When Paris shootings strike close to the heart in S-E Asia

When Paris shootings strike close to the heart in S-E Asia
Thousands gather for a vigil in central Paris hours after the attack on the office of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo on Wednesday. It is crucial that societies and governments alike appreciate that diversity is a reality that we cannot ever hope to escape from.

The murders that took place at the office of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris have sent shock waves across the globe, and the immediate concerns that have been raised by analysts are whether French society will have the resilience that is required to cope with this national event and whether the centre of French political society will move further to the right as a result.

Doubtless, many are worried that the killings will be exploited by right-wing nationalist elements in the country who may seize the

moment and use it as an argument for more immigration control, the demonisation of minority communities and a more visible police presence all over the country. Should such a widespread moral panic occur, it would signal instead a victory for the terrorists who would probably be happy to see French society in a state of crisis and panic, as it would also polarise that society further.

We in South-east Asia have never been immune to such threats as well. It ought to be remembered that the region is home to almost all the major religious communities of the world: Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, Hindus and Confucianists live side by side in communities that have been ethnically, culturally and linguistically diverse for centuries.

However, we also live in a world that has grown increasingly globalised and where the global communicative infrastructure that has been put in place connects us with developments in other parts of the world. Today, the conflicts in places like Iraq and Syria are relayed to us instantaneously, on a real-time basis. In some cases, these external variable factors have also impacted upon some groups and societies in a manner that fuels the centrifugal tendencies that already exist within them: Marginalised individuals from the region have fled their comfort zones to take part in wars that have nothing to do with them directly, but which affect them on a more personal emotional level.

Additionally, globalisation means that our diverse societies are now forced to confront diversity on a daily basis, smack in the faces of some who may object to opinions and world views that they find contrary to their own.

The concern of security analysts and academics lies in the manner in which societies react to such diversity, and to what extent societies can cope with difference: The scientist who teaches the theory of evolution, for instance, does so in the name of scientific research and certainly does not seek to offend. But in real-life situations, such ideas may be offensive to others who regard such theories as antithetical to their religious beliefs.

Likewise, while we defend the right of all citizens to hold onto their personal beliefs or cultural practices, there are no laws that can prevent disagreement of opinion or to compel everyone to be accepting of every theory or belief system that exists.

Here lies the predicament of the security analyst: How do we manage differences and diversity, and how can plural, complex societies live at ease with themselves?

Globalisation and the communicative infrastructure that connects the world today did not invent pluralism and diversity; they have merely made them more real to us on an everyday basis.

A lesson that can be learnt from the Paris tragedy is this: Living as we do in a plural and complex South-east Asia, it is crucial that societies and governments alike appreciate that diversity is a reality that we cannot ever hope to escape from, and that there is no isolated space where any community can live in a state of blissful ignorance of the other.

It is also important to realise that wherever there is pluralism, there is bound to be diversity - in beliefs, world views and opinions - and what is important to some may be less so for others.

How we are to live and deal with this is going to be the challenge for South-east Asia in the years ahead, but it is a challenge we are going to have to face together.

The first condition to be met when dealing with this challenge, to quote the philosopher Michel Foucault, is to deal with it with intelligence, and not with hate.


The writer is associate professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.

This article was first published on Jan 9, 2015.
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