When privileged elites lack empathy for angry minorities

When racially charged protests in our country upset us, we can perhaps find consolation in the knowledge that one of Europe’s most advanced countries too would now and then explode with similar scenes of anger and rioting.

In 2005, a suburb of Paris was torn apart by violence that followed angry protests by minority youths who were mostly of North African origin.

Cars and public buildings were set ablaze, forcing authorities to declare a state of emergency.

But there is a big difference between the Malaysian and French cases in the mainstream narratives that have shaped the national debates in the aftermath of angry protests tied to minorities.

We remember of course that the 2005 violence sparked calls for a rethink on French citizenship policies. There were loud demands for the expulsion of the Muslim minorities, but these came largely from right-wing groups that had long campaigned for tougher immigration laws and a more fanatical approach to secularising French society.

But a good many who represented the French intelligentsia frowned on such a vengeful attitude, and the mainstream discourse became infused with empathy and self-evaluation. There were calls to look into the neglect of these urban youths, and there were attempts to explain their anti-social behaviour, with the blame often pinned on their lack of employment, their subjection to police harassment and the poor conditions in their residential districts.

Indeed, weeks after the Versailles riots, Paris saw a major demonstration in solidarity with minorities, attended by tens of thousands who were not North African and not Muslim, but who were as French as snails in garlic.

There were also calls for a relook into a national drive towards assimilation, with many admitting that restrictive laws touching on religious identities, for example, had only resulted in the exact opposite.

Two years after the Paris violence, trouble erupted in Kuala Lumpur. Thousands of ethnic Indian youths travelled from their working-class neighbourhoods to gather in the city’s well paved roads to demand greater rights, with punches thrown in the air to make known their desperation. It was a cry of help that had taken decades to get its voice out.

Like the minority French youths, these minority Malaysian youths too were angry. They too uttered questionable slogans against the dominant group. They too threw missiles that had been kept hidden in clenched fists, perhaps since their forefathers were forcibly brought to Malaya by the British to work in plantations.

And they too, left with no choice, believed that change was possible through some form of violence.

What was the reaction of the Malay and Muslim intelligentsia, the backbone of the majority of this country whose views shape policies and politics?

The mainstream picture painted then, as now, was that the protesting youths were a bunch of uncivilised troublemakers out to create trouble, to challenge the Malays and the national identity.

Without the right voices to back them, many ethnic Indian leaders had to flee. Some got arrested and detained without trial, taking a huge toll on their personal and economic lives.

More than 10 years later, that empathy is still missing from the Malay and Muslim elites. Video clips of the 2007 angry Hindraf protests are distributed by none other than those who are supposed to show some level of empathy. We still see influential leaders trying to rouse a community that has for decades benefited from quotas and privileges, the same things that could have also transformed the lives of the underclass Indians for the better.

The absence of magnanimity from the majority is stark enough. We hear continuous calls for the head of a minister, because, as the claim goes, he caused the temple violence and must therefore take blame for the death of a fireman in the line of duty.

There is a need for Muslim scholars and intellectuals to display greatness of mind and bigness of heart when it comes to minorities. There is a need for them to rein in people of their own kind, many of whom could never relate to the plight of this country’s minorities other than through stereotypes and religious cosmetics.

It is pathetic and somewhat amusing that some of those from the privileged majority could think they could be threatened by a minister who once represented the voice of a ragtag ethnic minority, people who suffer from economic alienation and lack of educational opportunities.

And it is sad that some Muslim activists and thinkers, instead of living up to their “mercy to the worlds” rhetoric, are harping on the past angry slogans of a community that is seeking equality, that core Islamic principle that has eluded much of the Muslim world.

Abdar Rahman Koya is editor-in-chief of FMT.