Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Bet Big on India with One Big Caveat

“A person who brings out the greatness of his friend himself gains importance.”
-Rig Veda 

Anyone who has spoken with me recently will likely be tired of hearing me say how there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that this next decade belongs to India, BUT depending on how India chooses to traverse it, will decide if the next century is also ours. It is true that I have always been among India’s most vocal cheerleaders, the eternal optimist and jingoistic patriot. I believed in her potential even when I was in the extreme minority during the lowest ebbs of our license Raj. I never stopped believing in her despite the tremendous odds and the contrary viewpoints of many an expert. Today, the landscape is far different, and I imagine few people will challenge my views based on the last decade of economic data.

First, let’s discuss why I am optimistic before I spell out the major caveat. The reason for my optimism lies in two parts: one has to do with forces within India, and the other a set of external factors which squarely benefit us. It is true that in the 21st century, no country can thrive on its own because of our global economic interconnectedness and interdependence. These connections will only grow deeper in the next century and serve to further isolate economies like Russia, Iran, North Korea and others that pursue isolation over smart dependency.
Indians want innovation over idol worship and 
paycheques over pogroms
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We can all agree that we owe a debt of gratitude to the Congress Party for ushering in an era of liberalisation, without which we would not be among an elite group of economies, the third largest in the world. However, I also believe the greater debt we owe them has to do with the unmitigatedly corrupt, greedy and dystopian second term they presided over. Their unchecked gluttony is directly responsible for shaking the lethargy of the Indian public; we would not have seen the rise of Narendra Modi onto the national stage without it. As a direct result of our frustration with the Congress, the majority of Indians were willing to give Mr. Modi a chance, and not based on his Hindutva philosophy. This combined with his promise to beat China and provide economic development for all Indians. It is why the youth voted for him in large numbers, the same youth that carries no baggage from 1984 or 2002 - a generation born on WhatsApp. Mr. Modi would do well to recognise and remember this because if he is seen to pander to the vocal minority within his base, the same winds that ushered him in will push him back into regional oblivion. Indians want innovation over idol worship and pay cheques over pogroms; they do not want a Hindu nation. 

The second factor that helped put the wind in India’s sails (around the time of Congress’s demise and Mr. Modi’s rise) had to do with the course that the other much vaunted BRICS economies took. In a word, they are all in the shit hole with the exception of China, which is a little different. I don’t need to spend time explaining how Russia has faltered, but will point to one thing worth nothing with regards to Brazil's and South Africa’s demise. Without question both suffered from poor leadership, institutionalized corruption and flimsy economic policies that were based on riding the global financial bubble, not on investments in domestic growth. We can argue that India had many of the same problems with corruption and lack of strong leadership under Manmohan Singh, but there is one major difference; we have a much stronger democracy. One that can withstand medium-term failures, and has the ability to course correct when things go deeply wrong. Look no further than the decimation of Congress, the rise of AAP and the BJP wave.

The fundamentals of our democracy are strong, not just in terms of people and ideas but also civil institutions, our judiciary and bureaucracy. We are better equipped to withstand bad government for a term or two and bounce back than any of the other BRICS. China is the only other BRIC standing, and here I will argue that it is our democratic values that will help us win the day against them. While China’s economic growth has been sputtering of late, I believe the final drain on their storied growth will come from a social implosion. Simply put, you cannot give people a little taste of capitalism and then expect to continue to control their thinking and freedoms, certainly not in a world where there is a world wide web and the ability to travel. Once people taste freedom of thought and expression, they tend to want more, not less.

There is no question that the demise of the BRICS has been another major gift for Mr. Modi. Now he must make sure he does not waste it. Their demise has made us the cynosure of all global investment for the foreseeable future. This, before Mr. Modi did anything to prove himself, or have time for his policies to have a substantial impact on India’s economy. It has provided him with a one-term carte blanche of sorts but he now very quickly needs to start putting this foreign investment where his development (mouth) is.
Capitalism is driven purely by great ideas, not by ideology
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Now the big caveat I mentioned. What made America the greatest economy and strongest nation over the last century is the fact that the majority of Americans found a way to rise beyond petty politics, religious rabble-rousing and superficial differences, to unite under common cause. As a society they understood that capitalism is driven purely by great ideas, not by ideology. For this reason their leaders have always embraced inclusiveness (slavery aside) and not for some other higher altruistic purpose. It is why they have encouraged freedom of thought, expression and strived to build a homogenous melting pot of diverging cultures and viewpoints.

Diversity makes a nation richer and more powerful, as long it can find a common capitalist cause to rally behind (not a political or religious one). The American motto “E Pluribus Unum” can be found on everything from their coins and currency to their Presidential seal; it means “out of many, one”. Americans have rallied behind this motto and worked hard to attract the brightest and best minds from every corner of the globe; this diversity has paid great dividends with world-beating innovation, and years of economic growth and military dominance.
We need a society that convalescences around education and economic opportunity, not Hindutva
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India’s veins are bursting with rich and diverse talent. Mr. Modi must now strive to create an even more open-minded and inclusive society, one that convalescences around education, skill development, economic opportunity and growth, not around Hindutva. Now is the time to stand united, not to divide further. This alone will allow Mr. Modi to deliver on his promise of the Indian dream. However, if he continues to allow the forces of Hindutva to hijack his agenda, then he will very quickly squander the Indian century that is now finally, and firmly, within our grasp.
 

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Terrorism, Islam, Our Biases and The Solution


"You must not lose faith in humanity. Humanity is an ocean; if a few drops of the ocean are dirty, the ocean does not become dirty.”
Mahatma Gandhi 

Like most people I felt a strong solidarity with Parisians in the aftermath of the terrorist attack on Charlie Hedbo. I was angered that a group of cowardly savages could walk in during broad daylight and murder unarmed people. Witnesses say that the masked men shouted “Allahu akbar!” or “God is great!” as they shot cartoonists and the editor of Hedbo. We have all seen eyewitness video of the killers running down the street shouting “We have avenged the Prophet Muhammad. We have killed Charlie Hedbo!” as they executed a Muslim policeman on the street (Source: NY Times article). The attack was carried out in the name of Islam by men who it turns out were radicalised in France, after the US invasion of Iraq. 

JeSuisCharlie became a top trending global hashtag for a week; in many cases people felt they needed to support free speech, even if they did not agree with Hedbo’s satire. At the same time, vilified by global outrage, driven by fear and ignorance, the uglier side of humanity also began to surface on social media. In extreme cases, there were tweets about ridding the world of all Muslims. A number of people said they felt this was a fight between the ‘civilised’ world and Islam. Even powerful and supposedly educated men like Rupert Murdoch tweeted irresponsibly: 


In Germany, an anti-Islam rally that had been scheduled prior to the Paris attack was held the day after the unity march. It was organised by a group called Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the West, or PEGIDA. Just a few months ago the same rally was attended by some 350 protestors; this one had an estimated 25,000 people (Source CNN article). German leaders across the political spectrum requested that the group postpone the rally in light of the events in Paris, but they refused. These groups are not new, but they existed only on the fringes of society, unable to command crowds that require mainstream support. Across Europe we are seeing an alarming rise in extremist right-wing groups: UKIP in England, Marine Le Pen’s party in France, the Neo-Nazi National Democratic Party in Germany, Danish People's Party and Jobbik in Hungary. There is no question that these parties have grown in popularity in a post Iraq, Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay world (Source: Huffington Post UK article). Their entire political plank is based on anti-immigration and anti-globalisation. They manipulate our irrational fear of death to further their hate agendas. How quickly we forget that the parties now targeting Muslims were not long ago ostracised for being violently anti-Semitic. 

I can categorically say that at no time have I felt any anger or animosity toward Muslims. But after Paris I did for the first time, just for a minute, find myself wondering if within the teachings of Islam there lay a problem. Was it truly a religion of peace? Perhaps Islam was more open to interpretation and abuse than other religions. Frankly, if you live in the West post 9/11, it is hard not to start thinking this way. For more than a decade, talking heads on every cable station, news channel, website, newspaper and magazine have been debating the problem of Islamic fundamentalism. Most are careful not to indict the entire religion or all Muslims, but in the end, they all contribute to planting dangerous seeds of misguided doubt and fear in all our minds.

They talk about freedoms we take for granted being rare in the Muslim world, citing Iran and Saudi Arabia as examples of the ‘Muslim’ world. The central premise of their argument often boils down to a claim that no other religion drives its followers to massacre innocent people. Yet, most of these opinion makers base their claims on selective statistics and self-serving interpretations. They point to the number of terrorist acts perpetrated in the name of Islam versus other religions. Or point out that in Saudi Arabia people are lashed for insulting Allah, and women are not allowed to drive; thereby concluding that the problem must be Islam. They are careful not to point out rogue regimes like Iran while making this argument, instead choosing to showcase so-called legitimate Muslim nations like Pakistan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. The insinuation being that if ‘good’ Muslim nations, those who ally with the West, can restrict freedoms and persecute people in the name of religion, then it is not hard to understand how terrorists can take the same tenets of Sharia and offer a more twisted, extreme and violent justification for their actions. It is a persuasive and convincing argument, if we shut down our rational brains, ignore facts and forget history; something we all tend to do when fear takes over. 

If we take the same arguments that are used to point to Islam being a radical religion, and apply them elsewhere, then can we start to see the fundamental flaws, biases and selective logic being used here. To start with, if there is a problem with Islam, then there was once the same problem with Christianity and it remains today. The Crusades were a holy war carried out in the name of religion, and sanctioned by the Pope himself. Pope Urban II issued the call to arms, asking Christian men to reclaim the Holy Land by killing non-believers. During six Crusades that spanned close to two centuries, there were murderous rampages carried out in the name of religion like “a series of massacres of Jews in various towns in the Rhineland in 1096.” And anyone who “joined the ranks of the crusaders gained spiritual immunity, Pope Urban II promised forgiveness of all sins to whosoever took up the cross and joined in the war.” (Source: History.com Crusades). What about the Roman Catholic Church's use of tribunals to discover and punish heresy? It was started in medieval times but continued through the end of the 19thcentury. During the Spanish Inquisition the tribunals started to target Jews, Blacks and Muslims, torturing and killing all non-believers. Yet, we did not write-off Christianity for all this barbarism, nor did we question the teachings of Christ. Instead, rational and moderate voices within the religion were given room to challenge long-held beliefs and begin an important debate that started during the Reformation in the late 16th century.

Eventually, after centuries of debate and more war, rebellion and bloodshed, there came a separation of Church and State, which wrested powers away from the Papacy (Source: History.com Reformation). It is worth noting that the same Bible, which was used to justify all the murder and terror, was never changed or re-written. People realised that the issue is not the teachings of Christ or Christianity, but the way men chose to interpret and abuse them; using religion to control the masses for furthering their own greedy and power-driven goals. Ask yourself how this is different from modern day terrorists hijacking Islam to further their twisted political agendas. I realise that the Crusades ended in the late 13th century and we are now in the 21st century, but in the lifespan of a religion, and the earth’s existence, this is not a long time. Think about the fact that in America women got the right to vote less than one hundred years ago. The Voting Rights Act was passed after some of my best friends were born, and we are still fighting for gay rights, female bishops and equal pay for women. 

In 2013 the world was shocked by images of marauding Buddhist monks roaming the countryside wielding blood soaked machetes, hacking to death Muslims in Myanmar and Sri Lanka. Did we question that Buddhism is a religion of peace? Last year in Pune, a Hindu mob beat to death an IT professional for posting a morphed picture of a dead right-wing political leader on Facebook. Turns out the man was not connected to the Facebook cartoon and simply happened to be at the wrong place, wearing a skull cap and sporting a beard (Source: Firstpost article). More recently, Hindu mobs wielding batons and iron rods destroyed theatres showing a Bollywood film they say hurt Hindu sentiments (Source: Indian Express article). One of India’s greatest painters, M.F. Hussain, died in exile because peace-loving Hindus threatened to kill him after he painted some Hindu goddesses nude. Even today, women have virtually no rights in Indian law and marital rape is not considered a crime. Your conclusion must be that Hinduism is a backward religion that does not recognise the rights of women, promotes intolerance, hate and violence. Few people are aware that India has the second largest Muslim population in the world and yet there has been virtually no radicalisation of Indian Muslims, despite years of sustained efforts by Pakistani terror groups and Al-Qaeda to recruit them (Source: Economist article). 

Using Rupert Murdoch’s logic (something many people agree with), we must also hold all Christians responsible for the race-terrorism carried out in their names by the Ku Klux Klan or by those who continue to bomb abortion clinics and kill doctors; in the name of defending the right to live. More recently we must surmise that Christianity propagates child abuse. In fact, it can be argued that paedophilia was officially sanctioned by the Vatican because it’s now clear that the church not only turned a blind eye to decades of child abuse but covered up reports, misled victims and transferred priests rather than take legal action or remove them (Source: Wikipedia). So why are we not holding ALL Christians responsible? Better yet, why are we not questioning if there is something in the teachings of Christ that allows men of God to prey upon children? Show me where we can find the sustained global outrage, from the non-paedophilic, two billion Christians for terrorising young impressionable minds and bodies for decades? 

As of 2012 there are 1.6 billion Muslims, totalling around 23% of the world population, making Islam the second largest religion (Source: Pew Research Center article). Depending on whom you ask, you will get many an unscientific answer on how many Muslims are radicalised. However, what we do know, based on scientific research via a Pew Research poll conducted in eleven majority Muslim countries, is that the majority of the 1.6 billion Muslims reject religious and other kinds of extremism (Source: Think Progress article). Another 2013 global survey, also conducted by Pew, found huge differences in views and interpretations of Sharia law with regards to social and religious issues across Muslim nations. The same survey found that “most Muslims around the world express support for democracy, and most say it is a good thing when others are very free to practice their religion.” And “given a choice between a leader with a strong hand or a democratic system of government, most Muslims choose democracy.” (Source: The World’s Muslims: Religion, Politics and Society, Pew Research).

Muslims and Islam are not going away; nor should they as some extreme right-wing groups propose. Nor am I suggesting that we turn a blind eye or adopt politically correct terminology, so as not to offend Muslims, and simply expect the problem of terrorism to go away. We also need to remember that an ideology cannot be defeated on the battlefield. So what can we do?  

We can begin by changing our own lazy perceptions and comfortable biases. Put aside blind fear that can drive irrationality, and start to consciously discern between Muslim nations like Jordan, Indonesia and Turkey versus brutal dictatorships like Saudi Arabia, Iran and Egypt. We must stop painting all Muslims with a single brush and recognise that Islam and Sharia are not the underlying problem; it is the dictatorial nature of all totalitarian regimes that use religion and fear as tools to maintain an iron grip on power. Countries like Saudi Arabia also suppress free speech, violate human rights and have no rights for women. This is no different from North Korea, which the last time I checked had not accepted Allah or adopted Sharia. 

Remind yourself that terrorists, in the name of Islam, have killed many more Muslims than non-Muslims. A 2009 report, by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, found that between 2004-2008 only 12% of Al-Qaida’s victims were Westerners; 88% were Muslim (Source: CNN article). Start researching facts for yourself and stop relying on the mainstream media as your only source of information. Most news outlets offer nothing more than ratings-driven sensationalised hype and unverified or severely biased opinion. They are thin on reportage and unbiased journalism. We must never let our fears fool us into believing that right-wing parties offer a solution. If you support these groups, remember that the moment they are in power and have dealt with Muslims, they will come for the Jews, Blacks, Indians, Chinese and every non-Aryan group until there is no one left. 

Most importantly, we need to stop vilifying and attacking all Muslims and blaming their religion every time there is a terrorist attack because this is not going to help solve anything; only serve to push the majority liberal and moderate Muslim voices further into a dark and lonely corner. It will force them to stay silent because of the hostile environment we create, an environment that neither encourages debate nor facilitates dialogue. If we continue to alienate all Muslims like this, then we will be allowing the terrorists to win because their ultimate goal is to divide us through fear, and make it a clash between Islam and the West.

This is not about being a Muslim apologist or trying to be politically correct; it is about finding overt ways to support the majority, who are peace loving, believe in the right for all religions to co-exist, and who want more democracy in their nations. If we can do this, then we will begin to offer Islam’s many free thinkers and liberal-minded scholars the security and support to come forward and start a very important debate and dialogue within the Muslim world; one that will help Islam find its separation between Mosque and State for the twenty-first century.