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Changing narratives of crimes, rights

Syed Fattahul Alim | Friday, 3 September 2021


The year 2020 saw the highest number of hate crimes committed in America in more than a decade, according to the FBI, the principal federal law enforcement agency of the USA. The US Department of Justice under whose jurisdiction the FBI operates has warned that the white supremacist groups represented a rising security threat following the January 6, 2021's, what it said, deadly assault on the US Capitol. The victims of the crime were mainly the Blacks and people of Asian descent. The reason for the rise in this particular kind of crime in that year is not hard to understand. When political power gives patronage to the prejudice of xenophobia, one cannot blame the perpetrators much for materialising the politics of hate in practice. Though the phrase 'hate crime' first came into use in the USA in the 1980s, this particular kind of crime is as old as civilisation. Hate is instinctive. As such, it is part of being human. But hate as a crime implies that it has something to do with breaking of law. So, like laws are the product of civilisation, so are hate crimes. Small wonder that civilised humans have repackaged and rebranded this basic animal instinct into various narratives, even ideologies. Now with the help of technology, it has become an extremely lethal weapon that stone-throwing primitive humans could not even think of.

How catastrophic hate crime can be was demonstrated recently in the Rakhine State of Burma on the country's west coast where Rohingya people were subjected to genocide (in 2016, 2017 and 2018). The reason is they had ethnicity and religious belief different from those of the majority Burmese people. The world saw many instances of persecution of people because of their colour, faith, racial origin and sexual orientation. The Rwandan genocide of 1994 is still fresh in memory of those who are in their mid-40s and above. In the genocide born of hatred of the majority Hutu tribe of the country towards minority Tutsis around 1.1 million people lost their lives. Between 1992 and 1995, the Serbs of Bosnia started a civil war in which the majority Bosnian Muslims as well as Croats were targeted. In what was later termed ethnic cleansing, basically a euphemism for genocide, more than a hundred thousand people were massacred, 80 per cent of them being Bosnian Muslims.

Interestingly, how such crimes against humanity would be named, or if a particular case of hate crime would draw the attention of the world depends largely on the dominant political narrative of the time. In recent times, the Western world has turned its attention to the situation of minority groups everywhere. These minorities are defined on the basis of their ethnicity, colour, faith, language and so on. What drove them to see the issue of minority people in a new light is a matter of debate. But what is plain is that they, especially the European countries with an imperial past, seem to be suffering from a creeping sense of guilt for what they did to their subjects in the former colonies. Perhaps, they are trying to come to terms with the injustices the people of those erstwhile colonies were subjected to at their (the colonialists') hands. As such, the recent rise in their concern for the rights of the minorities in different parts of the world. Whatever the reason behind their renewed interest in the matter has played a pivotal role in forming the new narrative about minority rights. Since the global media, for all practical purposes, are under the influence of the Western countries, or more particularly, of their corporate businesses, the new narrative of minority right found instant recognition worldwide. In truth, this power of the dominant narrative of a time often determines how the educated people should look at certain social issues which were not even treated as such at other times. For example, lynching of the Jews as a religious minority in the Christian majority West was common on either side of the Atlantic in the earlier centuries. But the massacre of the Jews under Hitler during World War II was a great shock that radically changed the Western mindset about the Jews in particular and the minorities in general. Evidently, it is the dominant political ideology that is behind creating the new narrative about the minorities and their rights. But the same purportedly altruistic mindset may not register many crimes simultaneously being committed against other groups of people by states or dominant social groups. The superstructure of political ideology reflecting the narrower, crass secular interests are often to blame for this kind of myopia among the otherwise fiery, vocal advocates of human rights.

This is to caution the many who may have developed the notion that the ideas of minority rights are something given or perennial. But it is not. In fact, the perception of right or crime is not independent of time or of social context. In that sense it is evolving. And the perception along with the narrative from which it emerges may even take a U-turn depending on the dominant political ideology of a particular society. Hence is the recent rise in hate crimes in the USA, Europe as well as other parts of the globe.

 

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