Living with extremist idiots

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 25 September, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 25 September, 2010, 12:00am

Is it my imagination, or is there an increasing tendency for the world to be held to ransom by the tyranny of idiots?

The most notorious example of this in recent weeks was a planned Koran burning in the United States, organised by a former hotel manager turned pastor presiding over a minuscule congregation hitherto shrouded in well-deserved obscurity. This intrepid attention-seeker demanded a meeting with the US president, and succeeded in getting no less a person than the secretary of state to personally intervene.

The book burning has been put on hold, but that has not prevented a violent outburst of indignation in places like Afghanistan and Pakistan - with more demonstrations planned, seemingly regardless of whether the burning takes place. Sensitivity about holy books and sacred images is understandable, and this makes it all too easy for dim-witted opportunists to manipulate these sentiments. Yet it would be absurd to believe, in this instance, that all Americans or even a majority of them are natural-born Koran burners - or indeed that all Muslims are stupid enough to believe that they are.

Yet Islamophobia is clearly spreading, matching the alarming growth of Islamic extremism - which has turned the religion of peace (read all about it in the Koran) into a seemingly intolerant and relentlessly radical movement which adopts relatively new innovations, such as compulsory wearing of the burqa for women, as cornerstones of a faith that has quite enough substance to survive without such humiliating restrictions.

More recently, a hapless American cartoonist jokingly suggested the idea of 'Everybody Draw Mohammed', after a US television channel bowed to protests over an episode of the South Park show which depicted the Prophet in a bear suit. The cartoonist was immediately subjected to a fatwa calling for her assassination and has gone into hiding. The words 'sense of proportion', especially the word 'sense', seem to have got lost here.

Closer to home there seems to be no end of provocations surrounding the uninhabited Diaoyu Islands, whose sovereignty is claimed by China and Taiwan as well as Japan, which calls them the Senkakus. Obviously this dispute is being played out against a background of a real and bitter history of Sino-Japanese conflict, centred on Japanese atrocities during the second world war. Every attempt to address this history - usually consisting of belligerent demands for Japanese apologies, which are more or less met - are quickly overridden by extremists from both sides making symbolic gestures over the sovereignty issue of these little, deserted islands. The policymakers in Beijing, Taipei and Tokyo then retreat to the back seat as the driving position is relinquished to those who want to make trouble.

Part of the problem here is the ease of communication between places that previously experienced far less immediate connection; this produces an instant transfer of information with little thought. This is a good thing in many respects but, like other good things, can be turned into something counterproductive by those who have discovered how easy it is to become the centre of attention.

Given that the ease of communication is only likely to increase and that there is no immediate prospect of the number of idiots decreasing, it seems that we are set for far more confrontations, many of which will end with fatalities. It is probably wrong to assume that global politics has become more extreme - history provides scant evidence of this - but it is reasonable to conclude that the tyranny of extremists is set to increase.

Although British, I am not normally a flag waver, but in this instance I believe the world has much to learn from British attitudes. In the United Kingdom, very few things are held to be sacred: the royal family is routinely mocked in the media, no one gets greatly upset when the Union Jack is burned, and attempts to provoke political leaders by showing disrespect are merely shrugged off.

If the rest of the world would relax a little, the breeding ground for extremist idiots would not disappear but they would be confined to the tiny circle of irrelevance where they rightly belong.

In Hong Kong there is a growing mood of attachment to symbolism and solemnity surrounding anything to do with the state. The humour gene has been surgically removed from our political leadership, and there are worrying signs of objectionable behaviour towards minorities, which could turn nasty.

In other words, we have fertile conditions for idiots seeking to make trouble. It is not too late to make the ground less fertile. We could learn to relax and simply decide not to be provoked by antics that are essentially infantile. Yet somehow I see things moving in another direction. This is great news for attention-seeking idiots and very bad news for the rest of us.

Stephen Vines is a Hong Kong-based journalist and entrepreneur