(written by dacoit)
The British-Sri Lankan singer/toaster/artist/producer M.I.A. has been anything but missing in action lately, blowin’ up the (cyber)spot on a worldwide(web) scale for the last few months and garnering mention in the US, Britain and Canada (though she is nowhere to be found in the press outside of Europe or North America as yet). M.I.A.’s anti-establishment quasi-activist sonic radicalism combines an old school UK punk aesthetic with genres ranging from the established (dancehall, hip hop, drum & bass) to the emergent (electroclash, mash-up, Brazilian baile funk).
This is flashy, trashy, funky and junky candy culture – but if M.I.A.’s music were candy it would be atomic fireballs (sugary sweet, brightly colored and cheap as dirt, but mad spicy to the point of being a little dangerous and unpalatable to the squeamish). Aesthetic judgments of her music’s quality or lack thereof have consumed several pots of ink and countless kilometers of bandwidth in blogland, the mainstream press, graying liberal rags , and more recently established arbiters of taste (and again). My primary interest is not in airing my own opinions of the music here (for the record, I find the idea of M.I.A. extremely compelling – both in terms of the styles she puts together and the politics – but the music itself has yet to grab me).
Aside from pronouncements on whether her sound is derivative/original, good/bad, and so forth, much of the discourse on M.I.A. has been over the question of her politics (see, inter alia, Sepia). Many have voiced principled objections to purchasing recordings or attending performances based on her alleged support of the Tamil Eelam movement and specifically the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a militant Sri Lankan ‘terrorist’ or ‘freedom fighter’ organization (depending on how one chooses to narrate the situation) seeking autonomy for the ethnic Tamil regions in the northeast of the island nation. Indeed, M.I.A. – Maya Arulpragasam – is the daughter of Arul Pragasam (his nickname ‘Arular’ is the title of her album), a major figure in the LTTE and the radical Tamil nationalist student organization EROS that preceded the Tigers. She never exactly declares explicit allegiance to the projects and methods of the LTTE, either in the text of her lyrics or any of her numerous interviews, but the iconography she employs on stage and on her website incorporates the loaded symbolism of mighty tigers and various guerrilla-style implements of destruction, and she is not shy to refer to her father as a ‘freedom fighter’ in her lyrics (though in one interview she called him ‘insane’).
Notwithstanding MTV’s ban on her video for suggesting “like PLO/we don’t surrend-o”, M.I.A.’s political orientation is far more complex than many have taken it to be. As Robert Christgau points out, the only unambiguous message on her album is that education is crucial. Apparently, however, the ‘fact’ that M.I.A. is a supporter of LTTE terrorism is so obvious that some on the left see her as being an all-too-perfect target of neocon fear-mongering. Why might so many be so willing to dismiss her as a supporter of terrorism, pure and simple? This is a question that requires us to consider both the contemporary meaning of terrorism, and how the Tigers fit into this.
These days, the invocation of ‘terrorism’ performs a major political function in much of the world. The term is increasingly used as a blanket condemnation of any type of political opposition to an internationally recognized nation-state that does not use exclusively electoral means to get their points across. This works on a rhetorical level as well as to legitimate ‘counter-insurgency’ clampdowns in the language of international law. Crying ‘terror’ is also a significant means by which national governments can obtain resources for consolidating their own authority. Raising the specter of terrorism thus becomes a continuous process of state governments attempting to portray insurgent groups voicing oppositional political positions (often quite legitimate ones) as ‘terrorists’ to attract abundant international counter-terrorism monetary and military support. The global mass media plays a central part in the process of defining this or that organization as terrorist, and the end result is that accusations get flying so fast and furious that the term ‘terrorism’ loses whatever precise meaning it might once have had, and complex political conflicts from Palestine to Philadelphia to the Philippines are reduced to a global conspiracy of evildoers.
The way the global scourge of terrorism is localized in the case of Sri Lanka provides the key to the role of the Tamil Tigers in this picture. Emerging out of a grave failure of the post-colonial Sri Lankan state to incorporate the large and historically marginalized Tamil population in the north and east of the island, major resistance movements begin to flare from the late 1970s onwards. The Sri Lankan Tamil nationalist movement initially is aided by the Indian government, with the crack RAW section of Indian intelligence training cadres of Eelam-ites in the Indian Himalayas from 1983. This alliance is short-lived, and India’s military support of the Sri Lankan government’s counter-insurgency measures against the LTTE (which by this point has become the dominant resistance group) results in the 1991 assassination of former Indian PM Rajiv Gandhi by Tiger cadres in Indian Tamil Nadu. Since this period, the LTTE, at the insistence of a Sri Lankan state increasingly given to Sinhala nationalism, has consistently been branded a terrorist organization internationally (they are listed as a Designated Foreign Terrorist Organization by the US State Department and similarly notified in India’s recently repealed Prevention of Terrorism Act). It is of little use to debate the merits of this designation – the LTTE tends to conduct business in an authoritarian and undemocractic manner and is notorious for eliminating voices competing to represent the Sri Lankan Tamil nationalist position (especially, as one astute commentator points out, Tamil and non-Tamil voices seeking to raise the problematic of caste, class and gender justice outside of the Tamil nation framework). Also contributing to the case for the Tigers as terrorist organization is the involvement of child combatants and practice of suicide bombing (dispassionately portrayed in a recent film).
As with most scenarios where the appellation of terrorism is used to homogenize and demonize political opposition, posing the question as one of a legitimate Sri Lankan state against the terrorist Tigers obscures the serious issues of unjust distribution of political power and economic resources (including much-needed tsunami relief in the Tamil areas). I think that for the same reasons we need to take very seriously the conditions giving rise to radical militant Islamist positions such as that of al-Qaida, we also need to take seriously the situation of the Tamils in Sri Lanka. There is, for example, a relative lack of interest in this scenario on the part of the Indian left. This might have something to do with a tendency on the part of the Indian left to disregard the causes of groups that are not explicitly Dalit, Marxist or Muslim, hence the recent fascination with Nepalese Dalit Maoism and long-standing sympathy towards the plight of the Kashmiri Muslim peasantry (both of course legitimate causes), but relative silence on implicitly Hindu Tamils in Sri Lanka or, earlier on, the persecution of Sikhs in the Panjab and insurgent movements in the northeast. (I think this last is an argument for another day, gentle Indian leftist readers).
M.I.A.’s clear sympathy to the plight of Sri Lankan Tamils, the imageries employed in her vague leftist rhetoric and her family history makes it a natural that she would be called out as a supporter of terrorism in a media environment that is saturated with such accusations. Islam, of course, is consistently upheld as a central terrorist trait. This is not entirely another story, since M.I.A. puts some random Arabic on her album cover, reportedly ‘just random words she needed to find to represent Islam.’ This may be with regards to the fact that Muslims in M.I.A.’s native Britain are quickly becoming the most important underclass; the inclusion is also an indication of the extent to which the Islam has been envisioned as a global figure of ethical resistance (this notion goes back well into the era of European colonialism, and more recent manifestations have been discussed by Susan Buck-Morss in a major book Thinking Beyond Terror: Islamism and Political Theory on the Left, 2003). Whatever the case may be, this plays into an overall design on the part of M.I.A. (her record company XL supposedly cedes complete creative control to the artist) to effectively generate controversy by projecting her allegiance to whatever-means-necessary-type anti-imperialism.
I think there are a couple of different things that we can take away from the cultural phenomenon of M.I.A. and the quasi-politicized buzz that surrounds her. One point relates back to my desire to take seriously the question of Tamil Eelam in Sri Lanka, and the second has to do with our old friend globalization.
As we do with numerous militant aspirants to political power broadly on the left, from the PLO to the Chavistas, I think we should take the Tamil Tigers’ methods of ‘negotiation’ as a politics of desparation rather than branding it ‘terrorism’ and leaving it at that, and focus on the problem of governance in plural post-colonial societies. In South Asia alone, the Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi states have exhibited a crippling inability to develop political frameworks for addressing the concerns of marginalized segments of the population (see Sepoy on Baluchistan for an excellent case study from Pakistan). For all her cheap nintendo beats and vacuous posturing, M.I.A. does provide a narrative from the frontlines of disenfranchisement at the hands of an ethnic nationalist government (one supported by international capital and military force). If the most feasible means of self-empowerment for Sri Lankan Tamils is, as she suggests in her song ‘Sunshowers’, to go to work in a Nike sweatshop in order to support one’s family (and buy Reeboks) or to suicide bomb the well-armed opposition, then the Sri Lankan state needs to be seriously reconfigured (perhaps, as a multi-national state with power-sharing at the center; as AG Noorani argues, a similar scheme held great promise for India in the mid-40s, but was blocked by the insistence of the INC on a unified center).
A frequent result of the continuing conflict in Sri Lanka has been the emigration of countless Tamils (among others) to India, the UK, Thailand, Canada and so forth, funding the Tiger resistance with hard-earned rupees, pounds, dollars and bhats. The fact that insurgent subject positions are transnationally constituted is familiar terrain, and the Arulpragasam family’s peregrinations from Lanka to Lebanon (where Maya’s father trained with the PLO in the early 1980s) to London and back are a case in point. The centrality of new musical forms in the articulation of these positions, however, and the way they interact with global audiences is worth examining anew. The market appeal of M.I.A. resembles that of musics yoked to the cause of resistance to racial, ethnic or gender domination by content (punk and ‘two-tone’ from the UK like the Gang of Four or the Specials, hip hop from BDP to Talib Kweli) or genealogy (the guitarist for Rage Against the Machine is nephew to Kenyan anti-colonial nationalist Jomo Kenyatta). While her message is much more difficult to pin down than any of these artists’, she often advocates similar causes (‘Pull up the People’ is the most bland and obvious); but as she says elsewhere London, New York, Kingston and Brazil ought to be quieted down; long enough, hopefully, to comprehend the particular ways that global and local processes intersect to maintain conflicts and exclusions in Sri Lanka. It would be quite a shame if consumers of this music are to take its politics seriously enough to demand boycotts of M.I.A. for being an LTTE supporter, but obscure the cause of the problems in Sri Lanka by applying the chock-a-block ‘terrorism’ label.