HUMAN RIGHTS: What About Civil Liberties and Cultural Diversity?

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By Kalinga Seneviratne*

SINGAPORE - While marking the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington, media around the world is asking the question whether the threat from Al-Qaeda has receded. But what we should also be asking is whether civil liberties and respect for cultural diversity around the world are improving as a result.

Nine days after the 9/11 attacks, President George W Bush addressing a joint session of the U.S. Congress and the American people said: "They (Al Qaeda) hate our freedoms – our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other."

Perhaps he was correct. But, if we look back on the decade since this statement and the so-called "war on terror" which followed, we must ask the question how much of these freedoms, he referred to, are intact today. Also whether political correctness – which was a hallmark of evolving multiculturalism in the Western world, particularly in Europe and Australia – has taken a backwards step.

A couple of years before the 9/11 attacks, the then U.S. Vice-President Al Gore addressing an APEC conference dinner in Kuala Lumpur hailed Malaysia's 'Reformasi' movement which was campaigning to abolish the Internal Security Act (ISA), and then rudely walked out of the function room to the horror of the host, the then Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad.

After 9/11 as part of the war on terror, U.S. and its western allies like the UK, Denmark, Netherlands, France, Germany, Australia and many others have passed a rash of legislation such as the 'U.S. Patriotic Act' and other anti-terror laws, which even go further than the ISAs. It is now a well-known fact that terror suspects have been held for years without trial (such as in Guantanamo Bay) and worse they have been flown to secret locations in different countries where they may have been tortured.

These laws and actions have been criticized by human rights groups, within western countries, for curtailing basic freedoms. After Australia passed a draconian anti-terror law in 2005, Nobel-prize winning author J.M Coetzee, a South African living in Australia said upon reading the bill: "I used to think the people who created (South Africa's) apartheid laws that effectively suspended the rule of law were moral barbarians. Now I know they were pioneers ahead of time-".

After the British government rushed through parliament the Prevention of Terrorism Act 2005, Ben Ward, special counsel in Europe for the New York based Human Rights Watch said: "First we had indefinite detention, now we have curfews and tagging – but still without trial. The government refuses to acknowledge the basic truth: punishment without trial is unacceptable, no matter what."

The 9/11 attacks came at a time when the West was taking an enlightened approach to multiculturalism and racism, after decades of campaigning and intellectual interventions by people of colour (such as Edward Said and Stuart Hall).

It was also a time when the global economic justice movement mistakenly called the "anti-globalisation movement" by the mainstream western media, led by civil society groups in both the rich Northern countries and the poor Southern countries was gathering momentum, after their success in closing down the World Trade Organisation (WTO) meeting in Seattle in 1999.

For many people of colour – it does not matter if you are Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist or even Christian (remember the Catholic Brazilian who was gunned down by the London police in 2005 because they suspected he was a Muslim suicide bomber) – the global war on terror has become a war against them.


I visited a Danish friend of mine in Copenhagen last year (2010). Born and bred in Denmark as a Christian by his White Danish mother, he has a tan skin complexion because his father is from South Asia. His White Danish wife told me that in recent years, when they return to Denmark from overseas trips he gets pulled aside by immigration authorities for a security check. His wife and children who don't have the tan complexion are never checked. Now in his late 50s, my friend is having serious question marks about his Danish identity.

A Pakistani born Danish citizen who is a Muslim and a lecturer at a local university told me that the word migrant is associated with coloured Muslims in Denmark, and you don't need to be a Muslim to be associated as such and suspected. He pointed out to me a recent newspaper article there which reported that increasing number of "migrant" women were going to government funded shelters for abused women to escape from domestic violence.

People immediately associated this with Muslim men abusing their wives at home and it fitted in well with their stereotype of Islam, and why Muslim migrants don't fit into the Danish society. In fact, what was happening was that these were Filipino and Thai women who were escaping from their abusive White Danish husbands many of whom were alcoholics.

I am a Buddhist Australian of Sri Lankan descent, yet, a couple of years ago when I arrived at Brisbane airport – ironically on the invitation of the Australian Journalism Education Association to give a keynote address to their annual conference on reporting in the age of terrorism – I was questioned at the airport by a security officer while I was waiting for my bags to come through, who I presume, suspected that I was traveling on a fake Australian passport.

Asia has unfortunately absorbed this ingrained racism in the war on terror. I go to Bangkok often for work-related visits, and my bags are always scanned by an x-ray machine by customs officers there. This only happened after the 'war on terror' era began, and I have noticed that they only scan baggage of people of colour – not of East Asians or Caucasians.

Recently I was so offended by the behaviour of the Thai customs officials, that I wrote a letter to the editor of The Nation about the fact that Asians should be careful of absorbing the racism ingrained in the war on terror, if we are to develop greater regional cooperation. Otherwise the Indian sub-continent region and East Asia could drift apart. I also pointed out in the letter that for 20 years Thai Buddhist monks have been performing our family religious functions in Australia, including my father's funeral service in Sydney, yet, when I arrive in Bangkok they seem to view me as a suspected Muslim terrorist.

I have often been told by Thai and Filipino friends when I mention these type of experiences I come across in Asia, that "you look like a Muslim". I ask them "what do you mean?"

On the occasion of the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks it is time that we sit back and think, what has it done to race relations, concepts of justice and civil liberties, and how can we develop cross-cultural communication strategies that recognize and respect diversity. This is a better weapon against terror than drone aircrafts and x-ray scans.
Recent terror attacks in Norway are a good reminder that terrorism and intolerance is not the domain of one particular religion or colour of people. Religious diversity has been part and parcel of Asian societies for centuries, whereas it is a new phenomenon in Europe. Thus it is high time that we in Asia take a lead in developing proper cross-cultural educational programs to educate both the media practitioners and the public on how to understand and live in harmony with cultural and religious diversity.

*Dr. Kalinga Seneviratne is Head of Research, Asian Media Information and Communication Centre (AMIC), Singapore). The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of AMIC or any other institution.








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