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A Challenge For Social Engineering

Wajahat Habibullah

By Tabish Khair
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2015, pp. 232, Rs. 495.00


Tabish Khair’s The New Xenophobia is a bold effort to examine an increasingly pressing universal phenomenon, which the world has been ignoring as being part of the past. The importance of this work is that it seeks to place what it terms as ‘New’ in the perspective of what was the old xenophobia within the author’s broad concept that ‘Power refers to any imposition, the physical or not, of one consciousness upon another’ approvingly quoting Emmanuel Levinas, the French Lithuanian 20th century philosopher, on the nature of violence beyond the physical. According to Levinas if human sensibility can be characterized conceptually, then it must be described in what is most characteristic to it : a continuum of sensibility and affectivity, in other words, sentience and emotion in their interconnection. This is a well researched and scholarly work, although the language is sometimes archaic. I know of no other work that has so carefully traced the issue under discussion, thus identifying what is increasingly becoming a major challenge for social engineering in a world of growing globalization. Distinguishing broadly between western civic xenophobia, which he describes as meretricious and an eastern ethnic xenophobia, the latter manifested in the persecution of minorities in Pakistan, and going on to discuss the divide in former Yugoslavia, Sri Lanka, and Rwanda the last para of Chapter 1 crisply sets the theme of the book. With the ‘Vampire’ as a recurring acronym the author defines the ‘stranger’: ‘The stranger, like the vampire, has a body that is like “our” body, but not really so. … because in some ways s/he is already dead in xenophobic eyes.’ The source of this phenomenon is summarized in the primitive nature of ‘fear’—making clear that at issue is a struggle for power, linked as it is—and this is done persuasively in Chapter 4 directly with capitalism. So while the opening chapter, ‘The Making of a Stranger’ concisely summarizes the theme of the book all issues flagged in this chapter are then addressed variously, individually and finally together to help make a case for the theory posited. The stranger, under the new xenophobia, remains a stranger, but is not allowed to exhibit signs of his/her difference. Thus the author avers that what he terms present day Islam phobia shares some elements with older Judea phobia. ‘Muslims are nowadays portrayed as a circumcised people who pray all the time and ...

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