A few days ago, I shared a link on my social media profiles about a recent spate of violence against Hindus in Bangladesh. I was extremely saddened to see that a country that became independent on the morals of secularism and religious tolerance had turned into a breeding ground for communal violence and fear. My friends happen to share my opinion so I personally received no condemnation. However, the website that produced that article became the unfortunate location of a heated debate. Anyone who defended the website and cried out against the oppressive regime of Islamic extremism that seems to be slowly gripping the country was instantly branded an infidel. The word atheist – with the implication of a lack of spiritual faith being tantamount to a lack of morals – was bandied about. On the other hand, anyone who defended Islam, the real religion and not the twisted version spewed by the haters, was branded a fundamentalist or a terrorist. Never mind that most of them did not use any violent language or spew any death threats.
This instinctive categorisation of people into claustrophobic binaries pitted against each other is nothing new. The great European powers used the “Divide and Conquer” tactic to ensure imperialism would last for centuries. Modern day politicians use the same strategy with devastating effectiveness. On a completely harmless level, ask any student in a British university what type of degree they are studying and they will either say Arts (a.k.a. the flaky sentimentalists) or Science (a.k.a the uncultured philistines). It is easy, almost reassuring, to be able to identify someone as similar to you or as part of the (sometimes hostile) other. And while it may be harmless enough on a superficial level, like the Arts-versus-Science banter common in university pubs and libraries, it is one of the most damaging aspects of modern day socio-political discourse.
Going back to the article I shared, I noticed that not a single person who spoke out against the attack was willing to admit they were Muslim and not a single person who defended Islam was willing to admit the attacks were still wrong. Granted, this was an online forum and they potentially wanted to keep their comments concise. I am willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. I am, however, not able to extend that same grace to people who had heated debates during the trial of war criminals over the past few months. It was quite simple – you were either unpatriotic (if you condemned the convictions of genocidal maniacs) or un-Islamic (if you condoned the convictions of said maniacs, who also happen to be influential Muslim political leaders). I myself was labelled the latter during discussions with some compatriots who I just met at university. Never mind the fact that I acknowledged that the trials were not unbiased and that there were definite political motivations behind them.
Subtlety, however, is fast becoming a rarity. If anyone tries to stand up and say they agree with the conviction but speak out against the nature of the trial, they are either condemned by both sides for one part of their sentiment or hailed as a spokesperson for the other part. This is why people are confounded by Malala Yousafzai, the young Pakistani girl who stood up to the Taliban AND spoke out against US drone strikes. (American media, of course, has left the second part out of any official statements, including when Malala visited the White House.) This is why people are unable to fathom Chris Christie, a Republican who does not oppose same-sex marriage, or Kathleen Murphy, a Democrat who strongly supports Second Amendment rights. There seems to be a regressive shift away from complexity in human thought; any level of intricacy is to be suppressed or at least ignored, while the separation of the world into easily understood dichotomies is to be praised. The optimist in me would like to think this is just a passing fad. The realist is not as hopeful.