and despair 2
Fareed Zakaria of Newsweek and Stephen Schwarz of Spectator have drawn attention to the denominational loyalties of the 18 terrorists. They were Wahhabis, given to an aggressively puritanical form of Islamic revivalist ideology. But all Wahhabis do not turn as aggressive as the Saudi, Palestinian, Pakistani and Pashtun Wahhabis have sometimes done, and certainly all of them do not become suicide bombers. Who does or does not is the question we face.
The answer to that question, we may find out in the coming years, lies not in the ethnic origins or religious connections of terrorism but in the fear of cultures that encourage us not to acknowledge the sense of desperation, if not despair, that is today crystallising outside the peripheries of the known world. It is the adhesive in the new bonding between terror and culture. This desperation may not always be preceded by Nietzschean theocide but it is accompanied by a feeling that God may not be dead but he has surely gone deaf and blind. The Palestinian situation is only one part of the story. The present global political economy has for the first time become almost totally oblivious to the fact that the unprecedented prosperity and technological optimism in some countries have as their underside the utter penury and hopelessness of the many, accompanied by collapse of life support systems due to ecological devastation.
Nothing I have come across reveals the nature of this nihilistic, suicidal despair in some parts of the globe better than the following extract from a journalist’s story. I request the reader to go through it, despite its length:
Aman [Brigadier Amanullah, secretary to Benazir Bhutto and former chief of Pakistan’s military intelligence in Sind, bordering India] noticed me looking at the painting and followed my gaze. …
“A rocket ship heading to the moon?” I asked.
“No,” he said. “A nuclear warhead heading to India.”
I thought he was making a joke. … I told Aman that I was disturbed by the ease with which Pakistanis talk of nuclear war with India.
Aman shook his head. “No,” he said matter-of-factly. “This should happen. We should use the bomb.”
“For what purpose?”
He didn’t seem to understand my question.
“In retaliation?” I asked.
“Or first strike?”
I looked for a sign of irony. None was visible…
“We should fire at them and take out a few of their cities — Delhi, Bombay, Calcutta,” he said. “They should fire back and take Karachi and Lahore. Kill off a hundred or two hundred million people… and it would all be over. They have acted so badly toward us; they have been so mean. We should teach them a lesson. It would teach all of us a lesson. There is no future here, and we need to start over. So many people think this. Have you been to the villages of Pakistan, the interior? There is nothing but dire poverty and pain. The children have no education; there is nothing to look forward to. Go into the villages, see the poverty. There is no drinking water. Small children without shoes walk miles for a drink of water. I go to the villages and I want to cry. My children have no future. None of the children of Pakistan have a future. We are surrounded by nothing but war and suffering…”
In the bonding between terror and culture, a subsidiary role has been played by the perception that all strange cultures are potentially dangerous and sources of violence, and that multiculturalism is only a means of organising or confederating those cultures that approximate or are compatible with the global middle-class culture — cultures that can be safely consumed in the form of ethnic food, arts, museumised artefacts, anthropological subjects or, as is happening in the case of Buddhism and Hinduism, packaged ethnic theories of salvation. The tacit solipsism of Islamic terrorism and its ability to hijack some of Islam’s most sacred symbols is matched by the narcissism of America’s policy elite that finds expression in an optimism that is almost manic.
At the same time, for a large majority of the world, all rights to diverse visions of the future — all utopian thinking and all indigenous visions of a good society — are being subverted by the globally dominant knowledge systems and a globally accessible media as instances of either romantic, other-worldly illusions or as brazen exercises in revivalism. The Southern world’s future now, by definition, is nothing other than an edited version of the contemporary North’s. What Europe and North America are today, the folklore of the globalised middle class claims, the rest of the world will become tomorrow. Once visions of the future are thus stolen, the resulting vacuum has to be filled by available forms of millennialism, some of them perfectly compatible with the various editions of fundamentalism floating around the global marketplace of ideas today. In the liminal world of the marginalised and the muted, desperation and millennialism often define violence as a necessary means of exorcism.
September 11, Gandhian activist-scholar Rajiv Vora and the Swarajpeeth initiative have recently reminded us, was the day Satyagraha, militant non-violence, was born in Johannesburg in 1906. South Africa at the time was a proudly authoritarian, racist police state, not at all like British India, presided over by an allegedly benign, liberal colonial regime that, some votaries of political realism assure us, ensured the success of Gandhi’s non-violence. Does this coincidence have something to tell us?
One way of understanding the recent changes in the global culture of protest is to offset the despair-driven, suicidal forms of terror against the self-destructive defiance and subversion of authorities, as in the case of the Irish hunger-strikers, whom we have already mentioned. The other way is to compare the new culture of terror with the no less religious, militant nonviolence of a community known all over the globe today for its alleged weakness for religion-based terror in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Pathans, known for their martial valour and officially declared a martial race by British India in the nineteenth century, have virtually been turned into official symbols of mindless violence. Yet, in India at least, till quite recently they were also the symbols of the non-violence of the courageous and the truly martial. They had been the finest exponents of the art of Gandhian militant non-violence, directed against the British imperial regime in the 1930s. The Pathans who participated in that struggle were exactly the community that has in the last decade produced the Taliban and played host to Osama bin Laden and his entourage. Can this discrepancy or change be explained away only as a result of the efforts of dedicated fundamentalist clerics, the brutalising consequence of the anti-Soviet struggle in Afghanistan, or the skill and efficiency of Inter Services Intelligence, Pakistan’s version of the Central Intelligence Agency? Or does the contradiction exist in the human personality and Pashtun culture itself?
The second possibility cannot be dismissed offhand. The behaviour of ordinary Afghans after the fall of the Taliban regime — in their everyday life and their participation in politics — does not suggest that the Taliban enjoyed decisive support of the people they ruled. Most Afghans seemed genuinely happy to be rid of the harsh, puritanical reign of the Taliban. On the other hand, some of them have obviously helped their guest, bin Laden, and the now-unpopular ruler, Mullah Mohammed Omar, to successfully escape the clutches of the American ground troops.
Who is the real Pathan? The one sympathetic or obedient to the Taliban or the one celebrating the Taliban’s fall? The one known for his martial values or the one who in the 1930s turned out to be the most courageous passive resister, who, according to a number of moving accounts of the Non-Cooperation Movement, faced ruthless baton charges by the colonial police but never retaliated and never flinched? The Pathans evidently brought to their nonviolence the same commitment and fervour that the Afghan terrorists are said to have brought to their militancy in Afghanistan and in other hotspots of the world. Are they as ruthless with themselves now as they were in the 1930s, during colonial times?
I shall avoid answering these questions directly and instead venture a tentative, open-ended comment to conclude. Most cultures enjoin non-violence or at least seek to reduce the area of violence, and these efforts often go hand in hand with cultural theories of unavoidable violence. Only a few like Sparta and the Third Reich glorify, prioritise or celebrate violence more or less unconditionally as the prime mover in human affairs or as the preferred mode of intervention in the world. In the huge majority of cultures that fall in the first category, violence and non-violence both exist in the same persons as human potentialities. The life experiences that underscore one of the two potentialities are the crucial means of entering the mind of the violent and to understand why the violent actualised one of the potentialities and not the other.
The experiences that in our times have contributed to the growth of massive violence can often — though not always — be traced to the collapse of communities and their normative systems. The old is moribund and the new has not yet been born, as the tired cliché goes. In many cases, the powerful and the rich welcomed this collapse because they did not like the norms of other people’s communities. But flawed norms, one guesses, are norms all the same.
The resulting flux has psychologically disoriented and sometimes devastated a large section of humankind and generated in them a vague sense of loss, anxiety and anger. They live with a sense of loneliness and a feeling that the work they have to do to earn their living, unlike the vocations they previously had, is degrading and meaningless. Those who do not clearly perceive the hand of any agency in these changes often try to contain their anger through consumerism and immersion in the world of total entertainment. But some do identify an agency, correctly or incorrectly. The contemporary terrorists come from among them.
This also means that only by engaging with these experiences can you battle the worldviews or ideologies that organise these experiences into a work-plan for terror. If you are unwilling to negotiate these life experiences, if you consistently deny their existence and legitimacy and the normal human tendency to configure such experiences into something ideologically meaningful, you contribute to and aggravate the sense of desperation and abandonment for many. At least one well-known Palestinian psychiatrist has claimed that in West Asia ‘it is no longer a question of determining who amongst the Palestinian youth are inclined towards suicide bombing. The question is who does not want to be a suicide bomber.’
You then push the desperate and the abandoned towards a small, closed world of likeminded people who constitute a ‘pseudo-community’ of those whose rage and frustration are sometimes free-floating but always seeking expression in nihilistic self-destruction masquerading as self-denying martyrdom.
Ashis Nandy, renowned political psychologist and social theorist, is a leading figure in postcolonial studies and arguably India’s best known intellectual voice of dissent. He is Director of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi. His recent awards include the Fukuoka Asian Culture Prize