What would you die for?

Malala Yousafzai almost died – fighting for the access to education for girls. Pakistani activist Sabeen Mahmud died in April – supporting human rights. Saudi blogger Raif Badawi was sentenced to ten years in prison and 1000 lashes – attempting to promote freedom of speech. Countless anonymous people are being sentenced to death or tortured because of their sexual orientation – trying to live a normal life in one of the 79 countries where homosexuality is forbidden. The list could go on. The last years haven’t been glorious for human rights and activists have hardly ever been threatened as much as these days. Nevertheless, outside of the Western world, people constantly risk their lives for the sake of their ideas and visions – but would you do the same?

The time when in Europe an idea was worth more than a life

Not so long ago, several European countries were facing the ugly side of fascism: The Italians had Mussolini, the Spaniards had Franco, Germany had Hitler and Austria, Poland, Croatia, Portugal, and Greece were having fascist leaders, too. The first half of the 20th century was a period of cruel and strict governance, illiberal policies and closed societies. However, every country still tells heroic stories about the civil opposition – people who died because of their beliefs. May it be left-wing politicians, critical intellectuals or rebellious students – the fight for human rights and freedom was paid by many with their own lives. Cruel punishment and torture were common means to silence the ones who were not in favour of the political system in almost all European countries.

After the climax of violence during World War II, the members of the newly established United Nations Organizations, agreed on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Already the first article was supposed to pave the way for a peaceful future:

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood

However, during Socialism, even European countries struggled with this article, punishing regime critics in political prisons until the late 1980s. But in 2015, things look quite alright, don’t they? Civil and human rights seem to be respected, access to education is guaranteed in most countries and you can easily express your own opinion. Comparing Europe to other regions, the situation indeed is very stable. Nevertheless, the continent is far from perfection. As the NGO “Reporters without Borders” notes, the freedom of expression is not fully given in every country. Out of 180 countries, Italy ranks in the 2015 report on place 73, losing 24 places, and Bulgaria only takes place 106. The situation looks even more worrying in the EU neighbours – Ukrainian and Belarusian journalists suffer from severe restrictions.

Moreover, digital security has been on the decline as a result of mass surveillance programs by secret services and the perceived threat of Islamist terrorism. The legal cuts of human rights don’t appear to be concerning, somehow nobody bats an eye. As a matter of fact, it would even appear ridiculous to become overemotional about such issues in Europe, bearing in mind that a secure life can be assured. Even the self-immolations in Bulgaria as a sign of protest and frustration in 2013 were hardly commented outside of the country and seem yet to be forgotten.

There is no clear moral framework anymore or any logical reason to fight for. Patriotism? Interferes with the European integration. Freedom? Well, aren’t we already free? Equality? The issues seem as cherry picking to many people. Love? Romeo and Juliet are so 1597!
It appears if there is no zeitgeist of the young generation, no unifying topic since you are free to choose your passions and beliefs by yourself. And although the courage and idealism of the activists who died fighting for progressive values, are very impressive, it is hardly imaginable to be as dedicated and risk-taking as they were.

Is that the reason why radical ideas recently succeed easily?

Let’s face it – too much freedom is sometimes hard to handle. Every choice – assumingly – bares the risk of failure. You are responsible for your thoughts and words, even if you didn’t think them through. However, it can be indeed exhausting to constantly reflect on opinions of others and your own. Therefore, some people might get lost in doubts and the complexity of politics, economics and their own lives. This is where radical powers step foot on the stage – and unsurprisingly succeed by providing guidance and a model of values, which is promoted as worth supporting.

While the public seems to understand or at least accept the fact, that a part of the citizens is drawn to nationalist and right-wing ideas in Europe, the reactions on young Europeans who suddenly join Islamic organisations and are even willing to die for an idea are one-sided: they are being called lunatics, mentally ill and ridiculous. Although the ideals of Islamic organisations like ISIS are despicable, the root of the motivation to join them has to be understood. How can this challenge otherwise be tackled?

Just like for the heroic opposition during Fascism and Socialism, an ideology is enough to plant a seed in a person’s mind in order to awake the will to die for a cause. The circumstances apparently allowed it in hundreds of cases that this ideological seed grew to a chaotic jungle, resulting in the death of European fighters in the Middle East, who partially never had any relation to Islam in the past. Loneliness, lack of orientation or the desire to be respected and known are strong sensations that can fully change perceptions – even in the direction that seem completely irrational. However, one thing leads to the other and radicalization surely does not happen in a societal vacuum.

In theory, it is not much of a difference for which cause you are being respected when the desire for this feeling is of personal nature. Examples of activists show that rights and wrongs depends on the perspective – from the Western perspective Malala Yousafzai, Sabeen Mahmud and Raif Badawi might be brave heroes, for the local authorities and the power elite in their countries, they are traitors or criminals. The same way, the perspective can be shifted regarding radical ideas if there is no moral orientation to hold on – sometimes it takes one only question to set a spark: what would you die for?

Photo: David Spigolon (Creative Commons)