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Is the “crisis of secularism” in Western Europe the result of multiculturalism?

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Prof. Anis Bajrektarevic famously claimed that “…the conglomerate of nation-states/EU has silently handed over one of its most important debates – that of European identity – to the wing-parties, recently followed by the several selective and contra-productive foreign policy actions.” Elaborating on these actions he went further as to claim that: “…sort of Islam Europe supported in the Middle East yesterday, is the sort of Islam that Europe hosts today. (…) and “…that Islam in Turkey (or in Kirgizstan and in Indonesia) is broad, liberal and tolerant while the one in Northern Europe is a brutally dismissive and assertive.”

Western Europe is phasing the outcomes of the development of two different trajectories. On one side, the immigrant presence from the former colonies, growing since the 1960’s, has turned Western Europe into a multicultural and, by extension, multi-faith mosaic. On the other, the permanent decline of religious performance has brought up a wider consensus concerning the privatization of religion as well as its status of invisibility in the public sphere. These two trajectories can be perceived as oppositional if one bears in mind the significant numbers of non- white immigrants residing in Western European states and the paramount importance most of them place on religion for identification, organization and political representation. Several prominent academics refer to the emergence of the aforementioned phenomenon as a ‘crisis of secularism’.

However, I would like to argue that such clear-cut judgments present several problems. To begin with, ‘secularism’ is a complex term with multiple meanings. Western Europe currently sports two forms of secularism; the radical model of French laicité and the moderate form followed by the rest of the states. Within the latter framework, several kinds of state-religion connections have been developed throughout the years. Even in the radical French model some state-religion connections exist, although they are concealed under cultural terms. As becomes apparent, if we take absolute state-religious separation as a crude definition of secularism, it turns out that ‘a crisis’ occurred well before the advent of multicultural presence.

Indeed, this essay will attempt to clarify that although multiculturalism supports and promotes the recognition of minority religious identities, the statement that it puts secularism under crisis is a bit exaggerated, if not purposefully misleading. Multiculturalism does not opt for a complete disestablishment of secularism. On the contrary, multiculturalism supports moderate secularism as it is believed that the various types of religion-state connections within it can be extended so as to accommodate minority religions, as well. All in all, multiculturalism strives for a rethinking of secularism, a renegotiation of the term, for it to become less restrictive for minorities that feel marginalized because of their religious identity.

The defining characteristics of Western Europe’s multicultural reality

Western Europe started to receive exceptionally large numbers of non-white immigrants after the 1973 oil crisis, in order to rebuild its devastated economy. As its capitalist economy constantly demands a cheap labor force, people continue immigrating to Western Europe for the prospect of a better and safer life. Under these circumstances, Western Europe has reached the diversity previously characteristic of traditional immigrant receptacles such as the USA. There is, however, a fundamental difference in this comparison; the large amounts of Muslim immigrants residing in Western Europe. Specifically, Muslims form the majority of non-white Western European immigrants, with a rough estimate putting them at approximately 6% of the relevant total (Pew Research, 2011). Although Muslims appear to be evenly distributed, their presence in the larger cities is far more noticeable and rapidly growing. Regardless of this strong Muslim presence, non- white immigrant minorities in Western Europe, especially those coming from South Asia, seek to identify themselves, while also being recognized by the state and their fellow-citizens, on the basis of their religious identity (Sikhs, Hindus, Muslims). This strong religious assertiveness, despite having gone unnoticed for a long time as a matter of importance concerning group recognition, has become the main topic of discussion in Western European multicultural politics over the last few decades. The matter of controversy is the position of religious or ethno-religious immigrant identities in the public sphere of Western European states.

Multiculturalism, multicultural citizenship and religious identities

Multiculturalism is a political ideology which, during the last few decades in Western Europe, focuses primarily on the need for recognition of immigrant minorities. According to Modood, multiculturalism ‘refers to the struggle, the political mobilization but also the policy and institutional outcomes, to the forms of accommodation in which ‘differences’ are not eliminated, are not washed away but to some extent recognized’. Moreover, as he proceeds to mention, multiculturalism ‘is a politics which recognizes post-immigration groups exist in western societies in ways that both they and the other, formally and informally, negatively and positively are aware that these group-differentiating dimensions are central to their social constitution’. In summation, multiculturalism avoids group-blind approaches and ‘promotes politics of recognition as a means to secure multicultural equalities between groups’.

Members of ethnic minorities with a strong religious character (such as Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus) experience marginalization on the grounds of their religion. For the members of these minority groups, however, religion is a basic element of their self-identity that they are not willing to surrender so as to become accepted. Jacobson, O’Beirne, Fish and Gillat-Ray are just a few examples that illustrate precisely how religion is an aspect that permeates all aspects of Muslim’s life, representing an integral part of their self as well as a tradition offering a sense of belonging. Thus, these groups react with a strong religious assertion in the public sphere, demanding the same recognition and respect previously given to other minority groups, originally marginalized in terms of their ‘different’ identity (racial, ethnic, sexual).

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Multicultural politics support equality for all citizens not on the basis of providing equal rights to all but rather on that of recognition of the existence of group identities

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According to Modood, ‘multicultural citizenship is the project to make citizenship-inclusion or integration possible on terms that respect all and in particular those […] whose subjectivities are marginalized or dismissed […]’. Bearing this position in mind, multicultural politics acknowledge ‘the importance of religious identities to some non-white ethnic minorities…and…their centrality to some forms of ethnic minority self-assertions, mobilizations and political claims-making’. Thus, from a multiculturalist perspective, in order for these ethnic minorities to be equally accommodated, the state must respect and recognize their religious identities.

Under such circumstances, it becomes clear that state-religion relations can be seen as a matter of recognition. As religious identities (Sikh, Hindu and most notably Muslim) have become one of the most salient minority status markers, Western European states, driven by a ‘multicultural sensibility’, realize that state-religion connections must be rethought according to the needs presented by the new multi-faith reality. This process of negotiation for the place of religious minority identities in public is perceived by many as a violation of the secular norms of religious neutrality and church-state separation, which are deeply rooted in Western European states. However, to what extent this contention is true is a matter of great controversy.
 
Secularism in Western Europe

Modood defines political secularism as a condition in which ‘political authority does not rest on religious authority and the latter does not dominate political authority’.

Secularism is a principle deeply embedded in all Western European states since the signing of the treaty of Westphalia. In national narratives, secularism has been referenced as the modern developmental process that brought about the emergence of sovereign states. It has been defined as the principle that disentangled individuals and states from their religious beliefs to halt the potential resurgence of the violent wars of the past. Thus, the need for a separate existence of secular and religious spheres has come to be perceived as the alleged sine qua non for every society that wants to be perceived as modern.

‘The separation of Church and State, the neutrality of the state in regard to religion, religious freedom and understandings of secularisation in terms of the privatisation and decline of religion, are all at the heart of discourses about secularism’. The practical implementation of secularism differs across state borders. Thus, in broader terms, Western European secularism can be divided in two different categories; the radical model and the moderate one.

a.    Laicité

Laicité is the radical model of secularism adopted solely by France. In this kind of secularism, religion is essentially banished from the public sphere. Religion is perceived as an anachronistic element, which must be completely marginalized in the name of reason and liberal individual freedom. Religion is strictly differentiated from the public domain, only maintaining a place in individuals’ private life. Accordingly, the state takes a neutral stance on any kind of religion in the name of the liberal value of equal treatment for all individuals. Under these circumstances, the state supports a model of assimilationist, civic integration. ‘Integration here is understood as an allegiance to a common civic identity and the joint pursuit of the common good’. In other words, in order for someone to be fully integrated into French society, the civic element of his/her identity should trump all others in the public sphere. As Bouchard & Taylor aptly put it, such a position ‘demands the removal or neutralization of the identity markers (including religion […]) that differentiate citizens’ and ‘[…] assumes that the removal of the difference is a prerequisite to integration’.

However, this rigid a context is destabilized when the need to integrate people not previously nurtured with these hard boundaries between private and public religion arises. Such is the case with immigrant minorities claiming a strong religious identity.

The French state reacted to this multiculturalist challenge with a top-down approach, which sought to restrict the public expression of minority religious identities. The state as well as the majority of the public opinion perceived the wearing of religious symbols in public as a political project violating the secular principle concerning the privatization of religion and the neutrality of the public sphere. Consequently, the wearing of conspicuous religious symbols – clearly aimed at Muslims’ headscarves and Sikhs’ turbans – was banned by law in February 2004. The banning of the full-face veil (niqab) from public spaces followed in April 2011.
 
Both of these legislation initiatives show an inclination to bracket ‘difference’ through the implementation of the historically contingent principles of secularism in a sort of ‘fetishization of the favored institutional arrangements’. Such movements show the unwillingness of the state to recognize that religion can be a representative element of groups or entire cultures. In other words, the state replies to religious assertiveness with a ‘religious-focused version of different-blindness’. The denial of public religious accommodation conceals the cultural privileges of Christian traditions that are deeply entrenched in the notion of secularism, thus sustaining the inferiority and alienation of non-Christian traditions. This is to say that a concept of ‘neutrality’ is impossible, as the state always reflects specific cultural characteristics, which in the case of France are rooted in Christianity.

The strong insistence of French politics on the preservation of secularism, as presented through the application of the aforementioned measures, reifies the secular-religious dichotomy as an unsurmountable opposition, diminishing any potential for a fruitful mixture between the two sides. Based on a secularist argumentation, the state presents itself as acting in the service of an ‘us’ wanting to assimilate (or exclude) an as yet illiberal (or premodern) ‘them’. As Modood puts it, ‘such totalized dualistic perspectives are not conducive to fostering dialogue, to respect for difference, to seeking common ground and negotiated accommodation[…]and above all to multicultural citizenship’. If religious identities are excluded in a way that no other identity (be it racial, ethnic, sexual or whatever else) is, then there is obviously a profound bias against religious identity which clashes with the multicultural principle of equality between identity groups. If one were to use this radical form of secularism as a model, then multiculturalism clearly makes it ‘at risk’.

However, there is another perspective in the French laicité which is worth mentioning, to illustrate that ethnic minorities’ claims for religious accommodation are not all that contradictory to the existing practices of the Republican state. Rather, they are based on pre-existing state-religious relationships. More specifically, since the establishment of the law of 1905, the state is committed to contribute financially to the preservation of church buildings, as it acknowledges that they are part of French cultural heritage. Moreover, since the establishment of ‘Debré Law’ in 1959, the state, to a great extent, sponsors Catholic Church Schools. Clearly, the secular French state both acknowledges and respects, by law, that religion is a part of one’s tradition and culture that needs to be preserved and moreover that it can contribute to education.

Bearing the aforementioned facts in mind, it seems that even in the radical laicité model, some manner of state-religion connections are already active. Consequently, ethnic minorities’ struggle, based on the multiculturalist principles, for the recognition of their religious identity by the state is not an initiative that places secularism under ‘crisis’. What is requested is not the desecularisation or disestablishment of the privileges of the Christian tradition within a secular context. Rather, the challenge is how to add the new faiths alongside the older ones in a process of ‘equalising upwards’.

A relevant initiative has been launched by president Sarkozi with the establishment of the French Council for the Muslim Faith in 2003, whose function is to act as the primary liaison between the French government and Muslims. Despite the fact that the assembly of the council was a state-construct and that it has, to date, failed to become recognized as representative by the majority of the French Muslim population, such initiatives are necessary for the equal accommodation of religious minorities. Even if these initiatives may seem prima facie contrary to laicité, this is not the case for their relationship to moderate secularism.

 

b.    Moderate secularism

Following Modood, ‘the key feature of moderate secularism is that it sees organized religion as not just a private benefit but as a potential public good or national resource, […]which the state can in some circumstances assist to realise’. Under these circumstances state and church remain autonomous but may still collaborate in several domains. Modood aptly explains what can be perceived as such a state-religion connection; it is a ‘kind of relationship with the state such that a religious organisation participates in the functions of the state or is a partner in governance, helping the state to discharge some of its duties and implementation of policies or it is continuously supported by public funds or it is part of the symbolism of the state in a clearly non-neutralist way’. Through the presentation of a series of empirical examples of states that adopt religion-state connections, an attempt will be made to show that multicultural recognition politics for immigrants’ religious identities do not clash with this manner of arrangements. On the contrary, the latter may be a platform for multicultural integration.

Initially presented to support this argument follows the German example. In Germany, the most important source of funding for religious communities comes from tax receipts. This state financial aid to ‘religious societies being organized as corporations under public law’ is also protected by the law. Moreover, numerous public sponsorships are granted to religious communities. In addition, it must be mentioned that around half of Germany’s welfare provisions are channeled to the public through Church-based organisations, within a climate of a civic society, in which church and state can work together for the accomplishment of common goals. The Muslim presence in Germany is considerable and enduring, especially bearing in mind the large Turkish minority. According to Korioth & Ausberg, Muslims make up approximately 4% of the German population. Of course, Germany is renowned for its anti-multiculturalist sentiments and the ‘Gastarbeiter’ approach in its immigration policy. However, a climate of ‘multiculturalist sensibility’ is present and reflected in ‘corporatist’ forms of Muslim accommodation. More specifically, chancellor Merkel and her government launched the first German Islam Conference in 2006. According to Aslan, this initiative had aimed ‘to restore mutual trust within the society and its Muslim communities’ so as ‘to enhance the religious and social integration of the Muslim population in Germany’. Since then, the conference has been held annually in the form of a dialogue between ‘the state and selected representatives of Muslims in Germany’. Although top-down, such an attempt can be viewed neither as radically secularist nor as assimilationist. Rather, it meets the multiculturalist prerequisites of willingness for mutual negotiation in order to find effective solutions for the accommodation of religious difference. The German state remains secular but understands that Muslims face discrimination on the basis of their religion and that the state needs to take action so as to protect this group. This solution is not sought outside of the secular principles. Rather, the state tries to renegotiate these principles so that Muslim integration can be achieved within them.

England is another relevant paradigm. Religion and the state are first connected ‘symbolically’, as the monarch has also the ultimate authority of the Church of England and can only undertake duties after being blessed by bishops. Accordingly, 26 bishops are members of the House of Lords, the supreme legislative body of the state, having equal rights with the rest of the members. Apart from that, the Church of England has a substantial educational contribution, in which it is almost exclusively supported by state subsidies.

Of import to the argument at hand is the expansion of state connections to incorporate its Muslim immigrant population, as well. During the New Labor governance, the state recognized the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) as the representative voice of British Muslim population (1997). Throughout its period of governance, New Labor in collaboration with the MCB initiated a series of measures that enabled and promoted the smooth integration of Muslims in the national context. They jointly fostered public acknowledgment of the importance of their religious identity, the introduction of state funded Muslim schools (following their Jewish and Christian counterparts) and concentrated policies on tackling religious discrimination, which reached their peak with the establishment of the law against religious discrimination (2003). All of these attempts were backed by the Church in a climate of ‘interfaith respect’ and ‘multi-faith harmony’.

Relevant examples of states that have extended their church connections to accommodate religious diversity can also be found in Belgium’s multi-faith Council of Religions and in Denmark’s model of ‘multiple establishment’, were Muslim religious communities enjoy a formally recognized and approved status as well as state tax benefits.

None of the aforementioned examples drift from the minimalistic definition of secularism presented previously, meaning that a mutual autonomy between state and religion is still ensured. It should by now have become apparent, through the presentation of these empirical examples, that the type of state-religion connections developed within the framework of moderate secularism makes a clear case that religious minorities can be recognized and accommodated without braking the basic secular rule. In other words, multiculturalism and religious diversity do not necessarily equate eradication of established churches or a ‘crisis’ of secularism.

Conclusion

This essay aimed to evaluate the contention that the ‘crisis of secularism’ in Western Europe is the result of multiculturalism. To this end, several points, facts and empirical examples were presented. The presence of immigrants in Western Europe has undeniably brought with it both multiculturalism and religious diversity. Moreover, some immigrants brought, and continue to bring, with them religious beliefs totally alien to Western Europeans, which can lead to their being discriminated against on the basis of their religion. Muslims are the most notable example of the aforementioned observance, since they form the majority of non-Christian immigrants residing in Western European states, with Sikhs and Hindus also sharing similar experiences. It is therefore clear that the minority statuses of the aforementioned immigrant groups are due to their religious identities.
 
Multicultural politics support equality for all citizens not on the basis of providing equal rights to all but rather on that of recognition of the existence of group identities. Accordingly, multiculturalism acknowledges the fact that for immigrant groups with a strong-religious character to be recognized, the state needs to recognize religious difference and seek to tackle the problem of religious discrimination. Some people, and more specifically adherents of crude secularism, believe that this brings the whole notion of ‘secularism’ under crisis. However, as Modood aptly puts it, multiculturalism’s focus on recognition of immigrant groups’ religious identities ‘is based on recognition and inclusivity, not the truth of doctrines’ and ‘is not opposed to secular or non- religious identities but is additional to them and is not meant to suggest any inherent superiority or desirability of religious over non-religious identities – or vice versa’.

Multiculturalism interacts with two different kinds of secularism in Western Europe. On the one hand, there is the French laicité, which reacts to the multi-faith challenge with religious-blind policies that sustain the inequalities faced by immigrant religious minority groups. On the grounds of an alleged principle of state neutrality as well as the liberal principle of individual freedom, the French state seeks to banish the presence of minority religions form the public sphere. As it becomes clear, if this is the prototypical model of secularism taken into consideration, multiculturalism definitively puts it under great strain. However, the challenge is not one of forcing France to lose its Catholic character or abandon the idea of secularism on the whole. What is requested, is some form of state-religion connection within the secular framework, which would provide some sort of recognition to the Muslim immigrant community.

Such state-religion connections have been a part of the prevalent, moderate, form of secularism implemented in most of the Western European states for some time now. In moderate secularism, religion is not only understood as a private matter but also as a potential public good, which the state seeks to assist. Germany, England, Denmark and Belgium are just some of the states that have positively and effectively responded to the challenge of multicultural religious diversity by extending their state-religion connections so as to accommodate immigrant religious minorities.

In summation, multiculturalism may bring religion to the forefront anew but it does not do so in ways necessarily totally alien to secularism. As it has been shown, several kinds of long-lasting state-religion connections have been developed, especially in moderate forms of secularism, even before the expression of immigrant demand for some sort of public recognition of their religious identities. Seen in this light, multiculturalism cannot be seen as seeking a “crisis of secularism”, but rather as calling for nothing more than an extension of tenets already present in secularism, so that new faiths can be brought into any given secular state model alongside their older, preexisting counterparts.

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Europe’s major tourist sites battle climate change to survive

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Climate change is destroying heritage sites across Europe and globally. Ancient historical landmarks could disappear completely unless swift action is taken to protect them from environmental damage, researchers are warning.

Climate change is destroying heritage sites across Europe and globally. Ancient historical landmarks could disappear completely unless swift action is taken to protect them from environmental damage, researchers are warning.

Future generations may never get to explore streets conquered by medieval knights in Greece, city quarters built by the Islamic empire in Spain, 10th century cliff-top castles in Slovakia and many other historical wonders in Europe.

Floods and rising temperatures are already damaging ancient buildings, said Angelos Amditis, project coordinator of a project called HYPERION which is helping major sites in Greece, Italy, Spain and Norway, adapt to the impacts of climate change.

‘If we don’t act fast, if we don’t allocate the right resources and knowledge, and … create a common alliance to address the climate change issues, we will pay very dearly,’ he said.

‘We may (completely) lose well-known landmarks in Europe and globally … our children may not have a chance to see them except on video,’ said Dr Amditis, who is director of Research and Development in the Athens-based Institute of Communication and Computer Systems (ICCS).

Historical vulnerabilities

The HYPERION project is developing tools for mapping out the risks and helping local authorities find the most cost-effective ways to reduce the vulnerability of historical sites.

Mapping the risks includes assessing the structure and condition of buildings and monuments and installing sensors to monitor the ongoing impacts of climate change and other threats to the sites.

The project also uses data from Europe’s Copernicus satellites to map the areas at risk and gather climate data.

What can make conservation work particularly complex is that different buildings on a single site were often constructed in different eras and using different materials. Each building must therefore be individually assessed, and may need different forms of protection.

For example, early builders in Venice often re-used stones and other bits of buildings found locally. As the city became wealthier, it began importing fresh materials which were better quality, and are proving more resistant to the impacts of rising tides and floods.

Viking towns

And in Norway’s Viking town of Tønsberg, buildings were constructed over several centuries, and made with different types of wood or stone. Local temperatures are rising, and affecting each building material differently, said Dr Amditis.    

Many monuments and sites are made more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change because they are already suffering damage from pollution, earthquakes or other hazards.

So, to boost their resilience to climate change, they need to be restored and protected from all the hazards they face, said Dr Amditis.

For example, Greece’s beautiful city of Rhodes is hit by frequent heatwaves, earthquakes and flooding. But its medieval buildings also need protection from damage caused by heavy delivery lorries. This could involve finding a less harmful way to transport goods to the local population, said Dr Amditis. The HYPERION project is not involved in this aspect of the city’s resilience planning.

Locals’ solutions

Authorities must involve local communities when planning ways to protect heritage, said Daniel Lückerath, project coordinator of a project called ARCH.

‘The danger is that they will not like the solution you provide and then they might not use the historic area anymore,’ said Dr Lückerath, who is a project manager at Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute for Intelligent Analysis and Information Systems (IAIS).

‘People are what make historic areas … what give those areas value,’ he said. Without them, ‘you would just have a ghost town,’ he added.

Like HYPERION, the ARCH project is developing tools for authorities to assess and protect their local heritage. ARCH is co-designing these with authorities in Slovakia’s ancient capital Bratislava, the Italian village of Camerino, Valencia in Spain and Germany’s harbour-city, Hamburg.

Sometimes there is a difficult trade-off between protecting heritage and allowing new developments which benefit the local community. For example, Hamburg recently carried out major dredging work to allow larger container ships to reach its port.

Water levels

This work, combined with climate change, is changing the water levels in the city’s 19th century warehouse district which is a World Heritage Site, said Dr Lückerath. This change in water levels could weaken the foundations of the old warehouses so they will need ongoing monitoring, he said.

Major heritage sites are not the only ones that need to be preserved. ‘Any site in danger is a problem for the communities living there,’ said Aitziber Egusquiza, coordinator of the SHELTER project which is developing risk assessment, early warning systems and conservation tools for communities, including those with few financial and technical resources.

In some cases, local authorities do not monitor the impacts of climate change and other risks, lack information about the age and state of their local heritage, and lack the political will to protect it. As a consequence, communities living near some of Europe’s most exposed sites are not necessarily aware of their vulnerability, making it very difficult to conserve them.

‘That worries me,’ said Egusquiza, who is senior researcher at Tecnalia, an independent research and technology organisation in Spain.

It is important to convince the leadership to invest in conserving these sites, especially as they bring tourism and jobs – both of which will be lost if that heritage is lost, said Egusquiza.

‘We need to put more numbers on what will be lost if we don’t act,’ he said, referring to projections about economic impacts on local communities.

Community heritage

The tools developed by SHELTER, ARCH and HYPERION projects will be tested by the cities and communities which helped design them, and then trialed in other regions to see if they can be replicated in different situations. Ultimately, the aim is to help all communities protect their heritage.

But with Europe and other regions facing the combined crises of the COVID-19 pandemic, war in Ukraine, and rising cost of living, it is easy for leaders to push preserving cultural heritage down the list of priorities, said Dr Amditis.

‘It is a very expensive and time-consuming exercise, but it is worth the time and the resources. If you lose even one site, it’s a big loss for humanity,’ he added.

The research in this article was funded by the EU. This article was originally published in Horizon, the EU Research and Innovation Magazine.  

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The Evil Russian on American Screens: Stranger Things Season Four Short Review

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image credit: Netflix

After the collapse of communism in Russia a few years ago, the frequency of propaganda through the media carried out by the United States that presents Russians as evil, ruthless, and very cruel was expected to decrease. This alleged decline is because the United States’ attention has been diverted to many Arab and Middle Eastern countries after the 9/11 incident. However, these American filmmakers have retained the depiction of Russians as “the bad one” in their film masterpieces, whether for merit or business reasons.

Maybe it’s not just a hobby or a business, but as a form of counter-resistance from the West to a series of events and political steps taken by the Russian side during that period to the present day. Russia, which often shows the power and absoluteness of its government—even though it has taken the form of a communist state—wants to show its identity as a true geopolitical enemy of the United States. As if invited to return nostalgia, the Russian government now feels more like a reincarnation of the Soviet era.

The depiction of Russians as criminals on the screen of the United States is the most concrete and decisive manifestation of the Soviet Union’s communist regime, which is all associated with being antagonistic and full of oppression. The above is still relevant today for most Americans that Russians tend to be scary and have bad intentions. The reason is that the Russian government, which Vladimir Putin currently leads, gives the impression of being hard, fierce, and scary. The ex-KGB, Vladimir Putin, has been heavily criticized for his policies during his time in power. Putin has been criticized for his big ambitions to expand his country’s geopolitical capacity to defend himself against future NATO attacks. The 2014 annexation of Crimea evidences this ambition—it did not stop there—Putin showed a fierce side of himself by supporting the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria until the invasion of Ukraine in early 2022.

The portray of Russian citizens as cruel and terrible antagonists has been produced in many American films, such as in the movie John Wick—whose dog was killed by Russian criminals. Not only that, but the American series also took part in projecting this. Call it Stranger Things. Regarding the depiction of Russia as “the bad one” and America as “the good and superhero,” the author will discuss the sub-plot of saving Jim Hopper in the fourth season of Stranger Things which was just released on 27 May 2022 and 1 July 2022 then.

In this fourth season, the depiction of the Stranger Things story is divided into several settings, one of which is the story of Jim Hopper being a prisoner of Russia. This Jim Hopper sub-plot shows the audience the horrors of Russia’s prisons. This plot presents the impressions of prisoners being treated harshly like slaves who deserve to die and several scenes showing the violence of the prison guards on Jim while being interrogated about his friend Joyce Byer in the third season of Stranger Things. The highlight of the depiction of the Russian character as a party with bad intentions is to reveal research on the terrible monster “Demogorgon” in Stranger Things that have appeared since its first season. We can assume that the Russians are deliberately keeping the monster for later testing. This little depiction is enough to allow the audience to be furious. Jim Hopper, who unexpectedly managed to escape from a Russian prison, suddenly wanted to crush the Demogorgons instead of escaping and flying to America when the opportunity was at hand. Through this, The Duffer Brothers seem to give the impression that the bad and unwanted things in the future tend to be caused by Russia, while America comes to save the world.

Still around the story of Jim’s rescue and attempted escape as a Russian prisoner, the character of Yuri Ismaylov—an airplane pilot from Russia—played by actor Nikola Djuricko also received quite a bit of attention. The reason is, that Yuri’s character is described as a braggart and a con artist who causes Jim to have difficulty escaping many times. Again, the Russians are illustrated as the wrong side and the source of trouble.

There are several analyses related to the reasons for the American film embedding the Russian side as an antagonist. One is America’s desire to maintain a superior image to its geopolitical opponents. America has so far maintained its desires and ambitions due to the old story of the great ideological feud in the past Cold War era—between communists and liberals. From this old story, the depiction of good and bad in American films is still felt today.

However, apart from the reasons above, which emphasize the ideological war and show off between the two sides, it is also possible that these films were made in the context of business interests. To be precise, American Screens don’t want to get out of their comfort zone. The success of films portraying the Russian character as cunning, cruel, and full of intrigue gave American filmmakers an exhilarating feeling. For example, American films entitled The Equalizer, Atomic Blonde, and Mission: Impossible-Ghost Protocol managed to make big money. For this reason, maintaining the image of Russia’s antagonist can be said to be done for smooth business.

Now, the question is, how long will America place its geopolitical enemy as a villain in its cinematic masterpieces? The answer to the question above is the same as asking a question about how long America and Russia will be enemies and show off against each other in the eyes of the world. Our job as film lovers is to sit back and chew popcorn on a comfortable sofa. Eliminate the bad stereotypes brought by the media because the truth is that the media are not always right and often exaggerate problems. Truly, people are different from government, may be we will have many unexpected things in common. So, release endless hatred.

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Akanksha Sood Singh: The Woman of the Wild

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Photograph: Akanksha Sood Singh

Akanksha Sood Singh is among India’s premiere multi-award winning natural history filmmakers. She is known for her extreme passion and brilliant story-telling. With two decades of work experience that covers the range and breadth of film production, she has been documenting some of the most rare and endangered species across India. Her films have been televised across the globe, not just for the strong stories and breathtaking visuals, but also for the empathy her work has created towards the natural world and exposed the need for conservation.

Under her banner, The Gaia People, she wants to bring a change, bust myths, showcase the incredible diversity we live with and ignite hope for the future. This is more for the next generation – the future custodians of this heritage. How will they emphasize and protect anything they don’t see? We want them to grow up with pride, empathy and responsibility towards the environment. And thus, the first step is to know what their natural world holds.

Among the 250+ awards and nominations, she has won four National Film Awards given by the President of India, a UN Film Award, the Global Icon for Mass Media 2020 and the Diversity Leader Award 2020 by the World Congress of Science & Factual producers. She is one of the Jurors for the International Emmy ® Awards – Documentary category, member of the Jackson Wild Advisory Council and a consultant to the United Nations Environment Programme.

​​Can you tell us more about why you named your production company The Gaia people?

My company is fuelled by individuals who come together to work with me on natural history films. The Gaia – Mother Earth – is what unites the diverse group – the fact that we want to tell stories of the natural world. So when we were brainstorming for a name for the production house, this seemed apt. 

Why did you start Women of The Wild India?

WOTW started in May 2021. It was more out of sheer frustration because I could not find a single point source to know about women who are working in the field of environment and STEM. Social media as a platform is today a directory of sorts too – but looking through it to find individuals can be daunting. Names are misleading, bios may not be added, photographs can be abstract. So I thought, why not bring them together under one umbrella. Tell their stories – Who are these women and what do they do? How did they get here? What are the issues they face? How can they collectively become a cohort to inspire others through their journeys?

If in the 21st century we don’t put the spotlight on women working for the environment and if we don’t start throwing up issues we face, it will never happen! Now is always a good time!

Tell us about your personal experiences being close to the wild.

I grew up fascinated by television and the visuals it threw at me of wild scapes around the world. Back then I had no idea I could be a “filmmaker”, but I knew that I wanted to travel around the world and see those places and capture them in some way. Opportunities came my way early in life, I recognised them and I made the best of everything. It’s been close to 20 years now working in the wild, telling stories of the natural world using visuals and technology, and I must confess it is exhilarating. On the scale of 1 to 10, financially this career is at 3, but “job satisfaction” sits at 10! There is never a boring day – it is not 9 to 5 and there is constant adventure and challenge and drama (something I thrive on)! There is peace and tranquility at work space – away from the unbearable chaos of the city! I can take my children to the office with me! I get to travel, to meet people and to explore habitats and the creatures that live therein! And then there is storytelling – a tool that I love to use and exploit – to help with research, with communication, with awareness, with fundraising, with education – it’s a skill and I am proud to be a specialist factual story teller!   

You are going to star in Season 3 of The Brink. What role do you play there?

Hahahahahahhaaaa! Me in front of the camera is now probably going to be a retirement plan! No, I do not star in On The Brink. I am the producer, director, writer (and even the cook) of the series being made in partnership with The Habitats Trust. Yes, we are in production for Season 3. And like how we change the format every season, this one too is evolving with a very new and distinct treatment.

On the Brink – we hope to make this one of the longest running series in India that puts the limelight on lesser known species and habitats in the country. There is so much diversity and if people do NOT know, if they keep seeing and chasing just the megafauna, how will you create empathy and action for the natural world?

What are some wildlife documentaries you recommend young nature enthusiasts to watch?

Everything and anything! Globally, brilliant content is made on animals, habitats, behavior, natural events, issues, etc. Watch everything as an audience and soak it up. As you grow older, work towards visiting the places you see. And if what you see and experience excites you, start exploring ways in which you can work for the wild. This is one industry or career option that won’t ask what percentage you got in your 12th boards or what grade you got in college – it asks for passion, commitment, mental strength and creativity.

Is nature conservation the same as wildlife conservation?

Conservation is the sustainable use of nature by us. Preservation is protecting nature from us.

Wildlife depends on nature for food and shelter. So nature conservation is directly related to wildlife conservation. If the habitat / forest of an area is conserved, then the wildlife of the same area gets protection.

Wildlife conservation is protecting plant and animal species and their habitats. Wildlife provides balance and stability to nature’s processes – every plant, bird, animal, insect is there for a reason – is there because it plays a role in the ecosystem. So wildlife conservation ensures the survival of these species.

What is a story from Women of The Wild India which has personally inspired you most?

ALL OF THEM! I can’t single out one. Each woman has so much to say and there is so much to learn from their journeys. For me, the BTS (behind the scenes) of Women Of The Wild is the real part – connecting with the ladies, hearing their stories, answering their questions, hearing their trauma and trying to figure ways of healing and networking and opportunities. That is the whole point of this platform.

I want to make each and every woman a role model – without that there will be no inspiring the next generation. Break the stereotype.

What fuels your passion for the wild?

That’s a tough one! I don’t know – I have never given it a thought! I do this because I can’t think of doing anything else! This is not a JOB. This is my being. I live and work in a space that accepts me as an extension of itself.

What can we do to break gender stereotypes in wildlife conservation?

This can be a very long list, but some points:

Start with making gender an everyday conservation at home and breaking stereotypes at home – for both boys and girls. As parents, lead by example.

Learn and convert information into knowledge and talent to use as a tool

Women should encourage and stand up for women

Uncondition yourself and the men you know

Be vocal

React

Seek support

Hold organizations, departments and individuals accountable.

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