[Reader-list] Hokote and Trojanow - The Afghan Crisis: A Reflection

Shuddhabrata Sengupta shuddha at sarai.net
Wed Dec 5 11:49:14 IST 2001

Here is a Text by Ranjit Hoskote and Ilija Trojanow on the September 11 and 
the war in Afghanistan. It rehearses some of the arguments that we have 
already heard on this list, but since Afghanistan has cropped up again for 
discussion in many of the forwards on the list - here's another one - and, I 
am sure that the rest of us will agree with me that we need to have a spate 
of original writings now - in tandem with the forwards


----------  Forwarded Message  ----------
Subject: The Afghan Crisis: A Reflection
Date: Tue, 04 Dec 2001 18:49:52
From: "ranjit hoskote" <ranjithoskote at hotmail.com>
To: mangeshkul at vsnl.com

Dear Friends and Colleagues:

We enclose an extended reflection, co-authored by us, on the Afghan crisis,
its construction and presentation in the (West-dominated) mass media, and
the political and moral questions that this has thrown into high relief.

A shorter version of this essay will appear in *The Hindu: Sunday Magazine*
later this month.

With very best wishes,
Ranjit Hoskote and Ilija Trojanow

(essay follows, as inline text)

The Nonsense Mantras of Our Times

By Ilija Trojanow and Ranjit Hoskote

What's the world like?
A flock of sheep.
One falls into the ditch,
the rest jump in.

-­ Kabir (Sakhi: 240, The Bijak of Kabir, trans. Linda Hess and Shukdev

On TV screens across the globe, for more than two months now, the sheep have
been jumping into the ditch without a bleat of protest. What's worse, they
believe that's the way to go, the way of justice and salvation. Kabir's
acerbic stanza accurately describes the debate in the mainstream media
following the events of September 11. Legions of experts and viewers have
committed themselves to an absurdly simplistic and Manichean account of the
world, in which President Bush and his cast of international supporters are
portrayed as God's good men, arrayed in battle against maniacal fiends in
turbans, baggy robes and sandals, who threaten the world's sanity and

Within weeks, the debate on terrorism and global conflict has been reduced
to a mumbo-jumbo of self-justifying mantras, which have instantly become
axiomatic. Foremost among these is the infamous "clash of civilisations"
hypothesis most often associated with a certain Samuel Huntington, but which
has a genealogy of its own, leading back to such justifications of
imperialism as Arnold Toynbee's schema of antagonistic civilisational blocs.

The Toynbee-Huntington vision emphasises the fault-lines among "eight or
nine" cultural-political blocs arbitrarily defined as 'civilisations', and
seen to exist in a state of conflict based on profoundly distinct cultural
values. In Huntington's view, the great clash of our times, which takes the
place of the Cold War face-off between the USA and the USSR, is that between
Islam and the West. After September 11, he has popularly and uncritically
been hailed as the prophet of the age.

The truth is somewhat less dramatic, if no less violent, and has more to do
with fundamental differentials of economic and political power than with
fundamental cultural differences. Civilisations, as the proper scrutiny of
historical evidence would show, are marvellous hybrids: they have never been
pure, self-consistent entities. Historically, they have evolved through
exchange and synthesis, through the encounter of different races, religions
and philosophies. What is of interest, in the study of civilisations, is not
the differences that hold people apart, but the heritage that people are
able to share across borders.

A more tenable view than the "clash of civilisations" is that the
battle-lines run through societies, not between civilisations or
nation-states. A US pacifist, who believes in the necessity of social
justice, is worlds apart from an American investment banker, whose clients
include Lockheed and Unocal, and who believes that each man is master of his
own destiny. An urbane West European, who practises yoga, has a deeply
informed interest in African art, listens to reggae, and travels the world
in search of cultural inspiration, is equidistant from both the West
European skinhead and the Bajrang Dal storm-trooper.

Has there ever really been a clash of civilisations? Did Venice and the
Ottoman Empire clash because of differences in their interpretation of
Abraham's decisions, or because they were locked in a struggle for control
over the Mediterranean maritime trade? And why, throughout the Mughal and
colonial periods in India, did both elite and subaltern-resistance movements
comprise coalitions of Hindus and Muslims, if Hinduism and Islam are
fundamentally irreconcilable? Huntington's theory cannot explain why the
Rajputs supported the Mughals, why Akbar created a culture of
multi-religious dialogue and understanding, why some of Aurangzeb's
highest-ranking military commanders were Hindu, why the sanyasin-fakir
resistance movement against the East India Company embodied an alliance of
Hindu and Muslim ascetic-warriors, and why the Indian National Congress
comprised the enlightened leadership of the Hindu and the Muslim

Civilisation can never be defined in absolute and static terms. It is a
fragile construct: a constant process of self-evaluation rather than a
stable cultural structure. And once it tears apart under economic or
political strain, it can quickly uncover the most terrifying barbarism. No
one has depicted this syndrome more poignantly than Joseph Conrad in Heart
of Darkness; the most enduring and unfortunate example of this syndrome is
the rise of Nazism from the rich soil of German culture.

Unfortunately, the assumptions of the West, which are based on binary
models, continue to be projected upon the former colonised world, often with
the devastating effect of the self-fulfilling prophecy. The worst example of
this tendency may be summed up as the 'principle of ethnicity as the basis
of political conflict'. Put to excellent use by the Western powers in such
situations of conflict as Lebanon and Rwanda, this principle has most
recently been introduced into the Afghanistan debate, immediately following
the flight of the Taliban regime from Kabul and the entry of the Northern
Alliance into the Afghan capital. For the notion of the tribe is accompanied
by the stereotypes of primitive, tribal behaviour: barely had the Northern
Alliance marched into Kabul, when the Western media came abuzz with loose
talk of 'revenge killings' and 'warlordism' (the US Air Force's killing of
Afghan civilians is not, apparently, to be categorised under the former
rubric; and the strategists at the Pentagon, calibrating the precise degree
of offensive force, are not warlords, since neither Powell and Rice favours

As has been well established, 'tribes' were often invented by
anthropologists ranging unfamiliar terrain driven by a classificatory mania.
Never mind that the identities on the ground were often shifting in
character, language defining one affiliation, clan system a second,
religious sect a third, and political allegiance a fourth. Also, identities
and allegiances could change, leaving the already inaccurate taxonomy
further behind; but the so-called tribal differences, once established by
the Western knowledge system, were exploited by the Western power system
through the honourable imperialist formula: Divide and rule!

Until the Soviet occupation, ethnicity played a minor role in the modern
Afghan consciousness. After 1978, however, the foreign powers which
interfered in Afghanistan (and kept the civil war going) raised and
supported militias that were organised on ethnic lines. Within this scheme,
the success of the Taliban was due only to the fact of a vacuum in Pashtun
representation. Nevertheless, Kabul's Pashtun population has welcomed the
predominantly Tajik and Uzbek Northern Alliance troops. Should the foreign
powers continue to insist on bizarre ethno-federalist structures with
quotas, veto rights and reservation proportional to clout in the
post-Taliban scenario, this would spell disaster for Afghanistan's future.

There will always be forces that will instrumentalise differences. What is
needed is a vision of unity, a vision of what the Afghan people really need
to invent themselves out of and beyond the quagmire in which they have been
thrust by superpower politics and the cynical power-games of regional

It's Religion, Stupid!

The current debate proceeds from broad, unquestioned certainties about the
nature and history of Islam, certainties that are as dogmatic as the
supposed dogmas that they oppose. This critique-by-media of Islam proceeds
on the basis of certain 'core Western values', founded on the principles of
the Enlightenment, that are assumed to lie at the base of all civilised
discourse. Interpreted correctly, these core Western values enshrine the
method of radical doubt, which is central to Enlightenment discourse, all
the way from Spinoza and Descartes to Derrida and Foucault. This method
helps us to unmask religion as ideology, to examine the overt practices and
concealed motives of ideology, the manner in which it masks a power
structure and the interests of a dominant class. Unfortunately, the current
rhetoric of the West -- in government and media -- proceeds in complete
contravention of this heritage.

The academic gurus are no better. According to Francis Fukuyama, "Islam is
the only cultural system that regularly seems to produce people like bin
Laden or the Taliban, who reject modernity lock, stock and barrel." As a
matter of fact, it is precisely the lock, stock and barrel of modernity that
Islamic extremism has taken up, since military technology was the aspect of
Western civilisation that the colonialists exported most vigorously (read,
for example, T. E. Lawrence's classic of romantic-Orientalist autobiography,
The Seven Pillars of Wisdom). Even today the West blesses the world with
lock, stock and barrel worth billions of dollars. Consider, also, the
various unexamined axioms built into this ill-fated sentence.

"The only cultural system?" Three decades ago, such irrational violence was
believed to be the monopoly of the Vietcong, who then yielded place to the
Khmer Rouge. Were the Vietcong and the Khmer Rouge closet believers in the
Word of Allah? Has North Korea, regarded by US leaders through the 1990s as
the major scourge of humankind, fallen under the influence of the mullahs?
"Regularly produces people like bin Laden"? How many bin Ladens have the 1.2
billion Moslems produced? 50? Or 500? And to blame Islam for the disaster in
Afghanistan, a country repeatedly abused by Britain, the Soviet Union and
the USA, is to indulge in despicable cynicism.

Western Values, and the US as their Guardian

Instead of scrupulous attention to the historical record and the application
of the core Western values, then, the Western media offer us nonsensical
mantras that, by repetition, have acquired the air of spiritual truths. Paul
Pillar's formulation, in his Terrorism and U.S. Foreign Policy, sums these
up briskly: "The longevity of the principles (of US counter-terrorist
policy) attest to their firm grounding in an American political, moral, and
legal tradition that places high value on the rule of law and on the idea
that malevolence should be punished." To point out that this sentence has no
relation to reality would be an offence to the intelligence of the reader.

Malevolence should be punished? The USA has consistently supported states
that sponsor terrorism, and has itself committed acts of terrorism ­- for
instance, the Contra war against Nicaragua, as a result of which the US
government was tried, found guilty and mandated to pay substantial
reparations by the International Court, The Hague. But since the law is only
respected if it reaches a verdict in the bully's favour, the USA didn't part
with a dime.

The rule of law? Once in a while, the truth shines through in an article or
a statement:: "If we are hamstrung by absolutist definitions of friend and
foe, and democracy and dictatorship, our chances of victory will the
diminished" (Robert D. Kaplan, in the New York Times). This is refreshingly
honest, by comparison with the (oxy)moronic euphemisms of the propaganda
machine (Stanley Hoffmann, writing in the New York Review of Books, praises
the "benign US hegemony").

As for free speech, a central tenet of the Western value system,
Washington's approach to the fair reporting of the war has been to ask the
Emir of Qatar to curb Al Jazeera, the only free TV channel in the Arab
world. The Emir, wily Oriental that he no doubt is, took refuge in the Fifth

In other words: One rule for the West, another for the others. This
illiberal attitude within the liberal tradition goes back to J S Mill, that
fountainhead of European liberalism who opposed the idea of
self-determination for the world's colonised peoples. This colonialist
ideology has not yet been eradicated from the Western mind, and though we
have achieved a sort of globalism in terms of mass communications and trade,
we are still a long way from evolving a global ethics, that would guide the
relations among nations and peoples. Without being as ambitious as the
Advaita, we would have achieved a great change if every human life could be
held to have the same and equal value.

The Illusion of a "Safe and Comfortable World"

The worst genocide in recent times took place in Rwanda, and left close to a
million people dead. UN peacekeepers pulled out; the complicity of France in
supporting and arming the mass murderers became clear. But there was hardly
a ripple of public disquiet, as the radical artist Alfredo Jaar chillingly
demonstrates in his elegiac installations, 'Let There Be Light' and 'The
Eyes of Gutete Emerita'. These installations are situated within a
performance during which Jaar flashes a sequence of US magazine covers and
narrates, in parallel, the events taking place Rwanda in the same weeks.
While the numbers of those butchered rises, and the nature of the slaughter
becomes more and more feral, Time and Business week continue to put other,
more US-centric matters on their covers. The genocide might well have been
unfolding on another planet.

No minutes of silence were maintained for the victims of the Rwandan
genocide; no candlelight vigils were held in their memory, no
celebrity-endorsed prayer meetings were convened. On the contrary, the
shameful involvement of functionaries of the Roman Catholic Church in the
genocide was glossed over: no commentator was inspired to publish vicious
diatribes against Christianity as a cultural system that regularly breeds
blood-thirsty maniacs. But let's not forget that we are only talking of a
million dead blacks. There have been worse times, but hardly more
hypocritical ones.

As against the complete global and certainly Western apathy towards the one
million victims of the Rwandan genocide, September 11 is seen as epochal and
apocalyptic for the whole world. The emphasis is on the supposedly sudden
burst of dramatic violence into the lives of an otherwise happy and
peaceable America.

The blissful ignorance or deliberate self-delusion of the Western elites is
eloquently, if also comically, illustrated by the Tory MP Bernard Jenkins'
view from the charmingly pastoral locale of North Essex: The events of
September 11, in the worthy MP's opinion, "shattered the illusion of a safe
and comfortable world." On the other hand a journalist in Bihar wrote, a few
days after the attacks on New York, that such horrors would hardly make an
impression on a Bihari, who has to endure murder and terror on a daily
basis. The world is, in reality, far more similar to Bihar than it is to New
York or North Essex, and the last few decades have witnessed an increasing
global Biharisation.

Not only are we speaking of increased violence in the Third World, but we
also refer to the routine violence of American life. George Bush, in his
address to the nation on 7 October, bravely asserted that "we defend... the
freedom of people everywhere to live and raise their children free from
fear". This sentiment does not cover even the inner cities of his own
country, the Bihars within the USA.

In fact, the only novel feature about the 11 September kamikaze attacks is
that, for the first time, people from the world's powerless hinterlands have
struck at the very heart of the imperium, shattering the myth of the
invincibility of the continental USA.

War on Terror -- War or Terror?

The definition of terrorism is conspicuous by its absence. If terrorism is
an attack on civilians or civilian objects with the intent to terrorise the
people or the government, then the war on terror should be a war on the
whole world order, a system of permanent terror for three-quarters of
mankind. By distinguishing between State and non-State terror, the main
culprits are left out, and by differentiating between "our friends and our
foes", it is narrowed down to a ridiculous proportion: bin Laden, the
Taliban and Saddam Hussein. In the cartoon-strip style of argument pursued
by the Western powers, these isolated figures are the chief proponents of
terror, promulgators of violent manifestos and makers of catastrophic

On the other hand, as some clear-sighted commentators have pointed out, the
USA has supported (and continues to support) states like Pakistan and Saudi
Arabia, who are probably more to blame for the attacks on New York than the
Taliban. And what about the ongoing direct involvement of the "coalition
against terror" in terror? There are an estimated 500 million small arms and
light weapons in the world, and they have killed 2 million children in the
last decade of the 20th century, according to UNICEF estimates. And these
killing-machines are produced mainly by the states that are permanent
members of the Security Council and enjoy the absurd privilege of a veto.
The same global powers, individually or jointly, block all initiatives
against weapons and war -­ most recently, for instance, the international
agreement on land-mines. Surely the production and sale of weaponry for the
purpose of profit qualifies as complicity in terrorism? You don't have to be
a fanatic to be a murderer: the military-industrial complex is governed by
suave, pleasant men actuated by family values, men who keep their eyes
focused on spreadsheets rather than manifestos.

The definition of terrorism is kept unclear, not only because the phenomenon
covers a multiplicity of changing approaches and contexts, but because such
a lack of clarity leaves states a free hand to deal with opposing forces. We
see here a shifting game of legitimising self-interest; there is no moral
focus to the debate over war and terrorism. There has, in fact, been little
moral development since antiquity, despite the persistent talk of Western
values. The reality has been aptly described by Thucydides: "They that have
odds of power exact as much as they can, and the weak yield to such
conditions as they can get." The fashionable argument of the 'just war' is
nothing more than an effort at masking this truth.

A just war would assume a consistency in dealing with the "evil". When some
murderers get punished and others get to enjoy the beaches of Florida, how
can we take justice seriously? Not to speak of the death of civilians, which
the last 'just war' against Iraq took into account so blithely. Such deaths
are covered under the bland Pentagon doctrine of "collateral damage".
Indeed, if the murder of civilians is the criterion for defining terrorism,
as what should we regard the US action in Afghanistan?

Even a leading proponent of the just-war theory like Michael Walzer admits
that "when the world divides radically into those who bomb and those who are
bombed, it becomes morally problematic, even if this bombing is
justifiable." Can we speak of war at all? Doesn't war presume a matching of
combatants? This campaign is more reminiscent of punitive actions, which
were carried out during the Second World War and the Vietnam War. When you
can not catch the perpetrators (in this case because they have already
brought themselves to justice) you destroy something of their world as
retribution. "That will teach them a lesson," the colonial officer would
say, after having torched a village to signal his "benign hegemony" in as
dramatic a fashion as possible.

"It is important to stress," Walzer writes, "that the moral reality of war
is not fixed by the actual activities, but by the opinions of mankind." The
bombing of Aghanistan is just, only because it has been called so by the
powers involved in the bombing. No one forces us to accept this notion.
Every human being has the duty to try and reach an opinion of his own, and
to voice it.

Frankenstein Inc. (Made in the USA)

The lab is well set up and we all know how it works: Dr Frankenstein of the
CIA arms his monster, then leaves him to his own devices. The monster begins
to misbehave. He no longer listens to his liaison officers from the CIA. He
cuts the wires that link him to the State Department. He is out of control.
Therefore he is identified as the enemy, magnified in the imagination, and
labelled an avatar of Hitler. Then the command is issued: Shoot at Sight.

In the good old days of the Cold War, some of the demons and anti-Christs
were made in the "Empire of Evil". Today, they are all bastard children of
the "Empire of Good", serially stigmatised as their creators run out of
enemies. It is a well-known fact that Saddam Hussein, Noriega, bin Laden all
began on the right side of the US, and that the CIA funded the Taliban.
Curiously, only a few months ago, the Bush administration gave the Taliban a
subsidy of $43 million as a reward for suppressing the drug trade. But
sometimes the monster takes Dr Frankenstein for a ride: the opium that was
burned was the surplus, destroyed to keep prices high in the narcotics

It is worthwhile comparing the Taliban to the Khmer Rouge, that other
bizarre and genocidal regime (and let's not forget the US outcry against
Vietnam for toppling Pol Pot, or the common criticism of Tanzania when it
toppled Idi Amin¹s regime of horror). Both came to power after devastating
wars. We speak of violent people as though they were trained to be violent
by their traditions. But what else would people be in an atmosphere of total
and pervasive war? Violence breeds violence ­ you don't have to be General
Manon of the Northern Alliance, fighting continuously for the last 22 years,
to realise that. This, rather than cultural determinism, is by far the most
convincing explanation for the rise of forces like the Taliban and the Khmer

And where the US has not produced Frankenstein monsters by itself, it has
infallibly set up laboratories for their production: Iran is the perfect
example. The democratic government of Premier Mohammed Mossadegh in Iran
(1951-1953) came closest to Western values, among all 'Islamic' governments
and represented a modern, educated, tolerant and inclusive Iranian vision.
This was systematically destroyed by the Western powers, through a
CIA-sponsored destabilisation programme and coup, which culminated in the
restoration of the corrupt and repressive Pahlavi regime. Mossadegh's vision
embodied precisely the values that today's analysts claim to find wanting in
Islam; his only crime was that he had dared to nationalise the Anglo-Iranian
Oil Company, bringing down upon himself the wrath of the West for
challenging First World control over Iran's oil reserves.

America and/or Critical Difference

Given the tenor of the current debate, our arguments here would
automatically qualify as being anti-American. This cry of anti-Americanism
is currently the weapon of all rhetorical weapons -­ and the most absurd one
at that. Not only does it imply a homogenised unity of American society,
culture and government, or a singular American identity (into which factors
of race, gender, region and class are quietly collapsed), but it also
negates the possibility of maintaining critical difference. To love jazz
music does not mean to support the bombing of Afghanistan; to admire the
tradition of free speech is not to endorse the idiocy of corporate media.

It is impossible to have grown up as a cosmopolitan citizen in today's world
without having been inspired by the triumphs of the US in academia and the
arts. However, the beauty of US culture is that these accomplishments were
born out of an attitude of dissent, questioning, confrontation,
self-direction and self-affirmation. Thus, to criticise US foreign policy is
to uphold the best and highest impulses in US culture.

The mediation of dissent through art and the sustenance of the human spirit
through culture are not, of course, confined to US culture. We conclude with
a traditional love poem from Herat (the American spell-check on our
computers automatically and repeatedly alters the unfamiliar Afghan
place-name from 'Herat' to 'Heart', but the error may be apposite). Since
all music, even traditional Afghan music, was banned by the Taliban, this
song has not, perhaps, been heard in the city of its origin for years. Its
poignancy underscores the tragedy of what two decades of war has done to
this society:

"When the waterfalls cry,
when the sheep cry,
my heart thinks of Syamui.
How long must I cry, O Syamui?
As the rubies come out of the mines,
As the sun shines over the mountains at dawn,
So too does Syamui show herself
on the roof of her house."

In Afghanistan today, the rubies are mined to finance the internecine
warfare, and Syamui has fled into the cellar, afraid to show herself in
public, her future menaced as much by the Taliban whip-squads as by the rain
of American bombs.


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