The Nonsense ‘MANTRAS’ of Our Times

Topic started by Ilija Trojanow (@ on Tue Jan 1 07:39:57 .
All times in EST +10:30 for IST.

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 Singh)

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 security.
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 communities.
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 turbans).
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 powers.
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 Amendment!
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.

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 mill


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