x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Good guy, bad guy labels just don't work

The reasons for the various uprisings in the Middle East are not the same, nor are the solutions.

A young grocery stall holder in Tunisia, a group of trees in Istanbul, a public street crossing in Bangladesh: today's grand conflicts are built on symbols like these. They are clear and ideologically electrifying.

Politicians, journalists and ordinary folk analyse events through such captivating symbols: we like simplicity, as if life should imitate the good and evil of comic-book superheroes and villains. But reality is not binary.

What strikes me in the media and political analyses of so many conflicts is that in trying to make sense of what is happening, the framing is slapdash and lazy. Bad analysis is dangerous - it exacerbates the situation and can escalate already dire outcomes.

In Turkey, we have a narrative of Islamist versus secularists. The protagonists are caricatured as a Sharia-compliant dictator versus alcohol-drinking, non-headscarf-wearing freedom seekers. But this is neither the Arab Spring nor Occupy. A popular, democratically elected prime minister now more than a decade into power is suffering hubris and exercising an unacceptable heavy-handedness.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Islamist party is neoliberal, his popularity built on phenomenal economic prosperity. But his economic openness belies a tough, almost totalitarian, line on critique and dissent, and a young generation now does not remember Turkey before Erdogan. Instead of navigating such complex and unique Turkish conditions, it's easier to cast bad Islamists as the problem.

In Syria, where all parties have committed atrocities, the bad Islamist versus good secularist paradigm doesn't work because Bashar Al Assad is a bad secularist. So this is framed as a sectarian war, although sectarianism is not its root. What of the Shiites and Alawites opposed to the Assad regime? The incorrect emphasis has become a self-fulfilling prophecy of sectarianism, which makes finding the solution to the conflict even harder and risks inflaming conflict in the wider region, even globally.

In Bangladesh, the gatherings in Shahbag in February were likened to Egypt's Tahrir Square protests, framed as the people demanding justice. But this is lazy and yields incorrect analysis. The protesters supported the government, and there was a crackdown on anti-government protests elsewhere.

The irony is that global news outlets rarely question governments' claims to be democratic. Thus, when conservative Muslim demonstrators with seemingly illiberal demands took to Dhaka's streets on May 6, the police response was far more violent and lethal than the events in Taksim Square, with estimates of protesters killed ranging from 30 to hundreds.

This atrocity was hardly covered in the international media. Instead, it was the victims who were scrutinised for being "fundamentalist".

In every case, we must ask difficult questions to hold authorities to account: Does this explanation make sense? Why are we using a frame of reference from a different situation, or from a historic past that may no longer be relevant? Who has a vested interest in pushing this perspective?

It is natural to yearn for easy moral judgement; to be sure we are supporting the good and the just. But conflicts require difficult judgements in the many shades of grey between good and evil.

We must start by creating good analysis and destroying the pernicious binary frameworks that only polarise a complicated and dangerous world.


Shelina Zahra Janmohamed is the author of Love in a Headscarf and blogs at www.spirit21.co.uk