The Tribune - Spectrum

Special Issue: countering terrorism
Special Issue
Countering terrorism

Views of eminent experts and thinkers on countering terrorism

Hari Jaisingh

Kanti Bajpai

Asghar Ali Engineer

Owen Bennett Jones

Shelley Walia

G. Parthasarthy

T. V. Rajeswar

Gen V N Sharma

Ashok K. Mehta

Prakash Singh

M. J. Akbar

Sunday, January 5, 2003
Tribune special

Face-to-face with uncertain future
Need to recognise hybrid cultures

The end of terrorism will not resolve the political problems facing the world. Any solution to contemporary crises must take recourse to fighting the feelings of fear and hatred and encouraging the opposing forces to adhere to values of moderation, religious tolerance and sanctity of human rights. Unless dialogue prevails, the current conflagration has every chance of ending in nuclear terrorism, warns Shelley Walia.

THERE are few people who do not look back to the past with a sense of nostalgia or to the future with a sense of fear. The present state of the world, threatened by crazed nationalism, tribal hatred, and religious and ethnic intolerance is a cause of concern for all. Whatever our reaction, the discovery that we were mistaken about the Enlightenment dream of peace and progress in the world is the starting point for our reflections on the history of our times.

We find ourselves at a historical moment in the process of a major change. Democratisation of violence has become the rule of social behaviour. Propagandists like Fukuyama or short-sighted politicians like George Bush and Tony Blair bask under the misapprehension that the old imperial order has passed and we are embarking on a 'New World Order' as liberal democracy takes firm root in a barren territory. What they do not foresee is the economic and political instability, racial and ethnic discord that rages around the globe. In a post-modernist climate, Fukuyama's universalism, his interpretation of the end of history, along with his assertion of progress within the renaissance of liberal democracy, seem rather incongruous and inordinately optimistic. It is not difficult to conceive how the rise of terrorism or fundamentalism can turn into a grim threat to various societies in the Islamic world. Clearly, that is the West Asian story, the Kosovo and the Bosnia story, and I assume that more and more it is the Indian story, and also the story of the western world with a vengeance. For a long time, Edward Said has suggested that the best way of removing terrorism is to remove its causes. Undoubtedly, it is born of a burning resentment of injustice or an overpowering vision of an independent and more prosperous future. The religious and social contexts largely differ, yet the premises are more or less similar. Though the nature of such uprisings may vary from country to country, they find common ground in religion and the rigidity of the concept of the infallibility of any interpretation coming from the religious authority which is at the head of any extremist movement. Paradoxically, the notion of tolerance which all religions preach is turned into intolerance within the confines of identity politics. The objective in these cases is ultimately that of gaining power and the establishment of a religious nation-state that would not hesitate to resort to even dogmatic violence to impose an orthodoxy to control the social and political life of the people. Any opposition to this would be considered with utmost intolerance as an act of blasphemy, only to be castigated and brutally punished.


What have the governments in different parts of the world done to counter such violence which has been the cause of complete societies being devastated and thousands of citizens killed all over the world? The demolition of the Babri Masjid, the Kashmir problem, the massacres in Punjab, the killings by the Islamic Salvation Front, or the daily blood bath in West Asia and then the heartless attack on the Twin Towers give a loud indication of the serious dimensions of this ongoing threat which rides unabashedly on the ideology of the coexistence of orthodoxy and violence. The oppression of communities in such states or, for instance, the glaring examples of the bloodbath in Bosnia or Gaza, and now Kosovo, could be equally legitimate causes for a violent reaction.

The important question that one must ask is: why do these people feel threatened, and in the face of what kind of opposition to their identity do they take steps which are defensive and compulsively fundamental? Are not the Christians accountable for the escalation of Muslim fundamentalism in Western Europe? It is not the question of putting down the threat issuing from a minority of Muslims but to understand the attitude of the majority of the white population which is indirectly responsible for the rise of terrorism. It could, in fact, be argued that there is a legitimacy of all such protests, and to understand them it becomes vital to go into the social, economic, and political causes. The indifferent attitude of all secular forces to the religious militancy appearing in Gaza or in Godhra is not simply the problem of the Muslims or the Hindu fundamentalists, but also a failing of the Christians in Europe or Hindus in India.

One of the key ways in which power operates in societies is by setting up groups and versions of the 'other' who can be both excluded from the opportunities of support and well-being that society may offer, and scapegoated as the cause of social or political trouble. Theories of identity politics are crucial in preventing the position of the other being reduced to that of a victim. In studying the complexities of identity, one must understand that there is a dogmatic or orthodox strain in almost all religions, yet the Western liberal discourse constructs the idea of the orthodox or the superstitious East or a rabidly fundamental Islam, ignoring the independent actions, the humour, the humane strengths of marginalised groups which can emerge in their own right. The most important lesson to be learnt from analysing issues of moral and philosophic relevance to the problem of fundamentalism is to try and avoid reproducing the effects of discriminatory power in one's thought. No one has the right of imposing one's views on the other. Attentions to the question of identity can alert us to a much broader range of viewing other religions which are not inflexible or as dogmatic as our own, and thus may not be held to be as formidable as they are made out to be. No one can, with any certainty, lay down one universal moral philosophy. The new communitarian thinking can be one way of accepting ethnic debates without sounding ethnocentric.

The current crisis indicates just how irrational have been the ideals of those who have imagined the world to come together on the basis of a shared set of universal values overlooking that diversity of values and ideology is natural to various cultures. However, the legitimisation of violence or terror can be expediently 'discovered' not only in scriptures of Judaism and Islam but equally within Christianity. There is some concurrence too on what constitutes proper behaviour or even of terrorism as an inhuman instrument of political gains or revenge. People from diverse ethnic backgrounds do share behaviour and happily coexist in New York out of choice. I, therefore, do firmly feel that there is no clash of civilisations; on the other hand, we are witnessing people of all cultures sharing the same busy space, as in London or Paris or in the Twin Towers. The intervention on behalf of Muslims in Kosovo by the western forces is a witness to this blurring of civilisational demarcations though apparently there were political motivations behind such a strategy.

It is thus important to reject the categories of the 'west' and the 'rest'. As Umberto Eco maintains: 'We are a pluralist civilisation because we allow mosques to be built in our countries, and we are not going to stop simply because Christian missionaries are thrown into prison in Kabul. If we did so, we too would become Taliban'. The acts of terrorism in history either by the Christians or the Muslims cannot be explained by peace loving people. Understandably, the path of Islam or Christianity does not allow such criminal anarchy. A bifurcated world is there not because of race or nation; it is there because of what Mark Twain argued about the double face of terror in France: one that brought the 'horror of swift death' and the other that emerged from 'lifelong death from hunger, cold, insult, cruelty and heartbreak'. The former 'inflicted death upon a thousand persons, the other upon a hundred million'. We often forget the latter as being probably one principal cause of violence and agitation. The confusion of misunderstandings, crude stereotypes such as suicide bombers, terrorists and fundamentalists by which we define the 'other', and parallel absences of self-knowledge, along with American hegemony are all the causes of present discontentment and violence. Brutal foreign policies of successive US governments, support for client regimes, scramble for profit-led globalisation are loathed, not the nation. Islam has certainly been on the receiving end and the west has not tried to understand that most of the Muslims around the world are tolerant and peace loving. If we were to ignore the religious fanatics and the tyrants, we can easily decipher a 'core of shared values'. The attacks of 9/11 were certainly celebrated in the Islamic world, but the mourning and sympathy that they aroused in the same world was systematically blacked out by the media.

One of the main reasons for labelling oppositions as homogenous is the postmodernist idea of permitting a counter-discourse but ignoring the fact that it may have within it a diversity and the lack of any unitary nature of religions. The leaders of many Islamic regimes get co-opted into the western view of regarding them all as belonging to one fundamentalist category and, therefore, posing a threat. For instance, West Asia is neither economically nor militarily a menace to the West as it is made out to be. Nor is Iraq (Bush's proposed war against Iraq has little to do with Saddam's tyranny and everything to do with Washington's infinite greed for oil and power). Though the western discourse makes an allowance for multicultural societies to exist, the stereotyping of various religions or minorities makes them appear doctrinaire or bigoted, discounting their broad-based nature as well as the array of forms and knowledge that go into the making of their literature and their scriptures. There is no one monolithic form of Christianity or Islam or Sikhism or Hinduism. But the homogenising process suits the ruling or dominant forces and enables them to construct a tangible antagonist over whom they can subsequently assert their superior liberal-human qualities. The only solution to this problem lies in recognising the hybrid nature of all cultures as any notion of a pure or authentic national culture only makes integration impossible.

Though we are faced with a very uncertain future, we must try to re-examine the concept of secularism and try to view the politics of difference with the clarity and broad-mindedness that the issue of fundamentalism demands. There is a liberal communitarian model which might be an answer to this debate. It is important to address the question of how we should conceive of human reasoning once we accept that there are no universally comprehensive and privileged stances or points of view. We have to conceptualise on the Nietzschean idea of liberation of thinking for multiplicity through the demolition of Platonic hierarchies by always keeping in view the constant 'dream' of harmonisation which underpins all shifts and the adventures of the dialectic.

Thus, to speak of the end of history is not to escape it. The Enlightenment confidence about the future being full of universal peace is seen to have collapsed. Questions of the Holocaust, of nuclear war, or the material development in the advanced industrial world which seems to be blind to the fate of the underprivileged third world seem to have been overlooked. The end of history could come about because of these reasons which have been ignored. Which reminds me how a Palestinian journalist aptly described the post-September 11, mood towards America: 'America, we feel your pain. Isn't it time you felt ours?' It must be clear to all that the end of terrorism will not resolve the political problems facing the world. Any solution to contemporary crisis must take recourse to fighting first the feelings of fear and hatred and encourage the opposing forces to adhere to values of moderation, religious toleration and the sanctity of human rights. Unless dialogue prevails the current conflagration has every chance of ending in nuclear terrorism.