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Hitting back, in black and white

Of all the global developments that have taken place since September 11, what is most significant is the one that pertains to the legislative and political ease with which many rich countries are clamping down on immigration and curtailing human rights. TABISH KHAIR examines the issue of this attack being used as an `excuse' to strike out against `anti-globalisation', the minorities and political dissidents.


In the new world, capital is free but people are not.

THREE things stand out about the crime of September 11, 2001, apart from of course the primary factor — needless deaths in the United States and Afghanistan. First, the audacity of the terrorist strike — though its "success" had more to do with bad security for domestic flights in the U.S. and a large measure of luck, rather than planning. Second, the ease with which the Taliban regime collapsed in Afghanistan — which was again something that could have been foreseen if the media had not been blinded by the rhetoric of "Islamic fundamentalism". No doubt, Islamic fundamentalism exists, but it was and is not enough to allow largely alien groups to dominate and run a country. The reason the Taliban fell was due to the vast superiority of the U.S. forces and the deep resentment of the common Afghan at the "foreign jihadis" who had taken over Afghanistan in the name of Islam.

But it is the third development that might well be most significant: the legislative and political ease with which the crime of September 11 is being used in many rich countries to clamp down on immigration and to curtail refugee and human rights. It is almost as if some governments had been waiting for just this "excuse" to turn the screws not only on the so-called "anti-globalisation" movement but also on coloured minorities and political dissidents in general.

First came the "reactions". By September 18, about 400 attacks on foreigners were reported in the U.S., according to the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). An Egyptian-American grocer, Adel Karas (a Christian) was shot to death at his store near Los Angeles. In Texas, a Pakistani (Muslim) shop owner was shot and killed. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) officials are investigating both shootings as hate crimes. In another incident, a gunman killed the 49-year-old Sikh owner of a gas station in Arizona. His family members said that he was killed because he looked "Middle Eastern". And if the reaction in the U.S. was "understandable" — though I, for one, refuse to "understand" violence of that nature — it was perhaps significant that shops owned by "foreigners" were attacked in many European countries as well, and in Australia.

Take Denmark, for example. Zubeida, a woman in her twenties whose parents moved to Denmark from Pakistan, has a not-uncommon story to narrate. Zubeida speaks Danish fluently and wears both "western" clothes and Indo-Pakistani garments. Some weeks back she was walking down a station in Denmark wearing a salwar-kameez, with a dupatta, because it was Eid. A White man stepped up to her on the platform and struck off the dupatta from her head, saying "This is not Afghanistan." Asians and Africans I know have complained that "Danes" are less likely to share a seat with them on buses and trains after September 11. And, finally, in the general elections that followed in Denmark, a rightist-neo-liberal coalition came to power with the support of a xenophobic nationalist party. Almost their first act was to tighten immigration/refugee rules, cut down on international aid (even though, according to estimates, 70 per cent of this aid goes effectively to Danish businesses) and seriously interfere in the functioning of minority, environmentalist and human rights institutes.

In the general climate of Hindu-Muslim tensions in India today, it should be stressed that the "reaction" in the West and Australia was not aimed only at Arabs or even Muslims. It was aimed at coloured immigrants (visible foreigners) in general. And the legislative proposals that followed were not aimed only at Muslims either. These proposals — some actually adopted — ranged from simple measures (like aid cuts and legislation making arranged marriages more difficult) to the adoption of dictator-like powers by the U.S. President and the imprisonment without trial or recourse to lawyers of "suspects".

BEHIND all these acts, however, lie not so much the spectres of racism and civilisational hubris as the logic of neo-liberalism. If September 11 has been put to one definite and sweeping use, it has been to attack and arbitrarily dismiss the critics of neo-liberal capitalism. It is not insignificant that at least one U.S. senator had originally accused the "anti-globalisation movement" of being behind the September 11 atrocity. Since then, the atrocity and its terrorist roots have been used to dismiss any serious critique of the U.S. as an imperial power and any attempt to question the neo-liberal myth of the free market as the "only alternative". If you commit the first crime, you're dubbed "anti-American"; if you commit the second, you might well be branded a terrorist.

The tightening control of immigration and ethnic minorities in the West is an aspect of this neo-liberal triumph. In keeping with neo-liberal theories, the world is a "market" in which both capital and labour can circulate free of restrictions. Now, anyone who knows what the world actually is would be able to tell that this neo-liberal utopia does not exist. While capital can jump national borders with relative impunity, movements of international labour are strictly regulated. It is almost impossible for an average Indian or Somali to go to the U.S., England or Denmark.

So strict is this control that there is a shopping area just outside Heathrow that has witnessed bodies dropping from the skies at least four times in recent years. But bodies do not drop from the skies, you would say. Oh yes, they do when they are bodies of poor migrants who have stowed away in the wheel bay of planes: bodies frozen and dead. And, of course, the number of people who die in the process of being smuggled into Europe by land or water continues to rise. The fact remains that human labour tries to get where there is the most capital to employ it.

THIS in itself has not been unpleasant to the capitalists of rich countries in prosperous times. But in times of economic uncertainty — and we seem to have entered such a phase again in the late 1990s — this becomes more of a problem. Much of the logic of anti-terrorism — and the legislation that has or might come out of it — is rooted in this simple economic factor. In short, we live in a world where capital is free but human beings are not. And it suits the vested interests of rich countries — as well as their artificially enriched "proletariat" — to ensure that labour mobility remains restricted. After all, much of the profits that accrue from capital arise from exactly this equation. However, it is not that progressive forces are not aware of this economic factor in the West. One must concede that largely because of strong humanist traditions and a relatively prosperous "thinking class", progressive forces are at least more vocal in many European countries than in countries like Pakistan, Nigeria or even India today. For instance, with their slogan of "No One is Illegal", the Noborder Network has protested against the deportation of immigrants and the closing down of the West to international labour. There are other dissenting voices too. But at the moment, they seem to be voices in the wilderness of the neo-liberal "free market".

Tabish Khair is Assistant Professor, Department of English, University of Copenhagen, Denmark.

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