By Tunku Abidin Muhriz. First published in The Malay Mail on 16 JANUARY 2015.

SINCE the new year thousands of people have died in terrorist acts of violence around the world.

However, incidents in and around Paris that resulted in the deaths of 17 people last week received huge amounts of media coverage and triggered a march of over two million people, while victims elsewhere – possibly more than 2,000 around Baga in northeastern Nigeria at the hands of Boko Haram – got scant media attention, and certainly no marches in Abuja (there’s a presidential election campaign going on instead).

It is tragic for terrorism to happen anywhere, but in explaining the discrepancy in the media coverage different theories have arisen.

One is practical: it’s because of a disparity in resources. Obviously a great capital city will have numerous news agencies able to deploy armies of journalists with advanced equipment, able to verify information (the amateur video recording of the terrorists murdering Paris policeman Ahmed Merabet is being questioned only by connoisseurs of conspiracy) and provide live updates (as indeed we saw on the 24-hour news channels).

In northeastern Nigeria, however, reliable reports of the numbers of people being killed in, or fleeing, the vast area are hard to come by, and communications infrastructure is badly damaged.

Another explanation offered for the difference in coverage is because there is media bias: they value western lives more  than African ones. This phenomenon was observed in Nigeria itself, and one federal minister tweeted sympathies about the Paris incident but said nothing about Baga.

A more sympathetic assessment is simply that because more people in the world have visited Paris (ten flights from Kuala Lumpur weekly), there is greater public interest and emotional connection by reporting about it over a place no one has heard of.

Yet, another explanation focuses on the motives of the attackers: for while Boko Haram desires to create a break-away state governed by an authoritarianism which they try to justify using religion, the affiliations and underlying causes of the Paris terrorists are still being analysed.

Were these acts inspired by loyalty to Islamic State, or directed by an Al-Qaeda branch (or, improbably, both)? Or was the main driving force a more localised legacy of France’s complex relationship with Algeria (which was from 1848 to 1962 an integral part of France, not a colony or protected state as we in the Commonwealth might understand it), complemented by socio-economic reasons?

Whatever the truth, the attacks were widely interpreted as an assault on the freedom of expression – something so intertwined with the nation’s core principles – and the subsequent march was fuelled by citizens wishing to express their solidarity with those principles.

The fact that the President of the State of Palestine and the King of Jordan (and, I am told, the Malaysian Ambassador to France) joined the President of France at the march might be attributed to diplomacy (many of the countries represented did not have the best records on press freedom themselves) – but the ordinary French Muslims in that march (many of whom were seen interviewed) saw no fundamental incompatibility between their faith and the principles of the French Republic; they would have understood the Voltairian implications of #JeSuisAhmed, and the doctrine of individual responsibility espoused by #JeSuisDalia.

Malaysia is designed differently to France: we did not go through five republics and two empires to get a constitution that establishes us as a federation with a constitutional monarchy and parliamentary democracy.

We have the spirit of Merdeka articulated by the first Prime Minister, our Rukun Negara fonnulated during the premiership of the second, and Vision 2020 forged by the fourth.

But I can’t help but wonder: if there was a violent attack targeting our foundational principles that resulted in the deaths of Malaysians, would Malaysians march on the streets – not in protest against government policy, not cajoled or paid to do so by political parties – but simply to voluntarily show their solidarity with these principles?

I wonder because I have observed how disparately my fellow citizens have understood those principles in recent times. Citing the same constitution, they come up with completely contrasting prescriptions. Claiming to defend the same institutions, they argue against each other with hostility, insults and threats.

It’s no surprise that our politicians – and others around the world – have exploited the Paris killings for local political purposes: it ”proves” we need the Sedition Act, for instance.

On the anniversary of the death of the second Prime Minister, I read of an idea to constitute a National Consultative Council of the kind that formulated the Rukun Negara, Doing this may strengthen our defences should a Paris-style attack ever be attempted here, and, in the long run, prevent those who would scream “Buku Haram”.


Tunku ‘Abidin Muhriz is the founding president of IDEAS.

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