Whose Terror, Whose Powerlessness? Milind Wani

Pedestrians in Nice examine a makeshift memorial Monday for victims of the Bastille Day attack that left 84 people dead. Photo: Associated Press

On January 7 a car bomb at a Libyan police camp in the town of Zilten killed 60 people and wounded 200 more.  On January 11, bombs in three cities in Iraq, including Baghdad, killed over 130 people. On January 16, ISIS forces attacked the Syrian town of Deir ez-Zor, killing Syrian army members as well as women and children. Death toll estimates range between 130 and 300 people.  On February 1, a suicide bomber detonated a vest outside Afghanistan’s national police headquarters in Kabul, killing 20 and injuring 29. On February 8, ISIS executed approximately 300 activists, police, and military personnel in Mosul, Iraq. On February 21, ISIS detonated car bombs in two Syrian towns heavily populated with Shi’ite Muslims, killing between 140 and 270 people, and wounding over 300 more. In March this year, a car bomb detonated in a busy public square killed at least 37 people in the Turkish capital of Ankara. The same month, on a street filled with shops and cafes in Istanbul, Turkey’s largest city, a suicide bomber killed five people. On March 27, seventy-two people, including 29 children, were killed in a suicide bombing at the largest public park in Lahore, Pakistan. In May Baghdad attacks, at least 69 to 90 were killed in suicide attacks and car bombings in Iraq capital. On June 28, a trio of suicide bombings at an airport in Istanbul killed 45 and injured 200 more. On 3rd July 2016, coordinated bomb attacks were carried out in Baghdad, resulting in mass civilian casualties. A few minutes after midnight local time, a suicide truck bombing in the district of Karrada killed more than 300 people and injured hundreds more. This list is not exhaustive.

In the above backdrop of terror attacks in middle east by the ISIS or groups associated with it, that Pratap Bhanu Mehta should be impelled to write a passionate piece only after the horrendous truck rampage which left 84 dead in Nice says much about how even the most sympathetic of commentators have become party to selective amnesia. But if that was his only sin, one could just put it down to the times we live in where even the most informed ones are not free of ideological biases. However there is much that can be considered as problematic, either in terms of his analysis or the solutions he proposes or the stand he takes and would want us to take.

For starters, he warns us to not remain fascinated with the analysis of psychological profiles of individual and social milieu from which they come less we forget that we are dealing with specific political agenda. In the past, thinkers of the caliber of Franz Fanon, Jean Paul Sartre, Aime Cesaire – just to name a few – have done, if not individual profile analyses, at least that of the concrete social and political milieu from where such individual “terrorists” in “abstract” with distinct psychological mindset emerged – albeit from the point of view of the colonized victim who takes to terrorism. In the process they have also elaborated the political agenda of the colonial regime on the one hand, and that of those who took to terrorist violence in response to it. How else can we, one may ask, think about the political agenda of people who inflict violence that induces, to quote Mehta,  a “ kind of numbness no consolation can overcome”?
But there are also other problems with Mehta’s articulation. For instance he says that debate about it being Islam or not is “being beside the point”. Really? One would have thought it was all about Islam. Those on the left often speak about spaces that get evacuated by acts of omission and how such spaces then get appropriated by those on the right. Mehta, who is not a person of the left but a liberal, should realize that right wing ideologues are always ready to appropriate such evacuated spaces. The battle against ISIS is first and foremost a battle in the realm of discourse, about the nature of Islam, not only as a religious practice but also as it gets explicated through the Koran. One can in fact safely argue that this is one area lagging where too much is still going to be too less. This is not only a limitation of the liberal intellectual, but also, or more necessarily that of the intellectual from the left…who is too often prone to argue only from a point of view where the rise of Islamist  forces are mechanically looked upon as  being merely a product of predatory imperialism. It is also the job of the liberal and left intellectual to show how the murderous ideology that Mehta speaks of has, through one-sided interpretation, cunning, manipulation, or gross-misinterpretation of Islam by the ideologues of radical religious ideologies of the ISIS, morphed into the present manifest form of random violence.
On the other hand Mehta’s theorization about the motive and end of such attack is singularly one-sided. As if some of the terms he uses, “fascination with danger, violence, struggle, pain and death, against which argument seems irrelevant”; “trying to make death a banal and commonplace occurrence” are applicable only to the Islamist forces. Why shouldn’t they be equally applied to the NATO coalition? Within a few days of the Bastille attack, at least 120 civilians were killed on July 19 in air strikes north of the besieged Islamic State-held city of Manbij in northern Syria, near the border with Turkey. The dead included 11 children, and dozens were wounded. Syria is demanding that  the UN take action. The Syrian Foreign Ministry sent letters to the UN secretary general and to the president of the UN Security Council. In the letter, the Syrian Foreign Ministry added that it condemns the continued support by the US, France, Saudi Arabia, the UK and Qatar to terrorist organizations such as Al-Nusra Front and Jaish Al-Islam, despite these groups having clear links to Islamic State and Al-Qaeda. Wouldn’t the terms applied by Mehta in his psychological profiling of the ISIS mind equally apply to the minds commanding the NATO forces? The similarity doesn’t end there. Mehta would have us believe that there is nothing random about such acts perpetrated by ISIS in Europe. At least not strictly in that sense and he would have us focus on the “specific ideological nature of this threat”. He refers to it as a “religious vision that seems to see itself as an agent of apocalypse of some kind…inspired by a murderous ideology”. Replace the word ‘religious’ with ‘imperialist’ and one can apply the description word-for-word to the US coalition. The only difference being that while the Islamist forces are constantly metamorphosing the institutional structures that produce such violence in order to remain elusive, the institutional structure of the latter is perhaps less prone to such metamorphosis, probably because the modus oprandi of NATO violence has been honed to its finest over the past decades of the imperial wars that the NATO has invested in and backed by technological advances in the arms industry. That the west is far more superior in its arsenal power and manifestly proven ability to cause harm is a factor not even considered by Mehta. Does he not see any fascination of death, anything banal and apocalyptic about the nuclear arms industry? The same naïve enthusiasm informs his homilies to the state when he discusses how to deal with the “sense of powerlessness that these incidents will induce”.  When Mehta states that the randomness of the attack only seems to be so, he takes a right turn in the wrong direction. As if a drone attack in Balochistan is not as seemingly random and as devastating as the bus rampage in Paris. Thus Mehta, perhaps unwittingly, regurgitates the ideological narrative of clash of civilization in a world that is starkly divided into the good liberal western civilization and the barbaric evil Islamist forces which by their “sense of excess; an inversion of ends and means, where violence itself becomes the point; a flattening of all distinction between the innocent and guilty, an ability to extend the theatre of war to every sphere” seek to destroy everything that is holy about liberal values. It is strange that he has nothing to say about the civilizational genocide perpetrated by the US in Iraq since the first Iraq war in 1991. Millions of children died due to the American sanction over the next decades. As if this was not enough, lies of George W. Bush and Tony Blair, amplified and echoed by “liberal” journalists, led to the 2003 invasion of Iraq but for which hundreds of thousands of men, women and children would be alive today.  Or, of Hillary Clinton’s contribution (as recently exposed by wikileaks) to the destruction of Libya in 2011, the celebration of which was almost gleeful – when the Libyan leader, Colonel Gaddafi, was publicly sodomized with a knife – Clinton gloated over his death: “We came, we saw, he died.” Among Clinton’s biggest backers are the Israel lobby and the arms companies that fuel the violence in the Middle East. As for the latest adventure in Syria, by now it is a well documented fact that Senator John McCain has confirmed that he met with ISIS in Syria and was in direct contact with them at least one year before ISIS blasted its way into public imagination. Reading Mehta, one does not get any idea about this  bloody past and present depredations of the NATO coalition, of which France is also a member. The impression that one then gathers is that of a group of half-crazed people, acting with systematic and well-planned randomness with the purpose of instilling terror and powerlessness, perhaps for the sake of sadomasochistic pleasures they derive out of death and destructions but certainly not for reasons that have anything to do with history.

Lastly something about the four political issues Mehta raises.
First, he seems to grudgingly admit to the need of increased power of surveillance, emergency powers, abridgement of privacy rights etc. as being necessary evil as “a means by which we compensate our powerlessness”. He makes the wry observation that this trend is likely to continue without qualifying to the duration for which this trend is likely to continue. Moreover this begs the question as to whether this in anyway will substantially stem the problem. Moreover, it doesn’t seem to bother him that emergency powers, when put to use, have a tendency not of self-restraint but towards excess. It will be punishing the 99 percent of peace loving citizens for the sins of less than 1 percent who would wage war on “other” cultures and  persecute their own citizenry when emergency powers get legitimized as license to abuse as they often do (the latest example of this being Turkey). These attacks on France are because of its role in the so-called war in terror, not despite it. The first blood, as it were, was spilled by France when it agreed to join the US coalition in Syria.

Secondly, Mehta rightly speaks about the limitations, “to put it mildly”, of the long strategy of war against terrorism since 9/11 – how it was an excuse to bolster the means of war, to escalate operations all over the world. Here he acknowledges the role the west, particularly the US, has played by worsening an already bad situation. But then he takes an about-turn and says how incidents like the truck rampage, puts leaders like Obama who counsel restraint on a back foot. As if the balance of peace is threatened only by the “barbaric” Islamists perpetrating terror in European cities. According to journalist John Pilger,  who has been a strong critic of AmericanAustralian and British foreign policy, which he considers to be driven by an imperialist agenda, the Obama administration has built more nuclear weapons, more nuclear warheads, more nuclear delivery systems, more nuclear factories. Nuclear warhead spending alone rose higher under Obama than under any American president. Pilger brings to our notice that most of America’s wars (almost all of them against defenseless countries) have been launched not by Republican presidents but by liberal Democrats: Truman, Kennedy, Johnson, Carter, Clinton, and Obama. It is Obama who sends drones to slaughter people in Balochistan. Obama kills people usually on Tuesdays, according to the New York Times, when he is handed a list of candidates for death by drone.

The third issue Mehta refers to concerns of the possibility of resurgence of the right in proportion to the sense of powerlessness that grows in the light of Bastille like attacks. Allowing for this possibility, he hopes that the liberal center will play its politics “very carefully” in terms of the strategy it employs to justify its claim that multiculturalism works and will work in stemming and (hopefully) reversing such terrorist attacks. His view that the right does not have a strategy for dealing with this problem beyond attempting to restore this lost sense of power, although correct, does not do justice to the fact of how the right is no less vicious than the jihadist is as shown by the 2011 Anders Behring Breivik incident on Norway. The fact that the Munich attack by a lone shooter Ali Sonboly happened on the fifth anniversary of the Norway Breivik incident in which 77 died at the hands of one right-wing extremist has not been lost on all. So the challenge for the center liberal is not only to not let the far-right occupy spaces left by the growing sense of powerlessness, but also to ideologically challenge and neutralize its growing influence. Is the liberal center up to this? Why for instance the idea of multiculturalism has not taken root to the extent it ought to? Could it be that the center liberal discourse tends to be too closely tied to the assumption that such problems can be peacefully resolved within the precinct and logic of capitalist democracies (that see nothing wrong about embarking on occasional wars of aggressions on the barbaric other) . Could it be that the center liberal discourse, which although it offers legal equality, through its constitution and institutions, is on all other fronts, social, economic, and cultural a guarantee of substantive inequality? It is difficult if not impossible to envision a multicultural world that is not at once substantively equal, not only within its own border, but also vis-à-vis what lies outside of it in horizons marked by social, cultural, economic, and political difference. The European crisis, whether that of Greece or Brexit has given the lie to Europe’s social democratic pretensions. The immigrant crisis, and the commendable openness with which at least some countries have received fleeing war refugees, if anything, has only further stretched the limits of the tether as it were. It is not that the noble idea of European Union has failed, but that it has merely exposed the limits of center liberal discourse. The EU project, in order to survive, will need to be re-imagined along more left radical lines as Slavoj Zizek and Yanis Veroufakis, among others, suggest . This would mean it will need to confront head-on the issue of imperialist wars that has lead to the refugee crisis in the first place, and reverse the trend by becoming a moral force that rebukes and pressurizes instead of being pressurized by the NATO, the military alliance which underpins Europe’s democracies, and which supports terrorist groups in order to overthrow inconvenient regimes like Bashar al Assad in Syria and Gaddafi in Lybia.

Lastly, the fourth issue that Mehta highlights is how the war on terror is being held hostage to squabbles of geo-politics. Will the great powers bridge their difference and do what needs to be done to win the war? Whether a fragile Europe, facing multiple crises, institutional, economic etc would be able to face up to the question of what kind of historical communities they are. These are important observations and questions. Particularly the last one,  if by posing it he is not hinting at only the past greatness of Europe (whatever that might be!), but also referring to its shameful past. In particular France where the Bastille attack happened, as the philosopher Alain Badiou points out, has two histories. At one level it represents the enlightenment philosophers, Rousseau, the French revolution of 1789, the Paris commune of 1848, the Popular Front, the Resistance, the Liberation and May 1968. But there is the other side of the story: the restoration of 1815, the Versailles, the Holy Union during the Great War, Petain, the horrendous colonial wars including the Algerian revolution, and the invasion of Syria in our own times.

Mehta, ends on a hopeful note stating that civilization may not be hanging by thread even if it seems so. One is reminded of Gandhi’s response to a question about what he thought about the western civilization. It would be a good idea, he had famously said.

Milind Wani works with Kalpavriksh – Environment Action Group and is Editor, People in Conservation Documentation and Outreach

Courtesy: Kafila.org



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