05/06/2024 01:11 PM
From Nina Muslim

War, which many may say is good for absolutely nothing -- that is, if you're familiar with the 1969 song War by Edwin Starr -- has been a fixture in the world lately.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine is now in its second year, and Israel's offensive against Gaza shows no signs of stopping or abating, as well as the wars in Syria, Yemen and Sudan. 

Afghanistan, under the Taliban, remains restive. Nearby Azerbaijan and Armenia ended their decades-old conflict in Karabakh, but there are fears that lasting peace is not achievable.

Closer to home, the civil war in Myanmar continues, creating about three million refugees fleeing to neighbouring Bangladesh and Southeast Asian countries, including Malaysia. At the Malaysia-Thai border, sporadic violence breaks out, largely blamed on the inability of Southern Thais, who are culturally and ethnically Malay, to practise their culture and religion freely.

With the increase in conflicts, so has the number of refugees.

Last year, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported on World Refugee Day, which falls on June 20, the number of refugees at the end of 2022 totalled 35.3 million, a new record since World War II. Of this number, 2.4 million need resettlement to a third country.

There are no figures for this year so far, although the UNHCR told the Security Council on May 30 that the number of refugees and internally displaced people worldwide will be higher. 

Accompanying this influx of refugees seeking safety is an apparent rise in xenophobia and anti-immigrant backlash from local populations, sometimes with violent results. One oft-cited reason is cultural misunderstandings or incompatibility.

Experts say that accepting and respecting different cultures were key in ensuring peace, but there is also a need to look inwards and understand what constitutes culture and customs.



At the 6th World Forum on Intercultural Dialogue in Baku, Azerbaijan recently, world experts and policymakers discussed how cultural exchanges can promote peace within and outside the country.

Criminologist Dr Yemisi Laura Sloane told Bernama that cultural misunderstandings are actually a power struggle between people over a certain set of ideas they have, and not the culture itself.

Dr. Yemisi Laura Sloane, lecturer in criminology at the University of Westminster in UK. Credit: Nina Muslim/Bernama

She used the example of honour killings, where adherents to the tradition would kill their daughters or female relatives over perceived slights to the family. 

“Culture generally is a way of life. Way of life includes, I don't know, your food, your religion, and so on and so forth. Now, when power comes into it or that unequal power imbalance comes into it, it looks like culture, but really it's not, because culture is communal … agreeing to be bound by certain values,” she said.

She added instances of power struggle, such as honour killings, are actually based on ideology. 

Although illegal, honour killings occasionally occur in some parts of the Middle East, South Asia and Africa, among immigrants from these communities. The slights usually pertain to sexual activities, even if the woman was raped, or marriage, such as refusal to marry or marrying without consent of the family. 

“(The thinking goes,) ‘I am more powerful than you because of my gender. I am more powerful than you because I am a man.’ And so that's where honour killing comes into place. You have dishonoured me as a man, and so I am going to kill you. So it's not culture. It's patriarchy. It's gender inequality,” Sloane said.

She added such negative customs can be unlearned, for the good of community and society, although the process may not be easy.



The power struggle in intercultural interactions comes out as xenophobic and ethnocentric feelings and actions.

Anthropologist and sociologist Assoc Prof Dr Azrina Husin said xenophobia and ethnocentrism come from “the way we arrange ourselves, how society arranges itself. So it is basically about (an) in group and out group.”

She said xenophobia covers negative perceptions, negative feelings and negative attitudes that one has towards another group or people, usually but not necessarily from another country. 

As for ethnocentrism, it is the feeling that one’s culture is superior to others.

“We feel that (the others) are not up to our standards. So in a way, we view our culture as superior, and that should be the benchmark for other cultures that we are interacting with or come in contact with,” she said via Zoom.

She added some can feel the out group is threatening one’s way of life, culture and identity. And if not managed well, these feelings could escalate towards violence, ethnic-based violence or violence towards the other group.

Xenophobia and ethnocentrism are unlikely to lead to violence without a spark, such as inflammatory rhetoric. While in the past, gatekeepers such as legacy media and laws have managed to keep a lid on such agitators, the advent of social media and the decreasing influence of traditional media, have led to acts of stochastic terrorism.

Stochastic terrorism is defined, by Dictionary.com, as the public demonisation of a person or group resulting in the incitement of a violent act.

Social media was blamed for the spread of anti-migrant and anti-refugee sentiments in Malaysia during COVID-19 restrictions, for example.

Azrina, who is also a faculty member of the School of Social Sciences at the Universiti Sains Malaysia in Penang, told Bernama that many take advantage of the anonymous nature of social media to spread hate speech.

Calling freedom of speech “a cornerstone of democracy,” she said social media has introduced more freedom of speech and expression to Malaysia. However, she cautioned that the concept of freedom of speech has been twisted.

 “(People think) anything goes (under) freedom of speech. I mean, I can say (hateful things) and that's my opinion … (people) can say what they want without being civil, without being responsible, to propagate hate speech … but that's not what freedom of speech is about,” she said. 

Experts at the forum said it is important to exert and enforce some standards on social media, adding that doing so would not be curbing free speech, but instead encouraging it.

Fernando Lottenberg, Organisation of American States (OAS) Commissioner to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism. Credit: Nina Muslim/Bernama

Organisation of American States (OAS) Commissioner to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism Fernando Lottenberg, who is from Brazil, said current social media platforms encourage outrage, which is usually achieved via hate and incitement, with very little done to curb it. He added such unfettered freedom is not necessarily good for society. 

“We have to cherish (freedom of expression), we have to take care of it, and something that favours the circulation of ideas. But at the same time, no freedom is absolute,” he said. 

“It has to live with other principles, and among them, the dignity of the human person, the respect, the non discrimination, not admitting racism or hate speech,” he added.



While legislation will hopefully reduce the incidence of hate speech, Lottenberg warned that most of the action must be within reason. Most importantly, social media needs a human touch.

“I think curatorship, human care, human eye, limited to the quantity of the things that are posted publicly should have an important role and a final role in deciding what is ready to be published or deserves to be published and remain in the network,” he said.

However, the likelihood of tech companies, especially with the increasing prevalence of Artificial Intelligence (AI) on digital platforms, utilising humans for content moderation is unlikely without being required to do so.

All hope is not lost although the road may be rocky. Experts said the best way is to cultivate awareness and teach open-mindedness through social programmes, in homes, at work and others.

Azrina said it is especially important to approach technology with a curiosity of other cultures in an increasingly connected world. She also warned against being completely online, as real-life interactions with people outside one’s community will help intercultural understanding.

Sloane, who is a lecturer at University of Westminster in United Kingdom, agreed. She said saying intercultural clashes would continue to happen until the majority is committed to acceptance of each other’s cultures.

“The true meaning of inclusion is not about who is better than the other, which culture is better than the other. It's about tolerating each other,” she said.


Edited by Salbiah Said


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