Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The Significant Other


Jahabar Sadiq of The Malaysian Insider wrote an important piece, questioning why Malaysians aren’t as angry about the downing of flight MH17 compared to their reactions on the Gaza issue. This is possibly in light of the number of protests held in Malaysia, condemning the Israeli offensive. “Aren't the 298 souls aboard MH17, 44 of them Malaysians, worth protesting about?”

With Israel air and ground offensive, a lot of humanitarian and religious sentiments have been expressed in support of the Palestinians. Somewhat depressingly, a fair number have also expressed anti-Jew sentiments. All the same, the fervour in the forms of their expression has been difficult to miss.

It’s not been the same with flight MH17, though. After the initial shock, there were moments of cause identifying that lasted for a few days. Finger pointing remains the name of the game, with just as many apportioning blame to Malaysia Airlines and/or the government as Ukraine, their separatists and Russia. However, any kind of discussion of it, even for the briefest of moments, seemed to be swiftly followed by the following: “But don’t forget about the Palestinians.”

Given the amount of coverage given to the issue over the past number of years, it’s highly unlikely that that would happen. MH17, though, fulfills a lot of the important criteria for newsworthiness, which merits the spotlight shed on it. Going beyond that, it remains a huge political football as well. The international dimensions of this event has rendered it somewhat surreal; it's a Malaysian plane that was shot at, but other nations like the Netherlands, Australia and the United States have voiced stronger objections than we did.

Here are the facts, though. MH17 was shot at and fell to earth. Nearly 300 people died. Though most are non-Malaysians, nearly a sixth of that figure are people who were born and bred in our country. It may not be as big as the Netherlands’ loss, but it could literally be seen as an act of war. People have gone to battle for a lot less in the past.

Furthermore, Malaysia and Malaysians as a whole have little to actually connect us to Palestine. Whatever you may think, Israel and Palestine are not politically, geographically, socially and economically relevant to our direct well-being in an overt fashion, yet more people appear to be far more upset about that.

An answer as to why this situation has come about may be found in how we construct our identities. For the most part, what I have seen from my perspective is a strong emphasis on exclusive factors. Ours is an identity that is collectively constructed based on differences, even when they are meant well. A brief look at any Malaysia Truly Asia poster will confirm this, with caricatures highlighting difference rather than similarity as an attraction and foundation for unity.

In short, we are who we are in part because we are who we are not. For example, we are Malaysians because we are also not Indonesians. We are Malays because we are also not Chinese. We are Muslims because we are also not Christians. It ignores the complex interplay between all these factors and more, but in short, the sense of the self is solidified by the sense of the other; the bigger the difference between us and the other, the stronger that sense of certainty in ourselves.

With that in mind, there are very few others as vilified as the Jews.

Also in this context, the term Jew is used almost interchangeably with Israeli and Zionist. It’s not exactly the same thing, of course, but the way the discourse has been constructed in Malaysia has not allow for much wiggle room by way of actual constructive discussion based on facts and reality. What we end up with, then, is the Jew as the ultimate bogeyman.

Some have expressed this in the strangest of ways, too. Just very recently, a Malaysian member of parliament, Bung Mokhtar Radin, strangely lauded the German national team’s performance in Brazil by tweeting “Long live Hitler.” Whatever side of the political fence you lean on, the fact remains that Adolf Hitler is a mass murderer of the highest order, and responsible for the escalation of one of the most atrocious of wars in recorded human history.

More importantly, though, Adolf Hitler’s significant other in this case is also the Jew. The definition of his own identity was so inextricably linked to them that ironically, he would not be who he was without the Jews themselves.

I fear that such a form of identity formation is also becoming a little too prevalent, allowing it to be overpowered by an other, however real it may be. It was only after much pressure from the public (including a very strongly-worded letter from the German ambassador) that Bung issued a grudging apology.

Ukraine and Russia, on the other hand? Well, Ukraine was one of the co-hosts of the previous European Championships. Russia will host the next World Cup. That region is stereotypically recognised as having lots of beautiful and sexy women. Their language is probably not all that different from one another. It's really cold over there. And hey, didn’t that Ukrainian politician used to be a boxer?

Beyond that…I’m willing to bet that the majority of Malaysians are not as aware or concerned with the issues of the region. Russian actions in Crimea were quite shocking in their boldness, and the aftermath of that lingered long enough to affect us, yet a significant number remain blissfully unaware, even, of the event. Rightly or wrongly, there remains little obvious link between all of us, and unfortunately for many, this appears to remain true even when Malaysians have been murdered. Yes, we do not yet know who actually pulled the trigger, but we know for sure that someone somewhere over there actually did. Analysts have also suggested that this tragedy is one too many for the airline itself, putting Malaysia Airlines right on the brink of extinction, raising the stakes even higher.

Of course, that doesn't matter, because the stakes are even higher for Gaza in the minds of many. This may not necessarily apply to everyone, for I believe that there are many genuinely outraged at the atrocities going on there. Though Hamas, in their role as the authority of Palestine, is not entirely blameless, yet another fact is that this is one of the most one-sided armed conflicts in recent history. The blood of many innocent civilians have been shed, and I pray that this will see a peaceful end soon, even if I am not entirely hopeful of one.

More to the point, though, keeping our focus fixed on the issue is also a chance for many Malaysians to further fix their own sense of identity. Supporting the Palestinians, and frothing at the side of the mouth in anger at the Jews/Zionists/Israelis/“who cares, they’re all the same”, as we quote the Qur’an and curse them all to hell, is a way for you to show how Muslim you are. The pahala earned is relative to how angry you are, a dick swinging contest that conveniently ignores similar issues going on in Egypt, Syria and Iraq. Why? Well, when Muslims kill other Muslims, it doesn’t really count as much as when the Jews do it, does it?

Here's the final fact for now: a human life is a human life, precious in its own regard. How unfortunate for us to have allowed that to be politicised by others as well as the other, however real or imagined they may be.

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