Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Islamist Terrorism: Shouldn't We Ask Questions? (Part 1)

This article was written soon after the 7/7 London bombings and published first at www.sawf.org, a website that still hosts a bank of my writings. I have long wondered about the growing phenomenon of Islamist terror and perhaps the essay reflects some of those doubts. It also holds the anger I felt at the bombings in London, same as the rage I felt at the Sankatmochan bombing in Varanasi, my home town, and the ones in Mumbai and Delhi. Its time we stopped making liberal excuses and started asking some tough questions. Yes a community should not be held responsible for the acts of a few. But at the end, it is the community's responsibility to control its young. Just as we cannot and do not use "history" or "poverty" or "perceptions of victimhood" to justify the destruction of the Babri Masjid, we should not use those excuses for jihadi violence!

The past few weeks have raised some of the usual questions about Islamic fundamentalism and, more importantly, Islamist terrorism. After two rounds of London bombings, (not to mention the Egypt bombs and the recent Imrana case and the Ayodhya temple attack in India), one is left with more questions than answers. Some questions I haven't found answers to despite reading dozens of commentaries, analyses and essays from around the world are as follows:

1. Why would European-born young men choose to blow themselves and innocent people up?
2. If they are truly a minority within the British-Muslim society, why did no one know about their plans or inform the authorities about their increasing radicalisation?
3. And worse still, how many more such young men are out there biding their time until the next attack?

Questions two and three have perhaps simpler answers. Various newspapers in the UK have already carried accounts from Pakistani relatives of the bomber Shahzad Tanweer about how they had warned his parents that he was fraternizing with members of jihadi groups during his visits to Pakistan. They have provided revealing details of how the young man carried a picture of Osama bin Laden in his wallet. A cousin simply commented that "if he has done what they say he has done, he has done the right thing." No guilt, no remorse, no condemnation to be found then in Pakistan's villages where the 7/7 bombers were mourned as heroes by thousands who gathered in the mosques.

At the same time, a neighbour in Beeston explained that the baby-faced picture carried by international media of Hasib Hussain was misleading, because by the time of the London bombings, he was a hulking frightening man with a thick beard and a propensity for getting into street brawls.

All this unfortunataly means one simple thing that so much of the media has been refusing to put in words: People knew! There are people - family, friends, colleagues and neighbours in Beeston, Dewbury and Pakistan - who knew that these young men were on their way to becoming suicide bombers. And they chose to let them go ahead with their heinous plans. How come we have absolved them of all responsibility? Simply in the name of general civic harmony? Or community relations?

The third question is related and perhaps even easier to answer: obviously there are many more young men in Britain and other countries who are willing to die and kill in the name of Islam. A recent Guardian survey of the British Muslim community showed that 5% of those polled believed that the London bombings were justified. Moreover, another survey showed that nearly 10% of the British-born Muslims polled felt no loyalty towards Britain, but felt they owed their allegiance to Islam. While this figure forms only a small percentage of the population, it could still mean that numerically thousands of British Muslims support the London bombings. We are in for troubled times, indeed!

The first question, however, is possibly the most difficult to answer. Left-leaning analysts in the UK have argued that economic deprivation and cultural isolation led these young British-Pakistanis to radical Islam. A large percentage of the local population has blamed British involvement in the ill-advised and unpopular occupation war in Iraq. Yet all these claims require some refuting, and not only of the neo-con variety that promptly announces that "9/11 happened before Iraq war" or that some how centuries of Western imperialism are to bla me for the rise in fundamentalism Islam today, basically because it has created conditions of economic deprivation, social alienation and political powerlessness.

None of the above arguments hold up to closer scrutiny. While it is true that Arab/Muslim sense of grievances goes much further back than the war on Iraq, as the neo-cons have pointed out, there is a clear line to be drawn when we get to history.
We in India are constantly told to let the past lie for the sake of "communal harmony" and not grudge the widespread destruction of temples all through north India and the subsequent construction of mosques on the same sites. We are told that is history, and with surprisingly little resistance, most of us agree with that view and move forward. So why do we permit a double standard for the Arab/Muslim sense of grievance? Much has been made by British-Muslim commentrators about the West's hypocrisy, yet they hardly pause to consider their own.

Furthermore, just how far these grievances are based on facts is open to debate. Various fundamentalist organisations, ironically based in or linked to Pakistan, and apparently fighting a world-wide jihad, use Palestine or Kashmir as their raison d'etre. However, we also know that neither the Hizbollah or the Hamas, two of the best known "fundamentalist" Islamist organizations in the Middle East, have shown any interest in any action beyond their localized freedom struggles. Both have made necessary adjustments with other religious and political groupings to continue their fight, with the Hizbollah initiating and forming alliances with not only Lebanese Christian groupings, but also with the extremely secular Lebanese Communists. Same is true for the Hamas.

A closer scrutiny also shows that the Palestinians, as a people and as political organisations, have little sympathy for the apparently "international" Islamist groups. Most Palestinians feel that their legitimate freedom struggle is hampered and harmed by the fundamentalist hijacking of that fight for purposes of an "international jihad."

Similarly, the use of "Kashmir" issue as a justifiable grievance for Muslims world-wide is equally suspect. The Kashmiri population - both Muslim and otherwise - enjoys far greater civil and political freedom than that enjoyed by populations in most self-proclaimed Islamic countries. If there is a section of the Kashmiri population that has been systematically harassed, terrrorised, killed and hounded out of the region, it is that of the minority community - the ill-fated Kashmiri Pandits. So how does ethnic cleansing of the non-Muslim minority population provide grounds for grievance to wage jihad?

Islamist Terrorism: Shouldn't We Ask Some Questions? Part 2

The issue of economic deprivation is equally suspect, given that most of the best known terrorist attacks have been carried out by middle-class and well-educated men, such as the perpetrators of the 9/11 attack. Looking at British-born Muslims, the argument takes a further beating: the murderer of Daniel Pearl was a British-born Pakistani with a privileged background of public schools and university education at the famed London School of Economics, hardly the prototype of the downtrodden poor. Even the 7/7 bombings in London were carried out by men who were hardly starving in the streets. Instead, one of them had been recently given a red Mercedes, that ultimate Asian status symbol of having arrived, as a gift by his father.

Moreover, if economic deprivation is the key to turning young men and women into suicide bombers, why don't we see more of those coming out of West Bengal and Bihar, where much of the population still lives in desperate conditions. Oddly enough, even in Europe, the Bangladeshi Muslims have shown less interest in joining their jihadi cousins, although that may well change in the future.

So we finally get to the "cultural identity" issue, where the standard argument trotted out by Western commentrators is that somehow "Western" decadence offends and alienates Western-born Muslims. Alcohol, sexual freedom and "football" yob-ism of the majority European "white" community has been cited with immense self-hating relish as the reason why European-born Muslims are turning to radical Islam. It must be Western decadence that pushes these young men to jihad is the logic behind this argument.

Apart from the simple response this raises of "if they don't like the culture, why don't they move to Saudi Arabia," the cultural argument is so ridiculous that - if it were applied to a less serious issue - one would be tempted to laugh it off. If it is "decadent" Western values that the bombers didn't like, what about India?
Most Indians are frightfully straitlaced about sex. In most places beyond elite urban enclaves, alcohol consumption is frowned upon. For much of the country, the most "daring" outfit for a woman is still a pair of jeans worn - in most cases - with a baggy t-shirt or a full-sleeved shirt. So can someone explain which part of the decadent "culture" is pushing Indian Muslims to radical Islam? Which part of the "decadent" culture in India justifies the Muslim "fatwah" against a lone brave Muslim woman who admitted to being raped by her father-in-law? A fatwah, by the way, that has been defended not only by opportunist politicians like Mulayam Singh Yadav but also by the so-called "educated" and “moderate” Muslim elite including Salman Khursheed.

So what drives relatively well-educated, fairly privileged young men to kill themselves and others? Once again, unfortunately, the common link between mercenaries in Iraq, Kashmir, and now Europe is Islam. Whether it is some verse of the Koran or its fundamentalist interpretation by semi-literate mullahs is for those who are better educated in Islam to decide. For me, the proverbial infidel and kafir, the answer must come from those who follow Islam.

However, from my position as infidel, and an Indian one at that, I do have a suggestion for the Islamic leaders and community: Stop playing victim!

Somehow, all Islamist terrorism is explained away as someone else's fault: the West doesn't allow political freedom or economic growth in the Middle East. The Indian government doesn't allow Kashmir to be brought under military dictatorship of an Islamic republic with long-standing sympathies with the Taliban-brand of human rights. Western democracies allow "too much" political and social freedom to young men in Britain who prefer to live on social security dole-outs while planning and executing terrorist attacks instead of finding jobs that would let them participate in the greater society.

For the sake of all of us, I think it is time that Muslim leaders and communities stopped whining about persecution and gave up finding excuses for why their young men prefer to kill themselves and others instead of fighting for better lives. A good starting point would be to answer some very simple questions, not at global, international political levels, but at the level of parents and community leaders of Muslim communities around the world:

1. How about taking responsibility for what your young men and women do? Not only when they blow themselves and others up, but also when they refuse to work, or to go to any school except madrassas where they learn no skill but to recite the Koran, and thus willingly, even knowingly, isolate and alienate themselves.

2. How about expecting your children to become a Shahrukh Khan, APJ Abdul Kalam or Azim Premji? Or a poet like Mourid Barghouti? None of them were born to privilege and yet grew to become true heroes in vastly different fields. Doesn't the responsibility of teaching children to dream lie with the parents?

3. More importantly, what about teaching the young that to struggle to better oneself and one's own lot is truly the "greater jihad," far more difficult but definitely higher than blowing oneself up? That true change requires unstinting hard work and doesn't come easy, but that it is possible.

4. And finally, how about pointing out to these silly young men that blowing oneself up in the London metro or a Kashmiri marketplace or an Iraqi mosque is the act of a coward? And no God allows a space for a coward in heaven!

Perhaps this is the infidel's way, of taking responsibility for oneself instead of the “Islamic” way of continually complaining of being victims. If that is so, there is much to learn from it.

FINAL NOTE: The lack of sincere remorse in Beeston became increasingly apparent when alleged "colleagues" and neighbours of the 7/7 bombers chose the names of Bollywood heroes as aliases in their comments to the unsuspecting Western media. Shahrukh Khan, Sunil Shetty and Sanjay Dutt were the top choices. For those of us who have learnt just how often Brit-Asians will evoke Bollywood references as a secret linguistic and cultural code unknown to this country's majority community, the trend was saddening, worrying, frightening, but beyond all, disgusting.