I admit that I do not have many deep insights on terror or Islam etc. If pressed, I will retreat to my domain of history and start about the rupture of colonialism and some of the anachronistic responses that it generated. Yeah, it’s hackeneyed but that’s all I have for now. The tactic of terrorism isn’t unique to our troubled times. Using gods to justify war isn’t terribly new either. What is the new new, then? Us and our response. By that, I do not mean the response of the WH or Blair or any other state. I mean the people who observe these acts of terror or are victims of it – the people who are mere participants in the broader theater of life. The faith of the terrorist gets a lot of obvious attention. As if the “big boom” had powers of amplification into the spiritual realm. As if their belief set the benchmark. Spinning into cosmic confusion the faith of every other believer who ever stepped into a mosque, church or temple. Headlines are generated about the lack of condemnation by each and every believer about each and every act. Records are kept but counters are reset to zero each time.
Iraq, Syria, Palestine, Israel, Indonesia, Spain, UK, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India. Are all these acts the same? Is it all the same civilizational conflict? The same crusade? The same Jihad? Hardly. Of course, they are all morally abhorrent but neither in ideology, nor in tactics, nor in targets, nor in audience, nor in participation are they all connected. Each locale has a history and a practice that creates a singular instance. These events may echo from one to another but they constitute a fundamentally different space for the people who live there. The state is not the intended participant in this hitherto one-sided conversation of the terrorists. It is the people – those inhabitants of the streets of Lucknow or Lahore who are called upon to rage, to burn, to kill, to seek justice denied by the State for the acts of the imperialists or the zionists against their creed. The terrorists assume that the faith of the believer will lead them to no choice but reaction. To no reality but violence.
In Pakistan, the boom inside mosques and the rat-tat of machine guns aimed at Shi’a or Sunni contingent gets increasingly loud. The victim of this recent killing, Mufti Atiq ur Rahman was the new head of Jamiat-ul Ulum-il Islamiyyah Banuri Town – the successor to Mufti Shamzai. In their rage, the Sunni mob burned alive 8 KFC employees. In India, last week was an attack on Ayodhya. Six armed men tried to storm the site but were killed in the police shoot-out. The fear of Hindu reprisal against the Muslims remains, yet, a fear.
In an op-ed in Times of India today, my friend Prithvi wonders about the faith of the believers whose temples and mosques are under attack by the terrorists. Do our gods ó and sacred places associated with them ó need our protection? Or do we need theirs?. It is a piece that I recommend you read because it is an evocative reframing. The conversation about terror and its reaction has stratified in the monotony of al-Qaeda vs US vs Iraq vs Muslim Rage. And like I said, both of these parties are operating with some pretty enormous and pretty ill-advised assumptions about the billion or so Muslims. The “terrible loss of civilisational self-confidence” that Prithvi points to needs greater thought in the Muslim context. I do not mean this as a symptomatic lament but as a discursive tool for raising new voices.
What kind of new voices and who will raise them? There are such easy rebuttals to anything I can manage to say on that. Where is the agency of the hapless street vendor? What power has an oppressed population in the hands of dynasties and dictators? Yet again, all of that makes us the multitudes, the masses; blanketed with sweeping trajectories of history and politics. Again, I can point to Mukhtar Mai and the buckets of international attention to every single case of female abuse in the last few weeks. That is a tangible effect from one single voice. Even pontificator par extraordinaire Rushdie weighed in recently.
Will this war on terrorism end when we kill off the last registered, check-cashing member of al-Qaeda? Or will it end when we have conquered Iran, Syria, Pakistan and any other “outpost of evil”? Or will it ever end? The questions are many. War does have its own purpose to exist, after all. But, the answers will start when the faceless multitudes, on all sides, get both a face and a voice. It is hard to imagine that the indignities of life and living leave any room for civilizational contemplation but, I have faith.