Friday, Aug 19, 2022

How To Win The War

What most frightens bigots and fundamentalists across the world is the progress of science which destroys the irrational myths that underpin the cosmology of religions, and puts the power of knowledge into the hands of the people...

If the US National Intelligence Council's projections for year 2020 (in its report Mapping the Global Future) are to be believed, the global war on terror is not going all that well. Future prospects remain fraught with danger and uncertainty for a fairly long time to come. "Over the next 15 years," the report asserts, "religious identity is likely to become an increasingly important factor in how people define themselves."

And again, "Radical Islam will have a significant global impact... rallying disparate ethnic and national groups and perhaps even creating an authority that transcends national boundaries." The report goes further on to project a "fictional scenario" of the emergence of a "New Caliphate", that could "present a serious challenge to the international order" though it may not be "entirely successful".

Clearly, Samuel Huntington's thesis of the "clash of civilisations" continues to exert very significant influence on the imagination of American strategic planners and intelligence analysts. The danger here is that, if as crucial a player in the international arena as the US continues to be driven by this paradigm, it could well produce the circumstances for its partial and devastating realisation. The "clash of civilisations" thesis has elements of a self-fulfilling prophecy - the more we believe in it, the greater the probabilities of its realisation.

The strategies of the "war against terrorism" in the current global context will have to be far more complex than has been the case in the recent past, particularly in ensuring that the counter-terrorism response to Islamist extremist terrorism does not translate into a campaign against Islam itself, or against Islamic communities. Regrettably, the images being carried across the "Muslim world" appear to suggest widespread belief that the community and the faith are themselves under siege.

The exception to this broad stream of responses is India itself, which has long been targeted by a Pakistan-backed terrorist movement that has sought to claim an Islamist justification. Aberrations apart, India has been extraordinarily successful in separating its counter-terrorist response from the administrative and psychological orientation towards the larger community itself. Indeed, this has been the Indian experience against religious-identity-based insurgencies and terrorist movements in the past as well.

The 1984 riots notwithstanding, the Indian constitutional order and the narrow targeting of the terrorists in Punjab - compounded by rising atrocities by the Khalistani terrorists against the Sikhs themselves - eventually ensured the collapse of the terrorist movement in that State. Similar trends are visible in Jammu & Kashmir, where a combination of disenchantment with the terrorist enterprise and Pakistan's opportunism and abuse of the Islamic identity for its own strategic ends, as well as the high proportion of fatalities inflicted on Muslims by the terrorists have drastically eroded the recruitment base of the Islamist separatists.

Extremist, insurgent and terrorist movements based on religious identity - and not just on the Islamist identity - need to be understood in the peculiar contexts within which they are currently being provoked. These are, in essence, reactions against modernity, symptoms of a distress provoked by trends towards modernisation within stagnant communities, of the social and moral confusion resulting from the challenge to the supremacy of the fundamentalist line of thought that has long been propagated uncontested in many countries, as well as in many sub-cultures within larger and sometimes pluralistic communities.

The violence of the Islamist response is, in fact, an index of the fears and frustration at the realisation that the ways of thought and of life the fundamentalists favour are losing popularity, and that they have, themselves, become a minuscule minority within Islam. Under the circumstances, the only way to reassert their supremacy - even if temporarily - over the larger community, is by developing organisations like the Al Qaeda, the Taliban and the multiplicity of violent Islamist groupings that have proliferated across the world.

This, precisely, is also what had happened among the supporters of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale in the Punjab, as extremist elements within the enormously tolerant community and essentially pluralistic faith found their narrow and bigoted interpretations of the tenets of Sikhism being rejected by the larger community. The result was a Khalistani terrorism that, crucially, overwhelmingly targeted members of their own community - more than 65 per cent of all civilians killed by the terrorists were Sikhs. So indeed, is it the case in other religious identity based movements. In J&K more than 85 per cent of all civilian casualties inflicted by terrorists are among Muslims.

The crisis is the more urgent and is intensifying among Muslims, as the community spreads into Europe and the Americas and comes face to face with the complex realities of modern societies, modes of production and lifestyles. Even more subversive has been the impact of the spread of contemporary technologies of communication - most significantly, television and the internet - that have resulted in the near complete dismantling of state constructed barriers to information flows, and have exposed hitherto isolated societies to new ways of life and thought. 

These trends have been enormously subversive of all orthodoxies, and have inspired fear and immense insecurity among fundamentalists of all faiths and in all societies - and not just in the "Muslim world". Today, radical and sometimes violent orthodoxies are gaining strength among most of the other major faiths of the world as well - Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism, Judaism, even pacifist Buddhism (for instance, in Sri Lanka) have created radicalised minorities who seek to impose their intolerant and exclusionary vision on reluctant others.

What is not sufficiently appreciated among those who are analysing contemporary conflicts is the fact that all great reformist faiths of the world - including Islam - have been infinitely subversive in their origins. They destroyed prevailing orthodoxies long before they were themselves corrupted to be transformed, in turn, into a new orthodoxy. This truth contains the seeds of the inevitable destruction of the contemporary fundamentalist reassertion. 

Even as fundamentalist violence - both against "external enemies" and against their own communities - escalates, their agenda and actions are coming under increasing scrutiny and increasingly from members of their own faith. If these inherent propensities are to be strengthened, counter-terrorist thought and strategy will have to extricate itself from its bloody obsession with daily body counts (though, regrettably, this must remain the quotidian business of the bulk of counter-terrorist forces on the ground) to understand that the current conflict is essentially a contest of ideas, and the modern world - with all its unquestionable flaws and inequities - is on the right side of history. The revanchist movements based religious dogma can claim transient control of the global centrestage only through violence.

Long years ago, Teilhard de Chardin had espoused the idea of the "noosphere", a "planetary thinking network" - an interlinked system of consciousness and information, a global net of self-awareness, instantaneous feedback, and planetary communication. With the internet and contemporary communication technologies, this "planetary network" has, in substantial measure, been realised, and is being constantly exploited, both by the forces of liberty and by its enemies. It is through the strengthening of these integral and global interconnectivities, through their continuous and deeper penetration into the recesses of poverty and dispossession among marginalised populations, through, crucially, a radical investment in and reform of education, that a final victory will be shaped. 

What most frightens bigots and fundamentalists across the world is the progress of science which destroys the irrational myths that underpin the cosmology of religions, and puts the power of knowledge into the hands of the people, robbing the professional interpreters of the faith of their cabalistic powers. This, then, is the weapon that will secure the eventual victory of reason and science over dogma and violence.

K.P.S. Gill is Publisher, SAIR; President, Institute for Conflict Management. This article was first published in The Pioneer.