The Algebra of Infinite Justice
All credits belong to the author. This article was first published
in The Guardian in England,
on Saturday September 29, 2001. As of November 3, no American
leading publisher, newspaper or magazine, agreed to carry this
article. This is according to Ms. Roy’s agent, Mr. David Godwin
(see New York Times piece on Ms. Roy, on November 3). My
Roy is the controversial and best-selling Indian author of the
Booker Award novel, The God of Small Things. She is also
a qualified architect, and leading activist whose fights include
that against dams being built in areas that will affect locales
occupied by India’s Dalits.]
the aftermath of the unconscionable September 11 suicide attacks
on the Pentagon and the World Trade Centre, an American newscaster
said: "Good and evil rarely manifest themselves as clearly
as they did last Tuesday. People who we don't know massacred people
who we do. And they did so with contemptuous glee." Then
he broke down and wept.
Here's the rub: America is at war against people
it doesn't know, because they don't appear much on TV. Before
it has properly identified or even begun to comprehend the nature
of its enemy, the US government has, in a rush of publicity and
embarrassing rhetoric, cobbled together an "international
coalition against terror", mobilised its army, its air force,
its navy and its media, and committed them to battle.
The trouble is that once America goes off to war,
it can't very well return without having fought one. If it doesn't
find its enemy, for the sake of the enraged folks back home, it
will have to manufacture one. Once war begins, it will develop
a momentum, a logic and a justification of its own, and we'll
lose sight of why it's being fought in the first place.
What we're witnessing here is the spectacle of
the world's most powerful country reaching reflexively, angrily,
for an old instinct to fight a new kind of war. Suddenly, when
it comes to defending itself, America's streamlined warships,
cruise missiles and F-16 jets look like obsolete, lumbering things.
As deterrence, its arsenal of nuclear bombs is no longer worth
its weight in scrap. Box-cutters, penknives, and cold anger are
the weapons with which the wars of the new century will be waged.
Anger is the lock pick. It slips through customs unnoticed. Doesn't
show up in baggage checks.
Who is America fighting? On September 20, the
FBI said that it had doubts about the identities of some of the
hijackers. On the same day President George Bush said, "We
know exactly who these people are and which governments are supporting
them." It sounds as though the president knows something
that the FBI and the American public don't.
In his September 20 address to the US Congress,
President Bush called the enemies of America "enemies of
freedom". "Americans are asking, 'Why do they hate us?'
" he said. "They hate our freedoms - our freedom of
religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble
and disagree with each other." People are being asked to
make two leaps of faith here. First, to assume that The Enemy
is who the US government says it is, even though it has no substantial
evidence to support that claim. And second, to assume that The
Enemy's motives are what the US government says they are, and
there's nothing to support that either.
For strategic, military and economic reasons,
it is vital for the US government to persuade its public that
their commitment to freedom and democracy and the American Way
of Life is under attack. In the current atmosphere of grief, outrage
and anger, it's an easy notion to peddle. However, if that were
true, it's reasonable to wonder why the symbols of America's economic
and military dominance - the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon
- were chosen as the targets of the attacks. Why not the Statue
of Liberty? Could it be that the stygian anger that led to the
attacks has its taproot not in American freedom and democracy,
but in the US government's record of commitment and support to
exactly the opposite things - to military and economic terrorism,
insurgency, military dictatorship, religious bigotry and unimaginable
genocide (outside America)? It must be hard for ordinary Americans,
so recently bereaved, to look up at the world with their eyes
full of tears and encounter what might appear to them to be indifference.
It isn't indifference. It's just augury. An absence of surprise.
The tired wisdom of knowing that what goes around eventually comes
around. American people ought to know that it is not them but
their government's policies that are so hated. They can't possibly
doubt that they themselves, their extraordinary musicians, their
writers, their actors, their spectacular sportsmen and their cinema,
are universally welcomed. All of us have been moved by the courage
and grace shown by firefighters, rescue workers and ordinary office
staff in the days since the attacks.
America's grief at what happened has been immense
and immensely public. It would be grotesque to expect it to calibrate
or modulate its anguish. However, it will be a pity if, instead
of using this as an opportunity to try to understand why September
11 happened, Americans use it as an opportunity to usurp the whole
world's sorrow to mourn and avenge only their own. Because then
it falls to the rest of us to ask the hard questions and say the
harsh things. And for our pains, for our bad timing, we will be
disliked, ignored and perhaps eventually silenced.
The world will probably never know what motivated
those particular hijackers who flew planes into those particular
American buildings. They were not glory boys. They left no suicide
notes, no political messages; no organisation has claimed credit
for the attacks. All we know is that their belief in what they
were doing outstripped the natural human instinct for survival,
or any desire to be remembered. It's almost as though they could
not scale down the enormity of their rage to anything smaller
than their deeds. And what they did has blown a hole in the world
as we knew it. In the absence of information, politicians, political
commentators and writers (like myself) will invest the act with
their own politics, with their own interpretations. This speculation,
this analysis of the political climate in which the attacks took
place, can only be a good thing.
But war is looming large. Whatever remains to
be said must be said quickly. Before America places itself at
the helm of the "international coalition against terror",
before it invites (and coerces) countries to actively participate
in its almost godlike mission - called Operation Infinite Justice
until it was pointed out that this could be seen as an insult
to Muslims, who believe that only Allah can mete out infinite
justice, and was renamed Operation Enduring Freedom- it would
help if some small clarifications are made. For example, Infinite
Justice/Enduring Freedom for whom? Is this America's war against
terror in America or against terror in general? What exactly is
being avenged here? Is it the tragic loss of almost 7,000 lives,
the gutting of five million square feet of office space in Manhattan,
the destruction of a section of the Pentagon, the loss of several
hundreds of thousands of jobs, the bankruptcy of some airline
companies and the dip in the New York Stock Exchange? Or is it
more than that? In 1996, Madeleine Albright, then the US secretary
of state, was asked on national television what she felt about
the fact that 500,000 Iraqi children had died as a result of US
economic sanctions. She replied that it was "a very hard
choice", but that, all things considered, "we think
the price is worth it". Albright never lost her job for saying
this. She continued to travel the world representing the views
and aspirations of the US government. More pertinently, the sanctions
against Iraq remain in place. Children continue to die.
So here we have it. The equivocating distinction
between civilisation and savagery, between the "massacre
of innocent people" or, if you like, "a clash of civilisations"
and "collateral damage". The sophistry and fastidious
algebra of infinite justice. How many dead Iraqis will it take
to make the world a better place? How many dead Afghans for every
dead American? How many dead women and children for every dead
man? How many dead mojahedin for each dead investment banker?
As we watch mesmerised, Operation Enduring Freedom unfolds on
TV monitors across the world. A coalition of the world's superpowers
is closing in on Afghanistan, one of the poorest, most ravaged,
war-torn countries in the world, whose ruling Taliban government
is sheltering Osama bin Laden, the man being held responsible
for the September 11 attacks.
The only thing in Afghanistan that could possibly
count as collateral value is its citizenry. (Among them, half
a million maimed orphans.There are accounts of hobbling stampedes
that occur when artificial limbs are airdropped into remote, inaccessible
villages.) Afghanistan's economy is in a shambles. In fact, the
problem for an invading army is that Afghanistan has no conventional
coordinates or signposts to plot on a military map - no big cities,
no highways, no industrial complexes, no water treatment plants.
Farms have been turned into mass graves. The countryside is littered
with land mines - 10 million is the most recent estimate. The
American army would first have to clear the mines and build roads
in order to take its soldiers in.
Fearing an attack from America, one million citizens
have fled from their homes and arrived at the border between Pakistan
and Afghanistan. The UN estimates that there are eight million
Afghan citizens who need emergency aid. As supplies run out -
food and aid agencies have been asked to leave - the BBC reports
that one of the worst humanitarian disasters of recent times has
begun to unfold. Witness the infinite justice of the new century.
Civilians starving to death while they're waiting to be killed.
In America there has been rough talk of "bombing
Afghanistan back to the stone age". Someone please break
the news that Afghanistan is already there. And if it's any consolation,
America played no small part in helping it on its way. The American
people may be a little fuzzy about where exactly Afghanistan is
(we hear reports that there's a run on maps of the country), but
the US government and Afghanistan are old friends.
In 1979, after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan,
the CIA and Pakistan's ISI (Inter Services Intelligence) launched
the largest covert operation in the history of the CIA. Their
purpose was to harness the energy of Afghan resistance to the
Soviets and expand it into a holy war, an Islamic jihad, which
would turn Muslim countries within the Soviet Union against the
communist regime and eventually destabilise it. When it began,
it was meant to be the Soviet Union's Vietnam. It turned out to
be much more than that. Over the years, through the ISI, the CIA
funded and recruited almost 100,000 radical mojahedin from 40
Islamic countries as soldiers for America's proxy war. The rank
and file of the mojahedin were unaware that their jihad was actually
being fought on behalf of Uncle Sam. (The irony is that America
was equally unaware that it was financing a future war against
In 1989, after being bloodied by 10 years of relentless
conflict, the Russians withdrew, leaving behind a civilisation
reduced to rubble.
Civil war in Afghanistan raged on. The jihad spread
to Chechnya, Kosovo and eventually to Kashmir. The CIA continued
to pour in money and military equipment, but the overheads had
become immense, and more money was needed. The mojahedin ordered
farmers to plant opium as a "revolutionary tax". The
ISI set up hundreds of heroin laboratories across Afghanistan.
Within two years of the CIA's arrival, the Pakistan-Afghanistan
borderland had become the biggest producer of heroin in the world,
and the single biggest source of the heroin on American streets.
The annual profits, said to be between $100bn and $200bn, were
ploughed back into training and arming militants.
In 1995, the Taliban - then a marginal sect of
dangerous, hardline fundamentalists - fought its way to power
in Afghanistan. It was funded by the ISI, that old cohort of the
CIA, and supported by many political parties in Pakistan. The
Taliban unleashed a regime of terror. Its first victims were its
own people, particularly women. It closed down girls' schools,
dismissed women from government jobs, and enforced sharia laws
under which women deemed to be "immoral" are stoned
to death, and widows guilty of being adulterous are buried alive.
Given the Taliban government's human rights track record, it seems
unlikely that it will in any way be intimidated or swerved from
its purpose by the prospect of war, or the threat to the lives
of its civilians.
After all that has happened, can there be anything
more ironic than Russia and America joining hands to re-destroy
Afghanistan? The question is, can you destroy destruction? Dropping
more bombs on Afghanistan will only shuffle the rubble, scramble
some old graves and disturb the dead.
The desolate landscape of Afghanistan was the
burial ground of Soviet communism and the springboard of a unipolar
world dominated by America. It made the space for neocapitalism
and corporate globalisation, again dominated by America. And now
Afghanistan is poised to become the graveyard for the unlikely
soldiers who fought and won this war for America.
And what of America's trusted ally? Pakistan too
has suffered enormously. The US government has not been shy of
supporting military dictators who have blocked the idea of democracy
from taking root in the country. Before the CIA arrived, there
was a small rural market for opium in Pakistan. Between 1979 and
1985, the number of heroin addicts grew from zero to one-and-a-half
million. Even before September 11, there were three million Afghan
refugees living in tented camps along the border. Pakistan's economy
is crumbling. Sectarian violence, globalisation's structural adjustment
programmes and drug lords are tearing the country to pieces. Set
up to fight the Soviets, the terrorist training centres and madrasahs,
sown like dragon's teeth across the country, produced fundamentalists
with tremendous popular appeal within Pakistan itself. The Taliban,
which the Pakistan government has sup ported, funded and propped
up for years, has material and strategic alliances with Pakistan's
own political parties.
Now the US government is asking (asking?) Pakistan
to garotte the pet it has hand-reared in its backyard for so many
years. President Musharraf, having pledged his support to the
US, could well find he has something resembling civil war on his
India, thanks in part to its geography, and in
part to the vision of its former leaders, has so far been fortunate
enough to be left out of this Great Game. Had it been drawn in,
it's more than likely that our democracy, such as it is, would
not have survived. Today, as some of us watch in horror, the Indian
government is furiously gyrating its hips, begging the US to set
up its base in India rather than Pakistan. Having had this ringside
view of Pakistan's sordid fate, it isn't just odd, it's unthinkable,
that India should want to do this. Any third world country with
a fragile economy and a complex social base should know by now
that to invite a superpower such as America in (whether it says
it's staying or just passing through) would be like inviting a
brick to drop through your windscreen.
Operation Enduring Freedom is ostensibly being
fought to uphold the American Way of Life. It'll probably end
up undermining it completely. It will spawn more anger and more
terror across the world. For ordinary people in America, it will
mean lives lived in a climate of sickening uncertainty: will my
child be safe in school? Will there be nerve gas in the subway?
A bomb in the cinema hall? Will my love come home tonight? There
have been warnings about the possibility of biological warfare
- smallpox, bubonic plague, anthrax - the deadly payload of innocuous
crop-duster aircraft. Being picked off a few at a time may end
up being worse than being annihilated all at once by a nuclear
The US government, and no doubt governments all
over the world, will use the climate of war as an excuse to curtail
civil liberties, deny free speech, lay off workers, harass ethnic
and religious minorities, cut back on public spending and divert
huge amounts of money to the defence industry. To what purpose?
President Bush can no more "rid the world of evil-doers"
than he can stock it with saints. It's absurd for the US government
to even toy with the notion that it can stamp out terrorism with
more violence and oppression. Terrorism is the symptom, not the
disease. Terrorism has no country. It's transnational, as global
an enterprise as Coke or Pepsi or Nike. At the first sign of trouble,
terrorists can pull up stakes and move their "factories"
from country to country in search of a better deal. Just like
Terrorism as a phenomenon may never go away. But
if it is to be contained, the first step is for America to at
least acknowledge that it shares the planet with other nations,
with other human beings who, even if they are not on TV, have
loves and griefs and stories and songs and sorrows and, for heaven's
sake, rights. Instead, when Donald Rumsfeld, the US defence secretary,
was asked what he would call a victory in America's new war, he
said that if he could convince the world that Americans must be
allowed to continue with their way of life, he would consider
it a victory.
The September 11 attacks were a monstrous calling
card from a world gone horribly wrong. The message may have been
written by Bin Laden (who knows?) and delivered by his couriers,
but it could well have been signed by the ghosts of the victims
of America's old wars. The millions killed in Korea, Vietnam and
Cambodia, the 17,500 killed when Israel - backed by the US - invaded
Lebanon in 1982, the 200,000 Iraqis killed in Operation Desert
Storm, the thousands of Palestinians who have died fighting Israel's
occupation of the West Bank. And the millions who died, in Yugoslavia,
Somalia, Haiti, Chile, Nicaragua, El Salvador, the Dominican Republic,
Panama, at the hands of all the terrorists, dictators and genocidists
whom the American government supported, trained, bankrolled and
supplied with arms. And this is far from being a comprehensive
For a country involved in so much warfare and
conflict, the American people have been extremely fortunate. The
strikes on September 11 were only the second on American soil
in over a century. The first was Pearl Harbour. The reprisal for
this took a long route, but ended with Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
This time the world waits with bated breath for the horrors to
Someone recently said that if Osama bin Laden
didn't exist, America would have had to invent him. But, in a
way, America did invent him. He was among the jihadis who moved
to Afghanistan in 1979 when the CIA commenced its operations there.
Bin Laden has the distinction of being created by the CIA and
wanted by the FBI. In the course of a fortnight he has been promoted
from suspect to prime suspect and then, despite the lack of any
real evidence, straight up the charts to being "wanted dead
or alive". From all accounts, it will be impossible to produce
evidence (of the sort that would stand scrutiny in a court of
law) to link Bin Laden to the September 11 attacks. So far, it
appears that the most incriminating piece of evidence against
him is the fact that he has not condemned them.
From what is known about the location of Bin Laden
and the living conditions in which he operates, it's entirely
possible that he did not personally plan and carry out the attacks
- that he is the inspirational figure, "the CEO of the holding
company". The Taliban's response to US demands for the extradition
of Bin Laden has been uncharacteristically reasonable: produce
the evidence, then we'll hand him over. President Bush's response
is that the demand is "non-negotiable". (While talks
are on for the extradition of CEOs - can India put in a side request
for the extradition of Warren Anderson of the US? He was the chairman
of Union Carbide, responsible for the Bhopal gas leak that killed
16,000 people in 1984. We have collated the necessary evidence.
It's all in the files. Could we have him, please?)
who is Osama bin Laden really? Let me rephrase that. What is Osama
bin Laden? He's America's family secret. He is the American president's
dark doppelgänger. The savage twin of all that purports to be
beautiful and civilised. He has been sculpted from the spare rib
of a world laid to waste by America's foreign policy: its gunboat
diplomacy, its nuclear arsenal, its vulgarly stated policy of
"full-spectrum dominance", its chilling disregard for
non-American lives, its barbarous military interventions, its
support for despotic
and dictatorial regimes, its merciless economic agenda that has
munched through the economies of poor countries like a cloud of
locusts. Its marauding multinationals who are taking over the
air we breathe, the ground we stand on, the water we drink, the
thoughts we think. Now that the family secret has been spilled,
the twins are blurring into one another and gradually becoming
interchangeable. Their guns, bombs, money and drugs have been
going around in the loop for a while. (The Stinger missiles that
will greet US helicopters were supplied by the CIA. The heroin
used by America's drug addicts comes from Afghanistan. The Bush
administration recently gave Afghanistan a $43m subsidy for a
"war on drugs"....)
Now Bush and Bin Laden have even begun to borrow
each other's rhetoric. Each refers to the other as "the head
of the snake". Both invoke God and use the loose millenarian
currency of good and evil as theirterms of reference. Both are
engaged in unequivocal political crimes. Both are dangerously
armed - one with the nuclear arsenal of the obscenely powerful,
the other with the incandescent, destructive power of the utterly
hopeless. The fireball and the ice pick. The bludgeon and the
axe. The important thing to keep in mind is that neither is an
acceptable alternative to the other.
President Bush's ultimatum to the people of the
world - "If you're not with us, you're against us" -
is a piece of presumptuous arrogance. It's not a choice that people
want to, need to, or should have to make.
most New Yorkers, like most Americans, the attacks of September
11 made me very angry. In the days after the attacks I was incredibly
moved by the generosity and humanity that arose as people from
all over the country drove instantly toward New York to help,
to work, to dig, to rebuild spirits. Still I was angry. Why New
York? New York more than any other city in the world encourages
diversity of faith. The peaceful coexistence of different cultures
and beliefs in this city is nothing short of a miracle.
A few years ago I did a movie called Dead Man Walking. I think
the reason that film led to a dialogue about the death penalty
is that it didn't deligitimize the anger of the victims' families.
Although I would hope to not allow revenge in my heart, I recognize
the legitimacy of this human emotion. So when our government went
after Al Qaeda with massive bombing in Afghanistan I had a problem
with the method but understood the motivation. For the first time
in my adult life my country was involved in a military action
that was reactive, and I sat silent.
do not like fundamentalism of any kind. Any movement that connects
violence with God loses me, whether it's the murder of a doctor
at an abortion clinic or the murder of busboys, firemen or businessmen
in the World Trade Center. Radical fundamentalism at its core
hates all the things I love: art, free expression, music, independent
women, theater, good movies. We must be very wise in the way we
frame our argument and how we proceed as we resist this new war.
is not the chickens coming home to roost, Al Qaeda are not farmers
looking for self-determination and land rights in Central America.
Al Qaeda are not Vietnamese peasants dealing with the napalm from
a government that purports to care about them. Al Qaeda will not
stand shoulder to shoulder with those struggling to call attention
to Third World sweatshop labor. In fact, Al Qaeda's actions have
hurt this burgeoning and important movement more than any other.
us find a way to resist fundamentalism that leads to violence--fundamentalism
of all kinds, in Al Qaeda and within our own government. What
is our fundamentalism? Cloaked in patriotism and our doctrine
of spreading democracy throughout the world, our fundamentalism
is business, the unfettered spread of our economic interests throughout
the globe. Our resistance to this war should be our resistance
to profit at the cost of human life. Because that is what these
drums beating over Iraq are really about. This is about business.
The business of distracting American attention from Enron and
Halliburton, the financial scandals that directly connect this
Administration to the heart of what is now wrong with the American
economy. These scandals have disappeared from the front pages
of our newspapers as we argue about this war.
the name of fear and fighting terror we are giving the reins of
power to oilmen looking for distraction from their disastrous
economic performance, oilmen more interested in a financial bottom
line than a moral bottom line, oilmen ready to expand their influence
with new contracts on the soil our bombers have plowed, new contracts
forged with governments that do not allow democracy on their soil
for fear of losing control over the oil that governs their lives,
that governs our lives. The majority in America knows this. A
dormant majority in America waits with anticipation for the politician
who will stand in front of the American people in defiance of
the oil companies and advocate alternative energy as a way to
extricate ourselves from this culture of violence that threatens
us resist this war and our impending oil war in Colombia, and
let us resist fundamentalism in all its guises. Let us hate war
in all its forms, whether its weapon is a US missile or its weapon
is a domestic airplane. [Editor's Note: All credits to the movie
author, Mr. Tim Robbins, the actor and director.]
IT was in Peshawar,
on the Pakistan-Afghanistan frontier, as the Red Army was falling
apart and falling back. I badly needed a guide to get me to the
Khyber Pass, and I decided that what I required was the most farouche-looking
guy with the best command of English and the toughest modern automobile.
Such a combination was obtainable, for a price. My new friend
rather wolfishly offered me a tour of the nearby British military
cemetery (a well-filled site from the Victorian era) before we
began. Then he slammed a cassette into the dashboard. I braced
myself for the ululations of some mullah but received instead
a dose of "So Far Away." From under the turban and behind
the beard came the gruff observation, "I thought you might
like Dire Straits."
This was my induction into the now-familiar
symbiosis of tribal piety and high-tech; a symbiosis consummated
on September 11 with the conversion of the southern tip of the
capital of the modern world into a charred and suppurating mass
grave. Not that it necessarily has to be a symbol of modernism
and innovation that is targeted for immolation. As recently as
this year, the same ideology employed heavy artillery to destroy
the Buddha statues at Bamiyan, and the co-thinkers of bin Laden
in Egypt have been heard to express the view that the Pyramids
and the Sphinx should be turned into shards as punishment for
their profanely un-Islamic character.
Since my moment in Peshawar I have met
this faction again. In one form or another, the people who leveled
the World Trade Center are the same people who threw acid in the
faces of unveiled women in Kabul and Karachi, who maimed and eviscerated
two of the translators of The Satanic Verses and who machine-gunned
architectural tourists at Luxor. Even as we worry what they may
intend for our society, we can see very plainly what they have
in mind for their own: a bleak and sterile theocracy enforced
by advanced techniques. Just a few months ago Bosnia surrendered
to the international court at The Hague the only accused war criminals
detained on Muslim-Croat federation territory. The butchers had
almost all been unwanted "volunteers" from the Chechen,
Afghan and Kashmiri fronts; it is as an unapologetic defender
of the Muslims of Bosnia (whose cause was generally unstained
by the sort of atrocity committed by Catholic and Orthodox Christians)
that one can and must say that bin Ladenism poisons everything
that it touches.
I was apprehensive from the first moment
about the sort of masochistic e-mail traffic that might start
circulating from the Chomsky-Zinn-Finkelstein quarter, and I was
not to be disappointed. With all due thanks to these worthy comrades,
I know already that the people of Palestine and Iraq are victims
of a depraved and callous Western statecraft. And I think I can
claim to have been among the first to point out that Clinton's
rocketing of Khartoum--supported by most liberals--was a gross
war crime, which would certainly have entitled the Sudanese government
to mount reprisals under international law. (Indeed, the sight
of Clintonoids on TV, applauding the "bounce in the polls"
achieved by their man that day, was even more repulsive than the
sight of destitute refugee children making a wretched holiday
over the nightmare on Chambers Street.) But there is no sense
in which the events of September 11 can be held to constitute
such a reprisal, either legally or morally.
It is worse than idle to propose the very
trade-offs that may have been lodged somewhere in the closed-off
minds of the mass murderers. The people of Gaza live under curfew
and humiliation and expropriation. This is notorious. Very well:
Does anyone suppose that an Israeli withdrawal from Gaza would
have forestalled the slaughter in Manhattan? It would take a moral
cretin to suggest anything of the sort; the cadres of the new
jihad make it very apparent that their quarrel is with
Judaism and secularism on principle, not with (or not just with)
Zionism. They regard the Saudi regime not as the extreme authoritarian
theocracy that it is, but as something too soft and lenient. The
Taliban forces viciously persecute the Shiite minority in Afghanistan.
The Muslim fanatics in Indonesia try to extirpate the infidel
minorities there; civil society in Algeria is barely breathing
after the fundamentalist assault.
Now is as good a time as ever to revisit
the history of the Crusades, or sorry history of partition in
Kashmir, or the woes of the Chechens and Kosovars. But the bombers
of Manhattan represent fascism with an Islamic face, and there's
no point in any euphemism about it. What they abominate about
"the West," to put it in a phrase, is not what Western
liberals don't like and can't defend about their own system, but
what they do like about it and must defend: its emancipated
women, its scientific inquiry, its separation of religion from
the state. Loose talk about chickens coming home to roost is the
moral equivalent of the hateful garbage emitted by Falwell and
Robertson, and exhibits about the same intellectual content. Indiscriminate
murder is not a judgment, even obliquely, on the victims or their
way of life, or ours. Any decent and concerned reader of this
magazine could have been on one of those planes, or in one of
those buildings--yes, even in the Pentagon.
The new talk is all of "human intelligence":
the very faculty in which our ruling class is most deficient.
A few months ago, the Bush Administration handed the Taliban a
subsidy of $43 million in abject gratitude for the assistance
of fundamentalism in the"war on drugs." Next up is the
renewed "missile defense" fantasy recently endorsed
by even more craven Democrats who seek to occupy the void "behind
the President." There is sure to be further opportunity to
emphasize the failings of our supposed leaders, whose costly mantra
is "national security" and who could not protect us.
And yes indeed, my guide in Peshawar was a shadow thrown by William
Casey's CIA, which first connected the unstoppable Stinger missile
to the infallible Koran. But that's only one way of stating the
obvious, which is that this is an enemy for life, as well as an
enemy of life.
October 8, 2001
[Editor’s Note: All credits goes to the author and The
Nation, in which this controversial article appeared on October
8, 2001. Mr. Hitchens is the author of numerous works of non-fiction,
and is a seasoned international reporter. One of his latest books
is on the former American Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger,
which argues that Mr. Kissinger should be tried in Hague for crimes
against humanity. Mr. Hitchens is a regular columnist for The
This is About Islam
LONDON -- "This isn't about Islam."
The world's leaders have been repeating this mantra for weeks,
partly in the virtuous hope of deterring reprisal attacks on innocent
Muslims living in the West, partly because if the United States
is to maintain its coalition against terror it can't afford to
suggest that Islam and terrorism are in any way related.
The trouble with this necessary disclaimer is that it isn't true.
If this isn't about Islam, why the worldwide Muslim demonstrations
in support of Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda? Why did those 10,000
men armed with swords and axes mass on the Pakistan-Afghanistan
frontier, answering some mullah's call to jihad? Why are the war's
first British casualties three Muslim men who died fighting on
the Taliban side?
Why the routine anti-Semitism of the much-repeated Islamic slander
that "the Jews" arranged the hits on the World Trade
Center and the Pentagon, with the oddly self-deprecating explanation
offered by the Taliban leadership, among others, that Muslims
could not have the technological know-how or organizational sophistication
to pull off such a feat? Why does Imran Khan, the Pakistani ex-sports
star turned politician, demand to be shown the evidence of Al
Qaeda's guilt while apparently turning a deaf ear to the self-incriminating
statements of Al Qaeda's own spokesmen (there will be a rain of
aircraft from the skies, Muslims in the West are warned not to
live or work in tall buildings)? Why all the talk about American
military infidels desecrating the sacred soil of Saudi Arabia
if some sort of definition of what is sacred is not at the heart
of the present discontents?
Of course this is "about Islam." The question is, what exactly
does that mean? After all, most religious belief isn't very theological.
Most Muslims are not profound Koranic analysts. For a vast number
of "believing" Muslim men, "Islam" stands,
in a jumbled, half-examined way, not only for the fear of God
— the fear more than the love, one suspects — but also for a cluster
of customs, opinions and prejudices that include their dietary
practices; the sequestration or near-sequestration of "their"
women; the sermons delivered by their mullahs of choice; a loathing
of modern society in general, riddled as it is with music, godlessness
and sex; and a more particularized loathing (and fear) of the
prospect that their own immediate surroundings could be taken
over — "Westoxicated" — by the liberal Western-style
way of life.
Highly motivated organizations of Muslim men (oh, for the voices of
Muslim women to be heard!) have been engaged over the last 30
years or so in growing radical political movements out of this
mulch of "belief." These Islamists — we must get used
to this word, "Islamists," meaning those who are engaged
upon such political projects, and learn to distinguish it from
the more general and politically neutral "Muslim" —
include the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the blood-soaked combatants
of the Islamic Salvation Front and Armed Islamic Group in Algeria,
the Shiite revolutionaries of Iran, and the Taliban. Poverty is
their great helper, and the fruit of their efforts is paranoia.
This paranoid Islam, which blames outsiders, "infidels,"
for all the ills of Muslim societies, and whose proposed remedy
is the closing of those societies to the rival project of modernity,
is presently the fastest growing version of Islam in the world.
This is not wholly to go along with Samuel Huntington's thesis about
the clash of civilizations, for the simple reason that the Islamists'
project is turned not only against the West and "the Jews,"
but also against their fellow Islamists. Whatever the public rhetoric,
there's little love lost between the Taliban and Iranian regimes.
Dissensions between Muslim nations run at least as deep, if not
deeper, than those nations' resentment of the West. Nevertheless,
it would be absurd to deny that this self-exculpatory, paranoiac
Islam is an ideology with widespread appeal.
Twenty years ago, when I was writing a novel about power struggles
in a fictionalized Pakistan, it was already de rigueur in the
Muslim world to blame all its troubles on the West and, in particular,
the United States. Then as now, some of these criticisms were
well-founded; no room here to rehearse the geopolitics of the
cold war and America's frequently damaging foreign policy "tilts,"
to use the Kissinger term, toward (or away from) this or that
temporarily useful (or disapproved-of) nation-state, or America's
role in the installation and deposition of sundry unsavory leaders
and regimes. But I wanted then to ask a question that is no less
important now: Suppose we say that the ills of our societies are
not primarily America's fault, that we are to blame for our own
failings? How would we understand them then? Might we not, by
accepting our own responsibility for our problems, begin to learn
to solve them for ourselves?
Many Muslims, as well as secularist analysts with roots in the Muslim
world, are beginning to ask such questions now. In recent weeks
Muslim voices have everywhere been raised against the obscurantist
hijacking of their religion. Yesterday's hotheads (among them
Yusuf Islam, a k a Cat Stevens) are improbably repackaging themselves
as today's pussycats.
An Iraqi writer quotes an earlier Iraqi satirist: "The disease
that is in us, is from us." A British Muslim writes, "Islam
has become its own enemy." A Lebanese friend, returning from
Beirut, tells me that in the aftermath of the attacks on Sept.
11, public criticism of Islamism has become much more outspoken.
Many commentators have spoken of the need for a Reformation in
the Muslim world.
I'm reminded of the way noncommunist socialists used to distance themselves
from the tyrannical socialism of the Soviets; nevertheless, the
first stirrings of this counterproject are of great significance.
If Islam is to be reconciled with modernity, these voices must
be encouraged until they swell into a roar. Many of them speak
of another Islam, their personal, private faith.
The restoration of religion to the sphere of the personal, its depoliticization,
is the nettle that all Muslim societies must grasp in order to
become modern. The only aspect of modernity interesting to the
terrorists is technology, which they see as a weapon that can
be turned on its makers. If terrorism is to be defeated, the world
of Islam must take on board the secularist-humanist principles
on which the modern is based, and without which Muslim countries'
freedom will remain a distant dream.November 2, 2001
[Editor’s Note: All credits to the author,
Mr. Salman Rushdie and The New York Times, in which this
Open Editorial piece appeared on November 2, 2001. Mr. Rushdie’s
latest novel is called Fury.]
Beating by Refugees Is a Symbol of the Hatred and Fury of this
They started by shaking hands.
We said "Salaam aleikum" – peace be upon you
– then the first pebbles flew past my face. A small boy tried
to grab my bag. Then another. Then someone punched me in the back.
Then young men broke my glasses, began smashing stones
into my face and head. I couldn't see for the blood pouring down
my forehead and swamping my eyes. And even then, I understood.
I couldn't blame them for what they were doing. In fact, if I
were the Afghan refugees of Kila Abdullah, close to the Afghan-Pakistan
border, I would have done just the same to Robert Fisk. Or any
other Westerner I could find.
So why record my few minutes of terror and self-disgust under assault
near the Afghan border, bleeding and crying like an animal, when
hundreds – let us be frank and say thousands – of innocent civilians
are dying under American air strikes in Afghanistan, when the
"War of Civilisation" is burning and maiming the Pashtuns
of Kandahar and destroying their homes because "good"
must triumph over "evil"?
Some of the Afghans in the little village had been there for years,
others had arrived – desperate and angry and mourning their slaughtered
loved ones – over the past two weeks. It was a bad place for a
car to break down. A bad time, just before the Iftar, the end
of the daily fast of Ramadan. But what happened to us was symbolic
of the hatred and fury and hypocrisy of this filthy war, a growing
band of destitute Afghan men, young and old, who saw foreigners
– enemies – in their midst and tried to destroy at least one of
Many of these Afghans, so we were to learn, were outraged by what
they had seen on television of the Mazar-i-Sharif massacres, of
the prisoners killed with their hands tied behind their backs.
A villager later told one of our drivers that they had seen the
videotape of CIA officers "Mike" and "Dave"
threatening death to a kneeling prisoner at Mazar. They were uneducated
– I doubt if many could read – but you don't have to have a schooling
to respond to the death of loved ones under a B-52's bombs. At
one point a screaming teenager had turned to my driver and asked,
in all sincerity: "Is that Mr Bush?"
It must have been about 4.30pm that we reached Kila Abdullah, halfway
between the Pakistani city of Quetta and the border town of Chaman;
Amanullah, our driver, Fayyaz Ahmed, our translator, Justin Huggler
of The Independent – fresh from covering the Mazar massacre
– and myself. The first we knew that something was wrong was when
the car stopped in the middle of the narrow, crowded street. A
film of white steam was rising from the bonnet of our jeep, a
constant shriek of car horns and buses and trucks and rickshaws
protesting at the road-block we had created. All four of us got
out of the car and pushed it to the side of the road. I muttered
something to Justin about this being "a bad place to break
down". Kila Abdulla was home to thousands of Afghan refugees,
the poor and huddled masses that the war has produced in Pakistan.
Amanullah went off to find another car – there is only one thing worse
than a crowd of angry men and that's a crowd of angry men after
dark – and Justin and I smiled at the initially friendly crowd
that had already gathered round our steaming vehicle. I shook
a lot of hands – perhaps I should have thought of Mr Bush – and
uttered a lot of "Salaam aleikums". I knew what could
happen if the smiling stopped.
The crowd grew larger and I suggested to Justin that we move away
from the jeep, walk into the open road. A child had flicked his
finger hard against my wrist and I persuaded myself that it was
an accident, a childish moment of contempt. Then a pebble whisked
past my head and bounced off Justin's shoulder. Justin turned
round. His eyes spoke of concern and I remember how I breathed
in. Please, I thought, it was just a prank. Then another kid tried
to grab my bag. It contained my passport, credit cards, money,
diary, contacts book, mobile phone. I yanked it back and put the
strap round my shoulder. Justin and I crossed the road and someone
punched me in the back.
How do you walk out of a dream when the characters suddenly turn hostile?
I saw one of the men who had been all smiles when we shook hands.
He wasn't smiling now. Some of the smaller boys were still laughing
but their grins were transforming into something else. The respected
foreigner – the man who had been all "salaam aleikum"
a few minutes ago – was upset, frightened, on the run. The West
was being brought low. Justin was being pushed around and, in
the middle of the road, we noticed a bus driver waving us to his
vehicle. Fayyaz, still by the car, unable to understand why we
had walked away, could no longer see us. Justin reached the bus
and climbed aboard. As I put my foot on the step three men grabbed
the strap of my bag and wrenched me back on to the road. Justin's
hand shot out. "Hold on," he shouted. I did.
That's when the first mighty crack descended on my head. I almost
fell down under the blow, my ears singing with the impact. I had
expected this, though not so painful or hard, not so immediate.
Its message was awful. Someone hated me enough to hurt me. There
were two more blows, one on the back of my shoulder, a powerful
fist that sent me crashing against the side of the bus while still
clutching Justin's hand. The passengers were looking out at me
and then at Justin. But they did not move. No one wanted to help.
I cried out "Help me Justin", and Justin – who was doing
more than any human could do by clinging to my ever loosening
grip asked me – over the screams of the crowd – what I wanted
him to do. Then I realised. I could only just hear him. Yes, they
were shouting. Did I catch the word "kaffir" – infidel?
Perhaps I was was wrong. That's when I was dragged away from Justin.
There were two more cracks on my head, one on each side and for some
odd reason, part of my memory – some small crack in my brain –
registered a moment at school, at a primary school called the
Cedars in Maidstone more than 50 years ago when a tall boy building
sandcastles in the playground had hit me on the head. I had a
memory of the blow smelling, as if it had affected my nose.
The next blow came from a man I saw carrying a big stone in his
right hand. He brought it down on my forehead with tremendous
force and something hot and liquid splashed down my face and lips
and chin. I was kicked. On the back, on the shins, on my right
thigh. Another teenager grabbed my bag yet again and I was left
clinging to the strap, looking up suddenly and realising there
must have been 60 men in front of me, howling. Oddly, it wasn't
fear I felt but a kind of wonderment. So this is how it happens.
I knew that I had to respond. Or, so I reasoned in my stunned
state, I had to die.
The only thing that shocked me was my own physical sense of collapse,
my growing awareness of the liquid beginning to cover me. I don't
think I've ever seen so much blood before. For a second, I caught
a glimpse of something terrible, a nightmare face – my own – reflected
in the window of the bus, streaked in blood, my hands drenched
in the stuff like Lady Macbeth, slopping down my pullover and
the collar of my shirt until my back was wet and my bag dripping
with crimson and vague splashes suddenly appearing on my trousers.
The more I bled, the more the crowd gathered and beat me with their
fists. Pebbles and small stones began to bounce off my head and
shoulders. How long, I remembered thinking, could this go on?
My head was suddenly struck by stones on both sides at the same
time – not thrown stones but stones in the palms of men who were
using them to try and crack my skull. Then a fist punched me in
the face, splintering my glasses on my nose, another hand grabbed
at the spare pair of spectacles round my neck and ripped the leather
container from the cord.
I guess at this point I should thank Lebanon. For 25 years, I have
covered Lebanon's wars and the Lebanese used to teach me, over
and over again, how to stay alive: take a decision – any decision
– but don't do nothing.
So I wrenched the bag back from the hands of the young man who was
holding it. He stepped back. Then I turned on the man on my right,
the one holding the bloody stone in his hand and I bashed my fist
into his mouth. I couldn't see very much – my eyes were not only
short-sighted without my glasses but were misting over with a
red haze – but I saw the man sort of cough and a tooth fall from
his lip and then he fell back on the road. For a second the crowd
stopped. Then I went for the other man, clutching my bag under
my arm and banging my fist into his nose. He roared in anger and
it suddenly turned all red. I missed another man with a punch,
hit one more in the face, and ran.
I was back in the middle of the road but could not see. I brought
my hands to my eyes and they were full of blood and with my fingers
I tried to scrape the gooey stuff out. It made a kind of sucking
sound but I began to see again and realised that I was crying
and weeping and that the tears were cleaning my eyes of blood.
What had I done, I kept asking myself? I had been punching and
attacking Afghan refugees, the very people I had been writing
about for so long, the very dispossessed, mutilated people whom
my own country –among others – was killing along, with the Taliban,
just across the border. God spare me, I thought. I think I actually
said it. The men whose families our bombers were killing were
now my enemies too.
Then something quite remarkable happened. A man walked up to me, very
calmly, and took me by the arm. I couldn't see him very well for
all the blood that was running into my eyes but he was dressed
in a kind of robe and wore a turban and had a white-grey beard.
And he led me away from the crowd. I looked over my shoulder.
There were now a hundred men behind me and a few stones skittered
along the road, but they were not aimed at me –presumably to avoid
hitting the stranger. He was like an Old Testament figure or some
Bible story, the Good Samaritan, a Muslim man – perhaps a mullah
in the village – who was trying to save my life.
He pushed me into the back of a police truck. But the policemen didn't
move. They were terrified. "Help me," I kept shouting
through the tiny window at the back of their cab, my hands leaving
streams of blood down the glass. They drove a few metres and stopped
until the tall man spoke to them again. Then they drove another
And there, beside the road, was a Red Cross-Red Crescent convoy. The
crowd was still behind us. But two of the medical attendants pulled
me behind one of their vehicles, poured water over my hands and
face and began pushing bandages on to my head and face and the
back of my head. "Lie down and we'll cover you with a blanket
so they can't see you," one of them said. They were both
Muslims, Bangladeshis and their names should be recorded because
they were good men and true: Mohamed Abdul Halim and Sikder Mokaddes
Ahmed. I lay on the floor, groaning, aware that I might live.
Within minutes, Justin arrived. He had been protected by a massive
soldier from the Baluchistan Levies – true ghost of the British
Empire who, with a single rifle, kept the crowds away from the
car in which Justin was now sitting. I fumbled with my bag. They
never got the bag, I kept saying to myself, as if my passport
and my credit cards were a kind of Holy Grail. But they had seized
my final pair of spare glasses – I was blind without all three
– and my mobile telephone was missing and so was my contacts book,
containing 25 years of telephone numbers throughout the Middle
East. What was I supposed to do? Ask everyone who ever knew me
to re-send their telephone numbers?
Goddamit, I said and tried to bang my fist on my side until I realised
it was bleeding from a big gash on the wrist – the mark of the
tooth I had just knocked out of a man's jaw, a man who was truly
innocent of any crime except that of being the victim of the world.
I had spent more than two and a half decades reporting the humiliation
and misery of the Muslim world and now their anger had embraced
me too. Or had it? There were Mohamed and Sikder of the Red Crescent
and Fayyaz who came panting back to the car incandescent at our
treatment and Amanullah who invited us to his home for medical
treatment. And there was the Muslim saint who had taken me by
And – I realised – there were all the Afghan men and boys who had
attacked me who should never have done so but whose brutality
was entirely the product of others, of us – of we who had armed
their struggle against the Russians and ignored their pain and
laughed at their civil war and then armed and paid them again
for the "War for Civilisation" just a few miles away
and then bombed their homes and ripped up their families and called
them "collateral damage".
So I thought I should write about what happened to us in this fearful,
silly, bloody, tiny incident. I feared other versions would produce
a different narrative, of how a British journalist was "beaten
up by a mob of Afghan refugees". And of course, that's the
point. The people who were assaulted were the Afghans, the scars
inflicted by us – by B-52s, not by them. And I'll say it again.
If I was an Afghan refugee in Kila Abdullah, I would have done
just what they did. I would have attacked Robert Fisk. Or any
other Westerner I could find.
[Editor’s Note: All
credits to the author, and the Independent, in which this
article appeared on 12/10/2001.]