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THE OTHER HALF

Terror and identity

By Kalpana Sharma

After 7/7, `the discussion taking place in Britain today is equally relevant in India where too often an entire community has been blackened for the acts of a few individuals'.


`The surprise and lack of comprehension about why young men would blow themselves up in this manner, taking with them scores of others, is also something that dominated the discussions in the media.'



IN REMEMBRANCE: Vigil at Trafalgar Square, London. PHOTO: AFP

A DAY after the London suicide bombings of July 7, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) ran an interesting comment by a young Muslim who works for the channel. He recounted how within a week his identity morphed from rock fan, to Londoner to Muslim. On Saturday July 2, he was one of thousands of young people who turned up to listen to an impressive line-up of rock musicians perform at "Live 8", the concert initiated by Bob Geldof and Bono as part of the Make Poverty History Campaign. Television cameras picked out his face as he stood straining against the fence in the very front row of the concert. His was the only Asian face in that row. That day he was just another rock fan.

On July 6, he felt a Londoner as he celebrated with the others the city's successful bid to host the Olympics in 2012. Colour, community, class did not seem to matter. Everyone who rejoiced thought of themselves primarily as citizens of a world city.

But on July 7, he said, he was reminded of the fact that he was a Muslim. Suddenly, in a few hours, none of his previous associations seemed to matter. The only credential that anyone noticed was the fact of his being a Muslim.

Most women can relate to this. Just when you think you are accepted as a professional, for instance, something happens to remind you that your principal identity is that of a woman — and therefore, also, a subordinate.

Media soul-searching

London was an interesting place to be in for more reasons than one in the week after the bombings. The media was full of soul-searching. How could British-born and bred Asians become suicide bombers? How did no one notice? Were intelligence agencies asleep on the job? Is there really any way to pre-empt suicide bombings? Are the British too liberal? Have they given too much freedom to even those who preach violence? What is too much freedom?

In many ways the questions are valid for all our societies. Does a liberal atmosphere allow extremism to grow? Or are the factors that govern such actions beyond the specifics of the country and its political system? After all, extremism in one form or another exists in practically every country. It matters little whether these countries are democracies or dictatorships.

The surprise and lack of comprehension about why young men would blow themselves up in this manner, taking with them scores of others, is also something that dominated the discussions in the media. But should people be surprised? They are because politics does not dominate the lives of the majority of people living in the West. They are likely to get far more agitated on questions relating to consumerism than politics. Therefore, to see people who are willing to act on their convictions, and even to die for them, appears not just extremely strange but completely incomprehensible.

Stereotyping

The media has not necessarily helped in bridging the gap in understanding even as the plot unravels of how these four men got together to bring London to a standstill. While the print media carried many thoughtful articles and different points of view, television tended to oversimplify and often stereotype. For instance, within days of the bombing, the BBC had a discussion about Islam and women on its news programme. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the controversial Somalian woman, now a member of the Dutch parliament, was interviewed. Hirsi Ali has renounced Islam and has written a book, based on which a 10-minute film, "Submission", was shown on Dutch TV last August. It had images of semi-nude women, with visible marks of injury, on whom specific verses from the Koran relating to women were super-imposed. The film caused an uproar and a few months after it was telecast, its director, Theo van Gogh was murdered on the streets of Amsterdam. So why, when the authorities in Britain, and the police in particular, were going to great lengths to delink the religion from the terrorist acts would a television channel want to initiate a discussion on Islam and women?

While Hirsi Ali appeared on the screen without a headscarf or any other covering, the other woman interviewed was a British-born Asian Muslim woman who wore the hijab. Only her eyes could be seen. Although she opposed Hirsi Ali's interpretation of the Koran, one wonders whether the viewer heard her words. For the visual medium endorses views through images. And the image you came away with was that of a beautiful Somalian woman speaking of violence against women, illustrated by stills from her film, and a hijab-wearing Muslim woman whose words seemed to drown in her appearance.

It is precisely this kind of oppositional representation that reinforces stereotypes. Given that the terror suspects are home-grown Asian British, who went to English schools and lived in very English neighbourhoods, can the problem be understood by superficial aspects such as dress? Repeatedly, the British press mentioned that one or the other of the suicide bombers sometimes wore traditional clothes. Yet, many Asians living in Britain switch from one kind of clothing to another almost without thinking about it. As they have grown in confidence in terms of their identity, they feel no sense of apology about wearing traditional clothes. That choice does not necessarily reflect a mindset.

The discussion taking place in Britain today is equally relevant for us in India where too often an entire community has been blackened for the acts of a few individuals. The one positive that has emerged from the tragedy is that it is forcing ordinary Britons to ask difficult questions. The media can contribute to an honest search for answers if it frees itself of the set formula of opposites.

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