Saturday, August 12, 2006

Random thoughts provoked by Syriana

I liked Syriana. I could do a review, but then these people have already said most things I could say. Instead of a review, I am going to talk about some thoughts the movie provoked.

You’d recall that at the end of the movie, Wasim (the Pakistani worker superbly played by Mazhar Munir) is seen leading a suicide attack on an LNG tanker. Wasim is indoctrinated into Jihad International by a blue-eyed Islamist. Obviously football is not un-Islamic for this bunch of Jihadis, as we see them kicking the ball. The Jihadis are the only Arabs who treat Wasim and other Desis humanely. Other Arabs treat Desis like serfs and slaves. The message is clear — the proletariats in the Gulf’s petro‑monarchies are a tinderbox of Jihadi violence.

Well over a third of the people living in the six Gulf monarchies are not nationals of those countries — in Kuwait and the UAE four out every five residents are foreigners. Foreigners make up over half of the workforce in the region. A large number of these ‘guest’ workers have lived in these countries since the 1970s. There are Desi families extending multiple generations in Jeddah or Dubai.

But even the affluent of these workers have very few economic or political rights, and the unskilled workers have virtually none. Will the guests ever go home? If they don’t will they at some point demand rights? Will there be an uprising of the have-nots? Will radical Islam provide the basis for such an uprising?

Radical Islam may well provide the basis for a revolution, but we don’t see a revolutionary movement in Syriana. Wasim and his blue-eyed friend are not leading a mass strike. They are a clandestine cell engaged in a violent act of insurgency (or terrorism depending on your point of view). But yes, it seems that radical Islam is their ideology. Again, the message is clear — radicalized by political Islam, Gulf’s underclass is striking against the establishment.

But is this an accurate description of Jihad International? Radical Islam derives support from different quarters for different reasons in different countries, and to treat all Jihadis as a monolithic bloc is dangerously simplistic. But is it the case that denial of political rights or economic exploitation or abject poverty leads to Jihad?

I don’t think that is at all the case in the Gulf or in the West. The USS Cole attackers, the 9/11 hijackers or the London bombers were not poor. Similarly, most people recently arrested in Britain seem to be rather well off. I have no idea what motivate these fanatics — may be it is the Zionist entity, may be it is this shocking picture, may be it is not enough malai in their tea, who knows? But it surely doesn’t look like a case of a proletariat uprising.

The recent arrests in Britain also highlight what works as anti-terrorism strategy. A major catastrophe (though one may wonder) seems to have been averted by boring detective work of gathering of clues and evidence by the Scotland Yard. How effective has the American war effort been?

In the wake of the Mumbai attacks, many in the Indian blogosphere looked towards the Israelis enviously, suggesting retaliation against Pakistan (whatever that means). This seems like a stupid idea. It seems that every cent spent on dropping bombs on foreign targets can be better spent stopping a potential bomber at home.