The Muslim as terrorist

Print edition : July 30, 2004

Osama bin Laden, "created by the CIA and wanted by the FBI", was the United States' ally in the Afghan war. - AP

HAVE you noticed the striking affinities in the world view of the American Right, the Israeli Establishment and the Sangh Parivar of India? If not, please read L.K. Advani's neglected masterpiece in the party organ BJP Today of June 16-30, 1997. It is entitled "A Four-point Appeal to Muslims of India". On the 50th anniversary of India's Independence, Advani's thoughts turned to the one main "problem" that has obsessed him all his life; an obsession which blights his vision, warps his thinking, perverts his politics and leaves him diminished and debased. It is the threat, which, in his opinion, Indian Muslims pose to "Indian" nationalism, a euphemism in his lexicon for Hindu nationalism.

The four points and their exposition betray his distrust of, if not distaste for, Muslims. The points are (1) "Muslims should purge every trace of the Two-Nation theory from their mindset"; (2) "Bury vote-bank politics and contribute to making democracy healthier; (3) "understand cultural nationalism". In sum, accept Hindutva. He comes close to asking them to accept Hinduism also when he exhorts them to accept "the symbols and inspirational sources of our national culture". Ram and Krishna figure at the top of the list. It studiously excludes Muslim figures, the great Sufi saints whose shrines thousands of Indian of all faiths throng. Having delivered himself of this revealing exhortation, Advani patronisingly advises: (4) "Concentrate on education and economic elevation of poor Muslims", presumably by reading textbooks prescribed by Murli Manohar Joshi.

Clearly, in Advani's view, Indian Muslims are not `Indian"; they need to be "Indianised", which was the Jan Sangh's programme in the 1970s.

After an effort of sorts to assure Muslims that the "war on terror" launched by the United States after 9/11 was not a crusade directed against Islam or Muslims, President George W. Bush - a worthy successor to Ronald Reagan as the representative of the American Right - adopted policies, at home and abroad, which did just that. Ideologues of the American Right were more candid when they set about justifying those policies. To both, the Bushes and the Advanis, Muslims are a bad lot; sotto voce, they are terrorists. The good ones are those who stooge for them.

This book deserves to be read widely in India. Many of us tend to accept uncritically the world view projected by the West and lapse into Orientalism, so thoroughly exposed by Edward Said in his seminal work bearing the same title. Mahmood Mamdani's is a remarkable work whose rich insights owe as much to his scholarship as to his background. A third-generation East-African of Indian descent, he grew up in Kampala, Uganda, and has taught at the University of Dar-es-Salam in Tanzania, the University of Cape Town and in the University of Makerere in Uganda. He is now Herbert Lehman Professor of Government and Director of the Institute of African Studies at Columbia University.

THE modern world takes a strangely ambiguous position on violence. The Western nation-state itself was born out of violence. The first genocide in modern history was committed by European immigrants on Native Americans. Wars among Europeans were a bad thing; colonial wars were necessary to civilise Africans and Asians. International law was shaped by Europeans and sanctified European conquests, which is why India's liberation of Goa was denounced as a breach of international law.

Saddam Hussein, a "good Muslim" who invaded Iran in 1980 with American support, became a "bad Muslim" in 1991 when he attacked Kuwait.-REUTERS

European colonists arrived in Tasmania in 1803. The very next year the first massacre of natives occurred. The last original inhabitants died in 1869. If a sizable section had survived to take up arms against the colonists, what would they be called, nationalists or terrorists. "By seeing the perpetrators of violence as either cultural renegades or moral perverts, we are unable to think through the link between modernity and political violence," Mamdani points out. He quotes Aime Cessire who remarked in his Discourse on Colonialism that there is a Hitler within "the very distinguished, very humanistic and very Christian bourgeois of the Twentieth century" and yet the European bourgeois cannot forgive Hitler for "the fact that he applied to Europe the colonial practices that had previously been applied only to the Arabs of Algeria, the coolies of India and the Negroes of Africa".

Frantz Fanon, regarded wrongly as an advocate of violence, was in fact a brilliant exponent of the roots of violence. "The colonised man liberates himself in and through violence," he wrote in his classic The Wretched of the Earth. He was not prescribing but describing rather like Lokmanya Tilak who warned British rulers that Indians would take to terrorism unless their grievances were redressed and their aspirations fulfilled. He was prosecuted for sedition and sent to jail. Fanon asserted that native violence was the violence of yesterday's victims. "He of whom they have never stopped saying that the only language he understands is that of force, decides to give utterance by force... . The argument the native chooses has been furnished by the settler, and by an ironic turning of the tables it is the native who now affirms that the colonialist understands nothing but force."

Mamdani draws attention to another aspect, the insecurities and fears that drive the settler to perpetrate violence. "Any one familiar with the history of apartheid in South Africa would surely recognise that it could not have been simply greed - the wish to hold on to the fruits of conquest - but also fear, the spectre of genocide, that stiffened white South African resolve against the winds of change blowing across the African continent. That same spectre seemingly also haunts the survivors of the Holocaust in Israel, yesterday's victims turned today's perpetrators."

The book is "a critique of the cultural interpretation of politics" particularly fashionable in the United States. It explains the nuances of political Islam, including the recent rise of a terrorist movement. It explains how Islamist terror, a phenomenon hitherto marginal, came to occupy centre stage in Islamist politics. "As such, it provides an alternative interpretation of 9/11. I argue that rather than illustrating a deep-seated clash of civilisations, 9/11 came out of recent history, that of the late Cold War" (emphasis added, throughout).

In the period between the Korean (1950) and the Gulf War (1990), the U.S. fought proxy wars. The Nixon Doctrine held that "Asian boys must fight Asian Wars". Militant nationalism was branded a Soviet creation and fought through terror, subsidised by drug money and exempt from congressional scrutiny. The U.S. backed the Pretoria regime in the worst days of apartheid. The political Islam, which the West - and some in India - decry is not a product of a clash of cultures but of the politics of the Cold War. It varies from country to country. It is not a monolith.

Mamdani does a thorough job of exposing Bernard Lewis' "Culture Talk". He has been "adviser to the U.S. policy establishment" and guru to pro-establishment Indian writers on foreign affairs.

His article "The Roots of Muslim Rage" (Atlantic Monthly, September 1990) preceded Samuel P. Huntington's notorious "Clash of civilizations" in (Foreign Affairs, September 1993). "If Bernard Lewis provides intellectual support for the Bush administration's post-9/11 policy, the return to a roughshod, Cold War-style focus on `rolling back' history is politically more in line with Huntington. Rather than wait for `good' Muslims to triumph over `bad' Muslims, as Lewis counsels, the Bush administration is determined to hasten such a civil war. If necessary, as in Iraq, it is prepared to invade and bring about a regime change intended to liberate `good' Muslims from the political yoke of `bad ones'."

It is necessary to distinguish between political movements, which speak in the name of religion, and religious movements that seek revival of the faith in its pristine form. The Chapter on "Culture Talk" carefully dissects them; the ones that seek to capture state power and those that aspire to reform society. The question that is evaded in most Western discourse is why did political Islam, born in colonial times, take to the guns in the late Cold War period?

Mamdani documents American policies in Laos, Congo, Angola, South Africa and Nicaragua. In each case, proxy war was promoted by the U.S. and financed by drug money. He draws on Alfred McCoy's work The Politics of Heroin. The same policy was followed in Afghanistan with results that are there for all to see. Like the British in the 19th century, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) promoted drug traffic. "The CIA's covert assets had become the leading heroin dealers in Laos", McCoy remarks while Mamdani establishes that "CIA assets became key to providing a protective cover for the flow of cocaine from Central America to the United States in return for a reverse flow of materials and armaments from the CIA to the contras, in Nicaragua."

He cites the Report of Senator John Kerry's sub-committee on terrorism, narcotics, and international operations, part of a larger 1988 report, "Drugs, Law Enforcement, and Foreign Policy", by the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. The report concluded that "individuals associated with the contra movement" were traffickers and that cocaine smugglers had participated in "contra supply operations".

This strategy was replicated in Afghanistan. "The United States' embrace of terror can be plotted as a learning curve that went through three successive phases of the late Cold War, from southern Africa to Central America and Central Asia."

How and when did it begin in Afghanistan? Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Carter's National Security Adviser, in an interview with the Paris-based Le Nouvel Observateur (January 15-21, 1998), provided the answer:

Q. "The former director of the CIA, Robert Gates, stated in his memoirs (From the Shadows) that American intelligence services began to aid the Mujahideen in Afghanistan six months before the Soviet intervention. In this period, you were the National Security Adviser to President Carter. You therefore played a role in this affair. Is that correct?"

Brzezinski:: "Yes. According to the official version of history, CIA aid to the Mujahideen began during 1980, that is to say, after the Soviet army invaded Afghanistan on December 24, 1979. But the reality, secretly guarded until now, is completely otherwise: Indeed, it was July 3, 1979 that President Carter signed the first directive for secret aid to the opponents of the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul. And that very day, I wrote a note to the President in which I explained to him that in my opinion this aid was going to induce a Soviet military intervention." His memoirs Power and Principle published in 1983 not only suppressed this fact but suggested the opposite (page 427).

Osama bin Laden, as every one knows, was America's ally in the Afghan war. In Arundhati Roy's arresting phrase, he "has the distinction of being created by the CIA and wanted by the FBI". But precisely who is he? Mamdani states an obvious but commonly overlooked fact of cardinal relevance: "No one has been inspired by bin Laden for religious reasons. Bin Laden is a politician, not a theologian. Those who embrace him do so politically. Both Bush and bin Laden employ a religious language, the language of good and evil, the language of no compromise. You are either with us or against us. Both deny the possibility of a third response." Nor was he only the CIA-backed recruiter for the Afghan war to turn against the U.S.

Saddam Hussein was another U.S. ally. He invaded Iran in 1980 with American support. Nicholas D. Kristof of The New York Times reported that "the United States shipped seven strains of anthrax to Iraq from 1978 to 1988. A report in the February 2003 issue of Foreign Policy says the United States provided Iraq satellite imagery of Kurdish militias and Iranian troops so that Iraqis could target both more effectively. A central figure in Reagan's effort to court Saddam was the person who was one of the most hawkish on Iraq after 9/11; Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who, as Reagan's envoy met Saddam Hussein in December 1983 and Tariq Aziz, then the Foreign Minister, on March 24, 1984, the very day the U.N. released its report on Iraq's use of poison gases against Iranian troops."

The same "good Muslim" became a "bad Muslim". By now the two lies retailed in justification of the war on Iraq (2003) have been nailed to the counter-presence of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) and a link to bin Laden. Resistance to American occupation of Iraq is dubbed "terrorism".

Mamdani's analyses of the roots of terrorism are relevant to all such situations. "My argument is that the theoretical roots of the Islamic political terror lie in the state-centred, not the society-centred moment"; from a specific environment in which there is deep festering resentment at grave wrongs.

"Unlike crime, political terror must bid for popular support. To deny that support for terrorist groups requires addressing grievances - and thus issues - that give terrorists so many opportunities to recruit followers. Terror, unlike crime, has to be fought politically, not just militarily... . Even a successful military confrontation with terrorists requires their political isolation, precisely by addressing the issues they raise. That is why official America's bombing campaign in Afghanistan is more likely to be remembered as a combination of blood revenge and medieval-type exorcism than as a search for a solution to terrorism." The official documents published by the National Security Archive record how the Taliban sought a diplomatic solution as, indeed, did Saddam Hussein (Frontline, January 16, 2004).

Terrorism could not have grown if the U.S. had not created an environment in which it was seen to have connived at, indeed cynically used, terrorism for its own ends.

We live in a world in which the sole superpower rejects the rule of law, disclaims limits set by alliances and successfully uses the United Nations as an instrument of its will to provide a cloak of legitimacy over its crimes, whether in Iraq or elsewhere.

It is, therefore, American public opinion that must be influenced and moulded. But that is no easy task. "The self-censorship of the press has been reinforced by developments in the market place. With the changing ownership of media giants, several have been taken over by corporations based in the defence or entertainment industry, reinforcing the tendency to treat news as marketable entertainment. Yet another reason for the continuing erosion of press freedom arises from the common sense that the press shares with those in power. When it comes to the Middle East, Israel is the Achilles' heel of American liberalism, the blind spot that is part of its `common sense'... within America, it is easier to criticise the government than it is to criticise Israel. The same American liberal who will uphold your democratic right to criticise any government in the world including that of the United States, will consider criticism of the state of Israel as potentially anti-Semitic, in the words of the current president of Harvard, in effect if not in intent."

Mamdani's explanation makes sense - Americans see Israelis as "fellow settlers" battling against the natives. While "Zionists who return to Israel see Palestinians as interlopers, squatters, without a right grounded in a biblically sanctioned `civilised' history, they must now clear the way for the rightful owners of the land.

"America's response to major catastrophes - first slavery, then the Holocaust - has crystallised a tendency among Americans to see overseas settlements as a solution, not a problem. In both cases, the American solution was a return home, but a return so marked by a callous disregard for the rights of those who were already home, who had never left home, that in each instance the project turned into one of settler colonialism."

If the Third World is to maintain its independence it must take to heart the lesson taught by its colonial past - "there can be no independence without independent thought". In the situation we face, "nothing less than a global movement for peace will save humanity... this struggle, too will have to be waged as a mass movement inside each country, particularly the democratic countries, and especially in the United States and Israel".

True enough, but the prospects of its launch are bleak. As in the West, most intellectuals in the Third World share the conventional wisdom of their rulers. A house divided, countries of the Third World vie with one another for America's favours. And they will continue to do so unless they end the Cold Wars that divide them.

Good Muslim, Bad Muslim; America, the Cold War and the Roots of Terror

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