The triumph over Islamism

SWAPAN DASGUPTA

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WITH the fall of Kabul and the decimation of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, many more people are breathing easily. Particularly decent, law abiding Muslims who had been unnerved by the Islamist triumphalism that followed the horrific murder of nearly 5,000 people in the United States on 11 September.

A famous musician – who also happens to be Muslim – expressed his sense of relief to me in late-November. Some 48 hours after the twin towers in New York collapsed, he was telephoned by a senior member of a national daily – this person also happened to be Muslim – for his reaction to the attacks. ‘It’s a terrible tragedy,’ he told the newspaper, ‘the senseless killing of so many people.’

Prompt came the retort. ‘But don’t you think America deserved it?’

The musician was horrified. He said that on second thoughts he didn’t want to be quoted at all on the subject.

I don’t think the retraction was prompted by apprehension of being misquoted. It was governed by plain fear, a fear that overwhelmed many Muslims in the period between 11 September and the fall of Kabul on 10 November.

The audacious attacks of 11 September were accompanied by a wave of revulsion, horror and anger among those who stood for decency, the rule of law and civilized values. However, simultaneously, it led to a frenzied bout of Islamist triumphalism. From the chilling they-had-it-coming asides to starry-eyed admiration for Osama bin Laden, a large section of the Muslim world threw its emotional weight behind the perpetrators of terror. It was almost made out that Laden had given a new purpose to the Islamic world.

Of course, the recreation of bin Laden as the Che Guevara of the 21st century wasn’t exclusively a Muslim phenomenon. From Susan Sontag and Noam Chomsky to Arundhati Roy, there was a significant intellectual endorsement of terror masquerading as anti-Americanism. The WTC attacks were painted as an unfortunate but a natural retribution for the pro-Israel policies of the US. In the process, a virulent form of anti-Semitism was made a part of legitimate discourse. Others went to the extent of linking bin Laden’s terror to the anti-globalization movements that incense the global fringe. Yet others linked it to the poverty and degradation of a war-ravaged Afghanistan – the Islamic copycat of Pol Pot. ‘Terror,’ wrote the novelist Martin Amis unfeelingly in The Guardian, ‘is political communication by other means.’

The Sontags, Chomskys and leftist editorial classes who mocked the intellectual shortcomings of President George W. Bush were, however, part of a comic sideshow – an indispensable part of modern democratic chatter. They were propped up by a combination of radical Islamists charged by the obnoxious and genocidal jehadi utterances of the bin Ladenists, and middle class Muslim waverers who imagined that lachrymose concern for a beleaguered ummah was an entry point into an emerging Islamic dawn.

With the boastful cockiness of the Taliban punctured by a combination of devastating technology and Afghan tribal wrath, it is tempting to go along with the charming puerility of CNN’s Christiane Amanpour and gloss over the magnitude of the vocal and muted support for the terrorists who promised a new polarization. But until televised images of Kabul citizens welcoming the Northern Alliance – in a way reminiscent of Paris 1944 and Dhaka 1971 – brought home the reality, the Muslim world was precariously poised between admiration for bin Laden and staying neutral. Pakistan epitomized this dilemma most starkly but even in India an onrush of ummah-centric solidarity with the Taliban was very visible in the Muslim ghettos. Margaret Thatcher’s cutting remark about inadequate Muslim condemnation of the 11 September attacks may have offended the tenets of political correctness, but its veracity is undeniable.

 

 

Not many Muslim intellectuals demonstrated the courage of Salman Rushdie and the Iranian writer Amir Taheri who were forthright in their denunciation of the Islamists. In India, many of the so-called moderate Muslims heaped ridicule at the idea of treating the Shahi Imam of Delhi’s Jama Masjid as the spokesman for Indian Muslims but coupled this with pathetic attempts at victimhood. At best, some academics produced contrived and angst-ridden political and sociological explanations to explain the so-called ‘anger’ that triggered the unprovoked 11 September attacks.

When Star News organized a Muslim-only discussion on the 11 September attacks, viewers were taken aback by the ferocity with which some middle class participants, including veiled Muslim women, defended the Taliban – including the destruction of the Buddha statues in Bamian. Leftist organizations competed with each other to host Chomsky’s tirades against the US, their enthusiasm turning to slight embarrassment when the veteran dissident directed his flak at the Indian ‘terrorist state’.

 

 

Indeed, had the US bombings proved ineffective and the Northern Alliance been bogged down in the Panjshir valley and the outskirts of Mazar-e-Sharif, it is more than likely that the drift of Muslim opinion towards the Islamists would have been more pronounced. The fencesitters would have joined the anti-American chorus – the initiation rites of Islamism – and the ‘moderate’ Taliban outside Afghanistan would have joined the bazaars in painting bin Laden as the new saviour.

The real dissenters – those Muslims who stood by the civilized world unflinchingly and whose contributions are comparable to the dissidents in the erstwhile Soviet Union – would have been exposed to unbearable pressure to join the ummah. An America overwhelmed by fear and the Islamic world traumatized into either pursuing jehad or becoming compliant fellow-travellers – these were the war aims of bin Laden and the Taliban.

Which is why the defeat of the Taliban is a turning point in the global battle against radical Islamism. The forces unleashed by the beneficiaries of the 1974 oil price hike had won victory after victory in the last quarter of the 20th century – the humiliation of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, the murder of President Sadat in Egypt, the Iranian revolution, the respectability conferred on anti-Semitism by the Palestinian intifada, the terror attacks in Kashmir, the uprising in Chechnya and the Talibanisation of Afghanistan and much of Pakistan.

Together, they generated a feeling of Islamic invincibility that helped draw recruits to bin Laden’s terror network from educated Egyptians, Pakistanis and Arabs. Among the more impressionable Muslim youth in Western Europe, it generated an ungainly swagger that was on full view during the copycat intifada riots in cities in northern England in the summer of 2000. These riots, observed Farukh Dhondy, himself a refugee from radical race relations, in an article in City Journal, ‘had no targets, symbolic or strategic. They didn’t seem to protest against unemployment. The riots were swagger and mayhem, and the rioters in successive towns vied to outdo one another.’

 

 

The decimation of the Taliban and the decisive US action against Al Qaeda’s global network marks the reversal of the tide, a moment of enormous historical significance. Far from being an invincible force on the right side of history, radical Islamism has been shown to be both fragile and vulnerable against sustained global retaliation. Contrary to the boasts of the mullahs who nurtured the Taliban in the madrassas of Peshawar, Pakistan didn’t explode into angry civil unrest and there were no visible repercussions in Palestine, Kashmir and the Arab states, the suicide bombers apart. There were dire warnings against extending the war into the Ramazan period but when the US war machine persisted, the issue was quietly dropped.

Yes, there were large and vocal demonstrations throughout the Muslim world in the initial stages of the campaign. The mosques witnessed angry denunciations of America and there was anticipatory gloating among the radical chic at the inevitability of Vietnam repeating itself in Afghanistan. But these assertions of Islamist solidarity fizzled out the moment the Taliban was seen to be crumbling. The roar of triumphalism yielded to the whimper of capitulation as ordinary Afghans set upon their medievalist tormenters.

 

 

The second casualty of the Taliban defeat was the idea of the ummah, a vision of pan-Islam promoted initially by Wahabi petrodollars – what V.S. Naipaul called the Arabisation of Islam – and subsequently endorsed vociferously by bin Laden. Disregarding all notions of right and wrong, the denunciation of American retaliation was somehow felt to be de rigueur because it involved attacking fellow Muslims. More to the point, in a grotesque recreation of the International Brigade that fought against General Franco in the Spanish Civil War, more than 10,000 non-Afghan Muslims, mainly Pakistanis but also a curious number of British passport-holders, crossed into Afghanistan to join the Taliban forces.

However, after Kabul fell to the Northern Alliance and unestimated Pakistani jehadis were massacred by fellow Muslims or went missing, the belief in a pre-ordained Islamic ummah took a severe battering. It was patently clear that the division of the world into the faithful and the kafirs could not stand up to rigorous scrutiny. There were many more complexities, including nationalism, tribalism and plain decency, that defied Islamic solidarity, just as they had earlier defied Christendom and the Hindu pad padshahi of the Marathas. The deflation of the ummah, a precondition of the clash of civilizations, counts among the seminal achievements of the Afghan campaign.

The third casualty of the Afghan campaign was the incredible belief that a purist Islamic state – the monstrosity the Taliban sought to create in Afghanistan – was an acceptable alternative to modernist, western-style democracies. There may be something in the suggestion that the distortions in the Muslim world were outcomes of the repressive regimes in the Islamic countries, but to extend this logic into seeking legitimacy for a state that replicated the starkness of 7th century Arabia was fanciful. Yet, this was precisely such an intellectual perversion that swayed the devotees of bin Laden and the Taliban.

 

 

They didn’t just reject pax Americana – which many others have done the world over – they rejected modernity in toto. Francis Fukuyama’s observation that, ‘there does seem something about Islam, or at least fundamentalist Islam, that makes Muslim societies particularly resistant to modernity,’ seems worthy of reflection. ‘Of all the contemporary cultural systems,’ he notes, ‘the Islamic world has the fewest democracies (Turkey alone qualifies), and contains no countries that have made the transition from Third to First World status in the manner of South Korea or Singapore.’

The heartening feature is that the military defeat of the Taliban and media revelations of the full extent of its barbarism in Afghanistan have removed the bizarre aura surrounding this medievalist quest. Even if the so-called ‘American way’ does not have universal acceptance, there is at least a rediscovery of the virtues of modernity in societies that flirted with versions of fundamentalist Islam. The scenes of Kabul citizens flocking to the cinema, watching TV and enjoying music have had a profound impact on societies that believed in an idyllic Islamic utopia. In particular, the degradation of women under the Taliban has forced the world to sit up and view the Islamist threat with far greater seriousness than was the case prior to 11 September.

Just after the hijack of an Indian Airlines flight to Kandahar in December 1999, a Muslim colleague was told off by a venerable gentleman – also a Muslim – for writing an article sharply critical of the Taliban’s social barbarism. ‘Such articles play into the hands of Hindu nationalists,’ he argued in his justification of Islamic self-censorship. After the Taliban rout, I don’t believe such experiences will recur.

A vision of Islamic supremacy centred on the glorification of barbarism has received a crushing blow. It may yet recover, but never with the same degree of certitude and cockiness. Like Nazism, radical Islamism was routed because civilization showed great resilience, acted with determination and insisted on an unconditional surrender. If the mopping up operations – a euphemism for Phase II – are carried out with similar surgical precision, without being waylaid by either expediency or the squeamish doubts of the liberal intelligentsia, we may yet witness a century in which the faultline is not determined by sharply conflicting attitudes to Islam.

 

 

Viewed in that light, Iranian President Khattami’s suggestion of a dialogue of civilizations is refreshing – as long as it doesn’t degenerate into vacuous theological assertions governed by blind faith. After the bloodbath on 11 September and subsequently in Afghanistan, that remains the hope and offers the greatest opportunity.

The suicide bombers will persist, whether in Jerusalem or Srinagar. The point is to ensure they lack the authorization of any state and any religion. The moment of religious extremism has passed. It will return if we blink.

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