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Brexit And The Global Distrust Of Difference

30/06/2016 8:28 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:27 AM IST
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A European Union (EU) flag, left, and a British Union Flag, also know as a Union Jack, stand at a foreign exchange brokerage in Tokyo, Japan, on Friday, June 24, 2016. The pound tumbled with the euro and U.K. equity index futures after early results from Britain's referendum on membership of the European Union put the 'Leave' campaign ahead, suggesting the risk of a so-called Brexit is greater than opinion polls implied. Photographer: Tomohiro Ohsumi/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Great civilizations arise from the confluence of different cultures. Sadly, recent trends suggest that there is an inward turn amongst people of various countries and indeed religions right across the world. Increasing financial insecurity, political short-sightedness and social instability inevitably create an atmosphere in which scapegoats are sought and pegs desperately searched for in order to find someone to blame. The most recent example of this was the Brexit vote in the UK, but by no means is this something that is anomalous. From India to America, there seems to be unwillingness amongst politicians to engage with real issues, and huge amounts of money and effort are spent on persuading the electorate of the dangers of enemies they cannot see. The "enemy" that is responsible, not only for their present misery but in some cases for their centuries of misfortune. People are told, therefore, that this enemy must be hunted out and taught a lesson and that if this perennial foe is vanquished then an age of "greatness" shall return.

The Brexit vote seems to have been less about the EU and more about opposing immigration.

A cursory analysis of the Leave campaign in Britain and moreover the distinct, indeed brazen, increase in racist and anti-immigration rhetoric post the vote seems to suggest that many voters were misled into believing that the referendum was only about immigration rather than the complex set of legal, political and economic ties that characterize EU membership. The Brexit vote seems to have been less about the EU and more about opposing immigration. Nigel Farage, the smug leader of the UK Independence Party (UKIP), has blamed everything on immigrants, from the traffic on the motorways to trouble in the NHS to multi-lingual train carriages. Oddly, he also blamed migrants for anti-Semitism while his own party was booked for an anti-immigration poster that was almost a clear lift from Nazi propaganda. Not one to be left behind, Boris Johnson, while clearly trying to outdo Trump's hair, is far from the jolly, eccentric, bumbling old codger that he would like to portray himself as. Indeed his dog-whistle politics is even more pernicious than poor Nigel's. He insinuated that the EU was akin to Hitler's plans of conquering Europe and in a rebuttal of Obama's sage advice that Britain should not leave the EU, said that Obama's opposition to Britain may be because he is part-Kenyan and so might have that old post-colonial chip on his shoulder.

Meanwhile, across the pond things don't seem to be much better and indeed, perhaps the Brexit vote is a small indication of the possibility of a Trump win. The very people who were criticizing Trump last year are now, because of the lure of power, busy churning out more "sophisticated" analyses of a man who is patently mercenary and blatantly racist. As has been widely reported, Trump not only makes deplorably bigoted statements but indeed wilfully manipulates and distorts the truth. Actually, even that is a tad too lenient. The truth is, he lies. For instance, in the aftermath of the Orlando killings, without blinking, he claimed Omar Mateen was "an Afghan born in Afghan," and this is someone who gets classified intelligence briefings because he is a presidential candidate. Apart from this, there've been countless occasions when he has spoken of banning Muslims from entering the US and advocated the building of a wall to keep "rapist" and "drug-dealing" Mexicans out of America, amongst other things. Of course, anti-immigration rhetoric is not new to America and the writings of John Tanton, founder of various fora to keep America White -- though they never overtly say this -- bear testament to the fact that there is a deep latent streak of racism in certain parts of American society, albeit somewhat tempered until now, at least in national politics.

Instead of being told to leave, [minorities in India] are asked to return... to the faith of their "Hindu ancestors".

A hop, skip and a jump away, in India, the rhetoric of Trump has such appeal that a group of right-wing nationalists have decided to start praying fervently for his victory because he is their "hope for humanity." But, of course, such adulation is not surprising in a country where politicians from the ruling party regularly call for action against minorities -- a euphemism mostly for Muslims and Christians, because apparently Sikhs and Jains are just assumed to be different kinds of Hindus rather than members of separate religious traditions. Of course, the kinds of "immigration" problems that these politicians talk about go back centuries to the time when Muslims "conquered" India. Unfortunately for them, unlike Trump, they cannot say these people will have to leave. Apart from that little hurdle called the Constitution, the inevitable question would be: but leave to where? There are those who point out that the Arabian Sea is rather conveniently located off the coast of India but others came out with an ingenious alternative. Instead of being told to leave, they are asked to return. Where to, you ask, considering the moment of departure was some centuries ago? Well, in this case to the faith of their "Hindu ancestors". Of course, this has not prevented some politicians like Sakshi Maharaj, Babu Lal, Yogi Adityanath, Vinay Katiyar and other members of the ruling BJP party from making provocative and prejudiced speeches about India's "minorities" and how they should be packed off to Pakistan.

Messrs. and Mmes. Farage, Trump, Maharaj, Le Pen and others are no different from the people who recently assassinated the famous Sufi musician Amjad Sabri in Pakistan...

The global rise of this kind of divisive politics has a number of explanations but one of the most important among them has to be the wilful manipulation of the electorate by a nexus of visionless politicians and a fickle and reckless media. Combined with the anti-intellectualism that is the hallmark of a kind of politics that thrives on insecurity and resentment, this politics of fear cannot survive without evoking the spectre of "hoards" of outsiders ready to snatch away jobs, housing, progress and even life. The worldview of the politicians who use this kind of divisive rhetoric is circumscribed by the self-righteous conceit that there can be no other point of view. In this, Messrs. and Mmes. Farage, Trump, Maharaj, Le Pen and others are no different from the people who recently assassinated the famous Sufi musician Amjad Sabri in Pakistan. His killers viewed the world through a single lens. They targeted his art as much as the artist because his music bore testimony to the fact that there is no clash of civilizations. It was proof that the confluence of cultures and the intermingling of different influences is what leads to a more harmonious and vibrant society. Much like a body needs different kinds of nutrients, a healthy society also needs a multiplicity of voices. It is only when people, often in search of some mythic point of origin or some uncorrupted authenticity, try to purge themselves of foreign influence that societies begin to atrophy and fall apart. The histories of America, England and India bear testament to the way in which immigration and an openness to new influences have led to dynamic and innovative societies. However, in a country like Pakistan, forever in search of an elusive authenticity, this thrust towards homogenization has led to a fractured polity where any "deviation" from what is popularly sanctioned can get you killed. For how long will we continue to distrust difference?

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