Persecution of Muslims in China and India Reveals Important Facts About Religion and Geopolitics

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India, China and Myanmar are three Asian countries currently engrossed in carrying out physical and cultural genocides on their Muslim populations. While the plight of Rohingya Muslims and Uighur Muslims is well known, the recent introduction of a new law expressly aimed at dispossessing Muslims of Indian citizenship has alerted many to the reality that India’s ruling BJP government sees itself as Hindu first and foremost.

Questions such as “Why aren’t the rich Arab countries saying anything?” have come up, with the implicit inference that Muslim-dominated countries are supposed to stick up for Muslims everywhere in the world. Others have pointed out that despite suffering oppression in some parts of the world, Muslims are also responsible for brutal acts of oppression against other minority groups elsewhere, which allegedly negates the sufferings of the prior group.

In this article, I will pick through these questions and viewpoints with a goal of isolating some useful truths about how religion, geopolitics and human nature constantly interplay and produce much of the world around us.

Oppression is a Matter of Perspective

Which religion is the most oppressed? I like to troll my Christian friends with the image below whenever the topic comes up about some religion or the other allegedly imposing its will at their expense.

The truth is however, that this image could apply to just about every religion on earth. As a general rule of thumb, the only limiting factor on whether or not a religion functions as an oppressive tyranny in a particular jurisdiction is the proportion of the population that practises it there. Similarly, the only thing stopping any religion from being an oppressed and downtrodden identity is whether it is a small enough minority for that to be possible.

While Muslims in India, Myanmar and China are going through untold degrees of horror because of their religious identities, Muslims in places like Bangladesh, Indonesia, Afghanistan, Malaysia and Northern Nigeria are simultaneously visiting very similar horrors on Bah’ai, Shia Muslims, Christians, Budhists and other minorities in those areas. It turns out that the mere fact of belonging to a religious identity does not in fact, confer unrestricted global victimhood.

This point is important because it disproves the notion held by every major religion that its adherents follow a single set of standards and do things in the manner of a global “brotherhood.” In reality, Islam according to a Rohingya Muslim hiding from the Burmese military, and the same religion according to an itinerant herder in Kogi State bear almost no similarity to each other save for the most basic tenets. Environmental factors in fact have a bigger influence on how religions are practised than their own holy books. 

The current antics of India’s ruling BJP and its Hindu fundamentalist support base provide an important case in point as to how this works. Looking at the evolution of Hinduism from a passive philosophy into an openly militant ideology gives an important insight into how religion is in fact, a thoroughly contrived and amorphous set of ideas that can be changed, adjusted, aligned and revised at a moment’s notice in justification of anything at all. 

Hinduism traditionally sees itself as a religion of thoughtful, considered spirituality as against the angry dogmas of its Abrahamic neighbours, but something interesting is happening. Some argue that it started in the days of Gandhi, and some ascribe it to current Prime Minister Nanendra Modi, but whoever started it is a side note. The key point to note is that based on political factors, i.e anticolonial senitment against the British and anti-Muslim sentiment fueled by India’s national rivalry with Pakistan, Hinduism has somehow been coopted into the narrative of a jingoistic, monotheistic, mono-ethnic state which is  historical nonsense.

India has always been a pointedly pluralistic society, and in fact the geographical area now known as “India” does not even cover the geographical area of the India of antiquity. That India was a place of Hindus, Budhists, Muslims, Zoroastrians and everything in between. Hinduism never saw a problem with pluralism because Hinduism itself is a very plural religion – it has at least 13 major deities. The conversion of the Hindu identity into a political identity movement is a recent and contrived phenomenon first exploited by Gandhi as a means of opposing British colonialism, and now by Modi to oppose the Pakistanis/Muslims – it is a historical falsity.

The creation of Hindu fundamentalist movements like the RSS (which PM Modi belongs to) is something done in response to environmental factors. Spectacles like the RSS march below are evidence of yet another religion undergoing constant and ongoing evolution into whatever suits its purposes.

Something similar happened when medieval Europe turned into colonial Europe and European Christianity transitioned into a peaceful and pacifist ideology after centuries of being a bloodthirsty doctrine. The environmental factors that created the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, book burnings and witch hunts went away with the introduction of an industrial society, and thus the religion too transitioned.

In plain English, what all this means is that nobody actually practises a religion in the pure sense they imagine they do. Everyone who subscribes to a religion merely practises a version of it that is subject to the culture and circumstances of their environment and era. This is directly connected to the next major insight raised by these events.

Geopolitics is all About Self-Interest…Everyone Gets it Except Africa

While anti-Muslim violence has continued apace for years in China, Mynammar and India, the question has often been asked: “Why are the wealthy Arab nations not saying anything?” There is a perception that since the Arabian peninsula is the birthplace of Islam and Arabs – particularly Saudis – are viewed as the global gatekeepers of the faith, they must be at the forefront of promoting the interests of Muslims worldwide.

To many, the fabulous wealth and international influence that Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar and the UAE enjoy, in addition to the presence of two of Islam’s holiest cities – Mecca and Meddinah – in Saudi Arabia, means that they have a responsibility to speak for the global Muslim Ummah and stand up for them when they are unfairly targeted and mistreated. Unfortunately for such people, the wealthy nations of the Arab Gulf region tend to respond to such questions with little more than an irritated silence – and with good reason.

To begin with, these countries are not democracies led by the wishes of their almost uniformly Muslim populations. They are autocracies led by royal families who came to power in the colonially-influenced 20th century scramble for power and influence. Saudi Arabia, which houses Islam’s holiest sites, is named after the House of Saud, its royal family which came into power in its current form at the turn of the 19th century. The priority of the regimes in these countries first and foremost is self-preservation.

Self-preservation means that before throwing their significant diplomatic and economic weight behind any attempt to help out fellow Muslims, the first consideration is how doing so will benefit them. India for example, is a country that has close diplomatic ties with the UAE, and supplies most of their cheap labour for construction and low-skilled functions. India has even coordinated with UAE special forces to repatriate the dissident Princess Latika when she made an audacious escape attempt in 2018.

What does the UAE stand to gain if it napalms its diplomatic relationship with India by criticising Modi’s blatantly anti-Muslim policy direction? It might win a few brownie points with Islamic hardliners and possibly buy some goodwill among poor Muslims in South Asia, but how much is that worth? The regime and nation’s self-interest is best served by looking the other way, so that is exactly what they will do.

The Saudis make a similar calculation. At a time when they are investing heavily in military hardware to keep up with their eternal rivals Turkey and Iran, and simultaneously preparing for the end of oil by liberalising their society and economy, does it pay them to jump into an issue in India that does not particularly affect them? As the status of their diplomatic relationship with the U.S. remains unclear following the Jamal Khasshoggi incident, are they going to risk pissing off the Chinese because of Uighur Muslims?

In fact self-interest like that mentioned here is the basis of the considerations that underpin all international relations. Well I say “all,” but what I really meant to say was “all except African countries.” It is only African countries that take diplomatic decisions based on little more than flimsy emotions and feelings of religious affinity. Gambia for example, has dragged Myanmar before the UN and filed a genocide case against it on behalf of the Rohingya Muslims.

This would be commendable and great were it not that Gambia itself is hardly a human rights luminary, and generally has little business fighting an Asian battle when its own worse African battles lie unfought. The only thing Gambia stands to gain from fighting a diplomatic war that the rest of the world seems unwilling to touch is the temporary goodwill of a few Muslims in Asia and around the world – goodwill that cannot translate into something tangible for it.

To coin an aphorism from social media lingo, you could call it ”diplomatic clout chasing.’

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Deepika Padukone at JNU: With far more to lose, Bollywood’s women have shown far more spine than its ‘heroes’ | Entertainment News,The Indian Express

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Written by Yashee
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Updated: January 8, 2020 6:01:47 pm

In Bollywood as in the world, it’s the women who are smashing the status quo, at great personal risk. The actors, with far greater appeal and access, remember political causes before their movies, but then retreat to asking questions about mangoes.

The pictures of Deepika Padukone at JNU have by now launched more than a thousand tweets, many in support of her, many condemning her for aligning herself with the ‘tukde tukde gang’ , yet others claiming she was only trying to promote her movie while in the same breath adding they will boycott that movie.

Taking an obvious risk days before the release of Chhapaak, which she is also producing, Padukone has made an unmissable statement, and raised yet again a getting-harder-to-ignore question — where are Bollywood’s men?

The A-listers who have for decades ruled the roost and millions of hearts, whose hairstyles, dialogues, gestures and clothes the country has been united in copying, why do we not know what they think about the issues polarising the country today?

The recent protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act, the proposed National Register of Citizens, and the police crackdown against agitating students have seen unprecedented Bollywood involvement. Actors and directors like Swara Bhasker, Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub, Richa Chadha, Anurag Kashyap, Anubhav Sinha, Dia Mirza and many others have not just spoken up on social media, but actively turned up for rallies and protests.

Yet, till very recently, the A-listers were missing. The merchants of fairytales, who have built their careers and their millions on “feel-good” cinema, stayed away from the grimy hurly-burly of politics.

However, in the past few days, actresses, one by one, have broken this unwritten rule. Sonam Kapoor and Alia Bhatt have condemned the recent incidents in no uncertain words. And now, Deepika Padukone has physically turned up at a protest venue.

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Padukone wasn’t at JNU as a star. She did not take centrestage, she did not make a speech. She was there, as a member of her team said, because she wanted to “express her anguish” at the violence in the campus, just like many other concerned citizens have been doing in city after city, at protest after protest.

Deepika Padukone knows better than most stars what this could unleash — as recently as in 2017, a BJP leader had announced a Rs 10 crore bounty on her head for starring in Padmaavat, while the Karni Sena wanted to chop off her nose.

Even without personal experience, Bollywood heroines know what’s at risk in triggering the troll brigade. Just reading Bhasker’s timeline for an hour can turn your stomach, make you want to go off social media forever.

Yet, Sonam Kapoor, Alia Bhatt and Deepika Padukone chose to take the risk. What prevents the men? The Kapoors, the Khans, the Bachchans, who wield enormously more power, and run far fewer risks?

It is no one’s case that the “heroes” don’t stand to lose by taking a political stand. Just a few years ago, both Shah Rukh Khan and Amir Khan had people — including BJP leaders — sending them to Pakistan when they spoke up about the growing intolerance in the country. Then Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis had to personally broker a peace deal between Karan Johar and MNS goons during the release of Ae Dil Hai Mushkil.

It can also be argued that in a democracy, a public figure does have the right to remain totally apolitical, however questionable that choice.

Yet, in an industry where the scales are anyway tilted against them, it’s the women of Bollywood who have stood up to be counted.

Women are paid less, have a shorter shelf life in Bollywood, are more dispensible. As we have heard for ages, few heroines can “carry a movie on their shoulders”, which is also because they rarely get parts written for them — a beautiful face and charismatic screen presence are all that is required of the leading lady in most “mainstream” movies.

In a notoriously risk-averse industry dominated by risk-averse men, women can easily be dropped from projects and endorsements for showing “political adventurism”. Bhasker, indeed, has spoken about losing work because of her political stands.

For the audience too, a woman with an opinion can be more difficult to stomach than a man. Men can obviously be interested in “serious matters”, but how inconvenient to enjoy a beautiful woman dancing to a beautiful song when you know her sympathies lie with the tukde tukde gang!

Also, the attacks against the women are far more vicious, and far crasser, than against men. People see a woman with an opinion as a greater transgression, and the more her mind infuriates them, the more they target her body — sexually explicit threats and “jokes” are generally the weapons of choice against women.

Anurag Kashyap has been faced with relentless trolling for long now, so has Javed Akhtar. But they haven’t had people from within their own fraternity calling them “sasti” (cheap), as happened with Bhasker and film-writer Raaj Shaandilyaa recently.

Even during the Padmavat fracas, it was Deepika Padukone’s head and nose on the line, not her male co-stars Shahid Kapoor and Ranveer Singh’s.

And it is not like the men of Bollywood eschew politics altogether. Akshay Kumar’s recent movies have — co-incidentally? — been themed around the projects the government wants to promote: building toilets, vanquishing foreign Muslim invaders. In this Kumar is not alone, though he is the only one to have interviewed the PM about his mango-eating preferences (again, an opportunity given only to a man).

Many A-listers had happily posed for a grinning selfie with the PM at a time when it was impossible to not know its significance.

Amitabh Bachchan, who has had perhaps the longest successful run at Bollywood, stars in the government’s advertisements, but is resolutely silent when that government seems to be turning against its own people.

The appeal these stars wield is unparalleled — any cause that Salman Bhai raises his hands for, maybe with that blue bracelet, that Bachchan lends his baritone and gravitas or Shah Rukh his dimples and his charm to, will instantly get the kind of resonance a hundred erudite editorials and speeches by JNU alumni can’t garner.

These stars are well-aware of their great power. They choose not to see the great responsibility it comes with.

Even outside Bollywood, the CAA-NRC protests have been dominated by women — the brave ladies of Shaheen Bagh are a shining, heartening example. Perhaps it is time we rewrite our definition of “heroes”, change whom we look at for inspiration and solidarity. For now, the women of Bollywood have proven to be far more heroic than the stars who rule it.

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Why the fight against disinformation, sham accounts and trolls won’t be any easier in 2020

2020 Election

The big tech companies have announced aggressive steps to keep trolls, bots and online fakery from marring another presidential election — from Facebook’s removal of billions of fake accounts to Twitter’s spurning of all political ads.

But it’s a never-ending game of whack-a-mole that’s only getting harder as we barrel toward the 2020 election. Disinformation peddlers are deploying new, more subversive techniques and American operatives have adopted some of the deceptive tactics Russians tapped in 2016. Now, tech companies face thorny and sometimes subjective choices about how to combat them — at times drawing flak from both Democrats and Republicans as a result.

This is our roundup of some of the evolving challenges Silicon Valley faces as it tries to counter online lies and bad actors heading into the 2020 election cycle:

1) American trolls may be a greater threat than Russians

Russia-backed trolls notoriously flooded social media with disinformation around the presidential election in 2016, in what Robert Mueller’s investigators described as a multimillion-dollar plot involving years of planning, hundreds of people and a wave of fake accounts posting news and ads on platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Google-owned YouTube.

This time around — as experts have warned — a growing share of the threat is likely to originate in America.

“It’s likely that there will be a high volume of misinformation and disinformation pegged to the 2020 election, with the majority of it being generated right here in the United States, as opposed to coming from overseas,” said Paul Barrett, deputy director of New York University’s Stern Center for Business and Human Rights.

Barrett, the author of a recent report on 2020 disinformation, noted that lies and misleading claims about 2020 candidates originating in the U.S. have already spread across social media. Those include manufactured sex scandals involving South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and a smear campaign calling Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) “not an American black” because of her multiracial heritage. (The latter claim got a boost on Twitter from Donald Trump Jr.)

Before last year’s midterm elections, Americans similarly amplified fake messages such as a “#nomenmidterms” hashtag that urged liberal men to stay home from the polls to make “a Woman’s Vote Worth more.” Twitter suspended at least one person — actor James Woods — for retweeting that message.

“A lot of the disinformation that we can identify tends to be domestic,” said Nahema Marchal, a researcher at the Oxford Internet Institute’s Computational Propaganda Project. “Just regular private citizens leveraging the Russian playbook, if you will, to create … a divisive narrative, or just mixing factual reality with made-up facts.”

Tech companies say they’ve broadened their fight against disinformation as a result. Facebook, for instance, announced in October that it had expanded its policies against “coordinated inauthentic behavior” to reflect a rise in disinformation campaigns run by non-state actors, domestic groups and companies. But people tracking the spread of fakery say it remains a problem, especially inside closed groups like those popular on Facebook.

2) And policing domestic content is tricky

U.S. law forbids foreigners from taking part in American political campaigns — a fact that made it easy for members of Congress to criticize Facebook for accepting rubles as payment for political ads in 2016.

But Americans are allowed, even encouraged, to partake in their own democracy — which makes things a lot more complicated when they use social media tools to try to skew the electoral process. For one thing, the companies face a technical challenge: Domestic meddling doesn’t leave obvious markers such as ads written in broken English and traced back to Russian internet addresses.

More fundamentally, there’s often no clear line between bad-faith meddling and dirty politics. It’s not illegal to run a mud-slinging campaign or engage in unscrupulous electioneering. And the tech companies are wary of being seen as infringing on American’s right to engage in political speech — all the more so as conservatives such as President Donald Trump accuse them of silencing their voices.

Plus, the line between foreign and domestic can be blurry. Even in 2016, the Kremlin-backed troll farm known as the Internet Research Agency relied on Americans to boost their disinformation. Now, claims with hazy origins are being picked up without need for a coordinated 2016-style foreign campaign. Simon Rosenberg, a longtime Democratic strategist who has spent recent years focused on online disinformation, points to Trump’s promotion of the theory that Ukraine significantly meddled in the 2016 U.S. election, a charge that some experts trace back to Russian security forces.

“It’s hard to know if something is foreign or domestic,” said Rosenberg, once it “gets swept up in this vast ‘Wizard of Oz’-like noise machine.”

3) Bad actors are learning

Experts agree on one thing: The election interference tactics that social media platforms encounter in 2020 will look different from those they’ve trying to fend off since 2016.

“What we’re going to see is the continued evolution and development of new approaches, new experimentation trying to see what will work and what won’t,” said Lee Foster, who leads the information operations intelligence analysis team at the cybersecurity firm FireEye.

Foster said the “underlying motivations” of undermining democratic institutions and casting doubt on election results will remain constant, but the trolls have already evolved their tactics.

For instance, they’ve gotten better at obscuring their online activity to avoid automatic detection, even as social media platforms ramp up their use of artificial intelligence software to dismantle bot networks and eradicate inauthentic accounts.

“One of the challenges for the platforms is that, on the one hand, the public understandably demands more transparency from them about how they take down or identify state-sponsored attacks or how they take down these big networks of authentic accounts, but at the same time they can’t reveal too much at the risk of playing into bad actors’ hands,” said Oxford’s Marchal.

Researchers have already observed extensive efforts to distribute disinformation through user-generated posts — known as “organic” content — rather than the ads or paid messages that were prominent in the 2016 disinformation campaigns.

Foster, for example, cited trolls impersonating journalists or other more reliable figures to give disinformation greater legitimacy. And Marchal noted a rise in the use of memes and doctored videos, whose origins can be difficult to track down. Jesse Littlewood, vice president at advocacy group Common Cause, said social media posts aimed at voter suppression frequently appear no different from ordinary people sharing election updates in good faith — messages such as “you can text your vote” or “the election’s a different day” that can be “quite harmful.”

Tech companies insist they are learning, too. Since the 2016 election, Google, Facebook and Twitter have devoted security experts and engineers to tackling disinformation in national elections across the globe, including the 2018 midterms in the United States. The companies say they have gotten better at detecting and removing fake accounts, particularly those engaged in coordinated campaigns.

But other tactics may have escaped detection so far. NYU’s Barrett noted that disinformation-for-hire operations sometimes employed by corporations may be ripe for use in U.S. politics, if they’re not already.

He pointed to a recent experiment conducted by the cyber threat intelligence firm Recorded Future, which said it paid two shadowy Russian “threat actors” a total of just $6,050 to generate media campaigns promoting and trashing a fictitious company. Barrett said the project was intended “to lure out of the shadows firms that are willing to do this kind of work,” and demonstrated how easy it is to generate and sow disinformation.

Real-life examples include a hyper-partisan skewed news operation started by a former Fox News executive and Facebook’s accusations that an Israeli social media company profited from creating hundreds of fake accounts. That “shows that there are firms out there that are willing and eager to engage in this kind of underhanded activity,” Barrett said.

4) Not all lies are created equal

Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are largely united in trying to take down certain kinds of false information, such as targeted attempts to drive down voter turnout. But their enforcement has been more varied when it comes to material that is arguably misleading.

In some cases, the companies label the material factually dubious or use their algorithms to limit its spread. But in the lead-up to 2020, the companies’ rules are being tested by political candidates and government leaders who sometimes play fast and loose with the truth.

“A lot of the mainstream campaigns and politicians themselves tend to rely on a mix of fact and fiction,” Marchal said. “It’s often a lot of … things that contain a kernel of truth but have been distorted.”

One example is the flap over a Trump campaign ad — which appeared on Facebook, YouTube and some television networks — suggesting that former Vice President Joe Biden had pressured Ukraine into firing a prosecutor to squelch an investigation into an energy company whose board included Biden’s son Hunter. In fact, the Obama administration and multiple U.S. allies had pushed for removing the prosecutor for slow-walking corruption investigations. The ad “relies on speculation and unsupported accusations to mislead viewers,” the nonpartisan site FactCheck.org concluded.

The debate has put tech companies at the center of a tug of war in Washington. Republicans have argued for more permissive rules to safeguard constitutionally protected political speech, while Democrats have called for greater limits on politicians’ lies.

Democrats have especially lambasted Facebook for refusing to fact-check political ads, and have criticized Twitter for letting politicians lie in their tweets and Google for limiting candidates’ ability to finely tune the reach of their advertising — all examples, the Democrats say, of Silicon Valley ducking the fight against deception.

Jesse Blumenthal, who leads the tech policy arm of the Koch-backed Stand Together coalition, said expecting Silicon Valley to play truth cop places an undue burden on tech companies to litigate messy disputes over what’s factual.

“Most of the time the calls are going to be subjective, so what they end up doing is putting the platforms at the center of this rather than politicians being at the center of this,” he said.

Further complicating matters, social media sites have generally granted politicians considerably more leeway to spread lies and half-truths through their individual accounts and in certain instances through political ads. “We don’t do this to help politicians, but because we think people should be able to see for themselves what politicians are saying,” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said in an October speech at Georgetown University in which he defended his company’s policy.

But Democrats say tech companies shouldn’t profit off false political messaging.

“I am supportive of these social media companies taking a much harder line on what content they allow in terms of political ads and calling out lies that are in political ads, recognizing that that’s not always the easiest thing to draw those distinctions,” Democratic Rep. Pramila Jayapal of Washington state told POLITICO.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

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