Online edition of India's National Newspaper
Sunday, Jan 06, 2002

About Us
Contact Us
Magazine Published on Sundays

Features: Magazine | Literary Review | Metro Plus | Open Page | Education | Book Review | Business | SciTech | Entertainment | Young World | Folio |

Magazine

One rule for the West, another for the rest

As against the complete global — and certainly western — apathy towards victims of extreme forms of violence, as in Rwanda for instance, September 11 has been seen as an apocalyptic event for the whole world. Within weeks, the deliberation on terrorism and global conflict has been reduced to a mumbo-jumbo of self-justifying mantras and instant axioms, say ILIJA TROJANOW and RANJIT HOSKOTE. Given the tenor of this debate, are their arguments anti-American?

What's the world like?
A flock of sheep.
One falls into the ditch,
the rest jump in.

Kabir (Sakhi: 240, The Bijak of Kabir, translated by Linda Hess and Shukdev Singh)

IT'S Religion, Stupid! On TV screens across the globe, for more than three months now, the sheep have been jumping into the ditch without a bleat of protest. What's worse, they've convinced themselves that this is the way to go, the way of justice and salvation.

Kabir's acerbic stanza accurately describes the debate in the mainstream media following the September 11 events. Legions of experts and viewers have committed themselves to an absurdly simplistic and Manichean account of the world, in which President Bush and his international supporting cast are portrayed as God's good men, arrayed in battle against maniacal fiends in turbans, baggy robes and sandals, who threaten the world's sanity and security.

Within weeks, the debate on terrorism and global conflict has been reduced to a mumbo-jumbo of self-justifying mantras and instant axioms. An important aspect of the debate is the critique-by-media of Islamic faith and Islamic cultures. This takes, as its basis, certain "core Western values" that are assumed to lie at the base of all civilised discourse (and which are, by implication, counter posed to Islam). Interpreted correctly, of course, these core Western values enshrine the method of radical doubt that is central to Enlightenment discourse from Spinoza and Descartes to Derrida and Foucault. This method helps us to unmask religion as ideology, to examine the overt practices and concealed motives of ideology, the manner in which it reflects the interests of dominant classes. Unfortunately, the dogmas of Western Government and media rhetoric completely contravene this heritage of radical doubt.

The academic gurus behave no better. Francis Fukuyama has gone on record to say that "Islam is the only cultural system that regularly seems to produce people like bin Laden or the Taliban, who reject modernity lock, stock and barrel". As a matter of fact, it is precisely the lock, stock and barrel of modernity that Islamic extremism has taken up, since military technology was the aspect of Western civilisation that the colonialists exported most vigorously (T. E. Lawrence's classic of romantic-Orientalist autobiography, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, tells the tale of how British irregulars brought guerrilla warfare to the Arab resistance against the Ottoman Empire). Even today the West blesses the world with lock, stock and barrel worth billions of dollars.

Consider, also, the various unexamined axioms built into Fukuyama's ill-considered sentence. "The only cultural system?" Three decades ago, irrational violence was believed to be the monopoly of the Vietcong, who then yielded place to the Khmer Rouge in the American demonology. Were the Vietcong and the Khmer Rouge closet believers in the Word of Allah? Has North Korea, regarded by United States leaders through the 1990s as the major scourge of humankind, fallen under the influence of the mullahs? "Regularly produces people like bin Laden?" How many bin Ladens have the 1.2 billion Muslims produced? Fifty? Or 500? And to blame Islam for the disaster in Afghanistan, a country repeatedly abused by Britain, the Soviet Union and the U.S., is to indulge in despicable cynicism.

Western Values, and the U.S. as their Guardian Paul Pillar's formulation, in his Terrorism and U.S. Foreign Policy, briskly sums up the mantras that dominate Western media discourse about terrorism: "The longevity of the principles [of U.S. counter-terrorist policy] attest to their firm grounding in an American political, moral, and legal tradition that places high value on the rule of law and on the idea that malevolence should be punished." To point out that this sentence bears no relation to reality would be to insult the intelligence of the reader.

Malevolence should be punished? The U.S. has consistently supported states that sponsor terrorism, and has itself committed acts of terrorism. Indeed, as a result of its involvement in the Contra war against Nicaragua, the U.S. Government was tried, found guilty and mandated to pay substantial reparations by the International Court, The Hague. But the law is respected only if it reaches a verdict in the bully's favour; the U.S. hasn't parted with a dime.

The rule of law? Once in a while, the truth shines through, as when Robert D. Kaplan writes in the New York Times: "If we are hamstrung by absolutist definitions of friend and foe, and democracy and dictatorship, our chances of victory will the diminished". This is refreshingly honest, by comparison with the (oxy)moronic euphemisms of the U.S. propaganda machine. As for free speech, a central tenet of the Western value system, Washington's approach to the fair reporting of the Afghan war was to ask the Emir of Qatar to curb Al Jazeera, the only free TV channel in the Arab world. The Emir simply reminded Washington of the Fifth Amendment!

In other words: One rule for the West, another for the rest. This colonialist ideology still motivates the Western elites, and though we have achieved a sort of globalism in terms of mass communications and trade, we are still a long way from evolving a global ethics, that would guide the relations among nations and peoples. Without being as ambitious as the Advaita, we would have achieved a great change if every human life could be held to have the same and equal value.

The illusion of a "safe and comfortable world"

The worst genocide in recent times took place in Rwanda, and left close to a million people dead. United Nations peacekeepers pulled out; the complicity of France in supporting and arming the mass murderers became clear. But there was hardly a ripple of public disquiet, as the radical artist Alfredo Jaar chillingly demonstrates in his elegiac installations, "Let There Be Light" and "The Eyes of Gutete Emerita". These installations are situated within a performance during which Jaar flashes a sequence of U.S. magazine covers and narrates, in parallel, the events taking place in Rwanda in the same weeks. While the numbers of those butchered rises, and the nature of the slaughter becomes more and more feral, Time and Business Week contin<147,1,7>ue to put other, more sedate and West-centred subjects on their covers.

No minutes of silence were maintained for the victims of the Rwandan genocide; no candlelight vigils were held in their memory, no celebrity-endorsed prayer meetings were convened. On the contrary, the shameful involvement of functionaries of the Roman Catholic Church in the genocide was glossed over: no commentator was inspired to publish vicious diatribes against Christianity as a "cultural system that regularly produces blood-thirsty maniacs". But let's not forget that we are only talking of a million dead Blacks. There have been worse times, but hardly more hypocritical ones.


A joint session of congress after the attack on the World Trade center... in the cartoon-strip style of argument, isolated figures become the proponents of terror.

As against the complete global (and certainly Western) apathy towards the one million victims of the Rwandan genocide, September 11 is seen as an epochal and apocalyptic event for the whole world. The emphasis is on the supposedly sudden burst of dramatic violence into the lives of an otherwise happy and peaceable America. The blissful ignorance or deliberate self-delusion of the Western elites is eloquently, if comically, illustrated by the Tory MP Bernard Jenkins' view from the charmingly pastoral locale of North Essex: The events of September 11, in the worthy MP's opinion, "shattered the illusion of a safe and comfortable world".

On the other hand, a journalist in Bihar, writing a few days after the New York attacks, noted that such horrors would hardly make an impression on a Bihari, who has to endure terror on a daily basis. The world is, in reality, far more similar to Bihar than it is to New York or North Essex, and the last few decades have witnessed an increasing global Biharisation. The only novel feature about the September 11 kamikaze attacks is that, for the first time, people from the world's powerless hinterlands have struck at the very heart of the imperium.

War on terror — war or terror?

The definition of terrorism is conspicuously absent in the current global debate. If terrorism is an attack on civilians or civilian objects with the intent to terrorise the people or the Government, then the war on terror should be a war on the whole world order, a system of permanent terror for three-quarters of mankind. By distinguishing between State and non-State terror, the main culprits are left out.

By differentiating between "our friends and our foes", the "terrorists" are narrowed down to a ridiculous fraction (basically, just bin Laden, the Taliban and Saddam Hussein). In the cartoon-strip style of argument pursued by the Western powers, these isolated figures become the chief proponents of terror, promulgators of violent manifestos and makers of catastrophic weapons.

On the other hand, as some clear-sighted commentators have pointed out, the U.S. has supported (and continues to support) states like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, who are probably more to blame for the attacks on New York than the Taliban. And what about the ongoing direct involvement of the "coalition against terror" in terror? There are an estimated 500 million small arms and light weapons in the world, and they have killed two million children in the last decade of the 20th Century, according to UNICEF estimates. And these killing-machines are produced mainly by states that are permanent members of the Security Council and enjoy the absurd privilege of a veto.

The same global powers, individually or jointly, block all initiatives against weapons and war — most recently, for instance, the international agreement on land-mines. Surely the production and sale of weaponry for the purpose of profit qualifies as complicity in terrorism? You don't have to be a turbaned fanatic to be a murderer: The military-industrial complex is governed by suave, pleasant family men who keep their eyes focussed on spreadsheets rather than manifestos. The definition of terrorism is kept unclear, so that the game of shifting self-interest can proceed unimpeded; there is no moral focus to the debate over war and terrorism. The fashionable argument of the "just war" is a feeble attempt to mask the truth so succinctly phrased by Thucydides: "The powerful exact as much as they can, and the weak yield to such conditions as they can obtain."

A just war would assume a consistent definition of justice. But can we take the justice of the powerful seriously, when some murderers are punished while others are rewarded with a retirement on the beaches of Florida? And what of the slaughter of civilians that has taken place in the "just wars" against Iraq and Afghanistan, a slaughter dismissed under the bland Pentagon doctrine of "collateral damage?"

Even a leading proponent of the just-war theory like Michael Walzer admits that "when the world divides radically into those who bomb and those who are bombed, it becomes morally problematic, even if this bombing is justifiable".

The Afghan war is neither just, nor a war (wars are fought between well- matched combatants). It is a campaign reminiscent of the punitive actions carried out during World War II and the Vietnam War. When you can't catch the perpetrators, you destroy something of their world as retribution. "It is important to stress," continues Walzer, "that the moral reality of war is not fixed by the actual activities, but by the opinions of mankind." To be precise, by the opinions of the more influential among mankind: the bombing of Aghanistan is just, only because it has been described as such by the powers who ordered the bombing.

Frankenstein Inc. (Made in the U.S.)

The lab has been around for a long time and we all know how it works: Dr. Frankenstein of the CIA arms his monster, then leaves him to his own devices. The monster begins to misbehave. He no longer obeys his liaison officers at the CIA. He cuts the wires that link him to the State Department. He is out of control. He is identified as the enemy, magnified in the imagination, labelled an avatar of Hitler. Then the command is issued: Shoot at Sight.

In the good old days of the Cold War, some of the demons and anti-Christs were made in the "Empire of Evil". Today, they are all illegitimate children of the "Empire of Good", serially stigmatised as their creators run out of enemies. It is well known that Saddam Hussein, Noriega and bin Laden all began on the right side of the U.S., and that the CIA funded the Taliban. Curiously, only a few months ago, the Bush administration gave the Taliban a $43 million subsidy as a reward for suppressing the drug trade (sometimes the monster takes Dr. Frankenstein for a ride: the opium that was burned was the surplus, destroyed to keep prices high in the narcotics trade).

It is worthwhile comparing the Taliban to the Khmer Rouge, that other bizarre and genocidal regime; both came to power after devastating wars. We speak of violent people as though they were trained to be violent by their traditions. But what else would people be in an atmosphere of total and pervasive war? Violence breeds violence: this, rather than cultural determinism, is by far the most convincing explanation for the rise of forces like the Taliban and the Khmer Rouge.

And where the U.S. has not produced Frankenstein monsters by itself, it has provoked them into being: Iran is the perfect example. The democratic Government of Mohammed Mossadegh in Iran (1951-1953) represented a modern, liberal, inclusive Iranian vision: of all "Islamic" Governments, its practical values were closest to those theoretically cherished by the West. And yet, the CIA overthrew Mossadegh's Government and restored the repressive Pahlavi regime to power. Mossadegh's vision embodied precisely those values that Western analysts today claim to find wanting in Islam; he was punished because he dared to challenge Western control over Iran's resources by nationalising the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company.

America and/or critical difference

Given the tenor of the current debate, our arguments here would automatically qualify as being anti-American. This cry of anti-Americanism, which is currently the supreme rhetorical weapon, implies a homogenised vision of American society, culture and Government (into which differences of race, gender, class and persuasion are quietly collapsed). It also negates the possibility of maintaining critical difference. After all, to love jazz music does not mean to support the bombing of Afghanistan; to admire the tradition of free speech is not to endorse the idiocy of corporate media.

It is impossible to have grown up as a cosmopolitan citizen in today's world without having been inspired by American triumphs in academia and the arts. However, the real beauty of U.S. culture is that these accomplishments were born out of an attitude of dissent, questioning and confrontation. Thus, and perhaps paradoxically, to criticise U.S. foreign policy is to uphold the best and highest impulses in U.S. culture.

Send this article to Friends by E-Mail

Magazine

Features: Magazine | Literary Review | Metro Plus | Open Page | Education | Book Review | Business | SciTech | Entertainment | Young World | Folio |



The Hindu Group: Home | About Us | Copyright | Archives | Contacts | Subscription
Group Sites: The Hindu | Business Line | The Sportstar | Frontline | Home |

Comments to : thehindu@vsnl.com   Copyright 2002, The Hindu
Republication or redissemination of the contents of this screen are expressly prohibited without the written consent of The Hindu