That Terror Thing

Posted by sepoy on July 11, 2005 · 6 mins read

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.


wanderer | July 11, 2005

since the bombings last week there is this familiar knot in my stomach. i can't sort it out and it gives me a migraine to think about it. reading friedman just makes matters worse. being muslim and american- continues to be a contradictory statement- in the eyes of the west and those of the east. civilizational conflict? when will all this end? i don't know? but i know that there is a serious amount of psychological trauma for western muslims trying to sort it all out. thanks for raising the questions that have been bothering me for too long.

Caleb | July 11, 2005

Beautiful post, Manan. I especially appreciated the final paragraph.

EastmeetsWest | July 11, 2005

Sepoy (and Wanderer), I have some questions to ask you about the paradox of being in two cultures at the same time - apart from being extremely difficult to define what one is, it can be schizophrenic at the least !!! Being a Pakistani, of obvious mulsim extraction, but a committed atheist I am appalled by both the Western perspective of the East and by the East's myopia of the West. Without going into a lengthy discourse, the recent attacks in London were especially horrific for me (my Sister would have been on the Edgware road train, in the second carriage, at 8:50 had it not been for the fact that she had to be in early that morning for a meeting), however I find the reaction to the attacks perversely hypocritical. Every day scores of people are murdered in Iraq due to car bombs and the like, similarly there has been a steady tide of attacks in Pakistan/India/Afghanistan. Yet is there any 'minute of silence', lowering of flags..... for those non-western deaths ? As for the general response from muslim countries, while not publicised in the western press, seems lacking. So the question is, how d you stride the divide between the two opposing cultural spheres. P.S. I note that, true to character, the Brits have started to attack mosques...and in one case a Sikh temple.

purobi | July 12, 2005

Very poignant and thoughtful post, Sepoy. The question you asked in the last para is the most important, and while a cynical, even facetious answer would be: after the last barrel of oil has been consumed. But I fear that too will not be enough. It certainly doesn't help when seemingly well-informed commentators like Rushdie also willingly forgo their own demonstrated knowledge of complex historical developments and insist on turning into the worst kind of native informant.

Lionel | July 12, 2005

The absurdly named "war on terrorism" will end without any fanfare or peace treaty when civilized people who are fortunate to live in democracies realize that it is imperative that their governments cease to have any truck with absolutist regimes whether in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia or Egypt. When citizenry in those and other countries become stakeholders in their societies the outlets for extremism will eventually peter out. So far, neither Blair and certainly not Bush has shown any real inclination to address the existential threat coming from drawing up faustian bargains with regimes that ill serve their own societies and those of the regimes.

Luke | July 15, 2005

EastmeetsWest You fail to identify the myopia within yourself. I note that, true to character, the Brits have started to attack mosques...and in one case a Sikh temple. No. 'The Brits' have not done anything of the sort. A handful of individuals caused mischief. There has been no backlash of violence or attacks. The individuals were apprehended and charged. The police and politicians have been fastidious in their emphasis in preventing any such attack. But in your analysis of 'the Brits' having a 'true character' which is irreducible and essentially nasty (because you allied it to the actions of an insignificant minority causing trouble) you show yourself to have more in common with the perpetrators of these acts than you might actually care to acknowledge, indeed, one wonders about what conclusions one might draw about Pakistan and its 'true character' in light of the backgrounds and history of the suicide-bombers using your own crude tools of analysis. But that would mean falling into the same crass and myopic rhetoric you use, and I shall not do so, because I am not like that.

Luke | July 15, 2005

purobi It certainly doesn't help when seemingly well-informed commentators like Rushdie also willingly forgo their own demonstrated knowledge of complex historical developments and insist on turning into the worst kind of native informant. Ah yes, that old canard of the 'native informant', so redolent of the thought police and the seething hatreds of Dostoevsky's 'The Devils', so lazy, so dogmatic, so vicious of spirit and intellect, so totalitarian and Soviet. Traitor. Cast him out. Native Informer. Banish him, burn him, tar him, feather him. Native Informant. Uppity Uncle Tom. Why? Because he contradicts me. The traitorous parvenu. Destroy the traitor, the native informer, who says something I do not agree with, why should he do that other than to 'inform' on we 'natives'?