Patrice Riemens on Thu, 6 Dec 2001 01:44:11 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Ranjit Hoskote and Iliya Trojanow: The Afghan Crisis: A Reflexion


>From the Sarai-reader-list, bwo Shuddhabrata Sengupta

Here is a Text by Ranjit Hoskote and Ilija Trojanow on the September 11
and the war in Afghanistan. It rehearses some of the arguments that we
have already heard on this list, but since Afghanistan has cropped up
again for discussion in many of the forwards on the list - here's another
one - and, I am sure that the rest of us will agree with me that we need
to have a spate of original writings now - in tandem with the forwards


----------  Forwarded Message  ----------
Subject: The Afghan Crisis: A Reflection
Date: Tue, 04 Dec 2001 18:49:52
From: "ranjit hoskote" <>

Dear Friends and Colleagues:

We enclose an extended reflection, co-authored by us, on the Afghan
crisis, its construction and presentation in the (West-dominated) mass
media, and the political and moral questions that this has thrown into
high relief.

A shorter version of this essay will appear in *The Hindu: Sunday
Magazine* later this month.

With very best wishes,
Ranjit Hoskote and Ilija Trojanow

(essay follows, as inline text)

The Nonsense Mantras of Our Times

By Ilija Trojanow and Ranjit Hoskote

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, trans. Linda Hess and Shukdev

On TV screens across the globe, for more than two months now, the sheep
have been jumping into the ditch without a bleat of protest. What's worse,
they believe that's the way to go, the way of justice and salvation.
Kabir's acerbic stanza accurately describes the debate in the mainstream
media following the events of September 11. Legions of experts and viewers
have committed themselves to an absurdly simplistic and Manichean account
of the world, in which President Bush and his cast of international
supporters 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, which have instantly become
axiomatic. Foremost among these is the infamous "clash of civilisations"
hypothesis most often associated with a certain Samuel Huntington, but
which has a genealogy of its own, leading back to such justifications of
imperialism as Arnold Toynbee's schema of antagonistic civilisational

The Toynbee-Huntington vision emphasises the fault-lines among "eight or
nine" cultural-political blocs arbitrarily defined as 'civilisations', and
seen to exist in a state of conflict based on profoundly distinct cultural
values. In Huntington's view, the great clash of our times, which takes
the place of the Cold War face-off between the USA and the USSR, is that
between Islam and the West. After September 11, he has popularly and
uncritically been hailed as the prophet of the age.

The truth is somewhat less dramatic, if no less violent, and has more to
do with fundamental differentials of economic and political power than
with fundamental cultural differences. Civilisations, as the proper
scrutiny of historical evidence would show, are marvellous hybrids: they
have never been pure, self-consistent entities. Historically, they have
evolved through exchange and synthesis, through the encounter of different
races, religions and philosophies. What is of interest, in the study of
civilisations, is not the differences that hold people apart, but the
heritage that people are able to share across borders.

A more tenable view than the "clash of civilisations" is that the
battle-lines run through societies, not between civilisations or
nation-states. A US pacifist, who believes in the necessity of social
justice, is worlds apart from an American investment banker, whose clients
include Lockheed and Unocal, and who believes that each man is master of
his own destiny. An urbane West European, who practises yoga, has a deeply
informed interest in African art, listens to reggae, and travels the world
in search of cultural inspiration, is equidistant from both the West
European skinhead and the Bajrang Dal storm-trooper.

Has there ever really been a clash of civilisations? Did Venice and the
Ottoman Empire clash because of differences in their interpretation of
Abraham's decisions, or because they were locked in a struggle for control
over the Mediterranean maritime trade? And why, throughout the Mughal and
colonial periods in India, did both elite and subaltern-resistance
movements comprise coalitions of Hindus and Muslims, if Hinduism and Islam
are fundamentally irreconcilable? Huntington's theory cannot explain why
the Rajputs supported the Mughals, why Akbar created a culture of
multi-religious dialogue and understanding, why some of Aurangzeb's
highest-ranking military commanders were Hindu, why the sanyasin-fakir
resistance movement against the East India Company embodied an alliance of
Hindu and Muslim ascetic-warriors, and why the Indian National Congress
comprised the enlightened leadership of the Hindu and the Muslim

Civilisation can never be defined in absolute and static terms. It is a
fragile construct: a constant process of self-evaluation rather than a
stable cultural structure. And once it tears apart under economic or
political strain, it can quickly uncover the most terrifying barbarism. No
one has depicted this syndrome more poignantly than Joseph Conrad in Heart
of Darkness; the most enduring and unfortunate example of this syndrome is
the rise of Nazism from the rich soil of German culture.

Unfortunately, the assumptions of the West, which are based on binary
models, continue to be projected upon the former colonised world, often
with the devastating effect of the self-fulfilling prophecy. The worst
example of this tendency may be summed up as the 'principle of ethnicity
as the basis of political conflict'. Put to excellent use by the Western
powers in such situations of conflict as Lebanon and Rwanda, this
principle has most recently been introduced into the Afghanistan debate,
immediately following the flight of the Taliban regime from Kabul and the
entry of the Northern Alliance into the Afghan capital. For the notion of
the tribe is accompanied by the stereotypes of primitive, tribal
behaviour: barely had the Northern Alliance marched into Kabul, when the
Western media came abuzz with loose talk of 'revenge killings' and
'warlordism' (the US Air Force's killing of Afghan civilians is not,
apparently, to be categorised under the former rubric; and the strategists
at the Pentagon, calibrating the precise degree of offensive force, are
not warlords, since neither Powell and Rice favours turbans).

As has been well established, 'tribes' were often invented by
anthropologists ranging unfamiliar terrain driven by a classificatory
mania. Never mind that the identities on the ground were often shifting in
character, language defining one affiliation, clan system a second,
religious sect a third, and political allegiance a fourth. Also,
identities and allegiances could change, leaving the already inaccurate
taxonomy further behind; but the so-called tribal differences, once
established by the Western knowledge system, were exploited by the Western
power system through the honourable imperialist formula: Divide and rule!

Until the Soviet occupation, ethnicity played a minor role in the modern
Afghan consciousness. After 1978, however, the foreign powers which
interfered in Afghanistan (and kept the civil war going) raised and
supported militias that were organised on ethnic lines. Within this
scheme, the success of the Taliban was due only to the fact of a vacuum in
Pashtun representation. Nevertheless, Kabul's Pashtun population has
welcomed the predominantly Tajik and Uzbek Northern Alliance troops.
Should the foreign powers continue to insist on bizarre ethno-federalist
structures with quotas, veto rights and reservation proportional to clout
in the post-Taliban scenario, this would spell disaster for Afghanistan's

There will always be forces that will instrumentalise differences. What is
needed is a vision of unity, a vision of what the Afghan people really
need to invent themselves out of and beyond the quagmire in which they
have been thrust by superpower politics and the cynical power-games of
regional powers.

It's Religion, Stupid!

The current debate proceeds from broad, unquestioned certainties about the
nature and history of Islam, certainties that are as dogmatic as the
supposed dogmas that they oppose. This critique-by-media of Islam proceeds
on the basis of certain 'core Western values', founded on the principles
of the Enlightenment, that are assumed to lie at the base of all civilised
discourse. Interpreted correctly, these core Western values enshrine the
method of radical doubt, which is central to Enlightenment discourse, all
the way 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 masks a power
structure and the interests of a dominant class. Unfortunately, the
current rhetoric of the West -- in government and media -- proceeds in
complete contravention of this heritage.

The academic gurus are no better. According to Francis Fukuyama, "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 (read, for example, T. E. Lawrence's classic of
romantic-Orientalist autobiography, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom). Even
today the West blesses the world with lock, stock and barrel worth
billions of dollars. Consider, also, the various unexamined axioms built
into this ill-fated sentence.

"The only cultural system?" Three decades ago, such irrational violence
was believed to be the monopoly of the Vietcong, who then yielded place to
the Khmer Rouge. Were the Vietcong and the Khmer Rouge closet believers in
the Word of Allah? Has North Korea, regarded by US 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 Moslems produced? 50? Or 500? And to blame Islam for
the disaster in Afghanistan, a country repeatedly abused by Britain, the
Soviet Union and the USA, is to indulge in despicable cynicism.

Western Values, and the US as their Guardian

Instead of scrupulous attention to the historical record and the
application of the core Western values, then, the Western media offer us
nonsensical mantras that, by repetition, have acquired the air of
spiritual truths. Paul Pillar's formulation, in his Terrorism and U.S.
Foreign Policy, sums these up briskly: "The longevity of the principles
(of US 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 has no relation to reality would be an
offence to the intelligence of the reader.

Malevolence should be punished? The USA has consistently supported states
that sponsor terrorism, and has itself committed acts of terrorism ­- for
instance, the Contra war against Nicaragua, as a result of which the US
government was tried, found guilty and mandated to pay substantial
reparations by the International Court, The Hague. But since the law is
only respected if it reaches a verdict in the bully's favour, the USA
didn't part with a dime.

The rule of law? Once in a while, the truth shines through in an article
or a statement:: "If we are hamstrung by absolutist definitions of friend
and foe, and democracy and dictatorship, our chances of victory will the
diminished" (Robert D. Kaplan, in the New York Times). This is
refreshingly honest, by comparison with the (oxy)moronic euphemisms of the
propaganda machine (Stanley Hoffmann, writing in the New York Review of
Books, praises the "benign US hegemony").

As for free speech, a central tenet of the Western value system,
Washington's approach to the fair reporting of the war has been to ask the
Emir of Qatar to curb Al Jazeera, the only free TV channel in the Arab
world. The Emir, wily Oriental that he no doubt is, took refuge in the
Fifth Amendment!

In other words: One rule for the West, another for the others. This
illiberal attitude within the liberal tradition goes back to J S Mill,
that fountainhead of European liberalism who opposed the idea of
self-determination for the world's colonised peoples. This colonialist
ideology has not yet been eradicated from the Western mind, 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. UN 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 US magazine covers
and narrates, in parallel, the events taking place 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 continue to
put other, more US-centric matters on their covers. The genocide might
well have been unfolding on another planet.

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 breeds
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.

As against the complete global and certainly Western apathy towards the
one million victims of the Rwandan genocide, September 11 is seen as
epochal and apocalyptic 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 also 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 wrote, a few days after the attacks on New York, that such
horrors would hardly make an impression on a Bihari, who has to endure
murder and 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.

Not only are we speaking of increased violence in the Third World, but we
also refer to the routine violence of American life. George Bush, in his
address to the nation on 7 October, bravely asserted that "we defend...
the freedom of people everywhere to live and raise their children free
from fear". This sentiment does not cover even the inner cities of his own
country, the Bihars within the USA.

In fact, the only novel feature about the 11 September kamikaze attacks is
that, for the first time, people from the world's powerless hinterlands
have struck at the very heart of the imperium, shattering the myth of the
invincibility of the continental USA.

War on Terror -- War or Terror?

The definition of terrorism is conspicuous by its absence. 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, and by differentiating between "our friends and our
foes", it is narrowed down to a ridiculous proportion: bin Laden, the
Taliban and Saddam Hussein. In the cartoon-strip style of argument pursued
by the Western powers, these isolated figures are the chief proponents of
terror, promulgators of violent manifestos and makers of catastrophic

On the other hand, as some clear-sighted commentators have pointed out,
the USA 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 2 million
children in the last decade of the 20th century, according to UNICEF
estimates. And these killing-machines are produced mainly by the 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 fanatic to be a murderer: the
military-industrial complex is governed by suave, pleasant men actuated by
family values, men who keep their eyes focused on spreadsheets rather than

The definition of terrorism is kept unclear, not only because the
phenomenon covers a multiplicity of changing approaches and contexts, but
because such a lack of clarity leaves states a free hand to deal with
opposing forces. We see here a shifting game of legitimising
self-interest; there is no moral focus to the debate over war and
terrorism. There has, in fact, been little moral development since
antiquity, despite the persistent talk of Western values. The reality has
been aptly described by Thucydides: "They that have odds of power exact as
much as they can, and the weak yield to such conditions as they can get."
The fashionable argument of the 'just war' is nothing more than an effort
at masking this truth.

A just war would assume a consistency in dealing with the "evil". When
some murderers get punished and others get to enjoy the beaches of
Florida, how can we take justice seriously? Not to speak of the death of
civilians, which the last 'just war' against Iraq took into account so
blithely. Such deaths are covered under the bland Pentagon doctrine of
"collateral damage". Indeed, if the murder of civilians is the criterion
for defining terrorism, as what should we regard the US action in

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." Can we speak of war at all? Doesn't war presume a matching
of combatants? This campaign is more reminiscent of punitive actions,
which were carried out during the Second World War and the Vietnam War.
When you can not catch the perpetrators (in this case because they have
already brought themselves to justice) you destroy something of their
world as retribution. "That will teach them a lesson," the colonial
officer would say, after having torched a village to signal his "benign
hegemony" in as dramatic a fashion as possible.

"It is important to stress," Walzer writes, "that the moral reality of war
is not fixed by the actual activities, but by the opinions of mankind."
The bombing of Aghanistan is just, only because it has been called so by
the powers involved in the bombing. No one forces us to accept this
notion. Every human being has the duty to try and reach an opinion of his
own, and to voice it.

Frankenstein Inc. (Made in the USA)

The lab is well set up 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 listens to his liaison officers from the
CIA. He cuts the wires that link him to the State Department. He is out of
control. Therefore he is identified as the enemy, magnified in the
imagination, and 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 bastard children of
the "Empire of Good", serially stigmatised as their creators run out of
enemies. It is a well-known fact that Saddam Hussein, Noriega, bin Laden
all began on the right side of the US, and that the CIA funded the
Taliban. Curiously, only a few months ago, the Bush administration gave
the Taliban a subsidy of $43 million as a reward for suppressing the drug
trade. But 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 (and let's not forget the US outcry against
Vietnam for toppling Pol Pot, or the common criticism of Tanzania when it
toppled Idi Aminšs regime of horror). 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 ­ you don't have to be
General Manon of the Northern Alliance, fighting continuously for the last
22 years, to realise that. 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 US has not produced Frankenstein monsters by itself, it has
infallibly set up laboratories for their production: Iran is the perfect
example. The democratic government of Premier Mohammed Mossadegh in Iran
(1951-1953) came closest to Western values, among all 'Islamic'
governments and represented a modern, educated, tolerant and inclusive
Iranian vision. This was systematically destroyed by the Western powers,
through a CIA-sponsored destabilisation programme and coup, which
culminated in the restoration of the corrupt and repressive Pahlavi
regime. Mossadegh's vision embodied precisely the values that today's
analysts claim to find wanting in Islam; his only crime was that he had
dared to nationalise the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, bringing down upon
himself the wrath of the West for challenging First World control over
Iran's oil reserves.

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
is currently the weapon of all rhetorical weapons -­ and the most absurd
one at that. Not only does it imply a homogenised unity of American
society, culture and government, or a singular American identity (into
which factors of race, gender, region and class are quietly collapsed),
but it also negates the possibility of maintaining critical difference. 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 the triumphs of the US in academia
and the arts. However, the beauty of US culture is that these
accomplishments were born out of an attitude of dissent, questioning,
confrontation, self-direction and self-affirmation. Thus, to criticise US
foreign policy is to uphold the best and highest impulses in US culture.

The mediation of dissent through art and the sustenance of the human
spirit through culture are not, of course, confined to US culture. We
conclude with a traditional love poem from Herat (the American spell-check
on our computers automatically and repeatedly alters the unfamiliar Afghan
place-name from 'Herat' to 'Heart', but the error may be apposite). Since
all music, even traditional Afghan music, was banned by the Taliban, this
song has not, perhaps, been heard in the city of its origin for years. Its
poignancy underscores the tragedy of what two decades of war has done to
this society:

"When the waterfalls cry,
when the sheep cry,
my heart thinks of Syamui.
How long must I cry, O Syamui?
As the rubies come out of the mines,
As the sun shines over the mountains at dawn,
So too does Syamui show herself
on the roof of her house."

In Afghanistan today, the rubies are mined to finance the internecine
warfare, and Syamui has fled into the cellar, afraid to show herself in
public, her future menaced as much by the Taliban whip-squads as by the rain
of American bombs.


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