Sunday Reading for Shadowlines

Monday cannot come soon enough. I have things to do, people. The weekend started with a birthday celebration and fails to end anytime soon. Last night we watched JSA by Chanwook Park [of Old Boy fame]. I grew up pretty close to the Wagah border between India and Pakistan and the storyline kept reminding me of vague tales of Indian soldiers on patrol and their encounters with the peasants, smugglers and cricketers found around the border area. Once, this Indian sentry threw a rolled up magazine over to us. It was in Hindi and I didn’t know how to read it back then. So, I threw it back. We didn’t have anything to throw to him. None of us actually said anything out loud. We had heard that Indian snipers lived in trees and took out Pakistanis who ventured closed to or talked to Indian sentries. Mind you, there is no walled or fenced border. Just interminable fields with limestone markers where Pakistan ends and further down India begins. Anyways, we went back the next day and threw some Akhbar-e Jahans over. He wasn’t there. I think we just littered India.

  • Before watching JSA, I had read Margaret Drabble’s piece in the TLS and it is stuck in my head. I cannot recommend it to you highly enough. She writes about the reception of her novel The Red Queen – a translation and fictionalization of the memoirs of a 18th century Korean princess. “The novel I actually wrote received no critical attention, either hostile or appreciative. I was accused of appropriation, and that was that. The multicultural censor looked no further. No questions were asked about my text, my intentions, my meaning. I did have a meaning, or I once thought that I did. I was so profoundly shocked that I hardly knew what I had done. Appropriation, like racism, is an ugly word and an easy allegation, not easily addressed in the courts. The nature and ethics of cultural transmission are endlessly fascinating. When is a borrowing a theft, and when is it a benign sign of cross-cultural fertilization? Is there some common source from which all stories rise?”. Seriously, if you are interested in transmissions and transgressions of the cultural nature, you should read this.
  • Nicholas Kristoff is about to open up a can of whupass on The General and his PR machine. Today, he writes the first in a series on Dr. Shazia Khalid – who was raped in Baluchistan. I am quite happy that NYT is giving exposure to The General’s brand of GSAVE.
  • Max Rodenbeck reviews some new works on terror in the NYRB – including Faisal Devji’s Landscapes of Jihad. With Kepel and Roy’s entries, this is one hi[p] parade on terror. Have you noticed that there is a “he was interested in terror BEFORE September 11” meme of “authentication” in many Western reviews/books? “He was wrong about terror BEFORE September 11” meme needs catching up. Devji quotes Derrida on jihadists. “Too far a flight of academic fancy”. Go read.
  • Also in the NYRB is Peter Galbraith’s Iraq: Bush’s Islamic Republic – a story that is slowly taking shape in blogs yet. Will Iraq’s constitution be based firmly on Shari’ah [rights of minorities and women being the litmus tests]? Will it have a close relationship with Iran? This is a must-read folks: “There are two central problems in today’s Iraq: the first is the insurgency and the second is an Iranian takeover. The insurgency, for all its violence, is a finite problem. The insurgents may not be defeated but they cannot win….The Bush administration should, however, draw the line at allowing a Shiite theocracy to establish control over all of Iraq. This requires a drastic change of strategy.” Go Freedom.
  • That Torture Thing. Yeah. It’s coming sometimes later this month.
  • Quickies: Well, it certainly led to a lot of poorly Photoshopped crying lions and unicorns in my e-mail.” [btw, the onion has a blog!]; Harry Potter was a Scottish hymner; Sultan of Palermo looks good; Bollyworld explained; Whatever this is, I want to see it. Any malaysian readers?; You must see this; Family fun.

monday update: Amardeep, on a blogging tear lately, has a nice post on Pakistani Writers in English. Good stuff.


It is that time of the year, again.

I will be quite busy over the next few weeks. Things are gathering momentum and if I don’t make a stand, I might get swept away. What will you have of your lowly sepoy then?

My crew, my peeps, my homies are also busy with things and cannot entertain you sufficiently. They have my love and thanks for all they did. Maybe, now and then, one of them will pipe up.

I will try and keep posting the Sunday Readings series…at the least. Also, there is one special Empire post scheduled next weekish at Cliopatria. I will keep you posted.

In dubious traditions of dkos and atrios, I will leave an open thread post at the top. For those who wish to have a conversation, I will lurk around. Stay in the shade, and have a martini [gin [Raj], shaken, olive].

Ring Ring II

The White House did not respond to requests for comment.

KR: Hi, Rove here

SH: Hello, Mr. Rove. This is Seymour Hersh from the NewYorker. I am working on a story about the machinations behind the Iraqi Elections and I wanted to get the WH reaction to a few of the claims made by people involved in the process. Primarily, the question is whether you covertly spend money and resources to assure a higher vote for Allawi and other Sunni parties. And so, in that regards, …, hello? Mr. Rove? Are you there?

KR: What are your sources?

SH: Well, I talked to Larry Diamond, a senior adviser to the C.P.A. And Noah Feldman, a consultant on constitutional issues for the C.P.A. Les Campbell, the regional director of the N.D.I. for the Middle East and North Africa. And Ghassan Atiyyah, the director of the Iraq Foundation for Development and Democracy. And many others.

KR: I gotta give you a “big warning”, Sy. You are wrong on this story. There is a rogue agent in CIA. Wilson’s wife. She used to date all of them. They have an agenda. This is off the record. We can’t say anything. Really. Just looking out for you, here. Don’t make an ass out of yourself again like you did on that ApuGharib thing. Egg on your face, man!

Also see: Ring Ring I.

That Terror Thing IV

We drift through words: evil ideology, hate, freedom, jihad, islam, community, quagmire. Words that, in turn, become keys to narratives: War on Terror, Islam is Evil, Islam means Peace, Clash of Civilizations. Britain announced that they will start monitoring Muslims community by community. The Muslim community; a silent yet deadly collective to be found in op-ed columns and special reports around the Western hemisphere. There is a bit of cognitive dissonance involved here: the logic of the war on terror demands that there exist a cohesive ‘them’ while the premise of the jihadist narrative is the disintegration and dispossession of ‘us’.

It is, after all, the issue of the community that started this rambling monologue. The community of British Pakistanis and the susceptibility of teenagers to the jihadist narrative remains the central question for me. Other instances of social violence, like Columbine, are instructive as models of questions that should be asked from the communities within which they occur. The pat response of politicians to blame violence on tv is clearly insufficient to us but the pat response to terrorism isn’t getting much attention.

Let’s unpack this a little. One word that you hear again and again is Caliphate. Said Blair after the London bombings: Neither is it true that they have no demands. They do. It is just that no sane person would negotiate on them. They demand the elimination of Israel; the withdrawal of all westerners from Muslim countries, irrespective of the wishes of people and Government; the establishment of effectively Taleban states and Sharia law in the Arab world en route to one Caliphate of all Muslim nations.

That, gentle readers, is the hegemonic narrative about the jihadists in the current WoT. Caliphate, obviously, puts the burden straight on Islamic history and theology. Why not call it a religious conflict if one expressed goal of the enemy is a religious empire? Yet no one, it appears, wants to stop and question for a moment: Do the jihadists really want a return of the Caliphate? Do they know that the contenders for the caliphate will be the Hashemite King of Jordan or the House of Saud or some linear descendant of the Fatimids found in a derelict bookstore in Cairo or a Turkish National Assembly recruit. The point is that it won’t be anyone that they would ever want to endorse. And they surely know that. So, this whole talk* of Caliphate this and Caliphate that is plain old macguffin, if you will [please refrain from pasting 10,000 speeches from UBL calling for the Caliphate – I have read them], that the WoT completely falls for. Hence, the Blair claim that the jihadists want an Islamic Empire. No, they do not. They won’t be in charge of any Empire. Nihilism doesn’t harbor dreams of empires. And if they do know this, then why insist on a Caliphate? What role is this particular claim playing in the jihadist narrative?

If the assertion that jihadists have political aspirations is correct, than we have to explain the usage of Caliphate. If we actually attempt to engage with the jihadist narrative to uncode it, we can begin the process of knowing why some British kids of Pakistani descent found hatred and murder a viable option. It is not Caliphate but ummah that drives the jihadist narrative. The idea of the ummah is that the Believers are a community of equals- unified, uni-directional, a force of history – with a titular Caliph as the God’s regents. Ummah became a chimera from the very first moment of conflict among the Believers – the fitna. This illusory community stretches from Cairo to Kashmir in the jihadist imagination, suffering continuously for centuries under imperialisms both local and foreign. The cultivation of this narrative emerged in the response to colonialism by ideologues such as Jamaluddin Afghani, Syed Ahmed Khan, Hali and Muhammad Abduh. Yet, this wasn’t an invention either. They drew upon centuries of commentaries to resistance available in Sunni, Shi’a and Kharajite corpora. The important fact here is that the authors I list varied in their individual philosphies – in great opposition to one another, in fact. Revivalists, reformists, or revolutionaries, they were concerned, first and foremost, with a political problem: Colonialism. Their intellectual campaigns were directed to resisting it and helping their particular nations – the formulation of an ummah being one prescription.

The jihadist aim is not to bring back some artifact of the Muslim past but to shape the Muslim present on their terms. It is a twisted notion of the ummah that constitutes a fulcrum upon which jihadists construct the worldview persuading a Muslim in Lahore to bear arms for a political cause in Palestine, eg. It is one particular sense of belonging and outrage that the jihadist narrative seeks to emphasize in its propoganda. It may be as broad as the Muslims all over the world or as narrow as the racism-tinged reality of Leeds. To convince a teenager to give his or her life up to avenge wrongs that s/he never experienced is not a task easily accomplished. The appeal of the ummah is that like any other imagined community – say, nationalism – it is far more maleable and powerful than a mere membership in the Super Secret Organization of al-Qaeda Subsidiary, Leeds Branch. The ummah becomes one more tool to give sense to their feelings of dispossession, alienation and uprootedness. Seen this way, what we are talking about is not Islamic theology but social constructions – community, prejudice, fear, belonging. As I mentioned earlier, the language of religion is incidental to this narrative. It is incidental but not irrelevant. Jihadists employ it as cryptic transmitters of their own, twisted worldview. That it gets accepted into the WoT narrative is hardly surprising. That it doesn’t get questioned or examined is frustrating.

There is no superstring theory of terrorism. And I am not proposing any, please. Neither am I checklisting who is a terrorist and who is a freedom fighter and who is a Muslim and who is Eric Rudolph. All I am arguing for is an attempt to engage with the jihadist narrative; to de-mystify it; to strip it bare of its potency to attract troubled youth. Because there is a reason why every dispossessed Muslim is not strapping on a bomb: the jihadist narrative is not the only one around. The Leeds kids did have other alternatives to help them make sense of their realities – hundreds of strains of Sufism, various sects of religious practice, progressives etc. Not to mention The Cure or Alistair Crowley, which are always available for troubled teens. They chose the jihadists and now we have to figure out why. The details may be in their biography or in the socio-cultural milieu in which they grew up or in their immediate families. All of those things must be examined. Only finding causes for suicide bombings in Islamic theology is just as helpful as only finding causes for Columbine in GTA III. It makes perfect and valid sense to some, it is completely reductive to others.

My concern, here, is neither to dismiss the jihadist narrative nor to legitimize it. It is morally imperative that we condemn it and it is intellectually imperative that we understand it. It is also not to claim that “Islam has nothing to do with terrorism”. Obviously, the jihadists proclaim their religious affiliations loud and clear and the faiths of the bombers is in no doubt. Islam, in fact, does not need me to defend it. Neither do I care to do so. The recent scholarship that highlights Islam as hijacked religion is comforting to religionists and liberals alike. I do not put much stock in it. Islam is a living tradition and fourteen centuries of history, politics and theology cannot and should not be “explained” away. To put it bluntly, I am frustrated that four years later, we still haven’t left the knee-jerk reactionary mode. We still haven’t started to pay attention to details. I am not a “Terrorism Expert” and I do not offer any great insights. But. I do call myself a historian and I do think that narratives matter. All I ask is that we pay attention to them.

That Terror Thing III

Blah. Harumph. Shibrum. Shibrum. Blah. Harumph. Shibrum. Shibrum. Blah. Harumph. Shibrum. Harumph You. Shibrum. Shibrum Evil Ideology Harumph You. Shibrum. Shibrum Evil Ideology Harumph You. Blah. Harumph. Shibrum. Shibrum. Blah. Harumph. Shibrum. Shibrum BOOM Shibrum Them. Shibrum. Shibrum BOOM Shibrum Them. Shibrum. Shibrum BOOM Harumph Them. Shibrum. Shibrum BOOM Shibrum Them. Shibrum. Shibrum Clash Harumph Civilizations. Shibrum Clash Harumph Civilizations. Shibrum Clash Harumph Civilizations. Shibrum. Shibrum. Blah. Harumph. Shibrum. Shibrum. Blah. Harumph. Shibrum. Shibrum. Shibrum Blah Harumph Me. Shibrum. Shibrum Blah Harumph Me. Shibrum. Shibrum Blah Harumph Me. Shibrum. Shibrum Blah Harumph Me. Shibrum. Shibrum Blah Harumph Me. Shibrum. Shibrum. Shibrum Evil Ideology Harumph You. Shibrum. Shibrum Evil Ideology. Shibrum. Shibrum Blah Harumph Me. Shibrum. Shibrum Evil Ideology Harumph You. Shibrum. Shibrum Evil Ideology Harumph You. Shibrum. Shibrum BOOM Harumph Them. Shibrum. Shibrum BOOM Harumph Them. Shibrum Clash Shibrum Civilizations. Shibrum Clash Shibrum. Civilizations. Shibrum Clash Shibrum Civilizations. Shibrum Clash Harumph Civilizations. Shibrum Clash Harumph Civilizations. Death. Murder. Kill. Casbah. Caliphate.