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Need for a nation-state

The need for identity can be satisfied today with the concept of the nation-state. But it must be one that embraces pluralism. If identity can relate principally to citizenship rather than faith, to a land rather than a doctrine, and if that identity is one that can live in harmony with other identities, then there is still hope.

MY friend Ahmed Rashid is a lucky man.

A hard working man, too, it must be added, as well as a diligent and able one. A correspondent for the Far Eastern Economic Review and London's Daily Telegraph, Ahmed has reported on Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia for more than 20 years, writing particularly knowledgeably about Afghanistan (I first met him in Geneva in the late 1980s when he was covering the talks there that culminated in the Soviet withdrawal from that unhappy country).

The last time I saw him in New York, he had come to the United States to promote his book, Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia, which had been published last year by Yale University Press. He received a typically unostentatious reception: the number of people in America interested in a serious, meticulously researched study of Afghanistan were few, and dwindling.

Rumour had it (though I never asked him) that Yale had paid only $5000 for the rights to print the American edition, not a large sum in those pre-recession days. As of September 10, the book was well on its way to gathering dust on a few library shelves. And then the terrorists stuck, and Americans suddenly could not get enough of material on the Taliban, Afghanistan or militant Islam. Ahmed's book — practically the only, and certainly the best, informed work on its subject, based on a profound understanding of the country and extensive interviews with the Taliban leadership — promptly rose to the top of the bestseller lists.

You could not walk in to a bookstore in New York City without seeing piles of it on prominent display. Last I heard, Ahmed was Number 1 on Amazon.com and Number 2 on the New York Times' bestseller list. Publishers spoke breathlessly of Yale having put 350,000 copies in print. If Ahmed were free to come to the U.S., there would be sell-out crowds to listen to his every word. However, true to his calling, he has stayed on in the region, doing what he does so well — helping us understand what is happening there. But his book has had the triumph it deserves.

This is all to the good, because so much of the world's awareness of events in and around Afghanistan today has been based on the ephemeral. Crises have a habit of privileging news over context, information over insight, horror over history. Soundbites supplant wisdom. And yet it is only through a book like Ahmed's — which reveals how Afghanistan was historically the subject of power politics by the Persians, the Mongols, the British Raj, the Soviet Union, the U.S., and now Pakistan and the oil companies — that the full historical framework becomes available. (Fascinatingly, Ahmed has a chapter he calls "Global Jihad: The Arab-Afghans and Osama Bin Laden", written two years before the connection became a commonplace of the punditocracy, in which he explains the U.S. role in recruiting thousands of foreign Muslim mujahideen to fight the Soviet forces in Afghanistan).

But it is not enough, of course, to focus only on Afghanistan or even on the complex politics of the region as a whole. There is a broader and yet more fundamental issue at stake if we are to seek to understand the world of September 11. We are living in what, for want of a better word just yet, we must call the post-post-Cold War era: the "post-Cold War era" was the brief period of exhilaration about the end of the tensions of that period of superpower conflict, and the "post-post-Cold War" is that time of disillusionment, turmoil and confusion that has succeeded it.

This is a world of savage ethnic clashes and resurgent new nationalisms, messianic calls for religious purity, profound divisions between rich and poor, and (seemingly paradoxically) the sweeping and irresistible tide of globalisation. To understand the forces shaping this turbulent new world requires not just geopolitical awareness but a more nuanced insight into the human condition everywhere -- into what ignites rage, informs despair and illuminates hope.

Two other books, in very different ways, help light the path. Benjamin R. Barber's Jihad vs. McWorld, first published in 1995, sharply and lucidly dissects what he considers the fundamental conflict of our times: the clash between, no, not civilisations, but doctrines — religious and ethnic fundamentalism on the one hand, secular consumerist capitalism on the other.

Barber believes the world is simultaneously coming together into a single international market and being torn apart by civil war and the break up of nations. He welcomes neither trend, arguing that capitalism and fundamentalism, by undermining the nation-state, both threaten democracy: capitalism by putting profit-making above moral, religious or traditional values; and fundamentalism by its fanatical intolerance of, and its willingness to stoke hatred against, the "other".

One prospect facing humanity is that of "a Jihad in the name of a hundred narrowly conceived faiths against every kind of interdependence, ... against technology, against pop culture, against integrated markets; against modernity itself". The other is of globalisation run rampant, a world of "fast music, fast computers and fast food — with MTV, Macintosh (computers), and McDonald's pressing nations into one commercially homogenous theme park: one McWorld tied together by communications, information, entertainment and commerce". Both Jihad and McWorld, of course, end up by obliterating our most precious possession — our identity.

Which brings me to Amin Maalouf's slim but masterly book In the Name of Identity: Violence and the Need to Belong. Maalouf, a Lebanese Catholic living in France, argues that identity begins by "reflecting a perfectly permissible aspiration" but becomes a "false friend".

Every one of us, as I have pointed out in my book India: From Midnight to the Millennium, has many identities. Religion obliges us to deny the truth about our own complexity by obliterating the multiplicity inherent in our identities. Islamic fundamentalism, in particular, does so because it embodies a passion for pure belonging, a yearning intensified by the threatening tidal wave of globalisation as well as by the specificities of Middle Eastern politics. And it feeds on the inevitable sense among its adherents of being wounded, whether real or imagined. "In the midst of any community that has been wounded," Maalouf explains, "agitators naturally arise. Whether they are hotheads or cool schemers, their intransigent speeches act as balm to their audience's wounds. They promise victory or vengeance; they inflame minds. Whatever happens, `the others' will have deserved it. `We' can remember quite clearly `all that they have made us suffer' since time immemorial: all the crimes, all the extortion, all the humiliations and fears, complete with names and dates and statistics.'' What an extraordinarily perceptive insight into so much of the rage that inflames the world today.

Those religions which define themselves in global terms, Maalouf suggests, are "global tribes: tribes because of their stress on identity, global because of the way they blithely reach across frontiers. In a way, belonging to a faith community is the most global and universal kind of particularism". What is to be done? We cannot delegitimise religion, and indeed there is something precious and valuable in a faith that allows a human being to see himself at one with others stretching their hands out towards God around the world.

But can we separate religion from identity? Maalouf "dreams not of a world where religion no longer has any place but of one where the need for spirituality will no longer be associated with the need to belong. [W]hat has to do with religion must be kept apart from what has to do with identity. And if we want that amalgam to stop feeding fanaticism, terror and ethnic wars, we must find other ways of satisfying he need for identity."

A wise and humane insight which is, of course, easier said than done. Ironically the only realistic answer might lie in the very institution Barber found threatened by today's great forces of Jihad and McWorld — that of the nation-state. With one caveat: it must be a nation-state that embraces pluralism.

If identity can relate principally to citizenship rather than faith, to a land rather than a doctrine, and if that identity is one that can live in harmony with other identities, then we might still escape the worst horrors that either Barber or Huntington can conceive.

India has struggled, with more success than it has been given credit for, towards an answer — a land where you can be many things and one thing, here you can be a good Keralite, a good Muslim, a good socialist and a good Indian all at once. In that acknowledgement of our essential complexity, and our simple humanity, may lie the most valuable lesson of these three fine books.

Shashi Tharoor is the author, most recently, of the new novel Riot. Visit him at www.shashitharoor.com

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