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Mainstream, Vol XLV, No 30

‘Global Islamism’, ‘Liberal Modernity’ and Corporate Globalisation : Today’s Complex Global Scene the Author Fails to Dissect

by K. S. Subramanian

Saturday 14 July 2007



by K. S. Subramanian

Rethinking Islamism: The ideology of the New Terror by Meghnad Desai; I. B. Tauris, London; 2007, pp. 196.

The distinguished author, an expatriate Indian, was Professor of Economics at the London School of Economics. He is now a Labour peer in the House of Lords, UK. He was provoked to write this interesting and lucid book when the London bombing of July 7, 2005 took place, killing 56 people, including the four Muslim terrorists from the UK and injuring nearly 700 people of various nationalities in the city, which is basically a global village, a ‘tossed salad of diverse diasporas’. The debate, which followed the bombings, was characterised by ‘too much focus on Islam as a religion and on Muslims as a community’. The author, however, felt that the need was to rethink religion politically so as to cope with the political consequences of religious beliefs. He felt that the terrorist incident in London on July 7, 2005 was not caused by Islam as a religion or by the life style and culture of Muslims but the outcome of an ideology, Global Islamism (GI), whose nature needed to be grasped if terrorism was to be fought successfully.

Desai feels that fighting terrorists, preventing them from doing harm, tracking down their cells, stopping their financial resources are activities the police and intelligence agencies are best equipped to do. But fighting terrorism is about fighting an ideology. Only ideas can defeat ideas. GI is like any other ideology in many ways but is also different. We need to understand its nature, and place it in the wider context of the politics of ideologies. This short book—‘really an extended essay’—tries to elaborate this perception.

The book is in six chapters. The introduction is followed by chapter two, which is a conspectus of events in the recent period that have made GI the spectre that it is. The third chapter discusses the nature of ideologies and outlines the anatomy of an ideology. The emphasis is on ideologies which have been deployed for the political end of winning and retaining power. The core of the book is in the fourth and fifth chapters. The fourth deals with the history of Islam and of Muslim societies focusing on aspects relevant to an understanding of the phenomenon of GI. The fifth chapter deals with the ideology of GI, revisiting some of the themes in the history of Muslim societies and explaining how other ideologies were successfully contained (though surviving as philosophies or belief systems). The ideology of GI can be contained in similar way.

GI as a phenomenon has arrived at a time when the world is getting globalised by other forces: Internet, mobile telephony, rapid deregulation and liberalising of international capital movements and progressive dismantling of tariff barriers, vast movement of legal and illegal migrants and growing human trafficking, clandestine trade in drugs and money-laundering and the cheapening of lethal arms and their trading across national frontiers. GI and the terror it has fostered, along with drugs and arms and human trafficking, manifest the darker side of globalisation.

In chapter four, the author states that the attack on the twin towers in New York must be viewed in the global context of American policy in the post-Cold War era. The twin effects of globalisation and the emergence of the USA as a sole super- power made the attack a piece of global guerilla war waged by a small but clever organisation that also benefited from the modern developments in means of transport and communications as well as management techniques. Osama bin Laden has to be seen as a military genius of global guerilla warfare and his role is crucial in the fashioning of the ideology of GI, which has waged a terrorist war on a global scale since the early 1990s. The Al-Qaeda is its principal agency and bin Laden its leading figure. GI confronts the entire world, Western and Eastern, North and South.

GI is a complex construction with a simple theme. It is an account of the Muslim predicament over the last hundred or more years. What was once a great and universal empire has disappeared and a people once proud and world-conquering are now adrift. They have no single spiritual or temporal authority for the first time in thirteen centuries. The basic story is then embellished by weaving together the many theatres of conflict where Muslims are involved: Kashmir, Chechnya, Bosnia, Afghanistan and the Philippines. The USA is held responsible for the plight of Muslims. Inconsistencies and unilateral behaviour on the part of the USA are used to justify terrorist attacks on that country. The historical argument is clothed in messianic terms, the Quran is quoted and the Prophet’s name repeatedly invoked. The essence of the argument is still a political and historical one. GI departs from many other ideologies in its threat of resort to perpetual violence, of guerilla warfare.

WHILE dealing with the issue of combating GI, the author calls for the redressing of the ‘knowledge deficit’ on the history of Islam, which must be integrated into a more balanced history of the West. Trying to understand Muslims solely through their religion will not do. Similarly, imperialism in the modern era has been a complex dialectical movement, which carried modernity in the shape of capitalism and bureaucratic rationality across the world, though, at the same time, it was cruel, exploitative and racist. Empires have been with us for a long time in human history but thanks to ‘liberal modernity’ it is possible to contemplate their end. At the heart of modernity is the cherished value of equality and equal rights. The distance between the rhetoric of equality or democracy or human rights and the practice is upsetting not only to the victims of such hypocrisy but also the citizens in whose names governments conduct their activities.

On the ‘troublesome war against terror’, the author notes the ‘unilateral, bullying fashion’ in which Western powers have conducted themselves and questions the legal basis of the invasion of Iraq. The USA now regards itself as at war with the terrorists. It interprets this literally, like a war against sovereign states, while it is actually global guerilla warfare with a scattered and decentralised enemy. While fighting the terrorists, the war is extended to all citizens. ‘This may be required but only if it is within the rule of law.’ Thus, ‘there has been an almost total contempt for the importance of maintaining legitimacy in the struggle against terrorism.’

The author, however, feels that the Americans have a fine tradition of fighting for civil liberties, especially against the actions of the executive and trusts that this tradition will finally help bring their own executive to book. Historically, the UK on the other hand has had a much better legislative process of debate and scrutiny plus an independent judiciary, which ‘gives some hope for legitimacy as well as legality’.

In fighting the ideology of GI, the author feels that communism rather than Nazism is the appropriate example to study. The West retaliated against communism by turning the tables on it, and by mounting a critique of the constant violations of citizens’ rights in communist countries. The battle against communism was also fought on cultural lines. Further, the West improved its own record in anti-racism, in human rights, in decolonisation and in promoting economic development in developing countries. Thus, the economic battle against communism was won. The challenge of communism today has mutated into a movement against globalisation. The ‘critical economic frailties’ of capitalism have come to the fore. However, there are today ‘no alternatives to capitalism; the debate is about what type of capitalism one wants. Communism as an alternative economic system has bitten the dust.’

The challenge of GI, of which Bin Laden is the leading representative today, is not economic but cultural. Since GI rejects modernity and asserts the power of orthodox fundamentalism the response has to be to expose its pretensions and at the same time to show that there is much in modernity that is consistent with Islam. The basic issue here is that of integrating Muslim culture into other cultures around the world. Globalisation presents the opportunity for all to sample the best of the world’s culture. Indeed, we may be on the brink of creating a global culture to which every culture will contribute; along the way, these cultures themselves will change and integrate better with others. Further, globalisation is a story which can genuinely alter the mental map of economic power that we have carried with us for decades. The new century holds real promise for many countries that have been victimised and exploited in the past. The Muslims are no exception.

The author admits that the Americans have committed gross human rights violations in the course of the war on terror. But the virtue of ‘liberal modernity’ is that mistakes are corrigible. ‘The process is open and legal redress is available.’ However, bin Laden’s solution to problems is an unquestioning submission to his views about the state of Muslims, laced with the words of the Holy Book as interpreted by him. His ideas have murderous consequences. He is a genius of global guerilla warfare and a superb rhetorician who has built a worldwide loose coalition of terrorist cells staffed by young men and women willing to kill and be killed. We need to understand the power of his ideas and counter them with other, better ideas in order to save ourselves and the men and women who are captivated by his ideas.

The author’s understanding of the global scenario today is likely to be widely questioned in the developing world. In seeking to build a strong case on the threat to world peace posed by what he calls ‘global Islamism’ the author is perhaps underestimating the significance of the other threat, which many think poses the greater threat to peace and security: America’s quest for global supremacy and full ‘spectrum dominance’. This is a drive for hegemony that threatens the survival of the human species.

Further, Fawaz Gerges, cited by Noam Chomsky, has pointed out that the US war against terrorism resulted in the revival of the appeal of a global Jihadi Islam that was in real decline after 9/11. Washington’s current incumbents, in their Reaganite phase, contributed to the creation of radical Islamist network. This is well documented. Earlier, Clinton’s 1998 bombings of Sudan and Afghanistan created bin Laden as symbol, forged close relations between him and the Taliban and led to a sharp increase in support, recruitment, and financing for the Al-Qaeda, which until then was almost unknown. The next major contribution to the growth of this organisation and the prominence of bin Laden was Bush’s bombing of Afghanistan following September 11, ‘undertaken without credible pretext as later quietly conceded’. As a result, bin Laden’s message ‘spread among tens of millions of people, particularly the young and angry, around the world’ and created ‘a whole new cadre of terrorists’ enlisted in what they see as a ‘cosmic struggle between good and evil, a vision shared by Bin Laden and Bush’.

As for ‘liberal modernity’, the author’s self-proclaimed article of faith, it has been practised by the Western nations only in their own countries and not with regard to others. During India’s struggle against colonialism, nationalist leaders like Gandhi repeatedly pointed out that Britain did not practise in India the concept of rule law which existed in Britain itself. Concerted popular struggle was needed to get the British out. Similar has been the experience of other colonised countries. In the post-colonial period too, the Western countries have observed no norm of ‘liberal modernity’ in their relations with the developing world as shown in the US behaviour documented in several studies. What price ‘liberal modernity’ and corporate globalisation?

The author is a Senior Fellow, Schumacher Centre for Development, New Delhi.

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