From Pol Pot to Isis, what 'provokes such madness in men'? And what can we do?
I hesitate to return to the theme I introduced in the last contribution that I made as a columnist for Marlborough News Online, but the awful events in Paris on Friday, 13 November inevitably provoke a reaction in all of us. And if I’m honest, exploring my own reaction to those events and writing it down is a form of therapy, so please bear with me.
In 1980 I witnessed, while working for Oxfam’s emergency team in Cambodia, the immediate aftermath of the ghastly Pol Pot Khmer Rouge regime, which over the period 1974-79 was responsible for the deaths of almost two million people of a total population of six million people in what became known as ‘the Killing Fields’.
I heard the stories of those that had survived that period, stories that included everything from working in the paddy fields from dawn to dusk, eating rats, grasshoppers and lizards to survive, to being told that singing and laughter was banned on pain of being brutally beaten and watching family members die of starvation, disease or assassination.
I witnessed a complete breakdown of trust between fellow Cambodians “He might have ‘blood on his hands’”.
Inevitably, one asks the question “Why?”
What is it that provokes such madness in men, and it is almost always men (it seems that this was the case in Paris), that they are able to perpetrate such iniquities and cause so much suffering in fellow human beings? What are the ingredients that lead to such violence? Why the Khmer Rouge, Isis, Al Shabaab, Boko Haram?
There is no doubt that conflict, poverty whether material or intellectual and a feeling of impotence are pretty essential ingredients and certainly that was the case in Cambodia which had been illegally and widely bombed by the US because it was seen as a route by which the Northern based Communist Vietcong were supplying their troops in South Vietnam along the so-called Ho Chi Minh trail.
The immediate aftermath of that conflict in 1975 provided the environment for this fundamentalist Khmer Rouge group, who wanted to annihilate anyone with an education and do away with a monetary system and instead worship the Angkor, the peasant and the growing of rice.
I remember walking down a semi-deserted main street in Phnom Penh with Henry Kamm a well known journalist from the Washington Post who had covered Indo China for many years including the Vietnam war, when a group of children approached us, thinking we were Russians, as the Communists were in control, and shouted at us “Soviets! Soviets! Soviets!”.
Henry turned to me and said, “Nick, that’s interesting. In the 1950s the children of Phnom Penh used to shout “Francais! Francais!” Then in the 1960s and 70s they shouted “Americains! Americains!” and now they are shouting “Soviets! Soviets!”
What a reflection of continuous outside interference in Cambodia from the West, and control through force, leading to a feeling of impotence and the fight back we then witnessed in the form of the Khmer Rouge.
And now here again, conflict in Iraq and Syria and poverty leading to the migrant crisis and a sense of impotence by young men, seem to be ingredients out of which these ghastly atrocities in Paris have occurred.
So what to do?
If I am right then to face conflict with yet more conflict cannot and must not be the answer. This will surely be playing into the hands of Isis. And anyway, there seems to be an assumption that Isis has a headquarters in Syria, whereas it is more likely that it is a diffuse organisation led through the internet with followers in many different countries
Engagement, whether at a political, diplomatic or civil society level has got to be the way forward. But that is not easily a solution to which we in Marlborough can contribute.
But in our own society, what are we doing to engage with people who are of different faiths and cultures and thus understand their feelings - possibly of alienation?
What are we doing to recognise the importance of identity and appreciate that for many people in our society whether first, second or third generation immigrants there is a struggle in understanding one’s identity? Am I black, white, Caribbean, African, Indian, British, Sikh, Christian, Muslim? And this struggle in itself can lead to despair and conflict.
Of one thing I am clear in considering the events of Friday, 13 November. This was not an Islamic reaction. It had nothing to do with Islam. We in Marlborough have had the opportunity over 33 years to engage with Muslims in our link community of Gunjur and here in Marlborough in the days when we were able to get visas for friends to come over.
You should have heard the reactions to the suggestion that what happened on 9/11 was done in the name of Islam! And I am daily receiving e-mails from Muslim friends in Gunjur now outraged by the actions of Isis supposedly in the name of Islam and the impact these actions are having on the rise of Islamophobia around the world.
We have met with extraordinary generosity and kindness from our Muslim friends and colleagues in Gunjur and witnessed a social wealth that has to a large extent disappeared in our society.
When I am in Gunjur in a week’s time I will be sitting down with friends there and asking the question “Why do you think the world is in such turmoil?” and “What do you think we, from Gunjur and Marlborough, can and should do about it?” I’ll report back.
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