Friday, September 22, 2006

On the 'war'

Israeli tanks encircle a city in West Bank — that’s a first page headline in the Washington Post. The first page of the New York Times has this headline — Scientists urge bigger supply of stem cells. Inside the paper, there is this headline — Iran: denial on nuclear weapons. The papers are from September 11 2001. They could very well have been from this morning. September 11 2001, the day nothing changed, that’s the cover of the latest issue of the Foreign Policy.

And yet, something important has changed. The United States and its allies were not at war on September 10 2001. They are at war today, or so we are told. Google ‘war on terror’ and you get 97.8 million hits, the phrase didn’t even exist before the attacks. But now it seems that term is becoming obsolete.

Mahatma Gandhi wanted to wipe every tear from eye (or was Jesus of Nazareth supposed to have done this?). Pundit Nehru found the task too ambitious, and settled on ‘the ending of poverty and ignorance and disease and inequality of opportunity’. George W Bush wanted to rid the world of evil and terror. He hasn’t said the task is too ambitious, but we are being told that the enemy has a new name: Islamo-fascism.

Many have already noted the fallacy of lumping Al Qaeda, insurgents and sectarian militias, Hizballah, Hamas, and the Iranian regime as Islamo-fascists, so I’ll not talk about that. I’ll assume that the Islamo-fascists are the guys behind the 9/11 attacks.

What is this Islamo-fascism then?

I first read about it in the early hours of January 1 2005. It was a freezing cold night. I welcomed 2005 by watching the fireworks with a million people. Then some went on to other revelry, others to sleep at their warm beds, and I sat in a bench in the rail station and read Paul Berman’s Terror and liberalism. It was an excellent beginning to the year.

Berman’s central thesis is that the ideology espoused by violent Islamists has the same root causes as the totalitarian utopian ideologies that afflicted the West in the 20th century: a pathological rejection of modernity, and in particular to the spread of liberal values. That the totalitarian ideologies of fascism and communism (at least as it was practised by Stalin) both arose as rejections of classical liberalism is not a new idea. Six decades ago, in his magnificent History of western philosophy, Bertrand Russell showed how for many, the liberal ideas of individual liberty and material progress seemed banal at the best, mendacious at the worst. From the Romantics of the 19th century to the Fascists of Russell’s own time, for many, the bourgeoisie hum drum and the moral degeneration of parliamentary capitalism was to be thoroughly rejected.

Berman also covers the same ground. Then he argues that this is also the case for many of those who oppose liberal democracy in the Middle East today. By far the most compelling part of his small book (it’s only 214 pages) is about Sayyid Qutb, ideological founder of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood.

Qutb studied in Colorado during the 1940s. What he saw their appalled him. Some of his disapprovals are not all that different from Rabindranath Tagore writing two decades earlier: Americans talk only about money, movie stars and models of cars; and their lawns symbolize selfishness and alienation from the society. Capitalism leads to alienation, this Marxist critique may still be valid. Qutb had other criticism of America that as far as I know didn’t bother Tagore (or communists). This is how he describes American women:
A girl looks at you, appearing as if she were an enchanting nymph or an escaped mermaid, but as she approaches, you sense only the screaming instinct inside her, and you can smell her burning body, not the scent of perfume but flesh, only flesh.

Martin Amis covers Qutb (and indeed Berman’s book) in this essay. For Qutb, the main problem was not the values western rationalists, from Socrates to 20th-century liberals, had espoused. Rather it was the failure of modern society to live up to their ideals. To him, America, the landscape of liberal civilization was a gigantic lie.

Qutb wrote volumes on the need to restore harmony between human reason and the word of God. His cure was to sweep away the existing order and replace it with God's rule on earth. He wasn’t sure whether to impose Quranic law from above or to regenerate the society from below through a moral reawakening of the faithful. But he knew that the West had to be rejected.
Sayyid Qutb fell out with Col Nasser in the 1950s, and after a controversial trial for terrorism, he was hanged in 1966. His brother, Muhammad Qutb, fled to Saudi Arabia, where he taught at King Abdul Aziz University. Among those who attended his lectures was Osama bin Laden.

Thus we have a thread that connects Osama bin Laden with Mussolini and Lenin. How convincing is Berman’s argument?

For all their rejection of liberal capitalist democracy, these utopian ideologies are quite different. And for all their promises of utopia, the utopias they promise are very different. And most importantly, Jihad international poses very different threats to liberal democracies than the 3rd Reich or the Soviet Union did.

Take the fascists first. Fascism’s ideological underpinning was glorification of the nation. Arab nationalism, the ideology of Nasser and Assad and Saddam Hussein, was like fascism. Islam rejects nationalism — Chin o Arab humara, Hindustan humara, Muslim hai hum, watan hai, sara jahan humara. This is like the Internationale unites the humn race. But whereas the Bolsheviks looked to the future, Jihadis seek to resurrect the past. And whereas the Bolsheviks controlled the second most powerful state in their time, Bin Laden controlled an area whose residents had perhaps the worst living standard in the late 1990s.

According to Gilles Kepel, a French writer, the top priority of Ayman al-Zawahiri, Al Qaeda’s number 2, was not so much as to inflict devastating damage on the western enemy as to galvanize the Muslim masses against their own governments. He wanted to show the spectacular results that jihad could achieve. Jihad far away is the mean, Islamic society at home is the end. Kepel’s book, The war for Muslim minds: Islam and the West, is less about ideology and more about war and geopolitics. He provides a succinct anatomy of the neoconservatives, along with the ultra-militant Islamists. It shows how both these parties were intensely frustrated by the Oslo peace process, and relieved by its collapse. Writing in 2004, he shows how spectacular a blunder the neoconservative venture in Iraq has been.

So where do we stand then?

Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri are followers of Sayyid Qutb. They want to establish a state based on the Quran in Muslim lands. They thought that hitting America would help them establish this Islamist state.

If this was their intention, they don’t really seem to have gone anywhere. In Muslim countries where people are allowed to vote — Turkey, Bangladesh, Malaysia and Indonesia — voters overwhelmingly and unambiguously reject Islamists. Even in Pakistan, if a free and fair election is held, a Bhutto revival is more likely than an Islamist win. The Islamic Republic of Iran is an important exception, of course. But then again, in Al Qaeda’s Wahabi theology, Shias are not even Muslims.

We should also note that not all Islamists, followers of Qutb or not, accept the Jihad International means. And it is quite possible that if democratic elections are held, these other Islamist groups would win lot of votes. But if these groups reject Al Qaeda’s violent means, then those spectacular attacks are not likely to help with their electoral successes. If the Muslim Brotherhood wins an election in Egypt, it won’t be because of the collapse of the twin towers. This occidentalist brother provides some very illuminating insight to the political undercurrents in the Middle East.

In any case, the major threat to the West today seems to come not from Jihadis in the Muslim world, but from those of Londonistan. As Amar told me the other day: A bearded brown face with a British passport is very likely to be considered a terrorist.

Kepel recognizes this, but curiously ends on a rather upbeat note. He suggests the possibility of European Islam evolving in new ways that could co-exist with modernity, asserting its distinctiveness without pretending, dishonestly, to live in another century. If that happy scenario were to unfold, Muslims and non-Muslims alike would need a keen sense of what modernity and tradition really mean.

But does a lack of integration with the host society cause terrorism? Muslim immigrants to the West have many problems, but the London bombers, for example, did not face any integration problem.

Meanwhile, the war goes on. Where will it end? Who will win? In the cover story of the 9/11 anniversary issue of the Time magazine, Niall Ferguson predicts this:

[T]hings had not turned out well for the US after 9/11. The project to democratize the Middle East ended poorly. The US lost its influence over the world's most oil-rich region. Terrorist networks thrived in Europe. Iran, China and Russia formed a new anti-American trio. Yet the new technology of the 2010s and '20s did much to negate those threats.

The adoption of fuel-cell engines by the US automobile industry, combined with a new generation of ultrasafe nuclear power plants, effectively ended America's century-long addiction to oil. The application of nanotechnology to homeland security allowed 24/7 surveillance of Islamist suspects by minuscule drones and invisible implants.

And so the Great War of Democracy ended — not with the catastrophic bang that so many had feared but with the imperceptible hum of a technological revolution.