Posts Tagged ‘France’

World War III?

November 15, 2015

By Anjum Altaf

America declared a War on Terror in 2001; France did so formally in 2015; Britain, Germany and a number of other countries had become partners sometime in the interim. Are we then in the midst of a third world war without quite realizing it simply because this war is so different from its predecessors in so many ways? All the familiar markers are absent – the war is not between nations, it is not fought with heavy artillery, it doesn’t have adversaries who sign or adhere to treaties, it doesn’t distinguish between soldiers and civilians.

What kind of a war is it? One must characterize its nature in order to fashion an effective battle plan. What we hear often is that it involves non-state actors that are fanatics motivated by evil ideologies. These are plausible components but as yet insufficiently imagined as to how and why they come together. As a result, responses remain mired in old paradigms – fighting yesterday’s wars except that they are against some evil non-state enemies who possess mysterious powers to draw resources and adherents to murderous causes.

As an alternative, consider a characterization that relies on melding two phenomena with which we are separately quite familiar – cults and guerilla warfare. Cults need little by way of introduction. Many examples come to mind – that of Jim Jones in the 1970s was a major story of the time. Their main characteristics are the ability to draw adherents to esoteric causes willing to follow a leader even to their deaths. However, cults did not engage in wars with states, domestic or foreign, at any serious level.

Guerilla warfare gained significant recognition during the Vietnam War as a strategy that avoided the deployment of heavy equipment or the commitment of large numbers of troops. Rather, it relied on hit-and-run tactics, ambushes, and exhaustion by attrition, both physical and psychological. It is said that the mighty British army was defeated through guerrilla warfare in Afghanistan in the 19th century as was the powerful American military in the 20th century in Vietnam. True or not, guerrilla armies did wage battles against the state but only in geographically confined areas.

Imagine now a combination of these elements – a cult that wages guerilla war against a state or states – and we have a fairly good description of Al-Qaeda or ISIS. Such a combination has become super-charged and potent beyond limited terrains by revolutions in technology. A cult located in the caves of Afghanistan or the badlands of Syria can now mount guerilla attacks in New York, London, Madrid, and Paris and can bring down planes in Egypt. The cult can draw adherents from all over the world willing to give their lives for a cause. And the cult can have members that do not need to be physically together to participate in its activities. They can be distributed all over the world, including deep inside territories that the cult has marked out as targets.

How does one fight a cult whose members are geographically dispersed but globally connected, one that has decided to employ guerilla warfare without concern for civilian lives? How does one neutralize a cult that now has the ability to cripple life by waging a War of Terror in locations that were never before within reach of a traditional guerrilla army?

Every strike draws a greater flow of adherents to its cause. Every loss of a volunteer in the field inspires a score of fresh would-be martyrs. Every provocation limits the freedoms of those it wants to hurts. Every assault increases the probability of drawing its opponents into a fight on its home territory to its advantage.

It is improbable that such combined, globally-linked, cult-cum-guerilla armies can be defeated by a War on Terror reliant on old military strategies like sending troops into Afghanistan or Iraq. Modern societies, cities, and systems are too open to be fully secured against random acts of terror without losing the very openness that is their strength and attraction. Closing the borders is not an answer when cult members can be anywhere and citizens of any country. Relying on ‘hearts and minds’ stratagems doesn’t work in buying off people who are ready, willing, and wanting to die. Technologically sophisticated precision strikes create more enemies than they eliminate.

A start might be made by unbundling the phenomenon into its two components, assessing their relative importance, and addressing each with methods best suited to the task. The capacity of a guerrilla army can definitely be weakened by military means, perhaps at great cost, but even then the payoff would remain limited if all it aims for is one major incident every five years or so while sustaining a climate of fear throughout the period. Drying up the flow of adherents to the cult might perhaps be the more cost-effective way to diminish its strength but military means offer no support in that regard.

A renewed focus is needed to understand who are the individuals being drawn to these cults and why. It is not sufficient to label them brainwashed or to apprehend a few and punish them severely given that they start off prepared to die. There is need to figure out what predisposes them to be susceptible to such brainwashing that they leave families and friends for unknown quests with very high probabilities of death.

Only the reallocation of resources to a concerted effort that yields a more attractive alternative for such individuals might abort the slide into the global war that was triggered by the game-changing strike on the twin towers in 2001.

Anjum Altaf is Provost of Habib University in Karachi, Pakistan. He would like to thank Kabir Altaf for suggesting the cult as a central element in the characterization presented above.

Related Posts:

September Eleven
9/11: Socrates, Machiavelli, Christ and Gandhi

9/11: The Burden of the Past and the Promise of the Future

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Sex in Perspective

January 23, 2014

Hollande. Royal. Trierweiler. Gayet. Tharoor. Pushkar. Tarar. A person hospitalized. Another dead.

France and India popped up in the news simultaneously for similar reasons and certainly not at our bidding. True, we had compared the countries before on the blog (Dynastic Succession: What is the Difference Between India and France?) but there was no intent to push the matter further. Now that fate has intervened, however, let us leverage it for comparative speculation on other issues of general interest.

To recap, our message on political institutions was clear enough – dynastic succession was acceptable in France at one time but not so anymore; In India it remains very much the norm, something both the majority of the rulers and the ruled take for granted. The question we asked was what this said about the peculiarities of democratic governance in India – was it just the old monarchical system in a new guise? Our answer was that such was indeed the case – in India, we could still promise the people cake and get away with it; the guillotine was barely a glimmer on the horizon, Kejriwal notwithstanding.

We can now proffer some observations on the differences between France and India in the social domain of family life. It is inconceivable, for example, that a First Lady in India today could be the kind of live-in partner there is in France (although this might not have been all that impossible in the age of monarchy, something that William Dalrymple could be read to suggest in his excellent survey India: The Place of Sex – an interesting thought on the nonlinearity of history that we set aside for another occasion).

We can hazard some broad generalizations about marriage. We might say, for example, that compared to India, the institution is on its way out in some countries in the West, if not yet in France – more people are living together in unregistered unions than in those sanctioned by formal or traditionally contracted marriages. Marriages, when they are contracted, are done so at a later age in France than in India. And, family sizes are smaller on the average in the former compared to the latter.

Sex is related to marriage – ‘responsible’ sex being one among the reasons for marriage since procreation out of wedlock had various strikes against it and contraception was not reliable enough – but, as everyone knows, it has a life of its own. And when it comes to sex matters are not simple anymore. That is because sex, unlike marriage, is not an institution but a potent human instinct.  And that leads to both more similarities and more differences across countries.

The similarities stem from the fact that basic human instincts – the fatal attraction of older men for younger women, for example – give rise to virtually the same desires and temptations across time and space. How many times have we heard or read the same story that is in the news these days. Some things just don’t change – only the characters that embody the stories are new, which, perhaps, accounts for the abiding interest in the oft-repeated phenomenon.

The differences, on the other hand, emerge from the circumstance that the nature of relations between the sexes is culture specific in the sense that there are local norms pertaining to the extent of control or discretion that is called for in the exercise of sexual desires before, during, and after marriage. What, for example, may be considered appropriate sexual behavior for college undergraduates or a recently widowed woman with teenaged children?

Not only is the nature of the relationship culture specific, it varies across sub-cultures which makes this a subject on which one cannot generalize at the level of India let alone South Asia. In fact, I would be reluctant to generalize even at the level of a neighborhood in a large cosmopolitan city. The one thing to avoid would be to prescribe how someone else ought to behave based on the set of moral values to which I subscribe. My values are just my values – they are neither the only legitimate values in the world nor are others obliged to pay any heed to them. One ought certainly to be true to his or her values but there is no logical basis for judging others from the perspective that they provide.

There is thus a great deal of relativism in matters of sex. When individuals contemplate a partnership they would have some sense of the norms applicable to their relationship, the ease or casualness with which the union might be dissolved, and the dignity and options that would be available to them afterwards.

Despite the relativism though, there are some universals involved in matters of sex. For example, there seems little variation in the condemnation of sex without consent, or under false pretense, or involving individuals not old enough to be cognizant of their own well-being. But there is more beyond these obvious hard lines as the fallout from the recent incidents in France and India seems to suggest. It is that relationships involve some modicum of trust – albeit varying, with ‘till death do us part’ not taken as seriously as it once was – and that violating that trust hurts no matter what the expectations with which a particular partnership was established. Valérie Trierweiler, who herself displaced Ségolène Royal in the affections of François Hollande, ended up in hospital in a state of shock when an even younger woman entered the picture. Sunanda Pushkar could not survive the trauma of the thought of betrayal.

With pleasure on one side and pain on the other, discounted differently as they might be in different places, how is one to get away from the universal calculus of pain and pleasure? Many questions arise. How does one tradeoff one’s pleasure against another’s pain? How much room is there for relativism in the drawing up of this balance sheet? Is this a subjective determination that is almost always biased in one’s favor under the heady dictate of a powerful instinct?

Is it this subjective determination, increasingly freed from externally imposed constraints, that distinguishes one type of person from another not just in matters of sex but more generally? Could one make the case that a resolve, even within vastly varying moral systems, to not hurt others, by word or deed, would lead to a better world?

The minimizing of aggregate pain seems a desirable social objective, more so in a world today that is rife with the indiscriminate inflicting of misery on millions. Perhaps this is the compassionate element of the Buddhist and Jain worldviews that one ought to re-examine with care. But would this restraint have some downsides of its own? What might we need to give up to achieve a world less selfish and less prone to accumulate satisfaction at the cost of others? And have we ventured too far along the road to turn back now?

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French Salons and South Asia

November 13, 2009

Maupassant provided us the opportunity to reflect on the social pecking order in South Asia and Kabir’s comment has pushed the door wide open. There is so much space for speculation that it needs a post by itself to fill. In doing so we can bring together a number of themes that have figured prominently on this blog – in particular those of modernity and democracy in South Asia.

A lot has been written about French salons and there remain disagreement on the details – I will choose selectively to motivate the discussion:

A salon is a gathering of intellectual, social, political, and cultural elites under the roof of an inspiring hostess or host, partly to amuse one another and partly to refine their taste and increase their knowledge through conversation. (more…)

Reflections: South Asian Pecking Order

November 11, 2009

There is a sentence in Julian Barnes’s review of two novels by Maupassant (1850-1893) that struck me with unusual force and I wish to use it to reflect on our societal values in South Asia.

Barnes is talking about four pages in one of the novels that describe Parisian salons, “the tactics of the women who run them and the talented men who frequent them.” And here is the sentence that should knock a South Asian for a six:

Maupassant discusses the pecking order of guests: musicians at the top, artists next, writers coming a close third, with other riff-raff like generals and parliamentarians occasionally tolerated.

I am not making it up – you can look up the original here. Go over the pecking order again and take a few moments to let it sink in. (more…)

Burqa: Principle, Prejudice and Preference

August 13, 2009

By Anjum Altaf

What is the difference between the yarmulke and the burqa besides the fact that one is minimally small and the other is maximally large?

By now the controversy over the burqa is well known. In France, President Sarkozy has said: “The burqa is not a religious sign. It is a sign of subservience, a sign of debasement… It will not be welcome on the territory of the French Republic…. In our country we cannot accept that women be prisoners behind a screen, cut off from all social life, deprived of all identity.”

In Cairo, President Obama has said: “I reject the view of some in the West that a woman who chooses to cover her hair is somehow less equal…. and I respect those women who choose to live their lives in traditional roles. But it should be their choice.” (more…)