The Threads of Conscience

By Dilip Simeon
(Published in Biblio, Special Issue, March-April 2002, New Delhi)
Noam Chomsky – Rogue States – the Rule of Force in World Affairs – India Research Press, New Delhi, 2000; Mark Juergensmeyer, Terror in the Mind of God – the Global Rise of Religious Violence – OUP, Delhi, 2000

Dilip Simeon

American opinion columns after September 11 included the following recommendations: “The Afghans are responsible for the Taliban. We should not target civilians. But if they don’t rise up against this criminal government, they starve, period.”; “We should invade their countries, kill their leaders, and convert them to Christianity. We weren’t punctilious about locating and punishing only Hitler and his top leaders. We carpet bombed German cities, we killed civilians. That’s war. And this is war.” (Fox TV, The New York Daily News). Murdoch’s New York Post called CNN correspondent Amanpour a “war slut” for rationalising anti-Americanism in West Asia. “Everyone with a gripe against Israel or America has joined the orgy in the guise of ‘analysis'” she says. In an article sub-titled America Haters Are Blaming the Victim, Salil Tripathi critiques Arundhati Roy for adopting the usual tactics: “express outrage over the attack, sympathize with the victims    and then blame the United States”. Comparable sentiments exist in India – Outlook carried an article decrying the resurrected anti-Americanism of “the (pseudo)-liberal left without a cause”, and its “ageing poster-boys like Noam Chomsky.” And so it goes…

The Afghans should starve if they don’t overthrow a government put in place by Pakistan and the CIA? Well, starve they will – international relief agencies estimate that the number of people facing starvation this winter will go up from five to seven million as a consequence of Operation Enduring Freedom. We can’t be punctilious about killing civilians because this is war? Nice logic, available to many whom we call terrorists. In an interview with Abdul Rantisi, founder of the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, Juergensmeyer inquired about bombing missions that killed innocent civilians. Rantisi replied, “We are at war”, making it clear that this was a war with the whole of Israeli society. Just as ‘civilisation’ is today at war with all Afghans. Who started it all? Answering that question is akin to looking for the original image in a hall of mirrors.

September 11 marked a moment of truth in current history. Subterranean elements rose to the surface, a concatenation of events unfolded that brought society face to face with itself. What are these elements? At one level, it’s simple. This is recognisably a global society enmeshed in a global crisis, more delicately interlinked than in 1939 or 1968. It contains several repressed yet recalcitrant elements – manifested as the contempt for human life amongst ‘holy warriors’, racism in the ‘civilised’ West, the ubiquity of the sense of victimhood, and the ruthless pragmatism of the military-industrial complex and oil corporations. It is comforting to assume that the ethical divisions thrown up by this situation are clear-cut – “if you’re not with us, you’re against us”. Discomfort arises when certain material facts force us to think, and ignorance ceases to be blissful. Two books published a year ago suddenly seem prophetic, their distinct subject matter conjoined because of an unprecedented event.

These straightforward facts are arranged in a labyrinthine global system. Understanding them requires a willingness to go against the tide, to uphold conscience above all else. That such qualities exist among intellectuals in the heartland of international economic and political power, is a measure of hope for humanity’s survival. Noam Chomsky is one of those who speak not for an ‘ism’ or a ‘nation’, but for the sake of his truth. Doubtless, truth is an evasive substance, subject to alteration in the eyes of the beholder. Nonetheless, in providing his readers with researched material on matters ignored by the mainstream media, Chomsky obliges us to think about the implications of grievous facts as well as their occlusion. In so doing he rejuvenates our faith that humanity will survive, despite the failures of its governing institutions. The collection of essays on ‘rogue states’ is another of his iconoclastic forays into current affairs. Chomsky cites Huntingdon, theorist of ‘civilisational’ conflict, as suggesting that the US itself risks becoming a rogue state in the eyes of the world.

Sections of global public opinion have indeed interpreted September 11 as retribution. Certain ideologues on the Indian far-left described it as an act of radical ‘spontaneity’, and hailed the terrorists’ ‘sacrifice’. The massacre of civilians is explained by a logic similar to the Pentagonal phrase ‘collateral damage’. The Vietnamese resistance never adopted such methods, nor the Chilean left. That self-styled Marxists justify actions exemplifying a fascist disregard for human life is symptomatic of the degeneration of left-wing discourse. It also underlines the urgency of the need to consider afresh the entire question of violence – as a social relation, not merely a tactic. But this approach is not confined to elements on the left. Christian fundamentalists in the US, such as Falwell and Robertson, described the event as divine punishment for secularism, homosexuality and the activism of the American Civil Liberties Union. (bin Laden too, hailed it as “Gods will”). At the same end of the political spectrum may be found support for the National Rifle Association, staunch Republicans at election time. I would argue that the ideology of terror, even when couched in left-wing jargon, is a profoundly conservative and right-wing phenomenon.

More significant than this ideologically mixed fondness for violence is the treatment of historical argument as a justification for terror. The concepts of context, sequence and explanation itself, have become anathema. In a speech on terrorism made in 1998, the late Eqbal Ahmad described the official approach as one that eschews causation and avoids definition, because such concepts involve “analysis, comprehension and adherence to some norms of consistency”. He cites a query about the causes of Palestinian terrorism, addressed by the Yugoslavian foreign minister to US Secretary of State George Shultz. The latter “went a bit red in the face. He pounded the table and told the visiting foreign minister, there is no connection with any cause. Period.” (The New York Times 18-12-85). Amnesia, a Manichean world view and a belief that the end justifies the means, have coalesced in an ideology that Vijay Prashad calls the “conceit of American innocence”. The Indian version of this conceit is voiced by the Prime Minister who has just told the UN that all talk of ‘root causes’ serves only to justify terrorism. ‘Terrorism’ is evil, say Bush and Vajpayee, and we are the good guys, period. In 1999, after Australian leprosy doctor Graham Staines and his sons were murdered by a fanatic, Vajpayee asked for a national debate on religious conversions. His comrades routinely cite the ‘root causes’ of the death and destruction that accompanied the demolition of the Babri Mosque in 1992. Evil has a context when we identify with it, but becomes a simple emanation of Satan when we don’t. That the spokesmen of the ‘free world’ should hold rational thought in such blatant contempt, suggests that history may now be replaced entirely by propaganda.

It has taken the relentless pursuit of truth by a man such as Chomsky to lay bare the history of US interventionism around the world since 1945, and to remind us of events that might have contributed to the current situation. In doing so he has upheld the best values of American democracy and the stature of its intellectuals. It is a measure of the reigning ideological self-censorship and preference for simplistic explanations that the media treat him as a heretic. Not every critic of US foreign policy is gloating wickedly over the massacres in New York and Washington. Nor are all critics of the latest Afghan war sympathetic to the Taliban. It is the historian’s job to suggest explanations of major events by weighing context with proximate cause, geo-political structure and demography with popular moods and ideological developments. Someone who adduces the reparations imposed upon Germany in 1918 as a factor contributing to the rise of Nazism, is not necessarily sounding a trumpet for the advent of Adolf. In considering the history of Zionism, we would have to remember the anti-Semitism of Christian tradition that provided fertile ground for Nazi ideology and the Holocaust, which in turn fuelled the demand for a Jewish homeland. Such contextualisation would not imply an approval of the massacres of Palestinian refugees in Sabra and Shatila during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, nor could it imply the collective guilt of Christians for the plight of West Asia. A historical assessment of Western interventions in the Arab world and Iran will reveal a great deal of subterfuge and the thwarting of democratic aspirations. It might help us understand what is unfolding before our eyes. It will certainly not provide moral justification for the mass murder of September 11.

Chomsky’s great service is the delineation of the violent contours of the world system. In almost every aspect of international relations that concerns the use of force, he insists that the Anglo-American alliance has flagrantly violated agreed norms. These include conventions banning chemical weapons, the need to avoid civilian casualties, and Article 51 of the UN Charter that provides for military action within the purview of Security Council decisions. Article 51 could have been deployed in the latest crisis, but the US government has always resisted subjecting itself to international law and conflict resolution mechanisms. This despite the fact that the US played a major role in drafting the UN Charter, and that the US Constitution upholds valid international treaties. It has supported actions that by neutral definition would be called terrorism. In 1986 the International Court of Justice criticised the US for “unlawful use of force” against Nicaragua, and ordered that US military aid to the contra rebels in that country be stopped. The judgement was disregarded, the contras continued to obtain US support for their attacks on civilian targets such as clinics and co-operatives. When Nicaragua approached the UN, the US became the only country to veto a Security Council resolution calling on all states to respect international law. This contempt for international agreements was also manifest in the derailment of the 1954 Geneva accord on Indo-China that could have prevented the Vietnam war.

Indonesia’s invasion of East Timor in 1975 was accompanied by a flow of arms and military advisors from the US and UK. The numbers of dead reached 200,000 within a few years, but the support was never interrupted. Chomsky points to the US establishment’s preference for dictators as guarantors of stability. Saddam Hussein’s use of chemical weapons was abetted by the US and UK during the Iran-Iraq war. The UK supplied him machinery suitable for their manufacture as late as 1996. In 1988, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee condemned the genocidal activities of Saddam, but the Reagan administration opposed sanctions and hushed up the matter. In 1991, the International Commission of Jurists observed that Saddam must have been encouraged by the UN’s silence during his criminal assaults on Iraqi Kurds. His possession of “weapons of mass destruction” became an issue only when the West found his behaviour inconvenient. That Winston Churchill favoured the use of biological weapons against the “uncivilized” Afghans and Kurds, should come as no surprise, nor the fact that as late as 1988, an Israeli journalist discovered thousands of Vietnamese dying from the effects of American chemical warfare. Chomsky’s descriptions of the blockade of Cuba, and American policies towards El Salvador and Guatemala, buttress his argument that the US qualifies for the category of ‘rogue state’. South Africa was never dubbed thus, though a UN commission accused it of causing 60 billion dollars worth of damage to its neighbours along with 1.5 million deaths, during the 1980’s. Cuba was named a rogue state for intervening against South Africa. It is this iniquity of categorisation that undermines international law, encourages dictators and fosters what Chomsky calls the rule of force in world affairs.

Chomsky critiques the dismantlement of the post-1945 economic order by financial interests that function as a “virtual Senate” in the global system. The strength of anti-fascist movements in the aftermath of the defeat of the Axis Powers had resulted in institutional gains of social democratic inspiration in the post-war order, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the Bretton Woods arrangements for controlling international finance. The assault on these gains during the Reagan-Thatcher years was accompanied by the propagation of a near-religious faith in the regulatory power of markets. The legal re-interpretation of the concept of the ‘person’ to include corporations, made it possible for powerful conglomerates to use personal rights to administer economic systems away from public scrutiny. The protections available under the Universal Declaration been perverted by the invention of what Chomsky calls the “immortal person”, viz., capitalist firms. The decline in unionisation, the intensification of work and the liberation of finance capital accompanied by limits on democracy, all point to the elitist nature of the new world order. In 1993, the top one percent of the world’s population earned an income equal to that of the bottom 57 percent. Significantly, vested interests that preach the virtues of the market apply for government bailouts when they face bankruptcy – a system that has been called “socialism for the rich and capitalism for the poor”. Anyone who believes that the recent growth of ethnic violence is linked to perverse theologies but has nothing to do with the decline of democratic regulatory institutions, would do well to study the deprivation brought about by the monetarist onslaught.

Juergensmeyer does an excellent survey of examining religious terror, with interviews that educate us about the mind-set of religious warriors and the theological justifications for violence. We are introduced to Christian fundamentalists who attack abortion clinics in the USA, the ideology of Jewish radicals in Israel, jehadis responsible for the 1993 attack on the WTC, Khalistanis, and the Buddhist sect Aum Shinrikyo, that launched a gas attack in a Tokyo subway in 1995. The second part of the book is reflective. Juergensmeyer’s observations on terror as media-related performance; radical patriarchalism as a means of the recovery of public virility by young marginalised males; the empowerment of religion by violence, and on the crisis of the secular nation-state are not novel, yet the trajectory of his argument provides fresh food for thought in current circumstances. Yet his conclusion, that “the cure for religious violence may lie in a renewed appreciation of religion itself”, is not convincing. The crisis of nation-states is related to the structural inequalities of global capitalism, and is manifest in the weaknesses of legitimising institutions, including liberal democracy and secular law. Juergensmeyer’s empathy for the terrorists’ critique of secular modernity could have been reformulated via an alternative vocabulary that substitutes “ethics” for “religion”, and “power” for “politics”. The separation of state and religion does not imply that the exercise of power ought to be devoid of moral considerations. We need to examine the reasons why state-structures have tended increasingly, to betray the ideals of social justice and transparent governance.

Juergensmeyer’s case-studies focus on “a few dramatic events that an international audience could easily understand”. Although he admits that the destruction of ‘Ayodhya’s mosque’ was similarly dramatic, it had according to him, “the appearance of being part of a spontaneous riot quite different… from the (other) calculated terrorist acts.” However, the analysis of ‘appearance’ is precisely the domain of the scholar, and in the case of the Babri Masjid, appearances were indeed deceptive. As a result of this illogical occlusion, we are denied the benefit of his reflections on terror in the name of Hindutva. This is a glaring lacuna in the book.

Juergensmeyer does not define terror, despite engaging with the semantic problem. We learn of the Latin root terrere, “to cause to tremble”; that the Reign of Terror in revolutionary France gave it the meaning of an assault on civic order. He suggests that definitions be provided by the ones terrified, rather than the ones doing the act. He admits that public officials invoke “a sort of ‘state terrorism’ in order to subjugate the populace”. He mentions stalinist pogroms (a novel use of ‘pogrom’), death squads in El Salvador, the killings by the Khmer Rouge, and even the Vietnam War and Hiroshima. But, he opines, “the term ‘terrorism’ has more frequently been associated with violence committed by disenfranchised groups”, some inspired by secular causes, some by religion. The use of the term depends upon the viewpoint of the observer.

Here he leaves us, thoughtful but uneasy. There are things he must have been aware of but left untouched. Are we to passively accept mere usage as a constraint to the act of definition? Why is ‘terrorism’ clearly defined in the dictionary, but so resistant to definition by the UNO and governments? True, Juergensmeyer’s very title focusses on religious-based violence. Here lies the rub. Today’s rulers were often yesterday’s rebels. The anti-communist jehadis who came to power in Afghanistan were once hailed by Reagan as “the moral equivalent of America’s founding fathers”. Till the early 1940s, the Zionist underground in Palestine were described by the British as “terrorists”, and a reward was announced for the capture of Menachem Begin. After 1945 the nomenclature changed, and decades later Begin became Israel’s Prime Minister. Zionism was predicated upon a religious claim to territory. In the late 1940’s, Zionists were implicated in events designed to terrorise the Palestinian populace and force them to leave. Baruch Goldstein, the doctor who slaughtered 30 worshippers in a Hebron mosque in February 1994, believed that Arabs who lived in Palestine were a danger to the Jews, their very existence a threat to Israel. Juergensmeyer’s analysis of latter-day Jewish extremism does not allow its forerunners to fall (even tangentially) within his explanatory purview. Had he done so, he might not have described the feeling of oppression held by Palestinians as an “understandable through regrettable response to a situation of political control”. Surely such feelings are natural among communities subjected to prolonged coercion?

An historical approach might have enabled Juergensmeyer to tackle the question posed in the section, “America as Enemy”. He restricts himself to examining the ideologies of his interlocutors, and by way of analysis, cites the US promotion of ‘secular governments’ as a reason for attracting the hostility of fundamentalists. As an example, he mentions the Shah of Iran, forgetting that the Shah’s authority was based upon a CIA-instigated coup in 1953 against the secular Mosaddeq government which had wanted to nationalise the oil companies. The Saudi government is an ally of the US, but not secular by any definition. Perhaps the US government is seen as a defender of autocracy, rather than of purportedly American values such as democracy, equality before the law and freedom of opinion.

“There are no good terrorists and bad terrorists, To think so is a sign of moral collapse. There are only terrorists”, wrote Robert Blackwell, US ambassador to India, in a recent newspaper article. Has not the US itself made such distinctions in the past, skirting moral dilemmas by citing national interest? American ethical sensibilities value expressions of remorse. Will official America ever admit to any wrong-doing whatsoever? Or is the Party Always Right, just as it was back in the USSR? Here is Harvard professor Jessica Stern referring to the jehadis – “what the US did was probably the right thing to do at the time but it is also true that the US did inadvertently create the first international jehad. So in a sense we created our own worst enemy”. How does a policy productive of your worst enemy become “probably right” – unless you have a completely evanescent ethic? The USA’s first Afghan intervention gave Pakistani dictator Zia’ul Haq a new lease of life, the second might do the same for General Musharraf. In addition, the “anti-terrorist coalition” has enlisted the BJP-led Indian government – whom a recent State Department report described as being implicated in violence and discrimination against minorities. Faltering, authoritarian politicians have been energised, and a corrupt and ruthless establishment hailed as a “natural ally” of America. This is a ruling class that has not yet condoled the murder of 3000 Sikhs in Delhi in 1984, and has allowed members of the RSS, a cabal banned twice for spreading communal hatred (the first time in 1948, after Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination), access to supreme executive power. It’s understandable. After all, the RSS supported the US war effort in Vietnam as a dharam-yudhha, or Holy War against communism.

Recent events have enhanced the relevance of Mukulika Banerji’s The Pathan Unarmed: Opposition and Memory in the North West Frontier (OUP, Delhi, 2001), which deserves a separate review. As we confront the waves of stereotyped identity, we should remember that the Pathans, the Taliban’s support base and supposedly addicted to violence, had produced the staunchest Gandhian mass movement in the history of Indian nationalism. The Khudai Khidmatgars, (Servants of God), led by Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan, aka. Badshah Khan, the Frontier Gandhi, dominated the socio-political landscape of the Pathans from 1930 till 1947. Badshah Khan and his followers propagated the values of restraint and compassion distilled from Pakhtun culture and Islam. Bitterly opposed to India’s Partition, Khan was the last stalwart who could walk across four boundaries in South Asia and be regarded as a native by the citizens of each country. When he died aged 98, in1988, the antagonists in the Soviet-Afghan war ceased fire for a day to allow his funeral in Jalalabad to take place. The Peshawar- Jalalabad border was opened and thousands joined the procession. Banerjee writes, “In his death Badshah Khan bore witness to the possibility of a closed border becoming an open frontier, restoring to the North West Frontier its open character of past centuries.” Rumsfield and Powell will not have heard of the Frontier Gandhi, but why is he forgotten in India, to whose independence he devoted his life? Badshah Khan’s legacy reminds us that the threads of conscience run through every culture. The North West Frontier has the world’s attention, and Banerjee’s study comes at an appropriate time.

These very readable books oblige us to confront the question of civic restraint and the rule of law as normative rather than technical entities. Law is the codified public ethic of modernity, but has roots in various religious traditions, all of which had to deal with the moral dilemma arising out of the need to legitimise killing. The tense co-existence of secular versus religious perspectives has been vitiated by social and political injustice. It is complicated by a dysfunctional nation-state system and a global structure of regulation that operates at the behest of privilege rather than in the interests of ordinary people. The old order is dead and the new refuses to be born – the Cold War is over, but the possibility of extermination still haunts us. Domestic and international law are at risk, undermined by governments and ethnic warriors who use terror for securing sectarian ends. Legitimacy is obtained in the name of nationalism, civilisation, religion, or all of these. Instead of respect for law, we get to see governments evoking wounded sentiment, revenge masquerading as justice. These phenomena may be found in all countries and cultures, to greater or lesser degree. Terror and violence have become a seamless whole, connecting the CIA with jehadis, Pakistan with Al Queida, the Indian government with the RSS and Bajrang Dal, Rajiv Gandhi with the LTTE, the British defence establishment with Indonesian militias, Boris Yeltsin with the Russian mafia, the Chinese Communists with Yahya Khan and Pol Pot, Israeli Mossad with Palestinian Hamas. The list is endless. Stand within this deadly spectrum and the only choice you have is which god to invoke, which weapon to use, which set of civilians to kill. Boundaries, definitions and morals are proceeding rapidly from ambivalence towards meaninglessness. It’s all very post-modern. However, ‘civilisation’ will have to overcome its fascination with brute force. One of Gandhi’s favourite scriptural quotations used to be – ahimsa parmo dharma – non-violence is the highest virtue. We will either listen to him or destroy ourselves. Because after September 11, the one luxury we can’t afford is innocence.