I find “Christ and the Soldier” by Siegfried Sassoon a gripping tale of war and carnage. The poem was written after the Battle of the Somme and is a conversation between a soldier and Christ which ends:
"Lord Jesus, ain't you got no more to say?"
Bowed hung that head below the crown of thorns. The soldier shifted, and picked up his pack, and slung his gun, and stumbled on his way.
"O God," he groaned, “why ever was I born?”
I was born in Afghanistan in 1981 and lived my early childhood in Kabul under Soviet occupation; I survived the brutal guerrilla war against the Soviets, I lost friends and family to Mujaheedin War of Kabul, I kept my spirit through the Taliban reign of tyranny and I braved journeys to escape to Europe. I know what it is like to be on the other side of the European border, the large governments united to keep the little man at bay. I believe there are lessons to be learned from wars to strengthen tolerance and foster shared values.
I am now a British Citizen and live in Brighton. I watch in astonishment racist, xenophobic, anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiments taking root in most of Europe. In some countries they are translated in to legislation and far right parties are part of governing coalitions. Even if they aren’t in power, the far right influences political and social policies in the EU; recent examples are Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands. For years the EU manipulated social policies under the guise of “European Values” to remodel nationalism. In this climate, identitarian and ethnic agendas were strengthened to bolster “self-pride”. We live in a society of intolerance and darkness and fail to understand the complexities of past wars and contemporary challenges, doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past and blunder our way in to modern conflicts.
I have learned a few things about conflict and intolerance from personal encounters and its history in Europe, which I will attempt to summarise here. First is the fallibility and weakness of humans: people despair when faced with tough choices and under threat, and when we despair we commit depraved acts. In order to engage with people, we ought to see behind their shortcomings so we understand their point of view. The second is the false belief in the superiority of European culture or nations: other people are not malign or evil and what we recognise as a nation or group is often an artificial construct. Third is the power of lies. Anyone with some political awareness must have seen how misinformation has shaped our societies recently. Finally, and most importantly, is the fragility of our peaceful existence. My world has crumbled on several occasions and no one saw it coming. We lost our home and lives the third time in a flash, and as unexpectedly as the first time; we were astounded by the power and speed of the storm that swept comforts from under our feet and blew our dreams away. We are all responsible for sustaining peace and tolerance by creating positive stories about our collective identity and confronting false myths.
Fear of Evil and the myth of monsters
I was seeing a woman early 2018 and on one of the first few dates she invited me to the cinema to watch “The Shape of Water”. The movie is about Elisa, a mute living with a closeted artist who is transfixed by classic Hollywood TV shows and a boss who turns out to be a Russian spy with a heart of gold. Elisa takes on the task of saving a captured alien water monster from painful death at the hands of Richard Strickland. He is a man with the looks of a classic, square jawed protagonist; only he's the actual monster, murderous and literally rotting alive. The film removes all pretences of the outsiders being dangerous and instead, paints them as unconventional heroes and the monsters are the conventional heroes. I thought it was an interesting choice she made for a movie date particularly with anxieties and fears around dating an Afghan man and my history of resorting to unconventional solutions in order to survive in evil situations. Perhaps partly thanks to the movie we did bond and are happily together.
The movie Director Guillermo del Toro at Bafta thanked Mary Shelley, Frankenstein author, for “picking up the plight of Caliban and she gave weight to the burden of Prometheus, and she gave voice to the voiceless and presence to the invisible, and she showed me that sometimes to talk about monsters, we need to fabricate monsters of our own”. I believe Frankenstein, Caliban and Prometheus and other tales and myths of monsters are also tales of ordinary people. Many of us won’t recognise this until we are facing the same kind of fear, tragedy and rejection. The classic monsters are very much like us; they have worries, fears, aspirations and dreams that are very similar to us. We want them to be like us but not just quite us, so we are comfortable to rationalise their suffering.
I am not arguing that Evil do not exist, it does; the real question to investigate is where is the true evil and its often not the people we are led to believe to be monsters but very much hidden within the structure and system we choose to place our trust in. We should be looking within rather than seeking monsters. We all recognise Hitler or Stalin as evil but in their time they enjoyed massive support and were seen as heroes. Our take on them is a lesson from history, a leaf from memories that were carefully constructed to help us shape our opinion. In other words, it’s a distortion of true events and reality. It is impossible for us to grasp the reality unless we understand the bureaucracy of governments, nationalism and the banality of evil. The machinery of the state projects as omnipotent and we believe it will never fall foul to deviants. In their time Hitler or Stalin at most would be thought as deviants; very much like Victor Orban. Its deviants like Victor Orban that we should be mindful in their use of state machinery and perfecting that palatable racism, which is a public language that doesn’t sound racist on the surface but its pronouncement are intolerant and xenophobic.
The three groups we identified are: Monsters, tragic but not vicious; Evil, malicious but conceal by power as protagonist; and average person, mostly indifferent and majority of humanity. The last and unspoken group is the great people who do great deeds and are good natured.
The superiority complex
The political right claims to be concerned with fostering self-pride and recognising white identity but that is the language they use to conceal their agenda which is to mobilise resentment against the left, political elite and migrants. The far right has used immigrants as a political device and as a symbol of government failure and part of a process of eliminating white heritage and identity. This message resonates with the public and has led them to success and power in several European countries.
The centre-left has been shunned for its failure to offer a sufficiently radical alternative and has been reduced to a small radical alternative section that is more of a geographic phenomenon. We have radical groups on the right and on the left who don’t talk to each other or like each other. This schism in European politics is unprecedented and a new height of political intolerance.
Apart from the radical left the success of populism has compelled all major parties to adopt an anti-immigration policy, but they all got it wrong, except for the populist right wing. The problem is not migration, it is needed by the labour market and a prerequisite of the international trade system. The problem is fear of migrants. It’s essentially a failure of optimism, a failure of imagination; the future is seen as bleak, full of problems, no jobs and dominated by people with dysfunctional cultures. This will come up in every social survey and the populist solution is to scapegoat the immigrants for what otherwise is a lack of political vision.
Populists have used this fear to perfect a rhetoric that balances finely its racist views while toning down pronouncements to plausible deniability level of racism. Outright recourse to hateful speech will damage social cohesion and is still unacceptable. It argues to promote a sense of racial purity. It has successfully promoted racism while denouncing it. Its lines and ranks are filled by racists and bigots but they will deny any such agenda.
The centre-right and centre-left took immigration literally but gradually have come to realise mass disillusion with their policies and now use the same simplified, sensational, repetitive and slogan based language as the populists.
I saw this in Kabul in 1992 where shallow, banal and sinister people took charge and everyone else jumped on the bandwagon to enjoy in their success by lending gravity to their bigotry; to extract meaning and purpose in what otherwise is cliché, rotting and malicious. This led to the rise of Taliban and turning a bad situation into worst.
The power of lies
When politics and society is balkanised and groups hold irreconcilable views people find it easier to believe in misinformation and lies rather than seek and verify facts; its because we take comfort from the tightness of our group and questioning group beliefs are seen as disloyal. The political elites use repetitive and stereotypical messages which are generally lies to create zealots and fanatics rather than promote understanding.
When the war broke out in Kabul city my family fled to the countryside. The country side was controlled for the past 15 years by Mujahedeen with conservative Islamic customs and traditions. Kabul was under the government controlled until 1992 when collapsed. Kabul was liberal by comparison with universities, cinemas, theatres and education and jobs for women, yet it remained deeply Afghan with traditions, religion and customs running deep. When I arrived in the village my great uncles and relatives questioned me on fundamental principles of Islam. They were shocked to find out that I was well educated on Islamic traditions and history. They believed that all people living in Kabul were infidels and enemies of God. It was considered an honour for true Muslims to kill Kabuli heathens. Several weeks after our arrival one of my cousins who was my age would still regularly seek assurances from me to confirm that all Kabulis were not apostates and reprobates.
I wondered why the false belief was so strongly rooted but only had to wait until the evening. On the first night the family gathered in an orchard under a fig tree and after tea and meal were listening to the radio. The radio station was not the one I used to listen to in Kabul but was run by Hizbi Islami, a fundamentalist faction. The content and language of the programmes were very new to me and the description of ongoing brutal war in Kabul was absolutely false – nowadays they would be called “fake news” – yet everybody believed in it. The mass killing of civilians trapped in the besieged city was portrayed as a necessity to cleanse the soul of the country. Tens of thousands of people died in a war that should be classed as genocide but to their compatriots who believed in different politics or loyal to a specific faction it wasn’t a cause for concern.
As the number of people fleeing war from Kabul grew in the countryside, they started to question the “news” and provided another side of the story. One day during the Friday prayer in the mosque the Imam who had ties with Hizbi Islami warned the public about new rumours and called them fake. He said they were spread by malicious people who have come from other places and warned there will be consequences for those spreading those rumours or what we will call “fake news” – and that anyone spreading them would be punished.
Tens of thousands of people, including my family members, were killed in a war shaped by lies in Kabul. Lies about Jews, Soviets, Germans and other groups killed tens of millions of people in Europe. Those lies are back and it seems like we haven’t learned much from it. We won’t be able to argue in good conscious that we were never warned about it or did not understand the consequences of where lies will take us. Questioning “Fake News” means questioning our assumptions and way of life and its uncomfortable, its easy to condemn others. But courage by definition is confront our darkest beliefs and looking inward for solutions.
The unexpected storm
Government and its institutions by its nature produce a narrative of stability, deceiving us that the collapse of current order is unimaginable. This is very counterintuitive to the lessons of history. Every book or movie of any conflict will tell us that the protagonist lived a peaceful and serene life which was ruptured by war. For instance, Ivan’s Childhood is an Andrei Tarkovsky’s film about experiences of a 12-year-old protagonist living in two sharply contrasting worlds. The dark, dank shadows of reality and another familiar life of idyllic scenery and bathed in a soft, nurturing sunlight. The film won a prestigious Golden Lion and a flattering review from none other but Jean-Paul Sartre.
The perfect antidote to the nature of government is populist rhetoric; it produces the dynamics of crisis where escalation and dominance is the solution to problems of social dialogue. This create unreasonable fears and prompt otherwise unnecessary schism.
There is no reverting back from this situation until a disaster strike. It will destroy the political equilibrium and alter some social moralities and myths. A new leadership will rise which will oversee the creation of new myths about us and translate harshest lessons into political doctrine to guide the future.
 What we think as Evil is described as unattractive, vile and foul. their tragedy deepens. This is further deepened by rejection. They are alienated further as society recoils from them. As an allegory of our responsibility to children, outsiders, or those who don’t conform to conventional ideals of beauty, there isn’t a stronger one