The Romance of Extremism
When I closed this blog in 2010 to devote my time to charity projects, I felt I had to reopen it in 2013 to blog about the Gezi Park Protests in Istanbul, because the brutality with which the authorities treated their own citizens was barbaric. I witnessed it firsthand, and "enjoyed" some of the new Turkish hospitality in these extreme times.
But I also warned people, ready to jump on a bandwagon of anti-Turkish bias, that Gezi Park was a trigger response perfectly fitted to our times. With riots in Stockholm sparking off in the same month as Gezi Park, this wasn't a scene unique to the streets of Istanbul, but rather a disease of division infecting us all. Shortly thereafter, as if on cue, riots in Paris, Belfast, Sao Paulo, and Los Angeles broke out.
All their causes were different, but the anger of the mob was the same: It was directed at the authorities. This is, however, what made the police attacks on Gezi Park more insidious, and distinguished them from most of the rest. The Gezi Park protesters had been a peaceful gathering of environmentalists wanting to save some of the city's trees from the government's urbanisation drive. They were not rioting when police authorities decided to pepper spray them.
It was this complete lack of respect for the right to peaceful protest that quickly escalated the Gezi Park protests into a riot. The then prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, spun some "Bush baloney" and instead of putting a hand up and apologising for the actions of the trigger happy police authorities, turned the protests into an attack on the government - sponsored by "foreign powers" - to get the popular vote on his side.
Naturally, the world's media - especially European and American media - latched onto Erdoğan's ludicrous actions with reports that were, even in my opinion, breathtakingly biased. Where there was no foreign sponsorship, such shoddy journalism from even the most reputable news sources further entrenched in Erdoğan's brain that there was; where there had been no protest against the government, now there was a full blown riot, hijacked by different protest groups to take advantage of the global glare to stroke anti-Turkish sentiment. And innocent people - the young amongst them - died, not for a few trees, but for the want of common sense.
I tried to explain this at the time of the Gezi protests; I emailed BBC correspondents about the bias in their reports. I reminded them how in England we were still trying to come to terms with the riots in 2011, in what was the biggest display of civil unrest in the United Kingdom for 30 years - kicked off by what seemed to be unprovoked police brutality. In response I was told that we never use water cannons on our own public. I replied that we do: The British government has an arsenal of water cannons they use in Northern Ireland. Is it not part of the UK?Unsurprisingly, they didn't respond. Not long after, the issue of using water cannons in England and Wales was raised when three of them were bought by the Metropolitan Police Force. I'm not suggesting I have the gift of foresight: But if we are to hold a mirror up to others, we have to consider how it reflects on ourselves. The use of water cannon on English soil has been vetoed for now, but top police officers are still arguing for their legitimacy, and the veto was more likely a result of partisan politics than the upholding of civil liberties.
Similarly the mirror of American freedom is cracked with police brutality and racial profiling in North America, and the rising black body count in recent years. A Guardian investigation shows that the rate of US police killings project 1,100 deaths for 2015, with black Americans twice as likely to die. The number of black people is disproportionately high among victims, especially unarmed ones. And we can turn those numbers into names. Freddie Gray died whilst being transported under mysterious circumstances, Alesia Thomas was kicked to death, 12-year-old Tamir Rice shot whilst playing with a toy gun, and many more.
The argument that blacks commit more crimes, or that the media is somehow only reporting black deaths is white conservative myth making at its finest. I can hear the placid insanity of Erdoğan in their tone. If anything, I would charge US mainstream media without having the balls to take a sincere swipe at institutionalised racism in America, as sincerely as they do with Turkey. Turkish administrations have never been known for their respect of human rights, but doesn't it seem the world is quickly falling to the level of these barbaric Turks Hollywood so accurately portrayed in "Midnight Express"?
Let's ignore how Turkish prisons are stays at the Hilton compared to the US prison system. Well they have to be: The Turkish government only imprisons children, peaceful demonstrators, writers and journalists, not the criminal horde of murdering blacks the US has to contend with, right? But all sarcasm aside, when such cracks show, why don't our assumptions splinter along with the shattered mirrors we hold up to other countries? We all live in the glass house of our biases, after all.
Istanbul Pride: Muslims can get real bitchy during the Ramadan fast
I'll be the first to admit mine: I was happily surprised by the Conservative's veto of using water cannon against rioters in England and Wales (in Istanbul you still just have to walk out on the wrong day as Gay Pride marchers found out). However this is not so much of a personal bias, more of a political one: It feels out of character for a newly elected administration that is becoming increasingly extreme right-wing - especially when you look at their other proposals.
The Government have unveiled controversial plans which would potentially allow the Government to ban instant messaging services such as WhatsApp, iMessage and Facebook Messenger, while their welfare cuts will entrench child poverty and widen deprivation levels. And in a plot twist, the BBC are taking an unprecedented open stance against the government over proposals for deep financial cuts to the corporation. Some suggest the proposed cuts are an executive punch below the waist, because the TV arm of the corporation was believed to be anti-government during the national elections.
No, this isn't Turkey or Iran. This is the UK. And in this new UK, Prime Minister David Cameron has been setting out the government's strategy to defeat the "poison" of Islamist extremism in Britain. The strange thing is that the proposals for engagement are all rational, measured and necessary, it's just Cameron's hard sell is controversial. This white, privileged descendant of slaveowners, rather than put his hand up and acknowledge any responsibility for the current state of the world to introduce some sensible actions on how to curb extremism, has chosen to use the route of his other right-wing counterparts, George W. Bush and Erdoğan, to scaremonger.
Although, possibly not so strange: Cameron needs the spectre of Islamic extremism to justify his views, and his reason for being in public office. Government scaremongering and extremism have always been bedfellows: After all a lot of genocides have been excused by the necessity of national security during times of war. But such a sick co-dependent relationship cannot conclude by surgically removing one half from the other; there is no economical means of division. One must brutally obliterate the other, but in doing so obliterate the reason for its own existence. It's not only indicative of mental imbalance on both sides, but their actions simply serve to hold themselves up as reflections of one another.
In this fight, according to Cameron, people must challenge the view that people become radicalised because of historic injustices or recent wars. Cameron, in an amazing weak grasp of history, believes we should be reminded that 9/11 happened before the Iraq War. But the reality is there was an American excursion before 2003, and the issue is that the second invasion shouldn't have happened at all - or, at least, not because of an unrelated terrorist attack that was half a century in the making.
In his own bungling way, Cameron is trying to say extremism has existed for a long time - the fascination with fascism by German youth, for example - and that we need to attack the ideology of extremism itself. This we must do, but we can't do it if we're in denial, and refuse to hold a mirror up to ourselves. There were fans of Nazism in the British ruling classes and the royal family, and although I have never understood the attraction, there clearly is one for a mind attuned to its vibrancy, and it needs to be researched.
It definitely is an issue we need to tackle alongside authoritarianism: At least 700 Britons have travelled to Syria and over half have since returned home, posing a significant security threat by planning attacks on US and UK interests. It also bites that many of these individuals have taken advantage of a welfare system that used to be the envy of the world. And make no mistake, we will prosecute them to the full extent of the law. But to suggest that recent and historic events haven't majorly contributed to the rise in Islamic extremism, and to focus on the religion as the problem is a dangerous route to take, unless you're willing to force the spotlight of scrutiny on all religion.
Personally, I am critical of all organised religion; I'm not shying away from criticising Islam. This isn't about bowing to cultural sensitivity, it's about neutralising extremism. You don't do that by reinforcing its extremist ideals with extreme actions of your own. If you believe you can, then you're the other half of a sick, abusive relationship. And those who Muslim-bash by holding the majority responsible for the actions of a few need to know it's the sign of an unhealthy mind. It's called projecting: If black people started to treat all white 21-year-olds as though they were waiting on a trigger to enter a church and massacre them after Dylann Roof, black people would be seen as mentally unhinged.
Moreover, to those British Islamophobes who argue that these religious extremists aren't Buddhists, Christians, Hindus or Jews, I say, true. But the prime minister of your country hasn't just inadvertently declared war on Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism or Judaism, either - simply because it's politically expedient to use fear to win the popular vote, à la Erdoğan.
The saddest part is that Cameron is using tough rhetoric because it works. He can't be seen to under sell the proposals; it has to look like he is ready to go twelve rounds with the culprit Islam for the majority to buy it. He even used a "Bushism" or nonsensical phrase of his own to say we must be wary of those who preach non-violent extremism. There is no such thing. Being truly non-violent is not an extreme, it's a rejection of all extremes. Was Mahatma Gandhi a non-violent extremist who wanted to free his nation and his land from British rule?
If extremists today are being converted to Islam, it isn't because other religions are more tolerant or less violent or open to fundamentalist ideals than Mohammedan teachings - it's because it has been given a cause. An insane, misguided, terribly deluded one, but it's all people hellbent on causing destruction need. And the politics of fear plays into it: Cameron is merely helping the recruitment drive, and I hope in another ten years history won't judge that we were just as much to blame.
This is why Barack Obama, whether we agree he fulfilled his potential or not, is like a breath of fresh air to me. With the black bodies piling up in the "justifiable homicide" rates, Obama displayed dignity and calm, not anger and fear. He admitted he saw himself in those victims, but he did not seek a white supremacist extremist view as culprit. Yet, Obama's presidential call for "appropriate oversight" in public institutions and in private continues to go unheeded, because we have become addicted to hate and fear.
Or maybe it's because he is a person of colour: Let's play the blame game like Cameron and see where it leads us. Currently white people, like Cameron, like a lot of people in America, seem on a drive to stop blaming everything on past injustices and point the finger at people of colour who've "never had it so good" instead - which simply reinforces the image of a racist, white privileged world view. The extreme of this view takes us down the route of picking up a gun and shooting nine innocent black people in a church, as happened in Charleston.The white world view is also a gag on anyone who wants to present an opposing view. Why shouldn't we talk about historic crimes? Or why should we be made to feel unpatriotic for doing so? The encroachment of civil liberties doesn't have a pass depending on your race or religion; political policy isn't good because its American, or the same policy made bad because its Turkish, or vice versa.
I mean are we really going to continue down this route and say the main reason Republicans have been so unprecedentedly critical of their Democratic president is because of the colour of his skin, and not the character of his politics? A healthy mind should be able to differentiate between those who just want to spread racial anti-sentiment and those who care about human rights. If you can't tell the difference between constructive criticism and hate-talk, then you might just want to check yourself for extremist views. Lay down your biases, or at least keep them in check. Don't let them get in the way of your dialogue with the truth or people different than you.
I hope that in the distant future, if these words of mine are still read, people will cringe when they read the words "black" and "white" attributed to race and human beings, as much as I have cringed writing them. It's when we try and divide the world into such divisive camps that we allow for the culture of extremism to breed and authoritarians to rise. It's then - when there really is no side to take - that we must take sides, else it threatens our very freedom to live by personal choice, and not public opinion or religious persecution.
It's for this reason we still haven't gotten past historic injustices, because we haven't talked about them enough across our divisions to fully understand the disease it spreads. Else, why does America lobby to get historical genocides by other nation-builders recognised if, by the argument they use today for their past injustices, no one who suffered them is alive anymore? If historic crimes are a non-issue, then in another generation will we be telling the Jewish nation to get over the Holocaust?
I sincerely hope not, because it doesn't take a huge leap of the imagination to see economically disgruntled nations, ignorant of their past, hearding their Muslim minorities into concentration camps next. I often hear people Muslim-bash and then say in the next breath that you can't be racist against a religion, but I say intolerance connects them. Talking about the inequality between colour and creed in the same breath is not a case of confusing the issues: Intolerance is the issue.
Likewise, there is a concept often used in critical theories to describe the ways in which oppressive institutions (racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, xenophobia, classism, etc.) are interconnected and cannot be examined separately from one another known as intersectionality. I believe religion is similar: Religion is not only the source for most of these expressions of hate, but their followers can also be the victims of their own self-expression. If they attack the freedom of one religious belief, they inevitably erode the freedom of their own.This is a warning for Muslims as much as for Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists and any faith you care to mention. There were pockets of times in the ancient past where you did all get on together before extremism reared its ugly head. But if you're going to say there's one rule for you, and another for others, then don't expect rational people to take you seriously. If you are going to murder innocent people for your beliefs then no one in their right frame of mind is going to listen to you. Your religion isn't meant to give you moral superiority or right of dominion over others, it's meant to provide your personal life with purpose. It's not for you to impose on a free public how they should live.
This widespread intolerance is what creates divisions in society, and all the destructive forces that stem from it. And as you can't have one rule for yourself, and another rule for others, you can't have reconciliation without proper dialogue, or without the acknowledgment that nothing happens in a vacuum. We need to recognise before we can apologise. Moreover, this doesn't mean we should excuse our crimes because we are as bad as each other, I am saying we are each other. We are our past. It's all connected. We are all connected. Without that understanding, there can be no proper examination of our human history. And if we don't talk about our past, we are cursed to repeat it.
Ten years ago I wrote on this blog that the world is ours: We should care about the world we live in, and care about other countries as though they were our own. I didn't mean we should interfere with the internal governments of other countries to impose our political or cultural views on them (note to the US: especially not for personal gain). I meant we should see those different colours as we see our own. When America hurts, so do I. When England is in national pain, it injures me so deeply I can't stand it.
And I can be as cranky and snidey about American and British issues as I am with Turkish and Cypriot ones without a trace of anti-sentiment, because whether they accept me or not (and they do), I am their child. As I see them as my own, my biases are already down when I rant about them. I am out of my glass house; I don't bother holding up a mirror I know is already cracked.
And I know that slavery, inhumanity and war hasn't been exclusive to the white race, because there is no such thing. I recognise only the human race, with all the different and beautiful colours and cultures and creeds that have evolved throughout our shared history. I don't want those differences to disappear; we just have to stop seeing them as divisions, but as an impetus to build bridges to one another.
And isn't that really what we call love? The will of life bringing together opposites? For the masculine and feminine of our minds to merge, to knit and forge new life? Wherever there is an absence of this, that is where you'll find the shadow of extremism - and its sick romance with authoritarianism. As Gezi Park and the other 2013 riots show, they both bring out the worst in each other; they can neither do with nor without each other.
They are not the true reflections of human nature; merely the distortions caused by the ripples of stones thrown into the pond. For even though we may willfully commit acts against our better judgment, against our best interests, in the pursuit of something or someone we love, real love gives life, it doesn't take it.