Saturday, February 19, 2005

VALENTINE VIOLENCE: Blame not the poor old saint

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+ One can only lament the fate of poor old Saint Valentine, whose martyrdom has now served to unite Islamic and Hindu fundamentalists in a common struggle against the ‘evil’ West. More worrying and problematic, however, is the way in which the rise of such authoritarian groups in countries like India, Pakistan, Malaysia and Indonesia continues unabated. +


Blame not the poor old saint
Farish A Noor

Next year, instead of ranting and raving against all things Western, perhaps some of the anti-globalisation activists in the South should consider sending a Valentine card to their counterparts in the anti-globalisation movement in the North. That should be a step in the right direction!

Hate and prejudice can strange bedfellows make. As the world struggles on under the yoke of a globalisation process that continues unabated and unguided, the crippling effects of uneven development make themselves manifest all over. This has led to reaction in many parts of the world from groups that oppose the globalisation process and have attempted an anti-systemic critique. These anti-systemic movements are arrayed across a wide spectrum and include some creepy and loony ones.

In many parts of the developing South, the failure of the post-colonial state has contributed to the rise of right-wing groups and parties who base their narrow communitarian brand of politics on some simplistic and essentialist understanding of identity and the difference between ‘self’ and ‘other’. Some of them equate standing against globalisation with standing squarely against the West.

Given that most of these groups are formed out of a communitarian mould, their politics tends to be as shallow as it is short-sighted. The narrow ethnocentrism underlying their political campaigns also explains why their critiques of globalisation have tended to be couched in essentialist terms that see the ‘West’ as static and simple, and their own identities as fixed by non-permeable frontiers.

This sort of simplistic politics was clearly evident this week when right-wing groups all over the South called for a ‘ban’ on celebrations of Valentine’s Day, which for them is yet another import that represents the Western cultural hegemony. In many cases what emerged instead was a culturalist, rather than structuralist, critique of Valentine’s Day. It was another case of the ‘great evil Western empire’ spreading its cultural tentacles.

It is ironic that in this simplistic blanket condemnation of all things Western right-wing groups across Asia were united. While Islamist groups in countries like Malaysia, Indonesia, Pakistan and Bangladesh threatened to go out into the streets and ‘morally police’ the behaviour of wayward youths on that day, Hindu activists of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) and RSS in India took the law into their own hands and harassed young Indians. To rid the Indian society of social evils that emanate from the Saint who died hundreds of years ago, the leaders of the ABVP argued even against the ‘sitting culture’ in Indian restaurants. As always, the tactics were predictably simple. Blaming the ‘other’ for their economic problems is a simple way of exteriorising an internal structural crisis. It also allows such groups to extend their power and influence by adopting a paternalistic rhetoric of ‘care’ for their constituencies, as well as their victims — who more often than not happen to be the young.

One can only lament the fate of poor old Saint Valentine, whose martyrdom has now served to unite Islamic and Hindu fundamentalists in a common struggle against the ‘evil’ West. More worrying and problematic, however, is the way in which the rise of such authoritarian groups in countries like India, Pakistan, Malaysia and Indonesia continues unabated.

Some simple truths need to be reiterated here: the celebration of Valentine’s Day these days may indeed be a crass and vulgar affair totally degraded by consumerism and commercialism, but it is certainly not the main globalisation problem the South faces. If anything, popularity of the St Valentine cult is merely a symptom of integration of the South into the global economic system. The integration has also brought with it other cultural markers such as McDonalds, Nike and karaoke. Believing that a ban on Valentine’s Day or even McDonalds would somehow solve the problem of uneven development and globalisation is, of course, naïve and simplistic.

The celebration of Valentine’s Day represents no danger in any tangible, realistic sense. Being showered by cards bearing messages of love — even if they are written by spotty teens — is infinitely better than the carpet-bombing of Iraq not too long ago. The structural inequalities of the global economic system remain the primary reason why the countries of the developing South are vulnerable to the vicissitudes of the global economy as well as the bullying tactics and gunboat diplomacy of powerful developed nations. As long as these structural issues are not addressed in earnest, and with some intelligence, the problems will remain. Blaming dead saints for them will not get us anywhere.

In anticipation of the accusation that in defending poor old (and dead) Saint Valentine I am defending the ‘corrupting culture’ of Western materialism, allow me to state why I take this stand. In an apparently loveless world beset by man-made calamities of an unprecedented scale, I feel that what the world needs now is Love. Putting aside the crass materialism and consumerism that accompany the annual celebration of Valentine’s Day, the fact remains that its essential message is that of Love and human companionship. It is a message of common humanity and solidarity that the anti-systemic and anti-globalisation movements of the South need to use and capitalise on. That way they can build instrumental coalitions that transcend political and cultural boundaries.

So next year, instead of ranting and raving against all things Western, perhaps some of the anti-globalisation activists in the South should consider sending a Valentine card to their counterparts in the anti-globalisation movement in the North. That should be a step in the right direction!

Dr Farish A Noor is a Malaysian political scientist and human rights activist, based at the Zentrum Moderner Orient (ZMO), Berlin