Counter extremism with knowledge

  • Labour-related migration has been keeping the youth away from extremism, but for how long?
  • Crossroads
- Pramod Mishra

Apr 25, 2019-

The Easter Sunday suicide bombings in Sri Lanka have once again made urgent the question: What produces religious extremism?  Religious fanaticism leads to religious extremism. We know that. But how do we prevent the brainwashing of the youth and promote critical thinking about everything, including religion?  

The suicide bombers were under the influence of certain ideological conviction.  And this conviction was born as a result of the one-sided flow of information from some ideological source or mastermind.  In my last column, I discussed libraries as sources of critical thinking and transformation of the soul for both literal and metaphorical prisoners. These suicide bombers may have been born in certain circumstances that made them vulnerable to brainwashing.  Their souls drowned under what Plato calls the ‘leaden weight of birth and becoming.’ They became pawns in the hands of their handlers and their extremist ideology of hate.

Historical evidence abounds in proving that Islamic extremism, which has produced terrorists, resulted from the twin sources--the Saudi export of Wahhabism and Cold War realpolitik. Many Saudi-financed madrassas and their curriculum became a hotbed for disseminating hardline Islamist ideology of hatred and violence against real and purported enemies. The poor, and some even from the middle classes, who studied at these madrassas became easy targets for recruiters. The process of brainwashing for suicide bombers has been widely documented in multiple studies. In societies that lack diverse sources of information, as a result of poverty or tyrannical regimes and their doctrinaire curriculum, the young get exposed to whatever comes their way. If it is hardline ideologies in many non-Western countries, it is the onslaught of information and the dominance of popular culture among the young in the West that prevent critical thinking--resulting in multiple sources of disaffection and extremism.  If the deprived societies lack options to give to the young, forcing them to depend on whatever comes their way, the privileged societies allow their youth too much freedom to do as they choose in the name of personal freedom.

Empty vessels

I recall my own book-deprived youth in a Morang village in the seventies and eighties of the last century.  Those long holidays from school and college three times a year filled me with ennui. By the time I went to college, the East-West Highway had become ready and, with the use of DDT, malaria had been eradicated.  The forest to the north of the village had been rapidly cleared for settlers from the hills with no grazing land left for the village herd. My childhood days of herding in the forest were over because with the disappearance of the forest, our household livestock, too, had thinned to finance my studies. My curiosity had been whetted by exposure to Hindi, Sanskrit, English and Bengali literature in India, but my village had no resource to feed that budding teenage fire.  

When we were in elementary school, we had--under the guidance of our teachers--raised funds for bamboo and thatch furniture, and stationery, by singing popular songs and performing Maruni dances in the nearby villages during festivals. Similarly, during our teenage years, we founded Adarsh Yuva Club (Ideal Youth Club) and raised funds by staging ticketed cultural programs.  We used the funds to establish a library. The library ran for a few years with the support of local volunteers. However, it then disappeared, with the funding drying out. The village has a new club now, called Dhalke Joban Yuva Club (Passing Youth Club), which organises soccer matches and cultural programs. I haven’t heard anything about books or libraries.  

There is even a ‘plus two’ school in the village bazaar now, but the village has no library. The young are in a hurry to finish school, or let it remain unfinished, and become migrant laborers to Malaysia, South Korea and the Middle East. If they aren’t lucky enough to find work in Asia, they immigrate to Europe, Australia and North America. The cash economy of migrant labor has replaced agriculture, the foundation of local subsistence economy of the past. Starvation no longer haunts the village for six months in a year. Televisions blare in every house; mobile phones ring in every adult hand.  For the time being, labor migration has absorbed the village’s youthful energy, giving it a direction and purpose. Except for Netra Bikram Chand’s Maoist ideology, which doesn’t seem find many buyers, no extremist ideology is doing the rounds. But for how long?

A sword needs a whetstone

Besides, should the country’s youth remain caught between the government’s rhetoric of development and the global reality of unskilled labor migration to the construction sites and factory floors of East and Southeast Asia and the Middle East?  Will the present state of Nepal’s overwhelmingly unskilled human resource safeguard its long-term sovereignty and independence, which is the rhetorical obsession of its virulent nationalists?

NGOs, INGOs and private donors can certainly help.  But it is the state, both at the centre and the provinces, that needs to make available to the curious, driven and hungry youth multiple sources of deeper knowledge and information.  The state need to invest as much in its administrative infrastructure as in its knowledge infrastructure to enable the country’s youth to compete in the knowledge economy of the world. Nepal as a source of manual labor and ‘chowkidars,’ as an Indian elite woman politician derisively said, may prove inadequate to help Nepal’s global standing. Nepalis as intellectuals, thought leaders, writers in large numbers need to add to create a balance.

Opportunities for exposure to multiple sources of information are the first and foremost guarantee for taking the wind out of the extremist sail.  But they can also be in themselves a source of constructive empowerment and self-respect, caught as Nepal is between its two rising neighbors. Nepali middle classes have become hungry readers in the past decade. The challenge is to make this hunger widespread among all classes and ethnicities as well as feeding this hunger as a tax-supported community effort in every village in the form of information centers and libraries.

Mishra is the department chair of English Studies at Lewis University in the United States.

Published: 25-04-2019 07:18

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