2 January 2000
The Times of India
NOTHING ISLAMIC ABOUT TERRORISM
The passengers aboard IC 814 were victims of terrorism but even as India takes measures to protect its citizens, the country should steer clear of glib Newspeak about a worldwide Islamic conspiracy to spread terror against unbelievers, argues Siddharth Varadarajan
A pirate captured by Alexander the Great was asked, How dare you molest the sea?'' He replied, How dare you molest the whole world? Because I do it with just a little ship, I am called a thief. You, doing it with a great navy, are called an Emperor.'' (St. Augustine, quoted by Noam Chomsky in Pirates & Emperors: International Terrorism in the Real World). In the modern world, writes Chomsky, terrorism refers to terrorist acts by various pirates, particularly Arabs'' or, more generally, Muslims. But when emperors resort to terrorism - as the US did recently when it bombed innocent civilians in Yugoslavia, Sudan and Iraq, or when governments open fire on unarmed citizens - this is considered the legitimate use of force.
The criminal action of extremists like the hijackers of IC 814 - whether individually inspired or sponsored by a foreign country - should not make Indians fall into the trap of believing that there exists at the global level a monolith known as Islamic Terrorism' with its tentacles' spread far and wide. The hysteria about Islamic Terrorism' is the discursive counterpart of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the Tsarist fabrication from the early 1900s which was used to claim that there was a Jewish conspiracy to dominate the world. Those governments which today encourage talk of a worldwide Islamic plot - and of a civilisational' clash between Islam and the Rest - are merely looking to validate their own geopolitical ambitions and shortcomings.
As an analytical term, Islamic terrorism' is not very useful in explaining such diverse phenomena as the Iranian revolution, the Taliban, the restlessness of the Kashmiris and the Pakistani policy of sponsoring militancy, the events in Chechnya, Kosovo and Lebanon, or the growth of anti-western sentiment in countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia. What is happening in each of these places is the product of specific historical, political and socio-economic factors. To a West - and, increasingly, an India - inured to looking at the Islamic world' through purely culturalist lenses, it may be safe and convenient to stitch together this complex patchwork of causes into one seamless chador. The reality, however, is rather different.
Hizbollah's activities, for example, are a direct consequence of Israel's occupation of southern Lebanon. In Algeria, Washington and Paris conspired with the army to cancel an election that had been won by the Islamic Salvation Front. That coup plunged Algeria into a maelstrom of terrorism and state repression that has taken the lives of 100,000 people. In Egypt and Saudi Arabia, the impossibility of peaceful opposition to the US-backed regimes there has pushed individuals towards terrorism. In Chechnya, the Islamic' aspect of the conflict is largely a smokescreen to hide a fierce geopolitical struggle underway between Russia, the US and some oil-rich Arab states for control of energy routes. In Pakistan, the ruling establishment feels the only way to postpone national renewal on a federal basis is by fuelling phony religiosity and trying to engineer the secession of Kashmir from India.
It is a matter of historical record that many of today's Islamic terrorists' are actually products of US policy. Writing in 1981, Edward Said argued that unless the West stopped looking at Islam through the structures of conquest and domination, the Muslim world could well be consumed by wars, unimaginable suffering, and disastrous upheavals, not the least of which would be the birth of an Islam' fully ready to play the role prepared for it by reaction, orthodoxy and desperation.'' During the Cold War, Orientalist conceptions of Islam fit comfortably alongside the imperatives of expanding US hegemony. Washington backed a reactionary Islam as a bulwark against communism and now the chickens are coming home to roost. Nowhere is this clearer than in the emergence of an individual like the Saudi financier Osama bin Laden.
When it comes to the tactics of terror, it is important to recognise that hijacking as a phenomenon began in the 1950s when individuals fleeing countries like Czechoslovakia and the USSR forced airliners to land in the West. Thanks to politics, the hijackers were never punished. In West Asia, the first aerial hijacking was carried out by Israel in 1954 when its fighter jets forced a Syrian airliner to land at Lydda airport. The passengers were held hostage in order to obtain the release of Israeli soldiers imprisoned in Damascus, even as the world watched unfazed. It was this international permissiveness which subsequently emboldened Palestinians and other Arabs to resort to aerial hijackings.
As the failure of western countries to help New Delhi resolve the Kandahar hijacking makes clear, India must address its security needs on its own. To the extent to which terrorism and militancy are products of foreign sponsorship, care must be taken to ensure the inviolability of borders and the protection of citizens from crimes like hijackings and bomb blasts without infringing on their civil liberties. To the extent to which militancy is the product of erroneous domestic policies, steps should be taken to redress popular grievances. Either way, there is no need to encourage - or entertain hopes of - help by big powers like the US by playing on cultural and religious stereotypes about the alleged extremism of Islam.