Glasgow: time for soul-searching

16 July 2007
Have the recently arrested Indian Muslims charged for organising the attempted terrorist bombings in London and Glasgow been influenced by the anti-Muslim violence in India?
As Pakistan struggles with the tremors from the Lal Masjid episode, India is going through another, if lesser, trauma: the arrest of three of its citizens for attempted terrorist bombings in London and Glasgow. This is the first time any Indian Muslim has been involved in a jehadi attempt to commit terrorist violence abroad. At its centre was Bangalore-born Kafeel Ahmed. Had the plot succeeded, hundreds of innocent citizens would have died. That's reason enough to condemn the plot--unequivocally, and without ifs and buts. There's no hard evidence that Al Qaeda was involved in the conspiracy. But no sane person can justify the killing of non-combatant civilians--no matter what the cause or provocation. Much has been made of Kafeel Ahmed's background as an educated middle class Muslim, and a diligent, "normal", intelligent, well-regarded aeronautical engineering student. Unlike poor, underprivileged Muslims, he did not personally suffer discrimination either in India or in multicultural Britain. India's Information Technology capital Bangalore, and generally, Karnataka, it's widely believed, do not correspond to the "typical Indian Muslim experience". Karnataka Muslims are more literate and in many ways better off than Hindus. There has been a flood of editorials and opinion-page articles in India about the gravity of the episode--although evidence suggests that it was an isolated instance. Some editorials have reprimanded Prime Minister Manmohan Singh for his statement that terrorists have no "religion or country". Some commentators say the new alleged Indian-Muslim-global-extremist connection has shattered "old certainties" and calls for a "tough" approach to terrorism. The "new realities" stand in sharp contrast to Singh's statement in June 2005 that "I take pride in the fact that, although we have 150 million Muslims… not one has been found to have joined the ranks of Al Qaeda …." Singh attributed this to India's "functioning democracy. We are a secular state where all sections…regardless of… religion, caste and creed… can participate in our mainstream national activities." The underlying premise is that democracy forms a firewall against extremism. This premise is questionable. Fundamentalist groups have flourished in societies which are more robustly democratic (e.g. Western Europe) than India. Besides, India's record as regards secularism, defence of democratic freedoms, and equal participation of all communities in national life, is flawed. This is brought out by official reports, such as the Sachar Committee's, and independent citizens' inquiries into communal prejudice and exclusion of the minorities. Truth to tell, many Indian leaders used the "no-Indian-Muslim-in-Al Qaeda" argument expediently for years to criticise Pakistan for its support to jihadi militancy, which was a fact. The Indian government has repeatedly accused Pakistan of being the "epicentre of global terrorism". So Singh's statement against "labelling" terrorism sounds overly defensive and weak. However, is there something unique about privileged Indian Muslims being drawn to wahhabi or salafi orthodoxy? This view too is flawed. A study of 172 Al Qaeda operatives by Marc Sageman, a forensic psychiatrist and former CIA officer in Pakistan, found that 90 per cent came from relatively stable, secure backgrounds. Three-fourths came from upper or middle-class families. Two-thirds were graduates, typically professionals. India is no exception to this. The world over, fundamentalist movements, whether of the Hindutva, Christian or Zionist variety, have been led by middle class individuals. During the 2002 Gujarat pogrom, it's the well-off, well-dressed, cellphone-wielding fanatical Hindus who led mobs which went on a campaign of arson, rape and murder. None of this minimises the importance of analysing what inspired the likes of Kafeel to turn to jihadi ideas--without justifying their actions or intentions. Was the motivation purely doctrine-driven, rooted in their attraction to a "pure" utopian Islam expurgated of "corrupting" Sufi influences or western consumerism? Was it their experience of the recent growing communalisation of Karnataka, which has seen a surge of Hindutva, and harassment of Muslims? Was it their anger at the Gujarat carnage and the state's complete failure to punish its perpetrators? Or was it their perception of the west's demonisation of Islam, along with the murderous occupation of Iraq and the continuing colonisation of Palestine? Whatever the cause(s), any viable strategy to counter extremism must analyse and address them. This can only be done by a combination of two measures: careful police investigation, which doesn't violate the citizen's civil liberties; and second, a concerted attempt to win the hearts and minds of alienated minorities through inclusive and participatory democratic practices. Without the first--which includes the successful prosecution of extremists based on hard evidence--the ordinary citizen's life and liberty cannot be protected. Without the second, Al Qaeda-type ideologies cannot be weakened. It's only when all citizens, irrespective of religion, feel they have a stake in democracy as full and equal participants, and no group feels besieged, that extremism can be successfully tackled. Extremism cannot be fought either by India's draconian (and now-discredited) Terrorist and Disruptive Activities Act and Prevention of Terrorism Act, or through a "global war on terror" (GWOT). The US-declared GWOT has proved a total failure. As this column has repeatedly argued, GWOT has turned Iraq, earlier free of religious extremism, into a magnet for Al Qaeda. Worldwide incidence of terrorist attacks has risen six-fold after Iraq's invasion. Even the conservative Economist magazine admits as much. It says: "GWOT also implies, wrongly, that there exists a military solution to [the] problem … 'War' should be the exception, not the focus, of the effort against terrorists." "The language of war", it adds, "has alienated much of the world, among them Muslims … Such vocabulary reinforces the propaganda of Al Qaeda…" If terrorism is, at the end of the day, a tactic or technique, it can be used by any agency--a fanatical religious group, non-religious ultra-nationalists like the LTTE, the Irish Republican Army or the Basque separatists, or by governments. There is nothing exclusive about "Islamic terrorism". Islamophobia is implicit in the term. Or else, why don't we hear of "Judaic terrorism", "Hindu terrorism" or "Christian terrorism"? The IRA was Catholic in composition. But no one called it "Catholic terrorist". Political terrorism has a political agenda and must be treated as such. Even more important, we must acknowledge that state terrorism, whether in response to sub-state extremism or otherwise, is potentially far more dangerous and destructive. This is because the state commands resources and destructive power far in excess of any international or national sub-state network. It also enjoys impunity. Governments alone make laws, define what's legitimate, and monopolise the legal use of coercion. The world's worst-ever terrorist incident was an act by a state--the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima. This killed 140,000 people, 40 times more than the number killed in the 9/11 attacks. The time has come for some serious soul-searching in India--not only among Muslims, but all its citizens. If India's citizens are to counter the gathering assault by right-wing forces on freedom, they must not give the state excessive powers, e.g., search without warrant, or arbitrary detention. Nor should Indians condone the demonisation of a particular community. They must stand together as citizens--regardless of faith or creed--in combating both. This will need a huge civil society mobilisation in defence of liberty, democracy and human decency