  They are the invisible Others, existing largely to give meaning to the glorious inheritors of their respective lands. There is a systematic process of Othering being planned, financed and executed against each of these groups. Unless this machinery is taken apart and analyzed, we will not understand why societies hate or fear each other so. It is high time we held a mirror to our own faces.


Idiocracy 103: Can Everything Be Right?

Can everything be right?

That’s it. That’s the question. No details, no embellishments. What would you say?

Would you take a minute to consider all those things lurking at the peripheries of your comfort zone? Unabated high-school sex, perhaps? Or underage prostitution? Methamphetamine? Filibustering? How about free porn? Jeggings?

Of course, instead, you will probably ask, “right …according to whom?”

And that muddies it all. When did we, as a species, completely lose trust on our sense of Right and Wrong? Yes, there have been those who said they were channeling ‘Divine Will’ as they unsheathed their swords. And those whose ambition led them to enslave other peoples. Yes, there have been those who partook in private genocides and public murders. And those who have violated people and raped ideas.

But we have gotten so much right: largely stable social settlements with protection, food, amenities, health and education are now either realities or epitomes of aspiration. Our species’ sense of direction has guided us well, though admittedly not without its share of tragic mistakes. But the fact is: death from wars have declined. Commerce is ushering in racial diversity and tolerance. Surely the exceptions should not be cited as examples?

war is declining

And hasn’t History, passing over with its majesty and invincibility, stripped the villains and restored the heroes? Has not Time, with its power to assuage, heal and distance, set the records straight? History is, at best, a short-term possession. In course, the Universe repossesses it.

And say: “Truth has (now) arrived, and Falsehood perished: for Falsehood is (by its nature) bound to perish.” (Qur’an 17:81)

Is it really so inconceivable that the universe may have a line that separates Right and Wrong? I know it is the rational, erudite and sophisticated thing to ask: right, but according to whom? But we know that stealing is wrong. And stealing – the mother of all offenses – is said to manifest itself as burglary (theft of possessions), corruption (theft of currency or salary), perjury (theft of Truth), rape (theft of will, agency & dignity), murder (theft of life) etc.

Theft: the felonious taking and removing of personal property with intent to deprive the rightful owner of it

Sure, it gets confusing with issues like Abortion. Up pops the question of questions: when does Life begin? For a species that barely understands or controls Life, that is quite a presumptuous question. Still we try. For me, this is how it works: if I know that an aircraft will arrive at the terminal in two hours, but I don’t know if it’s airborne yet, then the logical choice would be to assume that it’s in the air. Likewise, if I know that a new life will arrive on or around a predetermined day, but I fail to ascertain whether such Life has already been initiated, then the logical choice would be to accept that the Life exists right now. It existed from the moment it was promised, from the moment it was heralded. Till we know more.

But let’s leave the difficult ones aside. Let’s think simple. If ‘theft’ is the mother, then the father of all wrongdoing is lying (presumably, to cover up the stealing). True and false are the oldest binary and are seldom open to interpretation outside the realm of Philosophy. If you declare that Christopher Columbus was the first man to reach America, you are lying. If you say you are 150 years old, you are probably lying. If you just wrote that you are an astronaut on some online form, I’d guess you were lying. However well my knowledge (or lack thereof) may verify your claims, the truth is that your statements are either true or false.

But the reality is very different. There is a mantra being aggressively marketed. It is this:

Everything right should be legal; Everything wrong should be illegal.

This is an unspoken premise of human societies, which before they could create massive societies, early humans had establish. It is this truism that leads us to still unquestioningly accept laws passed on our behalf. Seldom do we question the merit or morality of laws of the land. But in a switch-and-bait move, what we are handed in the name of ‘right’, is ‘legal’. And that’s good enough for a world that has forgotten to test the veracity of legislation.

These days, ‘Legality’ functions like a young, hillbilly, trigger-happy cousin of ‘Righteousness’. Both come from the same family of human values: permissiveness, but ‘Legality’ just doesn’t have that old stamp of moral authority. We don’t argue with things that are quite likely wrong, but somehow also legal. There are now governments that can have own citizens taken out; murdered. Made to sleep with the fishes; without a trial too. Think about that.

In our world, apartheid still thrives. It is now okay to detain and torture people without charges. The reason why there is no great hue and cry is because half a dozen conglomerates are deemed fit to effectively tailor our information. Commercial elites have usurped premiere institutions of knowledge and use it to fortify their businesses. Corporations are given the right to harm consumers and farmers.


Without condoning, I can understand a world with terrorism, insurgency and violent revolutions. These actions are enacted by fringe minorities. But broad-based acceptance of government misconduct, favoritism, crony capitalism, cover-up and persecution is unacceptable. We all know Right from Wrong. In the rare case that we don’t, Apathy will suffice. But Apathy will not suffice when wrongdoing, disguised in legal robes, passes as right. What is wrong, is wrong.

Ferrywallahs: Development and Vanishing Trades

You know what’s a great proxy indicator for a nation’s state of Development? Ferrywallahs! Yup, ferrywallahs (also, ‘feriwala’s). In case you don’t know what that is, let me explain.

In Bangladesh and possibly, the rest of the subcontinent, Ferrywallahs are door-to-door salesmen. Or street-peddlers. From what I remember of the 1980s, I can still conjure up a man – visibly hard-up and humbled – ferrying his thousand wares around the serpentine alleys and gulleys of Dhaka. This is the archetypical ferrywallah, ubiquitous, familiar, trustworthy, servile and grateful. The yoke would land on his shoulders from early in the morning. On either end he’d tie a basket or a cloth-bag to place his wares. If he’s not that affluent, he would heave a single, bamboo basket up on to his head and start the rounds. He knew to stick to a fixed route: you see, there was a honor-code dividing up the metropolis into chunks serviced by a specific set of ferrywallahs.


Young ferrywallah selling bananas. (Photo: Nicholas Rapp)

Walking up and down alleyways lined by unambitious buildings, yelling out a singsong description of his wares, he’d look to windows for a familiar face. And there were plenty. They’d beckon him through the window and ask to see his spoils. He knew the mothers and wives. He knew what color bangles they liked and what their financial dealings were like. He knew exactly when the brat from the blue, tin-shed house would start a tantrum demanding pickles. He knew for whom the young girl from 14/B kept buying stationery and wooden pencils.


“Feriwala” photo by: Tanveer Hassan Rohan, Flickr used under CC 2.0

There were, of course, types of street-peddlers. The boring, but most awaited, ones peddled gourds, spinach and radishes. The elite ones brought around salt-water sprinkled fish: carps, eels and catfish. Some ferrywallahs sold pink, spherical cotton-candies in glass-boxes. Some had balls of cheese and traditional flat-breads. Glass bangles, hair-ribbons and mirrors were the prime merchandize of others. Some would even drag in enormous, writhing beehives – freshly smoked and plucked from some tree in the southerly mangrove forests.

Whatever he was peddling, the one thing that no ferrywallah ever forgot was the measuring scale. Anything you bought, would be measured in front of your eyes. It would be done with a clan of iron weights, called batkharas. Each weight was a testament to the ferrywallah’s honesty and his compliance with Islamic Law that strictly forbids sellers from tinkering with weights and volumes.

I had some favorites among the ferrywallahs. Some offered triangular, savory pastries in glass boxes and fried-batter strips splattered with sugar, locally known as Kotkoti. The girls’ favorite was the pickle-seller, smelling of tamarind and syrup. My absolute favorite was the cheese-seller, who would invariably cut me a slice of his salted farmers’ cheese. I would sample from multiple balls, before finally delivering a verdict on the purchase.

Over time, regular ferrywallahs would become like extensions of a household – engaged in the affairs of the family, running errands, dropping children to school, sourcing items for the mistress, making demands of snacks or tea and becoming privy to domestic secrets. They’d sometimes take payment in old recyclable paper and weren’t shy to ask for a loan from the mistress / master of the house.


Ferrywallahs are by no means a dying breed. But they have certainly evolved. Those who do come around, don’t have time for little packets of pickle or cotton-candy (i.e. items priced as low as 10 cents). The margin just isn’t worth their while anymore. Bangladesh’s per capita income has almost reached US$1000. Now you need higher volume, greater margins to get ferrywallahs out of their homes.


The modern ‘batkhara’ or weights no longer measure the unimpeachable integrity of the ferrywallahs; instead they are certified by the state’s Standard Testing Agency.

They come with fish, chicken and calculators. Reassuring other patrons over cellphones, they insist that you buy in bulk and do it quickly. Not only do they not need loans from you, they will extend a line of credit to you. The ferrywallah of 2015 doesn’t have time for bargaining or small-talk. He has been well integrated into the rat-race. And it’s the trade that has turned more impersonal. Besides, security guards in urban apartment complexes don’t like allowing ferrywallahs inside the compound. There isn’t enough time or space for him and his baskets.

The economic standing of the ferrywallah has improved – they can afford to hold out for higher profits. They can follow route-maps and schedule visits. And that in its self is a functional indicator of how these people, from the demographic pyramid-base, have experienced economic growth. But what also becomes clear is that street-peddlers’ (and many other lowly professions’) social standing hasn’t come far. The stigma of going door-to-door peddling wares is still strong. Even in the case of an indispensable service.

The trade is facing serious competition: reinforcing the argument that the ferrywallahs’ service is a vital one. There are now online entrepreneurs promising to save you the trouble of dealing with busy, inconvenient ferrywallahs: just click on the items you want, enter quantities and you can pay cash on delivery. In a world that is increasingly inclined to avoid face-to-face interaction, the online option is gaining in popularity. As market transactions turn more and more impersonal and people increasingly choose to hide behind their screens, small trades like that of the ferrywallahs will be sorely missed. Perhaps it is a longing for a bygone time.

Perhaps it is a hunger for human interactions.