CS: Eyeless in Gaza
It is flashpoints like Palestine and Iraq which provide fodder for the widely held view in the West that equates Islam with terrorism. In this manner the circle goes on: reinforcing stereotypes in the West
Amir Ali Delhi
The question of the perception of Islam and Muslims in the aftermath of the 9/11 incidents is one that is difficult to come to grips with. This article wants to take up two aspects: how they contribute to worsening the problem. The first is the crude representations of political Islam and terrorism in the western media. The second is the manner in which the US and other western governments approach issues like Palestine and Iraq. It is precisely the manner in which these difficult issues are created and handled that gives rise to the fanatical violence that the West finds so difficult to understand and which it attributes to the bloodthirsty nature of Islam as a religion. There has also been in the West a remarkable resurgence of interest in Islam, more particularly in political Islam and the question of terrorism.
A good indicator of the interest that has been generated in Islam is the way certain words have been incorporated into the English lexicon. Words like fatwa and jehad have freely found their way into the lexicon. Yet, ignorance regarding Islam remains rife. Perhaps an interesting way in which this ignorance can be gauged is by going back to the dictionary.
How many people in the West consulting a standard dictionary for words like fatwa and jehad would be told that the word Islam actually means 'peace' — in addition to submission to the will of God. How many would ever get to know that in 1948, around the time the state of Israel was being established with the efforts of terrorist groups like the Irgun Zvei Leumi, the Oxford English Dictionary, while defining terrorists, would cite as an example the Jews of Palestine.
At a time today when so much importance is given to condemning terrorism, it is interesting how a Zionist poet and playwright Ben Hecht would actually exhort the Jews in America to make a 'holiday in their hearts' whenever the terrorists of Palestine carried out yet another terrorist strike against the British. Those who most vociferously support Israel in its battle against the 'terrorism' of the Palestinians forget the spiral of terrorist violence which preceded the creation of Israel such as the attack on the King David Hotel in Jerusalem by the Irgun Zvei Leumi in July 1946; the killings of the villagers of Deir Yassein in April 1948; and the assassination of UN's Swedish mediator Count Folke Bernadotte in September 1948. These last examples would be a useful indicator of how far the discourse on terrorism has travelled to the extent that today terrorism is completely equated with the Palestinians who are resisting the military occupation by Israel.
There is a dividing line between the western world and Muslims. Making sense of this dividing line might help shape our understanding of the perception of the Islamic world in the West. The most absurd explanation and rendering of this dividing line has been Samuel Huntington's 'Clash of Civilisations' thesis, which is not just a bad piece of academic work but a convenient justification for the way the US goes about conducting its foreign policy. More soberly, Tariq Ali has conceptualised the divide as a 'clash of fundamentalisms'. The standard line by many western leaders, among the most prominent being former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, is that however bad the situation may be in places like Palestine and Iraq, there is absolutely no justification for the appalling terrorist violence of the kind that the Islamic world comes up with.
Everytime a typical terrorist attack happens, it underlines the general perception in the West that Islam is a religion of violence and fanaticism. This impoverished response reveals the selective amnesia and distorted manner in which violence is understood. To gain a perspective on terrorist violence, it may be useful to understand it in conjunction with another form of violence: genocide.
There are many differences in both forms of violence. Despite the differences, they share a similarity. Mahmood Mamdani in Good Muslim, Bad Muslim writes that they “both target civilian populations”. He argues that in the aftermath of 9/11, he had the feeling that the US was like a 'great power struck by amnesia'. Interestingly, the very creation of Israel received an impetus as a result of the genocide that the Jews had suffered in Nazi Germany. The Jewish state of Israel presents an example of how yesterday's victims turned today's aggressors as it punishes with impunity the Palestinians for the simple reason that they stubbornly persist in their resistance of the Israeli military occupation. Mamdani recalls a conversation with a survivor from Auschwitz who perceptively noted the conclusion: it should never happen again.
There are two possible conclusions instead of one: the first — it should never again happen to my people; the second — it should never again happen to any people. There is a world of difference between these two different conclusions.
Political Islam and its peculiar violent manifestations need to be understood in terms of its interaction with the imperialist West. The persistence of this violence and its emergence must be seen in the context of expansionist imperialist policies like Israeli actions in the occupied territories and the American military presence in Iraq. It is the product of the humiliation that has been heaped upon the lands of Islam by the imperial West. To explain away this violence and to dispel the idea that this form of violence has anything to do with western imperialist behaviour in the terrain of Islam, most western commentators and leaders attribute it to a crude, simplistic assessment based on an 'essentialised understanding' of Islam — that it is a bloodthirsty religion that sanctions violence in the Quran itself.
The dividing line is between a continuously expansionist and imperialist West and an increasingly fundamentalist orthodox Islamic world, humiliated and licking the wounds inflicted upon it by the West. This persistent humiliation explains the resort to fundamentalist violence.
The frustration in the Islamic world stems from a variety of reasons. There is the vast technological and knowledge gap that has opened up between the West and the Islamic world. This remains a larger historical question. One has to understand the ways in which the Islamic world has become fossilised. There is also the historical question of colonialism. Specifically, it is flashpoints and persistent political problems like Palestine which show no sign of nearing a solution.
The hypothesis that western leaders are unwilling to even consider is that if these political flashpoints are removed there is the distinct possibility that the fanatical terrorist violence that we are so familiar with might come to an end. Instead, there is a refusal to even countenance such a hypothesis for even a moment. What then follows are two responses.
The first is a familiar argument that there is something about the Islamic world that predisposes it to such fanatical violence. Hence, it is all right for the West to continue in the same path. The second is the setting of a conditionality which, say in the case of Palestine, would go something like this: If the Palestinians can display that they can stick to a ceasefire and not carry out terrorist strikes against Israel, this is held out as a possibility of some forward movement in the peace process or the 'roadmap' as it is called.
There have often been uneasy periods of calm when the ceasefire is observed. Then the inevitable happens. After an agonising phase without any strike, the calm is broken with the inevitable terrorist attack. This is again held out to underline the fact that the Palestinians are in some ways predisposed to terrorism and that there is no point negotiating or reasoning with them. This probably means that the best way to deal with them is the heavy-handed tactics that Israel uses.
It is flashpoints like Palestine and Iraq which provide fodder for the widely held view in the West that equates Islam with terrorism. In this manner the circle goes on — reinforcing stereotypes in the West.
The writer is Assistant Professor, Centre for Political Studies, JNU