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The Nonsense Mantras of Our Times
What’s the world like? A flock of sheep. One falls into the ditch, the rest jump in.
Kabir (Sakhi: 240, The Bijak of Kabir, trans. Linda Hess and Shukdev Singh)
On TV screens across the globe, for more than two months now, the sheep have been jumping into the ditch without a bleat of protest. What’s worse, they believe that’s the way to go, the way of justice and salvation. Kabir’s acerbic stanza accurately describes the debate in the mainstream media following the events of September 11. Legions of experts and viewers have committed themselves to an absurdly simplistic and Manichean account of the world, in which President Bush and his cast of international supporters are portrayed as God’s good men, arrayed in battle against maniacal fiends in turbans, baggy robes and sandals, who threaten the world’s sanity and security.
Within weeks, the debate on terrorism and global conflict has been reduced to a mumbo-jumbo of self-justifying mantras, which have instantly become axiomatic. Foremost among these is the infamous “clash of civilisations” hypothesis most often associated with a certain Samuel Huntington, but which has a genealogy of its own, leading back to such justifications of imperialism as Arnold Toynbee’s schema of antagonistic civilisational blocs.
The Toynbee-Huntington vision emphasises the fault-lines among “eight or nine” cultural-political blocs arbitrarily defined as ‘civilisations’, and seen to exist in a state of conflict based on profoundly distinct cultural values. In Huntington’s view, the great clash of our times, which takes the place of the Cold War face-off between the USA and the USSR, is that between Islam and the West. After September 11, he has popularly and uncritically been hailed as the prophet of the age.
The truth is somewhat less dramatic, if no less violent, and has more to do with fundamental differentials of economic and political power than with fundamental cultural differences. Civilisations, as the proper scrutiny of historical evidence would show, are marvellous hybrids: they have never been pure, self-consistent entities. Historically, they have evolved through exchange and synthesis, through the encounter of different races, religions and philosophies. What is of interest, in the study of civilisations, is not the differences that hold people apart, but the heritage that people are able to share across borders.
A more tenable view than the “clash of civilisations” is that the battle-lines run through societies, not between civilisations or nation-states. A US pacifist, who believes in the necessity of social justice, is worlds apart from an American investment banker, whose clients include Lockheed and Unocal, and who believes that each man is master of his own destiny. An urbane West European, who practises yoga, has a deeply informed interest in African art, listens to reggae, and travels the world in search of cultural inspiration, is equidistant from both the West European skinhead and the Bajrang Dal storm-trooper.
Has there ever really been a clash of civilisations? Did Venice and the Ottoman Empire clash because of differences in their interpretation of Abraham’s decisions, or because they were locked in a struggle for control over the Mediterranean maritime trade? And why, throughout the Mughal and colonial periods in India, did both elite and subaltern-resistance movements comprise coalitions of Hindus and Muslims, if Hinduism and Islam are fundamentally irreconcilable? Huntington’s theory cannot explain why the Rajputs supported the Mughals, why Akbar created a culture of multi-religious dialogue and understanding, why some of Aurangzeb’s highest-ranking military commanders were Hindu, why the sanyasin-fakir resistance movement against the East India Company embodied an alliance of Hindu and Muslim ascetic-warriors, and why the Indian National Congress comprised the enlightened leadership of the Hindu and the Muslim communities.
Civilisation can never be defined in absolute and static terms. It is a fragile construct: a constant process of self-evaluation rather than a stable cultural structure. And once it tears apart under economic or political strain, it can quickly uncover the most terrifying barbarism. No one has depicted this syndrome more poignantly than Joseph Conrad in Heart of Darkness; the most enduring and unfortunate example of this syndrome is the rise of Nazism from the rich soil of German culture.
Unfortunately, the assumptions of the West, which are based on binary models, continue to be projected upon the former colonised world, often with the devastating effect of the self-fulfilling prophecy. The worst example of this tendency may be summed up as the ‘principle of ethnicity as the basis of political conflict’. Put to excellent use by the Western powers in such situations of conflict as Lebanon and Rwanda, this principle has most recently been introduced into the Afghanistan debate, immediately following the flight of the Taliban regime from Kabul and the entry of the Northern Alliance into the Afghan capital. For the notion of the tribe is accompanied by the stereotypes of primitive, tribal behaviour: barely had the Northern Alliance marched into Kabul, when the Western media came abuzz with loose talk of ‘revenge killings’ and ‘warlordism’ (the US Air Force’s killing of Afghan civilians is not, apparently, to be categorised under the former rubric; and the strategists at the Pentagon, calibrating the precise degree of offensive force, are not warlords, since neither Powell and Rice favours turbans).
As has been well established, ‘tribes’ were often invented by anthropologists ranging unfamiliar terrain driven by a classificatory mania. Never mind that the identities on the ground were often shifting in character, language defining one affiliation, clan system a second, religious sect a third, and political allegiance a fourth. Also, identities and allegiances could change, leaving the already inaccurate taxonomy further behind; but the so-called tribal differences, once established by the Western knowledge system, were exploited by the Western power system through the honourable imperialist formula: Divide and rule!
Until the Soviet occupation, ethnicity played a minor role in the modern Afghan consciousness. After 1978, however, the foreign powers which interfered in Afghanistan (and kept the civil war going) raised and supported militias that were organised on ethnic lines. Within this scheme, the success of the Taliban was due only to the fact of a vacuum in Pashtun representation. Nevertheless, Kabul’s Pashtun population has welcomed the predominantly Tajik and Uzbek Northern Alliance troops. Should the foreign powers continue to insist on bizarre ethno-federalist structures with quotas, veto rights and reservation proportional to clout in the post-Taliban scenario, this would spell disaster for Afghanistan’s future.
There will always be forces that will instrumentalise differences. What is needed is a vision of unity, a vision of what the Afghan people really need to invent themselves out of and beyond the quagmire in which they have been thrust by superpower politics and the cynical power-games of regional powers.
It’s Religion, Stupid!
The current debate proceeds from broad, unquestioned certainties about the nature and history of Islam, certainties that are as dogmatic as the supposed dogmas that they oppose. This critique-by-media of Islam proceeds on the basis of certain ‘core Western values’, founded on the principles of the Enlightenment, that are assumed to lie at the base of all civilised discourse. Interpreted correctly, these core Western values enshrine the method of radical doubt, which is central to Enlightenment discourse, all the way from Spinoza and Descartes to Derrida and Foucault. This method helps us to unmask religion as ideology, to examine the overt practices and concealed motives of ideology, the manner in which it masks a power structure and the interests of a dominant class. Unfortunately, the current rhetoric of the West — in government and media — proceeds in complete contravention of this heritage.
The academic gurus are no better. According to Francis Fukuyama, “Islam is the only cultural system that regularly seems to produce people like bin Laden or the Taliban, who reject modernity lock, stock and barrel.” As a matter of fact, it is precisely the lock, stock and barrel of modernity that Islamic extremism has taken up, since military technology was the aspect of Western civilisation that the colonialists exported most vigorously (read, for example, T. E. Lawrence’s classic of romantic-Orientalist autobiography, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom). Even today the West blesses the world with lock, stock and barrel worth billions of dollars. Consider, also, the various unexamined axioms built into this ill-fated sentence.
“The only cultural system?” Three decades ago, such irrational violence was believed to be the monopoly of the Vietcong, who then yielded place to the Khmer Rouge. Were the Vietcong and the Khmer Rouge closet believers in the Word of Allah? Has North Korea, regarded by US leaders through the 1990s as the major scourge of humankind, fallen under the influence of the mullahs? “Regularly produces people like bin Laden”? How many bin Ladens have the 1.2 billion Moslems produced? 50? Or 500? And to blame Islam for the disaster in Afghanistan, a country repeatedly abused by Britain, the Soviet Union and the USA, is to indulge in despicable cynicism.
Western Values, and the US as Their Guardian
Instead of scrupulous attention to the historical record and the application of the core Western values, then, the Western media offer us nonsensical mantras that, by repetition, have acquired the air of spiritual truths. Paul Pillar’s formulation, in his Terrorism and U.S. Foreign Policy, sums these up briskly: “The longevity of the principles (of US counter-terrorist policy) attest to their firm grounding in an American political, moral, and legal tradition that places high value on the rule of law and on the idea that malevolence should be punished.” To point out that this sentence has no relation to reality would be an offence to the intelligence of the reader.
Malevolence should be punished? The USA has consistently supported states that sponsor terrorism, and has itself committed acts of terrorism _- for instance, the Contra war against Nicaragua, as a result of which the US government was tried, found guilty and mandated to pay substantial reparations by the International Court, The Hague. But since the law is only respected if it reaches a verdict in the bully’s favour, the USA didn’t part with a dime.
The rule of law? Once in a while, the truth shines through in an article or a statement:: “If we are hamstrung by absolutist definitions of friend and foe, and democracy and dictatorship, our chances of victory will the diminished” (Robert D. Kaplan, in the New York Times). This is refreshingly honest, by comparison with the (oxy)moronic euphemisms of the propaganda machine (Stanley Hoffmann, writing in the New York Review of Books, praises the “benign US hegemony”).
As for free speech, a central tenet of the Western value system, Washington’s approach to the fair reporting of the war has been to ask the Emir of Qatar to curb Al Jazeera, the only free TV channel in the Arab world. The Emir, wily Oriental that he no doubt is, took refuge in the Fifth Amendment!
In other words: One rule for the West, another for the others. This illiberal attitude within the liberal tradition goes back to J S Mill, that fountainhead of European liberalism who opposed the idea of self-determination for the world’s colonised peoples. This colonialist ideology has not yet been eradicated from the Western mind, and though we have achieved a sort of globalism in terms of mass communications and trade, we are still a long way from evolving a global ethics, that would guide the relations among nations and peoples. Without being as ambitious as the Advaita, we would have achieved a great change if every human life could be held to have the same and equal value.
Illusion of a “Safe and Comfortable World”
The worst genocide in recent times took place in Rwanda, and left close to a million people dead. UN peacekeepers pulled out; the complicity of France in supporting and arming the mass murderers became clear. But there was hardly a ripple of public disquiet, as the radical artist Alfredo Jaar chillingly demonstrates in his elegiac installations, ‘Let There Be Light’ and ‘The Eyes of Gutete Emerita’. These installations are situated within a performance during which Jaar flashes a sequence of US magazine covers and narrates, in parallel, the events taking place Rwanda in the same weeks. While the numbers of those butchered rises, and the nature of the slaughter becomes more and more feral, Time and Business week continue to put other, more US-centric matters on their covers. The genocide might well have been unfolding on another planet.
No minutes of silence were maintained for the victims of the Rwandan genocide; no candlelight vigils were held in their memory, no celebrity-endorsed prayer meetings were convened. On the contrary, the shameful involvement of functionaries of the Roman Catholic Church in the genocide was glossed over: no commentator was inspired to publish vicious diatribes against Christianity as a cultural system that regularly breeds blood-thirsty maniacs. But let’s not forget that we are only talking of a million dead blacks. There have been worse times, but hardly more hypocritical ones.
As against the complete global and certainly Western apathy towards the one million victims of the Rwandan genocide, September 11 is seen as epochal and apocalyptic for the whole world. The emphasis is on the supposedly sudden burst of dramatic violence into the lives of an otherwise happy and peaceable America.
The blissful ignorance or deliberate self-delusion of the Western elites is eloquently, if also comically, illustrated by the Tory MP Bernard Jenkins’ view from the charmingly pastoral locale of North Essex: The events of September 11, in the worthy MP’s opinion, “shattered the illusion of a safe and comfortable world.” On the other hand a journalist in Bihar wrote, a few days after the attacks on New York, that such horrors would hardly make an impression on a Bihari, who has to endure murder and terror on a daily basis. The world is, in reality, far more similar to Bihar than it is to New York or North Essex, and the last few decades have witnessed an increasing global Biharisation.
Not only are we speaking of increased violence in the Third World, but we also refer to the routine violence of American life. George Bush, in his address to the nation on 7 October, bravely asserted that “we defend… the freedom of people everywhere to live and raise their children free from fear”. This sentiment does not cover even the inner cities of his own country, the Bihars within the USA.
In fact, the only novel feature about the 11 September kamikaze attacks is that, for the first time, people from the world’s powerless hinterlands have struck at the very heart of the imperium, shattering the myth of the invincibility of the continental USA.
War on Terror: War or Terror?
The definition of terrorism is conspicuous by its absence. If terrorism is an attack on civilians or civilian objects with the intent to terrorise the people or the government, then the war on terror should be a war on the whole world order, a system of permanent terror for three-quarters of mankind. By distinguishing between State and non-State terror, the main culprits are left out, and by differentiating between “our friends and our foes”, it is narrowed down to a ridiculous proportion: bin Laden, the Taliban and Saddam Hussein. In the cartoon-strip style of argument pursued by the Western powers, these isolated figures are the chief proponents of terror, promulgators of violent manifestos and makers of catastrophic weapons.
On the other hand, as some clear-sighted commentators have pointed out, the USA has supported (and continues to support) states like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, who are probably more to blame for the attacks on New York than the Taliban. And what about the ongoing direct involvement of the “coalition against terror” in terror? There are an estimated 500 million small arms and light weapons in the world, and they have killed 2 million children in the last decade of the 20th century, according to UNICEF estimates. And these killing-machines are produced mainly by the states that are permanent members of the Security Council and enjoy the absurd privilege of a veto. The same global powers, individually or jointly, block all initiatives against weapons and war -_ most recently, for instance, the international agreement on land-mines. Surely the production and sale of weaponry for the purpose of profit qualifies as complicity in terrorism? You don’t have to be a fanatic to be a murderer: the military-industrial complex is governed by suave, pleasant men actuated by family values, men who keep their eyes focused on spreadsheets rather than manifestos.
The definition of terrorism is kept unclear, not only because the phenomenon covers a multiplicity of changing approaches and contexts, but because such a lack of clarity leaves states a free hand to deal with opposing forces. We see here a shifting game of legitimising self-interest; there is no moral focus to the debate over war and terrorism. There has, in fact, been little moral development since antiquity, despite the persistent talk of Western values. The reality has been aptly described by Thucydides: “They that have odds of power exact as much as they can, and the weak yield to such conditions as they can get.” The fashionable argument of the ‘just war’ is nothing more than an effort at masking this truth.
A just war would assume a consistency in dealing with the “evil”. When some murderers get punished and others get to enjoy the beaches of Florida, how can we take justice seriously? Not to speak of the death of civilians, which the last ‘just war’ against Iraq took into account so blithely. Such deaths are covered under the bland Pentagon doctrine of “collateral damage”. Indeed, if the murder of civilians is the criterion for defining terrorism, as what should we regard the US action in Afghanistan?
Even a leading proponent of the just-war theory like Michael Walzer admits that “when the world divides radically into those who bomb and those who are bombed, it becomes morally problematic, even if this bombing is justifiable.” Can we speak of war at all? Doesn’t war presume a matching of combatants? This campaign is more reminiscent of punitive actions, which were carried out during the Second World War and the Vietnam War. When you can not catch the perpetrators (in this case because they have already brought themselves to justice) you destroy something of their world as retribution. “That will teach them a lesson,” the colonial officer would say, after having torched a village to signal his “benign hegemony” in as dramatic a fashion as possible.
“It is important to stress,” Walzer writes, “that the moral reality of war is not fixed by the actual activities, but by the opinions of mankind.” The bombing of Aghanistan is just, only because it has been called so by the powers involved in the bombing. No one forces us to accept this notion. Every human being has the duty to try and reach an opinion of his own, and to voice it.
Frankenstein Inc. (Made in the USA)
The lab is well set up and we all know how it works: Dr Frankenstein of the CIA arms his monster, then leaves him to his own devices. The monster begins to misbehave. He no longer listens to his liaison officers from the CIA. He cuts the wires that link him to the State Department. He is out of control. Therefore he is identified as the enemy, magnified in the imagination, and labelled an avatar of Hitler. Then the command is issued: Shoot at Sight.
In the good old days of the Cold War, some of the demons and anti-Christs were made in the “Empire of Evil”. Today, they are all bastard children of the “Empire of Good”, serially stigmatised as their creators run out of enemies. It is a well-known fact that Saddam Hussein, Noriega, bin Laden all began on the right side of the US, and that the CIA funded the Taliban. Curiously, only a few months ago, the Bush administration gave the Taliban a subsidy of $43 million as a reward for suppressing the drug trade. But sometimes the monster takes Dr Frankenstein for a ride: the opium that was burned was the surplus, destroyed to keep prices high in the narcotics trade.
It is worthwhile comparing the Taliban to the Khmer Rouge, that other bizarre and genocidal regime (and let’s not forget the US outcry against Vietnam for toppling Pol Pot, or the common criticism of Tanzania when it toppled Idi Amin_s regime of horror). Both came to power after devastating wars. We speak of violent people as though they were trained to be violent by their traditions. But what else would people be in an atmosphere of total and pervasive war? Violence breeds violence _ you don’t have to be General Manon of the Northern Alliance, fighting continuously for the last 22 years, to realise that. This, rather than cultural determinism, is by far the most convincing explanation for the rise of forces like the Taliban and the Khmer Rouge.
And where the US has not produced Frankenstein monsters by itself, it has infallibly set up laboratories for their production: Iran is the perfect example. The democratic government of Premier Mohammed Mossadegh in Iran (1951-1953) came closest to Western values, among all ‘Islamic’ governments and represented a modern, educated, tolerant and inclusive Iranian vision. This was systematically destroyed by the Western powers, through a CIA-sponsored destabilisation programme and coup, which culminated in the restoration of the corrupt and repressive Pahlavi regime. Mossadegh’s vision embodied precisely the values that today’s analysts claim to find wanting in Islam; his only crime was that he had dared to nationalise the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, bringing down upon himself the wrath of the West for challenging First World control over Iran’s oil reserves.
America and/or Critical Difference
Given the tenor of the current debate, our arguments here would automatically qualify as being anti-American. This cry of anti-Americanism is currently the weapon of all rhetorical weapons -_ and the most absurd one at that. Not only does it imply a homogenised unity of American society, culture and government, or a singular American identity (into which factors of race, gender, region and class are quietly collapsed), but it also negates the possibility of maintaining critical difference. To love jazz music does not mean to support the bombing of Afghanistan; to admire the tradition of free speech is not to endorse the idiocy of corporate media.
It is impossible to have grown up as a cosmopolitan citizen in today’s world without having been inspired by the triumphs of the US in academia and the arts. However, the beauty of US culture is that these accomplishments were born out of an attitude of dissent, questioning, confrontation, self-direction and self-affirmation. Thus, to criticise US foreign policy is to uphold the best and highest impulses in US culture.
The mediation of dissent through art and the sustenance of the human spirit through culture are not, of course, confined to US culture. We conclude with a traditional love poem from Herat (the American spell-check on our computers automatically and repeatedly alters the unfamiliar Afghan place-name from ‘Herat’ to ‘Heart’, but the error may be apposite). Since all music, even traditional Afghan music, was banned by the Taliban, this song has not, perhaps, been heard in the city of its origin for years. Its poignancy underscores the tragedy of what two decades of war has done to this society:
“When the waterfalls cry, when the sheep cry, my heart thinks of Syamui. How long must I cry, O Syamui? As the rubies come out of the mines, As the sun shines over the mountains at dawn, So too does Syamui show herself on the roof of her house.”
In Afghanistan today, the rubies are mined to finance the internecine warfare, and Syamui has fled into the cellar, afraid to show herself in public, her future menaced as much by the Taliban whip-squads as by the rain of American bombs. CP
Ranjit Hoskote is an Indian cultural theorist. He is also Assistant Editor, The Hindu, Bombay (India). Ilija Trojanow is a German novelist, and Special Correspondent for the Suddeutsche Zeitung, and currently lives in Bombay (India).