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Artist CV-Abdul Halik Azeez_Feb2017

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What if I told you, that the world we live in, in something that is constructed for us, not something that is constructed by us. You and I are recipients of ideas, we are re-producers of ideas, not producers of them. Our ways of seeing the world, of perceiving it, of understanding it, and, as a consequence, of acting within it, are all determined for us, not by us.

Take for instance our idea of success. Success, after all, is the purpose of our lives. Today success is determined purely in economic terms. Whole countries are measured by financial metrics. And the general perception is that the greater our wealth, the happier we will be, and the less conflict there will be on earth. But as numerous studies have shown, this is utterly false. And the funny thing is, we know this. It is crystal clear that money doesn’t bring you happiness, we say it all the time. But today the economy isn’t working for humanity, humanity is working for economic power. But the idea of “wealth equals happiness” is so strong that it still manages to keep us working 60 hour workweeks, sometimes even more, slaving for a paradigm we don’t really believe in.

What if I told you that the biggest questions of our existence have been sabotaged by institutions. And these institutions are creating for us a version of reality that is distinctly biased in favor of those that control them. These institutions can be religious, economic, political, social or industrial. For any big idea that exists out there, there is an institution aiming to control it.

There are institutions today telling us what a government should look like, what the edicts of a given religion should be, what romantic love should look like, what beauty should look like, who a terrorist is and isn’t, what patriotism should and should not mean, which wars are just and which one’s aren’t, which causes are valid, and which ones aren’t. Even the debates we have today are mostly constructions of these self-same institutions, we are simply choosing between alternatives, not constructing our own. Freedom of thought has become an illusion.

In the true spirit of capitalism, we have outsourced even our capacity for critical thinking. Today we are told what to be and what to do in order to be happy. And it is making the world a horrible place to live in. People have become slaves to materialism, blind to murder and mass killings in their name, and are destroying the resources of the planet in the process.

And it’s a pity because a lot us, if not all of us, belong to belief systems and adhere to philosophies that tell us to question, to critique. You could be a Muslim, a Christian, a Buddhist, a Hindu, a Jew, a Socialist or a Democrat. The original purpose of every single one of your ideas was to strive to break existing molds of seeing, and give you a new set of revolutionary eyes with which to view the world.

Having been born a Muslim, I only read the Qur’an in its English translation for the first time in my life in my early twenties. It was only then that I realized how much the qur’an itself strongly calls for its readers to reflect on their surroundings, to question and to challenge existing paradigms. Vision, I realized, seeing things clearly, is central to the Islamic creed. And there is a lot in Islam today that is extremely muddied. But vision is also central to Buddhism, to Christianity, Hinduism and all other faiths and philosophies that seek to dictate how a human being should ‘be’ in the world.

If human beings cannot see clearly, we cannot function in a manner that properly takes account of the world around us. We cannot make decisions that will collectively lead to a better world. And what’s more, we collectively contribute to a world that is bad, and gets worse. Albert Einstein once said, “The world is a dangerous place not because of those who do harm, but because of those who look at it and do nothing.” Ergo, the world is a dangerous place because of you and I.

Out of this realization was born a thesis. If more people could critically connect with their beliefs, more people would see the world for what it really is. And if more people saw the world for what it is, more people would act. And if everyone acted, change will happen. As a Muslim, this becomes by purpose in life. My Jihad. Now jihad itself is a term that has been mangled by the media, and extremists alike today. This negative perception has been further bolstered by the refusal of the silent majority to stand up and contest it. Making it essentially a case study for what I am talking about.

What we see and hear of ‘Jihad’ popular discourse is picture of brutal, mindless violence. ‘Holy war’ is the most popular term used to describe it, but that’s a term that isn’t even in the Islamic vocabulary. Jihad is not ‘holy war’. In its true conception, Jihad is something we can all relate to, Muslim or no. Because Jihad simply means to strive and struggle. An internal struggle. The poet Arthur Rimbaud one said “the battle for the soul is as brutal as the battles of men”. But I would say it’s far more brutal, because the struggle here is subtle.

The Hindu philosopher Swami Chimayananda talks of an “internal guerilla warfare” because “the enemy is never out in the open, it ducks and hides, comes out and attacks and then runs and hides again”. This is what the battlefield of ideas, inside our own selves, looks like. And to paraphrase Tariq Ramadan, “If you have goal in life, then to reach that goal you have a path. And by having a path all you need to know is that you will face struggle”. Overcoming that struggle is Jihad. So Jihad may be understood through the metaphor of war, but that is about as far as it goes. And what’s more, you don’t necessarily need to be a Muslim to have a jihad.

So how do I go about my Jihad? I use whatever skills and tools I have at my disposal at the moment. And social media is one of them. The internet is another place that casts upon us the illusion of freedom, of consequence-free self-expression, and of pure unadulterated, uncensored information. And perhaps it was like that in the beginning. But no longer. Like everything else, the internet is also increasingly controlled by a few leading institutions, who now own the vast majority of the online real estate that you and I occupy. The presence of these institutions shapes what we see online, how we react to what we see, and even what we say and express. The internet influences our opinions. It mines us for commercial gain. We think we use the internet, but in reality it is mostly the converse now, the internet uses us.

But I use one of these very institutions as a platform for spreading my message. I started using Instagram in September 2012. Instagram allows you to share photographs and captions in an easy to access, easy to digest platform. Most of us tend to think that photography, while creative, cannot construct reality in the manner of a painting, which can depict anything the skill and vision of the painter can conceivably think of. But photography isn’t simply reality reproduced. A photographer has just as much leeway to manipulate reality as any artist, and he does this by manipulating what is inside the frame. Instagram adds yet another dimension that provides you with a tool to enhance your story, which is text. I do what I do by using photographic composition, and accompanying text, to ‘redefine’ the space in my own terms, to tell the story I want.

What I try to do then is to use a platform like instagram and to subvert it with my ideas. In a small way I see what I am doing as what Umberto Eco called ‘Semiological Guerilla Warfare’. According to him, reality is constructed via semiotics, signs and symbols. And the only way to challenge these signs and symbols is to attack them with your own. Mandela talked about mirroring the oppressor’s tactics as the only effective way to combat him. To me this clearly underlines what social media based activism tries to do. Instagram is my battlefield and my ‘weapons’ are my photographs and captions. And the landscape I hope to change, to shift and influence, the space I hope to ‘re-imagine’, is the landscape of ideas, of worldviews.

But change doesn’t happen easily, especially when your goal is to influence minds, and especially the minds of other people. This becomes particularly problematic when you are dealing with a platform like social media which is absolutely crowded with noise that will try to drown you out. The attention span of your target audience is less than minuscule, and the lack of sufficient metrics will tell you how many ‘likes’ you get, but won’t tell you if that ‘like’ means that someone stopped and took the time to internalize the message, or simply brushed passed with a courtesy click on the ‘heart’ button.

For internal change to happen, in my opinion and experience, there must first be a dissonance; a dissonance between the reality you see and the reality you can sense, a dissonance between what you look at, and what you see. Most of us feel this dissonance on a daily basis, but only a few of us explore it, widen it. What I seek to do then is to provide stimuli that trigger and widen this dissonance, all I can hope for really is to jolt someone just a little bit off their beaten path in the hope that one day it will help lead them in a new direction. And in the process I test my own beliefs and assumptions. And whenever I am challenged, I am forced to criticize myself. And in the process I learn. And this to me is my service to myself, to the world and to God. To connect with my beliefs and to test them, while at the same time conveying them to others. This is my Jihad.

All of us lead an existence akin to human beings in the movie, The Matrix. Or to provide a more classic example, the shackled people in Plato’s Cave. All of us are blinded by our inability to see the truth. And in that blindness are absolutely convinced that we are clear sighted. But each of us also has insights that the rest of us don’t. Each of us sense a different glitch in the matrix, and so each of us have the potential to work towards unshackling others, together to ultimately work to reveal the matrix for what it really is.

All men’s minds are a dark labyrinth. We never pause to ask if what we believe is true. But occasionally life shows us rabbit holes with fluffy white tails disappearing into enticing unknowns; or it stretches out a hand, offering us a choice between a blue pill and a red one. Take the red pill, dive into the rabbit hole. Search for your Truth. Find your Jihad. Watch out for the omens that will guide you they are literally everywhere. As the Buddha said, there are only two mistakes one can make on the road to truth, not going all the way, and not starting.

a grieving mother in Killi. Years after the war, still no closure over the loss of her son.

a grieving mother in Killi. Years after the war, still no closure over the loss of her son.

Originally published on Groundviews under a pseudonym.

Kiru is a soft spoken but hard-nosed activist from Jaffna. He and I both attended the opening ceremony of the recently concluded World Conference on Youth (WCY) in Hambantota, and he and I both watched as the President got up on stage and spoke about the eradication of terrorists, and of the successful re-integration of ex-combatants into society. The tone was heroic, victorious, Sri Lanka had ‘done away with terror’ and was ‘on its way’ to paraphrase Bathiya and Santhush’s lyrics for the Conference’s theme song.

Kiru had lost his mother to cancer and the LTTE when he was twelve. She couldn’t be brought into Colombo for treatment because the way was blocked. The care she needed simply wasn’t available in Jaffna at the time, and so her three boys and husband had no choice but to simply watch as she slowly succumbed. Today Kiru works with people traumatized by conflict; the post war displaced, ex-combatants, war widows, children.

Later that night, he told me how ex-combatants, former heroes in their villages, are now less than nothing. Repeatedly harassed by armed forces, they have no privacy and they are free only in name. Many of them, depressed, have resorted to suicide. Kiru’s voice shakes with emotion. The Tamil population in the North, by and large, are regarded with acute suspicion. Public gatherings are closely watched. Extra-judicial justice is doled out liberally by paramilitaries that are watching for just the hint of a step in the wrong direction.

In the beginning of this year I witnessed long-time residents of Colombo being uprooted from their ancestral homes with little more than a few weeks’ notice. The social costs of such a massive internal displacement of peoples completely ignored in the driving urge of greed and ‘economic growth’.

In 2013 I witnessed and participated in anti-hate campaigns in Sri Lanka, protesting against emerging Islamophobia and anti-Muslim sentiment. The Bodu Bala Sena and its ilk, once in possession of an almost overwhelmingly powerful voice in the country, has now seemingly lost some of its influence. But it still operates and threatens to re-emerge in force; having forged ties with the deadly 969 movement in Burma, extremists that have set in a motion a genocide against Burmese Rohingya. It is not a stretch to imagine that the Bodu Bala Sena would like to see the same thing happen to Sri Lankan Muslims.

Everywhere, I see matters dealt with hardness. With very little tact, genuine sensitivity and caring, concepts that should have been at the top of our post war agenda for the country. The Lessons Learned for Reconciliation Commission (LLRC)’s recommendations have been all but brushed under the carpet. It is as if we as a nation have simply refused to acknowledge our past. Like much of our attitudes to mental illnesses and psychological scars, we choose to gloss over, ignore, walk-over. Choosing to point at the faults of our critics instead.

I grew up in the war, not in the same way as those who were actually in the warzones, but my childhood was clouded by spells of terrified thought that I would lose one of my parents to a bomb blast. One night, when my father took hours to return home after the train bombings of ‘96, a commute he usually made after work, my fears were almost realized. Almost. One of my friends wasn’t so lucky, his father died in that train, and his mother permanently lost her sight.

Life was full of bad omens then. The plume of black smoke I saw from my 3rd floor classroom, rising into the air after a bomb blast in ’98; the plastic makeshift window-covering bursting free with a loud pop as the Central Bank bomb of ‘96 went off. Chaos at school, teachers relating stories of bloody corpses and mangled bodies to each other; heedless of listening kids. The severed head of a suicide bomber on TV became an almost routine, expected sight.

Looking back I am surprised and very thankful to the Almighty that the war never really touched me. And I am grateful, grateful more than anything else that the war has ended. We are definitely freer, more liberated and safer. I salute the government for its efforts in that. No one likes to talk about the gluttony of war until it ends. War today, it seems, is never clean. Which, I think, is why the whole human rights debate provokes so many mixed feelings among Sri Lankans.

But as long as the war didn’t directly touch me I was happy to be as ignorant of it as possible while it lasted. But I can’t afford that luxury now. Because life is again full of bad omens. As I sit here and reflect on the last five years I realize one thing, and one thing only. This realization is not some major intellectual breakthrough that will now change the direction of our post war discourse. It is a very simple realization. One that I know many others of my generation have come to. The realization is this; the war is now over, but the conflict still isn’t.

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The BBS ringing tone on Mobitel had recorded nearly  a 1000 buys as of 9am, 27 March

The BBS ringing tone on Mobitel had recorded nearly a 1000 buys as of 9am, 27 March

Racist and hate groups are supposed to remain on the sidelines of society, screaming their subversive rhetoric in order to appeal to the seedier side of the collective conscience. Their funding usually comes from shadowy sources with powerful interests and money to be made from destruction and chaos. All of them invariably will remain behind the scenes, after all  who in the name of God would want to be publicly associated with hatred?

Mobitel, apparently. Mobitel the subsidiary of the publicly listed Sri Lanka Telecom. One of the country’s largest telecom services companies, and one of the most visible corporates in Sri Lanka. Mobitel has been openly funding hate groups such as the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) and Sinhala Ravaya. Evidence of Mobitel support for extremists first emerged at a BBS rally held in Panadura when it was announced that a ringing tone available for download via Mobitel would help fund the organization’s racist activity. Images (later published on Sanjaya Senanayake’s facebook profile, who by the way i must thank for much of the research for this post) revealed Mobitel advertisements in a newsletter of the Sinhala Ravaya. Uncharacteristically, Mobitel’s Facebook group has been avoiding all contact and even deleting posts of protests against this, for now, their once dynamic social media team seems to have slunk under a rock.

Widely known for their extremist nationalism, these groups have already attacked mosques, churches and even other Buddhist temples conducted illegal raids, spread fear and paranoia and generally taken a very loud and belligerent stance toward the country’s minorities. After initially targeting the Halal certification of the All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulama (which was peacefully resolved thanks in part to the ACJU’s good sense), the BBS has now turned its attention on the Hijab an element of Muslim culture that in some form or the other has been present in this country for centuries, and always in peaceful coexistence with other communities. The emergence of apparent large scale corporate backing for their activity is worrying to say the least.

A quick look at the ownership of Sri Lanka Telecom reveals some unsurprising and surprising details. Unsurprisingly you would find that the majority of the shares (49.5%) is owned by the government, 5.5% by the general public. This is kind of well known. SLT was fully owned by the government until it was partially privatized some years ago. But surprisingly, if you’d forgotten this little detail, shares owned by the Japanese NTT Communications were then sold to Treasury and Global Telecommunication Holdings N.V. This is supposedly an entity based in Netherlands but is actually a fully owned subsidiary of Usaha Tegas Sdn. Bhd  an investment firm based in Malaysia. Usaha Tegas also owns Maxis a Malaysian telecom giant. Sandip Das and Chan Chee Beng from Usaha Tegas serve on the boards of both Maxis and SLT.

It is rather ironic that Mobitel’s second biggest shareholder and the lifeline of its management and capital is based in a Muslim country, while at the same time it funds extremist right wing organizations pursuing strong racist agendas against Muslims and other minorities in Sri Lanka. If the BBS is anything to go by, Mobitel’s senior management probably has no issue with this glaring inconsistency in its moral standpoint. Last week I heard an Australian-Sri Lankan citizen and a member of the BBS, Chanaka Perera, comment on help received from a monk based in Malaysia to the BBS whilst at the same time condemning Muslims as a whole purely based on his views on Saudi Arabia. Hate is deaf to reason they say.

Mobitel has so far shown a complete lack of responsibility in responding to the thousands of calls for it to stop funding these extremist groups. Its continued silence is a gross violation of its public accountability. Cricketers like Mahela Jayawardene are brand ambassadors for Mobitel. I respect Mahela, and as a public figure and a person of influence being sponsored by Mobitel he should step up and say something about this.

Sri Lanka just came out of a 30 year war. I’m just saying that out loud you know, in case anyone has forgotten. The government so far seems to be perfectly happy to allow the BBS and its affiliated groups to carry on with their campaign of hate, although voices of dissent have begun to emerge; you know things are getting really out of hand when Mervyn Silva himself stands up for what is right. The president has been strong worded on the racist issue, but so far all of that has been lip service and none of it directed at any specific racist organizations. The all powerful Government of Sri Lanka has failed to take any concrete steps to stop this spread of hate and violence. Meanwhile, the Police is cooperating with extremists, and now government owned companies are openly funding them.

UPDATE: Mobitel has since issued a highly inadequate response.

Sci-fi as a genre is easily confused with high budgets and futuristic gadgematics. But sci fi is really more about ideas and concepts. And even about philosophy and ethics. Where would Rendezvous with Rama be without the sense of mystery it invokes into the biosphere of the great unknown universe? Where would the Culture series be if it wasn’t really exploring a post scarcity, post labor, post mortality, post everything-that-makes-being-human-stressful society? Good sci-fi can take place in a single room inside a single nondescript box as in JG Ballard’s Last World of Mr. Goddard .

A few months ago my scouring of Rotten Tomatoes found me some cool science fiction flicks I’d missed over the years. Most of them don’t appear to have outstanding budgets. One of them only used a corner of Berlin and about five or six actors. But all of them without exception are richer in concept than your average big budget summer blockbuster.

12 Monkeys (trailer). Bruce Willis is from a future where humans have almost been wiped out by a fatal disease. They’ve all retreated underground and a new political order uses its criminals as gunea pigs. Every now and then a prisoner disappears and never comes back. The regime has discovered time travel and they’re sending people back into the nineties in order to seek out the virus before it was released and try and understand what it is. Since the grandfather paradox makes it impossible to be stopped. Bruce Willis is their latest hope, but as he discovers he had an all too special role to play in events that culminated in the release of the virus. Special mention. Brad Pitt in a killer role as a insane idealistic spoilt rich kid.

Run Lola Run (trailer). Lola and her boyfriend are small time criminals. A deal is going down and Lola fails to make it on time, and so her boyfriend must bring the money back to their boss alone. On the way he loses the cash in the metro and tells Lola that he has no choice but to rob a department store since without the money he will be killed. Lola must run the twenty minutes distance in order to stop him and save him. Doesn’t sound like science fiction? You’d be surprised what this German flick does with an obscure corner of Berlin and a few talented actors. I’ll give you a hint; time warp, permutations and combinations. Special mention: Lola redeems the sensual potential of the German language.

Gattaca (trailer). Jude Law and Ethan Hawke partner up in a future where a human’s culpability to disease is calculated with exact probability as soon as he/she is born. The new elite are the physically fit. Doors open to you based on how low your susceptibility to disease is. Hawke is an intelligent man but has only a 30 percent chance of making it past thirty. He is condemned to spend a lifetime as a janitor while he wants to literally become a rocket scientist, dreaming of space travel and of joining the corpus of Gattaca, which only absorbs the fittest of the fittest, the hyper elite. Jude Law is one such hyper elite but has lost his legs in an accident. The two start cooking up a mutually beneficial scheme. Special mention: this film doubles as a murder mystery.

Pi (trailer). A young mathematical genius is convinced that he can see the hidden numerical code of the universe. Concealed within the golden ratio which he espies everywhere; he realizes that everything around him has an underlying numerical pattern. His knowledge causes him to be chased by the creepy Jewish kabalah, cutthroat investment banks and his own paranoid demons. A recluse and suffering from a unique condition that gives him searing headaches, he must figure our of these patterns form a part of the real world or simply a part of his overworked brain. Special mention: movie is shot entirely in grainy black and white, so your copy is fine. And btw, killer soundtrack.

Equilibrium (trailer): Is yet another take on Orwell’s 1984. The government is authoritarian and ruled by ‘Father’ not much different in character to Orwell’s Big Brother. All forms of art are banned and having emotions is a crime. Christian Bale is a primary state agent who begins to have doubts about his government’s legitimacy. Chaos ensues. Special mention: the arcane art of Gun Kata featured in ‘Euilibrium’ is said to have inspired some of the ideas in The Matrix.

(Syndicated with permission from Frontier Research

News

Asia’s MSCI Asia Pacific Index rose 3% for the week as better US economic data and Chinese stimulus hopes spurred investor confidence, the S&P 500 also rose slightly by 1.1% on similar hopes. The European Stoxx 600 increased by 1.6% on better than expected corporate earnings and stimulus hopes for the region. Meanwhile, geopolitical concerns and North Sea supply constraints induced Crude oil prices to rise for the week with Brent Crude gaining 3% to end at $112.95 a barrel.

Views

What are the implications of Pakistan’s political instability to regional security? (With nuclear weapons thrown in the mix)

The US drought has begun to affect food prices globally with corn surging 60%, dangerous for Asia and Sri Lanka in particular as it battles the affects of high inflation and economic volatility.

The RBI is unable to use monetary policy to boost the economy due to mismanagement of India’s government finances. Sri Lanka itself faces higher inflation, and questions as to whether it is capable of meeting its deficit reduction targets

Monsoon trouble has seriously affected Indian cotton crops, which will in turn affect cotton prices globally and impact Sri Lanka’s number one export item; garments

Standard Chartered Bank came under a spate of accusations of laundering Iranian money.

The Eurozone still flounders, not a good prospect for near term Sri Lankan exports to the region, meanwhile, ideas for possible solutions to the area’s problems are still being thrown around.

The Big (Global) Business that is the MBA

Tintin was epic. It managed to give near three hours of rollicking entertainment, bringing alive the twelve year old thrill seeker inside me. Speilberg and Peter Jackson did a more than decent job of doing justice to the comic book. The entire thing was done in cgi, using motion capture technology. Meaning real actors donned motion capture suits and acted out the scenes, which were then renderd into an an animated universe.

It was so real that at times you could hardly tell the difference. This made me think of creative destruction and how it might affect the movie industry soon, or later. Actors haven’t taken a real hit from economic forces for a good few decades now. There was the advent of silent film, which put a few radio stars out of business,  then there was actual audio in film which probably put a few mute and hoarse voiced actors out of business. But after that, acting was pretty much acting, you dream of it when young, escape a dreary rural existence and go out and become a star ot thereabouts.

Tintin only uses real actors behind the scenes though. The faces are competely artificial; a hybrid of many faces aimed to match the comicbook journalist as closely as possible. If this catches on, soon the movie industry might face a whole new phase of creative destruction, the old being destoyed to give way to the new; real actors giving way to artificial ones. Better looking artificial ones; fitter, more agile and capable of delivering far more camera angles at far lower budgets than can be even dreamt of in the real world. By ‘soon’ i probably mean a good few decades. People were saying the same thing when the first Final Fantasy movie came in too, and motion capture before Tintin only worked properly for non human elements like Gollum, the apes in Planet-of-the and the Navi in Avatar.

The Milennials that is, my generation, have already seen so much creative destruction it should hurt; if we didnt revel in it. There was the CD destroying the tape, then being destroyed in turn by the mp3. Then the internet comes and completely screws over many established industries while they were looking the other way. Most imprtantly the age old book is also undergoing a significant phase of creative destruction the like of which hasnt been seen since Gutenberg. Creative destruction happens when something is replaced in a way that is completely impossible to compete against, the only possible outcome is for the old to gradually and stubbornly give way to the new.

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