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We are in the middle of a decisive ‘clash of civilisations’

“What do you think of Western civilisation?” Mahatma Gandhi was once asked, to which he responded, tongue firmly in cheek, “It would be a very good idea”.

The paper-thin veneer of Western civilisation, the insularity of Western culture, are now exposed in the wake of a handful of terrorist incidents, and fatalities that are a fraction of the numbers racked up in other theatres, including India. For decades, the West has preached tolerance and ‘human rights’ to others who were struggling against terrorism, warning against the dangers of ‘overreaction’. But at the first signs of trouble in their own neighbourhood, we find racism and excess embedded in official responses, a rising paranoia and hysteria, encouraged by state agencies, and resort to deeply offensive measures that reflect racial and religious profiling. ‘Civilisation’ is obviously much easier when you have nothing at risk.

Authorities in the West have sought to rationalise such profiling on the grounds that “these are extraordinary times”. Shortly after the 7/7 bombings in London, the chief constable of the British Transport Police justified discriminatory stop-and-search procedures arguing, “We should not waste time searching old white ladies.”

The bigotry of racial and religious profiling, when systematically embedded into law, the enforcers’ mindset and the security establishment, is deeply counter-productive, indeed potentially tragic in its consequences. This is, of course, a moral issue, an issue of human dignity and rights; but it is even more urgently a practical and strategic issue.

Racial and religious profiling is, quite simply, inefficient. It alienates entire communities, and shuts down crucial sources of intelligence. It adds disproportionately to workload, without adding to flow of information about arrests. As one scholar said, “If it’s a question of finding a needle in a haystack ... don’t put more hay on the top.”

Indeed, obsession with appearances or with a specific ethnic or religious group have often diverted attention from real perpetrators who did not conform to the investigators’ prejudices. Studies have demonstrated that when police use race or ethnic appearance as a factor in law enforcement, their accuracy in catching criminals diminishes. Such procedures, in fact, demonstrate little more than the incompetence, the ignorance and the prejudice of enforcement authorities.

It is useful to remind ourselves that there are over 1.3 billion Muslims in the world, and the terrorists are only a minuscule minority among them. You cannot ‘criminalise’ a fifth of humanity because of the actions of a few among them. Counter-terrorism demands the use of force, but it must be focused, surgical, visiting devastation on the guilty, but seeking never to harm the innocent.

We are in the middle of a decisive ‘clash of civilisations’, but this is not Huntington’s clash between ‘religious civilisations’, between Muslim and Christian (or non-Muslim). It is, rather, a clash between civilisation and barbarism within each community, each nation. It was barbarism that won when over 300 Muslims were detained without cause in the aftermath of the Mumbai train bombings; when the London Police shot an innocent Brazilian man dead after the 7/7 bombings; when American rednecks attacked and killed ‘Arab-looking men’ (including Sikhs) after the 9/11 terrorist strikes. And it was barbarism that won on Flight NW 0042 at Amsterdam.

(Published in Daily News & Analysis, Mumbai, August 27, 2006)






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