Pockets of rage

Print edition : September 29, 2001

The current condition of the Muslim world, especially the Arab part of it, has come to be seen as a case of victory and defeat. But can defeat or victory justify the rage that an extremist fringe in the Muslim world has unleashed on the non-Muslim world?

AS the world braces for the military strikes that the United States appears determined to undertake in retaliation for the terrorist attacks on its soil, not much thought is being given to the probable motivations of the perpetrators of the attacks. If they had an agenda, then it would be possible to understand them and perhaps think about some kind of accommodation. No administration or government will be so foolhardy as to even talk of an accommodation at such a juncture. However, as the war against global terror winds along what is bound to be a long-drawn course, this question is bound to surface again and again and hence it is necessary to deal with it at the outset.

The New York police keep a protective vigil outside a mosque in Brooklyn.-REYES DAMASO/ GAMMA

Hypotheses that try to provide some coherence to what seemed to be a series of mindless attacks on September 11 are being faintly heard at this juncture. There are as yet few people who advance these hypotheses with any great conviction, let alone being prepared to swear by them. But by and large a set of presumptions has already been drawn up. While the attacks on September 11 were the first on U.S. soil by an international terrorist network (assuming that no evidence turns up to show that it was the work of an indigenous terrorist of the Timothy McVeigh mould), they followed on a series of attacks on U.S. targets elsewhere in the world over the past six years. Since these attacks were presumed to have been carried out by Islamic terrorist groups, the first plan of the hypotheses being formulated is that there is something about the U.S. that enrages the Muslim world.

During the last century, almost every movement that sprang up to combat colonialism was initially dubbed a terrorist one. It is perhaps because of this history that the search for an oppressor-oppressed connection begins every time the phenomenon of terrorism raises its head. This tendency is pushed along when there is talk on both sides of conquests and the conquered. The turn of the millennium especially was greeted with a trumpet blast of Western triumphalism with much talk of how Western systems of production, culture and values had conquered the world. Civilisationally mature countries like China - confident of the contribution they have made to humanity in the past and of what they will make in the future - shrugged at this western orgy of self-praise. Did others cringe?

Both inside and outside the Muslim world there is a presumption that those who adhere to this particular religio-social worldview are pre-eminent among the victims of the Western triumph. The history books have been culled to see how developments - the Muslim conquest of Spain, the Crusades, the Ottoman march into Austria, the sea battles in the eastern Mediterranean and the Arabian Sea, the waning of Ottoman power and the re-drawing of the map of West Asia after the First World War - had shaped the psyche on both sides. Of course, history only forms a backdrop that informs how the current condition of the Muslim world, especially the Arab part of it, has in some perspectives come to be seen as a case of victory and defeat.

Several strands are picked up to explain how the Arabs are currently in a situation of having been defeated by the West. Oil, the primary asset of the Arab world, might nominally be under the control of their governments, but the West determines its flows and its revenues. Most of the revenues generated by oil are lapped up by Western financial institutions and hence are under the control of global capital. Almost every Arab government is essentially a non-representative one and therefore susceptible to manipulation by the West. The West has not hesitated to use its manipulative capabilities and has thereby kept the Muslim world divided against itself. Iraq has been propped up as a bogeyman so that the West can continue with its military suzerainty over the region.

Finally, an artificial excrescence called Israel has been imposed on the Arab world. It commits all manner of atrocities against the Arabs and the West sustains and protects Israel. All this understandably nourishes a well-spring of anger and hatred towards the West. Or so goes the argument of those who view the Arabs' current condition from this perspective.

Can this perspective stand up to close scrutiny? Other parts of the world have after all undergone the wrong end of the colonial experience. They have had to cope with the post-colonial power of global capital and have evolved creative ways of dealing with it. They have adapted to political and economic systems that were first hammered into efficient forms in the West. These nations - including Muslim countries such as Iran and Malaysia - have adapted themselves to Western material culture while preserving their traditions. Other countries that were once colonised have learnt to work as proper nation-states that can deal with each other and resolve regional problems without assistance from the West. If the Arabs are in a condition of defeat, is it because of their own failure to come up with appropriate responses to the challenges of the modern world?

In any case, can the defeat or failure justify the rage that an extremist fringe in the Muslim world has unleashed on the non-Muslim world? Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, spiritual head of the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas), is among those who do not think so. In a recent interview, Sheikh Yassin said that his organisation was justified in carrying out suicide missions against Israeli targets because they were involved in an anti-colonial struggle. On the other hand, those who carried out the attacks in the U.S. did not do so in furtherance of any objective and their actions were thus anti-religious, the Hamas leader explained.

Was the Hamas leader merely being tactically clever? After all, the U.S. was talking of a global concert against all forms of terror. They were talking of roping in Syria and Iran - two states that still figure in the U.S. State Department's list of countries that sponsor terrorism - into this coalition. Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, who was visibly horror-struck when he heard the news of the attacks in New York and Washington, ordered a ceasefire and there were regular contacts between the Authority and the U.S. administration. Under the circumstances, was Sheikh Yassin merely trying to take his organisation out of the ambit of a counter-strike that the U.S. was developing?

That seemed a simplistic explanation. After all, Sheikh Yassin had simultaneously announced that his organisation's suicide bombing campaign against Israel was not being wound up. So he was obviously prepared to face up to any retaliatory action. There were also reports about a single and short-lived connection between Hamas and Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda network. Neither Islamic Jehad nor the Lebanese Hizbollah, two other West Asian organisations that believe in the cult of the suicide bomber and also believe that they are fighting colonialism, has had much to do with Al Qaeda.

However, if organisations that see themselves as being involved in an anti-colonial struggle have distanced themselves from Al Qaeda, it does not necessarily mean that Osama and his cohorts are not involved in a similar struggle. But from such bin Laden statements that are in circulation, it does not appear that he intends to stop if and when Israel is erased from the map. He sees himself as being involved in a civilisational struggle that will only end when the rest are wiped out. It is surely not a coincidence that the organisations from which he is most easily able to attract adherents are those which espouse similar millennial views.

The Armed Islamic Group and the Salafist Group for Propagation and Struggle (based in Algeria), the Gama'a al Islamiya of Egypt and the assorted fanatic groups that have sprung up in the Afghanistan-Pakistan corridor are the ones from which bin Laden is reported to get the bulk of his recruits. At the same time, other groups that seek to promote Islamic systems in their own countries or territories - Algeria's Islamic Salvation Front, the various branches of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas and others - have had little connection with Al Qaeda either. Osama bin Laden and associates appear to represent nothing but an atavistic-nihilistic mindset that was created in the cauldron of the Afghan war.

Osama's activities do not appear linked to any laudable objectives or even achievable ones. Yet the attacks on September 11 did send a frisson of excitement through the Arab world. A few statements from Arab leaders, drawing a link between the attacks and the U.S.' faults of omission and commission in West Asia, were quickly withdrawn. However, it was not just a few stray Palestinians who were in a celebratory mood when the images of the collapsing twin towers of the World Trade Centre flashed on television screens.

There is no denying that the attacks struck some deep emotional chord in the psyche of the Arab world. A deep-seated rage can be perceived as a possible explanation for the attacks that took place on September 11, but it cannot serve as a justification for the murders of thousands of civilians who belonged to countries from all over the world. Neither can a listing of the grievances against the West cover the failure of a particular mindset to come to adapt to the demands of the modern world.

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