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25 Jul, 2011

As A Blond bin Laden Strikes, A “Global Awakening” Awaits

Even if indirectly, the travel & tourism industry bears some burden of responsibility for what is being described as a grotesque act of right-wing “Christian jihadi terrorism” in Norway. Ever since 9/11, anti-Islamic sentiments have been growing across the world, but not a single leader of this supposed industry of peace, friendship and cultural understanding has ever spoken out vigorously against it. Although there have been numerous warnings, and warning signs, of its devastating consequences, travel & tourism leaders have shied away from condemning it in the same strong language they have directed at terrorism. A search through the websites of numerous high-profile international travel and transport industry organisations and associations yielded zero results for the word “Islamophobia”.

This head-in-the-sand attitude has been both morally irresponsible and financially damaging. Both directly and indirectly, travel & tourism has been arguably the business sector worst affected by acts of violence and terrorism. In addition to the devastating loss of life, destinations have been hit with massive cancellations and travel advisories. In response, however, Muslims have been tarred with the same brush. Muslim (and those mistaken for Muslim) travellers have been subjected to heightened security hassles and blatant racial profiling. Passengers have been removed from aircraft on the basis of unwarranted suspicion. The shift in travel preferences by Muslim travellers seeking places where they will be treated with more respect and less suspicion has been one of the most significant trends of the last 10 years.

Muslim communities have faced other forms of heat, such as burqa bans and campaigns against mosque-building in Europe, demands to “integrate” into Western societies, scrutiny of Islamic charities, the regular drip of think-tank studies purporting to know what is best for the Muslim world, the constant demands to condemn and confront Islamic terrorists, etc.

Through rabid terminology like “Islamic terrorism,” “Islamofascists,” Islamists, jihadis, etc., many right-wing bigots in the media, politicians and academics in the West and elsewhere have waged virulently anti-Islamic campaigns unchecked. The word “terrorism” has always been associated with acts where Muslims have been involved – Bali, Islamabad, Karachi, Mumbai, Madrid, New York, etc. This, inspite of the fact, that terrorism has been a worldwide phenomena for years, perpetuated by Tamils, Basques, Maoists, Naxalites, Israelis, Colombians and many other non-Muslims.

In India, a Maoist/Naxalite separatist movement has been indulging in acts of terrorism for years but is described in the official and private media as “insurgents,” “militants” or “separatists”, rarely as “terrorists.” Even in the Oslo attack, numerous Western media reports initially referred to the suspect, Anders Behring Breivik, as a “gunman,” “assailant” and “attacker”. Some still seem reluctant to refer to him as a “terrorist” and are trying to find reasons why this act of terrorism should not be considered as such.

Since 22 July 2011, however, the conjoined twins “Islamic terrorism” have been separated. For sure, it is not only “Islamic terrorists” who murder innocent civilians and blow up buildings. The West has seen its own home-grown, blond-and-blue eyed bin Laden. Attempts to spin this inhuman act of violence in any other way will only encourage the next one and add to the widespread public perception in the Islamic world about Western hypocrisy and double-standards.

If Jews were facing such bias, there would have been a global outcry. But when directed at Muslims, the sound of silence by travel & transport industry leaders has echoed loudly. The key question for them is: What next? The answer is simple: Accountability must, and will, become a two-way street.

The travel industry needs to indulge in some deep soul-searching about the consequences of not countering and combatting Islamophobia.  No longer willing to have its intelligence and its institutions insulted, the Islamic world, all 1.2 billion strong (including this editor), now has a right to demand that global security and intelligence agencies pursue Christian and Jewish fundamentalist fanatics with the same zeal and fervour as they pursue “Islamic terrorists.” It has a right to demand that these dangerous lunatics face the same stringent visa checks and profiling at international borders. It has a right to seek check-and-balance mechanisms and total transparency in the event of poor treatment of Muslim visa applicants.

Indeed, developing countries as a whole need to rethink their entire visa-free facility that gives these right-wing fanatics unfettered entry-and-exit access. Islamic countries particularly face a huge security threat from Israeli intelligence agents holding dual passports which they use to walk in freely without visas, work, gather data and influence policies to further the anti-Islam agenda.

The Islamic world has a right to demand an end to the negative definitions associated with the word “Islam” and all its derivatives thereof. In their public comments, Norwegian leaders urged the world to see the Utoya/Oslo attacks as being just that, and not a reflection of the Norwegian people or their democratic, multi-cultural, peaceful and tolerant nature. The Islamic world was long pleading for the same consideration. To no avail.

From published reports, it appears that the blond bin Laden wanted to trigger a revolution. That would have not only been a great victory for the Arab bin Laden but also proved true Samuel Huntington’s infamous “Clash of Civilisations” theory. Diplomatic and academic circles have scoffed at this theory, but there now can be no doubt about its under-currents. In October 2007, the UN World Tourism Organisation convened its first Conference on Tourism, Religions and Dialogue of Cultures in Cordoba, Spain. At that event, this editor warned, arguably for the first time, about the impact of what I referred to as “the other global warming (read my full speech by clicking here).” No-one paid any attention.

Today, the industry has no choice but to pay attention and elevate this “other global warming” to the top-ranked position on the travel & tourism agenda. In the last 10 years, the industry has prioritised safety & security (stemming from terrorism), global warming (of the climate-change variety) and financial/economic crises as the unholy trinity of impacting factors. A fourth factor, geopolitics, can no longer be ignored. Nor can any of its manifestations, such as relations between the West and the Islamic worlds, the rise of Asia, the impact of U.S. foreign policy, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Arab-Israeli conflict, the occupation of Palestine and the Arab awakening, all of which are inter-related. In the rare moments this subject has emerged, it has been a one-way street, with the Arab/Islamic worlds being regarded as the only side in need of “fixing”. It’s the end of that chapter.

In order to prevent history from repeating itself, Europeans need to revisit their own bloodied history, especially the chapters involving Hitler and Mussolini. In turn, Americans need to probe their own home-grown terrorists such as Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma bomber; the suicide pilot who flew a plane into an Austin, Texas, tax-office building in Feb 2010 (which was NOT described as an act of terrorism); the man who shot U.S. Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and others in Jan 2011 (which was NOT described as an act of terrorism); and all those who open fire on people in workplaces, malls and colleges (which are NEVER described as acts of terrorism). They need to probe their own culture of violence, the proliferation of guns in their society, the overwhelming influence of the military-industrial complex on their foreign policy and the swashbuckling portrayal of comic-book superheroes in Hollywood good-vs-evil blockbusters.

Norway can emerge from its mourning to lead this reform and rethink effort. It is, after all, home to the prestigious Nobel Prizes, especially the Peace Prize. It must give new meaning to the clarion-call, “Never Again”. It must push for a new world order based primarily on geopolitical peace and better international understanding. It will find no shortage of global allies, especially in rising-star India, a country that is also facing a huge internal struggle between modernism, secular traditions and liberal values on one hand, and bigotry and fanaticism on the other.

If the Arabs are awakening, a Western awakening and ultimately a Global Awakening must follow. Actioning this agenda will demand not just vision, but wisdom. This rare quality should not be too difficult to harness if the travel & tourism industry remains focused on a very clear goal: The pressing and urgent need to avoid the next death triggered by any and all forms of ethnic, social, cultural or religious bigotry. Beyond just a demonstration of shared values, it will be a fitting and memorable tribute to the many innocent victims of all forms of fundamentalist fanatic violence in Norway and worldwide. They deserve nothing less.