Posts Tagged ‘Terrorism’

Some of My Best Friends are Extremists

October 12, 2017

By Anjum Altaf

Could it be argued that there are good and bad extremists just as there are good and bad Muslims? If so, the proposal to identify extremists in universities might be misplaced.

Extremism has become conflated with violence and terrorism which is a partial interpretation. The dictionary defines extremism as “belief in and support for ideas that are very far from what most people consider correct or reasonable” which widens the scope for a more nuanced understanding.

Put that neutral definition together with the observation of Bertrand Russell that “the tyranny of the majority is a very real danger” and that “it is mistake to think that the majority is necessarily right” and one can argue that almost all human progress has been due to extremists who have challenged the moribund ideas of majorities. Think of Galileo  or of the injunction to learn even if it required traveling to China.

It is possible, of course, that extremism could lead to poor judgement with negative consequences. Mr. Jinnah’s position in Dhaka that Urdu would be the sole national language of Pakistan was arguably extremist and one that contributed to subsequent problems. However, no one would accuse Mr. Jinnah of evil intentions. Mitigating errors of judgement calls for inclusive decision-making not surveillance by intelligence agencies.

The example above should remind us that extremism is often not an individual attribute but is contextually determined – the position regarding Urdu could have been mainstream opinion in one part of the country but a fringe one in the other. Consider another example, the position on Creation where the mainstream view in Pakistan accords with the story of Adam and Eve. If a mainstream Pakistani migrated to Europe he would become there the holder of a relatively extreme position. Would it be warranted for European intelligence agencies to interrogate his “extremism” when nothing else changed in his personality?

Increasing globalization has exacerbated this problem of contextual extremism. In the West beards and turbans have become symbols of extremism while bikinis and bars are considered likewise in other parts of the world. The clash of civilizations reflects in part the harmless divergence among different mainstream opinions.

In the face of these arguments many discussants concede the point that private views, however extreme, are not problematic per se. In their view the problem emerges when some individuals try to impose their extreme views on others. This suggests that the problem is not extremism of one’s views but intolerance of those of others.

This is a serious concern if true because the entire ethos of the educational system in Pakistan is built around bolstering the conviction that we are right and those who disagree with us are wrong. Every unsanctioned opinion is liable to severe punishment. The State also propagates the extremist sentiment that every citizen should be prepared to die for the nation and destroy its enemy. An apocryphal story of a teenager apprehended crossing the border in 1965 to annihilate infidels is telling in this regard. Asked to identify the source of his extreme views he ascribed them all to watching PTV. Hannah Arendt had warned that such “commitment can easily carry you to a point where you no longer think.” Only a heavy dose of self-reflection of the type exemplified by Bulleh Shah and Kabir can reverse the trend towards mindlessness.

This lethal problem of intolerance cannot be solved by surveillance of students but by a renewed examination of State commitments and the realization that many agents of the State are themselves extremely intolerant. It is ironic for a set of agents fostering intolerance to start combing campuses for the victims of their efforts.

A different perspective on extremism holds that it is worrisome only when it engenders violence. This prompts two reflections. First, that those holding extreme views rarely resort to mass violence in their individual capacity. Individuals act in politically motivated ways more when they are part of groups espousing violent aims — no surprise that violent actions are immediately claimed by groups like ISIS or TTP. Putting an end to such violence requires proscribing the groups and not pursuing individual extremists which is an impossible task with a huge margin for error. When a State leaves such groups alone allowing them to morph under various guises while claiming to ferret out individuals, it loses the claim to credibility.    

Second, one must confront another conundrum obscured by the blanket castigation of violent extremism. Recall the phrase that characterized the 1964 US presidential campaign of Senator Goldwater: “Extremism in the defence of liberty is no vice.” Clearly, Goldwater did not consider extremism to be an unambiguously negative phenomenon nor was he averse to violence if warranted by the situation. Many others would recall that both Begin and Mandela started as individuals with “extremist” views, joined groups with “violent” aims, and propagated “terrorism.” Yet, both went on to lead their countries and were honoured with the Nobel Peace Prize.

One can reconcile with such extremism only if the focus on groups with violent aims includes States that use violence to oppress their own or foreign citizens. It is hard to justify passivity against the depredations of such states — “Moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue” was the second half of Goldwater’s pronouncement. The glaring case at present is the ethnic cleansing in Burma. Unless there are global mechanisms to prevent such state-sanctioned atrocities, non-state groups will cite the precedence of Begin and Mandela to resist and the world will be in no moral position to criticise their violent extremism.

The bottom line of this reflection is that intolerance not extremism is the major threat to  society; that intolerance is the inevitable outcome of State-sponsored indoctrination in education; that this indoctrination can only be countered by a tradition of self-reflection that includes within its ambit one’s most cherished beliefs; that effectively restoring social harmony requires proscribing groups that espouse violent aims and these can include States themselves. The surveillance of individuals by the State, here or elsewhere, is the wrong prescription.

The writer is the former dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at LUMS. This opinion was published in Dawn on September 29, 2017 and is reproduced here with the author’s permission.

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Thank You, Donald Trump

September 8, 2017

By Anjum Altaf

Much as many are finding it hard to say anything good about Donald Trump, it cannot be denied that he has delivered the world a much needed wake-up call. Gone is the complacency about a whole host of topics that had seemed firmly settled – democracy, capitalism, globalization, trade, to name a few. Fresh thinking has been unleashed on a number of other issues – climate change, identity, immigration, terrorism, among them. There was dire need to rethink many of these and if the world required Trump to revitalize the debates, it has only itself to blame. In large measure, Trump is an outcome of not paying heed to what was going on under our noses but escaped attention because of the ideological biases of prosperous and uncaring ruling elites.

The ‘boiling frog’ analogy comes to mind: a frog dropped in boiling water will jump out but if placed in cold water that is slowly heated, it would not perceive the danger and be cooked to death. With the continuation of the mainstream status quo, had Hillary Clinton been elected president of the United States, there is little doubt we would have died in any number of ways because nothing would have changed till it was too late. Either climate change would have overtaken us before we reacted to its dangers while countries continued to bicker amongst themselves; or the neo-imperialist wars in the Middle East would have been intensified with the penchant for regime change to promote American values; or globalization would have have continued unabated enriching a few and reducing the rest of the world to a state of precarious uncertainty.

With Trump, we have been dumped into boiling water. Many of the simmering threats are being desperately examined anew, some, ironically, because  Trump has a much more cavalier attitude towards them. Take global warming, for example, where the Trump team is stocked with climate change deniers. It is precisely because the threat is now so in one’s face that activists have shed their complacency and are seeking new ways to revitalize their efforts. The same is the case with many other issues in which there has been a surge in theoretical revision, community activism, and grassroots mobilization. South Asians ought to look particularly carefully at Professor Amartya Sen’s critique of electoral systems based on the first-past-the-post criterion, a key contributor to Trump’s success.

One way to think of this radically new environment is in terms of a lottery. The status quo offered an almost sure bet of muddling through for another few decades before ending in catastrophe. Trump offers a fifty percent chance of instant extinction (his itchy fingers are on the nuclear button) and a fifty percent chance of revitalized political and social order in which many of the existing pathologies would have been addressed. Without the threat of imminent chaos, it is unlikely the resistance would have been galvanized in quite the manner that is now underway. Complacency and inertia would have continued to characterize the prevailing order with its almost inevitable consequences.

Consider, as an example, prevailing attitudes to democratic governance compared to its unremarked degradation. While Fukuyama hailed liberal democracy in the West as the end of history, Huntington lauded Ayub Khan as the ideal leader for the modernizing world that was not ready for democratic rule. Richard Holbrooke characterized the backwardness of developing countries as follows: “Suppose elections are free and fair and those elected are racists, fascists, separatists. That is the dilemma.” Fareed Zakaria was even more to the point: “Consider, for example, the challenge we face across the Islamic world. We recognize the need for democracy in those often-repressive countries. But what if democracy produces an Islamic theocracy, or something like it?”

The fact that democracy had produced a Hitler much before it produced any racists or fascists in the developing world was overlooked but now that it has produced Trump in the heart of the developed world, the doubts about the way democracy has evolved are out in the open and no longer considered the exclusive problem of backward non-White populations. American democracy in particular has morphed into a plutocracy quite at odds with its original design.

Or take the flip side of this alleged lack of fitness of the often-repressive countries, the unchallenged belief in American Exceptionalism. This rebirth of the White Man’s Burden in the age of neo-imperialism argued that the world needed to evolve towards American values while assigning a divine responsibility to the US for the purpose. Enlightenment was to be bestowed on the rest of humanity, making it fit for democracy through selective regime changes and by saving its women from the clutches of oppression.

As recently as a year ago, Obama had declared with pride and conviction that “I believe in American exceptionalism with every fiber of my being.” Now, barely six months into the Trump presidency, the veil has been ripped off American values regarding women and minorities and the reality of the US first policy that has wreaked havoc in the world exposed for all to see. As a result, European countries are already envisioning a future with a severely diminished political and ideological leadership role for the USA.

Nearer home, ordinary Pakistanis, if they pause to reflect, should also be grateful to Trump for calling out their country’s selective cat-and-mouse game with terrorism. Pakistan’s Afghanistan policy has been unsuccessful at best and at worst has imperiled the future of the nation via its economic cost, social damage, and political isolation. It would have continued unchallenged but for Trump raising the ante by laying aside the niceties and evasions that characterized the US-Pakistan dialogue under earlier presidents. The new bluntness and proposed regional realignment offer a glimmer of hope for an overdue questioning and a review under duress of Pakistan’s damaging security paradigm.

The world may not survive Trump, but if it does, many, including long-suffering Pakistanis, would have a lot to thank him for.

This opinion appeared in Dawn on September 5, 2017 and is reproduced here with the author’s permission.

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Locating the Enemy

March 9, 2017

By Anjum Altaf

I speak as a layperson not as an expert on the subject and so may be missing a lot but I have a strong feeling something is very wrong with the way terrorism is being combated in the country. If I am mistaken, and I fervently wish I am, I would really appreciate someone explaining what might be going on.

Ever since the recent spate of suicide bombings a feverish campaign has been launched against terrorists and if reports are to be believed over a hundred have been eliminated just in a couple of days. What puzzles me is how the terrorists who have been eliminated have been identified and located so quickly. Did we always know where they were but were letting them be for some reason? If we were letting them be was it because we did not have enough evidence they were involved in terrorism? If that is indeed the case, how could we just go ahead and eliminate them without conclusive evidence? And, if we did have the evidence and knew where they were, why did we not arrest them and establish their involvement in some sort of a normal civilized manner?

These questions, as I have said, are very confusing and I cannot help but think that we are not being told the truth. Either that or our rulers have attained such a unique state of incompetence that they too do not know what they are doing. Both alternatives are frightening and frankly unacceptable. Once again we are faced with what we might call our enduring condition, the bin Laden phenomenon – did we know or didn’t we? Neither answer does us any honor.

It seems to me that the frenzy of maniacal activity is just intended to convey an impression of steely determination and purposeful action in order to placate the public and buy time. Who knows how many innocent people are being sacrificed to keep up this charade. In the meanwhile we are subjected to inane statements that the opening of the new Islamabad airport would promote the soft image of Pakistan and holding a cricket match would convince the world that the country is safe from terrorism and bring superstars flocking back to the country.

I fail to understand how spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to bribe a handful of foreigners to play a game in a nuclear bunker can be convincing proof that the country is back to normal. Or how announcing that a permanent force of 15,000 military personnel needs to be deployed to protect a trade corridor would reassure investors that the country is safe for business. This is self-delusion carried to absurdity.

And what should one make of the resolve that terrorists would now be pursued into other countries? How would one respond if some other country takes that as a license to pursue terrorists into our country? This is jumping from the frying pan into the fire potentially pushing the entire region towards a conflagration. Is there someone thinking before shooting off at the mouth?

Add to that the spate of accusations that our enemies are exacerbating our problems because they do not wish us to succeed or even to hold a cricket match. Much as one would like to swallow this line it is really hard to believe that it was our enemies who convinced us to create these monsters in the first place. Or that it is our enemies who are forcing us to discriminate between good terrorists and bad, between real terrorists and mere sectarian killers, and between terrorists and philanthropists who rush to help the poor and needy in times of floods and earthquakes when the state fails to do what it is supposed to do. Is it all that difficult to comprehend that people can be philanthropists and terrorists at the same time if some all-encompassing ideology can make both compatible with a greater glory?

It is hard to understand why we can’t approach these matters with the normal process of state-to-state collaboration to eliminate terrorism from the region which would be a win-win outcome for all. Or maybe it would not. Otherwise why do we seem to be in this game of ranking terrorists along some scale of goodness or usefulness? If that is indeed the case, could someone have the courtesy of taking the nation into confidence, explaining how some terrorists are better than others and what is that we are aiming to do with the good ones?

And while we are being made wise to that could we also be told if we are succeeding or not and how far are we from the grand objective we have set for ourselves, whatever it is?

A failure to provide convincing answers can only lead to one conclusion: We have met the enemy and he is us.

This opinion appeared in Dawn on March 7, 2017 and is reproduced here with permission of the author.

Note: There are 170 comments on this opinion on the Dawn website. The wide agreement amongst readers and the absence of the usual trolling is an extremely encouraging sign.

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Sehwan, Sheema and Faiz

February 24, 2017

By Anjum Altaf


For Sheema Kermani – because she went


(After Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s Aaj Bazaar meiN Pa ba JaullaN Chalo)

Unwept tears, inner torments
Hidden desires, silent accusations

Flaunt your fetters in the street
Arms aloft, enraptured, intoxicated
Disheveled, blood stained
Lovers are yearning for your love

Tyrant and crowd
Slings and stones
Sorrows and failures

Who else is left to love
But you
Who else is left to fight
But you
Who else is left to die
But you

Arise and go
For love’s honor



Sehwan is home to the shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar, a major sufi saint in Sindh, where a suicide bombing killed 88 devotees on February 16, 2017.

Sheema Kermani is a symbol of defiance in Pakistan as a dancer who has continued to perform in public all through the rise of fundamentalism and suppression. She went to the shrine to join the devotees on February 20.

The news story is here.

This poem appeared first on 3 Quarks Daily  on February 23, 2017 and is reproduced here with permission of the author.

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Just Do It

November 21, 2015

By Anjum Altaf

Let me explain.

Imagine a number of you are in a boat out at sea and a hole opens up in the bottom. If everyone waits for another to do something, everyone will drown. Someone will have to do something for a chance of survival. Right?

Now extend the metaphor to your community or your country where a number of big holes have opened up in the bottom. And there is no one plugging the holes. In fact, there are a lot of people enlarging them instead. All of you are intelligent. What do you see as the likely outcome?

The point I am making is the following. Most societies have their share of activists motivated by all sorts of reasons. Their presence makes it possible for the majority to go on with their day to day engagements confident that even if they do nothing the boat would be taken care of and steered to safety

Pakistan, unfortunately, is not in that happy predicament which is why we cannot afford to be a community of consumers. A sufficient number of us have to take on a more active role to ensure we have the kind of future in which normal lives with friends and families can be lived and enjoyed.

You can, of course, choose the domain of your activism but let me be specific about what I am looking for at this time so as to provide a concrete possibility for consideration.

As some of you know, I have been interested in cities, especially small cities, for a long time (1, 2). There are two major reasons for this interest. First, more than half the world’s population now lives in urban locations and half of that urban population lives in medium and small-sized cities. So, from an economic perspective, small cities should have a major role to play in national development. What exactly is that role?

Second, a significant amount of extremist sentiments is coming out of small cities. So, from a sociological perspective, something is going on there that we need to understand. At this time, small cities are so little studied in South Asia that we cannot even hazard intelligent guesses without doing a lot more investigative work (3).

But what kind of work do we need to do? I realized quite some time back that we cannot follow the traditional modality of top-down studies carried out to publish papers or submit reports to government departments. In Pakistan, these can help one obtain academic promotions or earn consulting fee but they do not lead to any meaningful policy interventions in the small cities themselves.

So, while we have done some work (4), our approach has been very different. We have engaged with residents of small cities to listen to their narratives, we have visited the small cities to understand the context of those narratives, we have identified issues that are common to many of the cities, and we have tried to form an association of small cities that could articulate their needs and demands from a common platform.

At the same time, we hope to create an information and communication exchange that would connect activists in each of these cities so that they could learn from each other and mobilize together. In short, we aim to energize an urban movement from below that would highlight the importance of small cities, articulate their social and developmental needs, and give them political clout by facilitating a collective voice and platform for their residents.

We have completed quite a lot of the essential work and we now have the structure to move to the next stage of linking the residents of the cities in which we have carried out the pilot phase of our work. What we need now is a core set of lead metropolitan activists who would help to trigger the movement in the cities.

As part of the launch apparatus we have two websites (5, 6) that are designed to advance the movement. While I am very pleased that the membership of these sites has continued to grow, I am disappointed that most members have opted for the role of consumers of the type I mentioned at the outset. They passively read what is added to the sites and hopefully add to their knowledge.

But that is not what we expect of them at this stage. We need at least some of the members to be our lead metropolitan activists. So, for example, if we have a member from Jhang we expect that member to identify a few dynamic residents of Jhang, say a student, a college teacher, a lawyer, a labor representative, and a health worker. We expect the member to communicate to this group what we are trying to do, to familiarize them with the instruments we have developed, and to instruct them in how to become active participants in the information exchange as representatives of their cities.

Once the association of small cities becomes reasonably active we can think of hosting a physical get-together so the activists can get to know each other better and decide for themselves where next to take the movement. At that time, we will step back from our pro-active role and just become an advisory body that would provide the technical or research input the association might require for the advocacy of its interests.

This is an ambitious and exciting agenda but without this kind of an inclusive and collective effort we cannot hope to inject some much-needed dynamism in our society. And, for this to happen, we need some people to put up their hands and assume the role of activists for a limited period of time.

I hope you will agree with me that we are not in the position of all being a community of information consumers only. Some of us have to act on that information if we are to ensure the future that we desire.

Hence, this appeal to you to contribute a few volunteers. There are enough of you to take turns so that this does not become overly onerous. In fact, it can become a very exciting opportunity to learn about the economy and sociology of the country to which we belong and to contribute to a positive transformation of its future.

Please identify yourself as a volunteer and get in touch.


  1. What Is Happening in Small Towns? – Original
  2. What Is Happening in Small Towns? – Update
  3. Perspectives on Small Cities: Part 1 and Part 2 – Presentation at Cornell University
  4. Small Cities Initiative: Listen and Learn Phase. – Study
  5. Small Cities Initiative – Facebook Page
  6. Small Cities – Website

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Questions for Amos Oz

August 4, 2014

By Anjum Altaf

Here are two disappointing questions with which Amos Oz, the grandfather of Israeli peaceniks, began a recent interview:

QUESTION 1: What would you do if your neighbor across the street sits down on the balcony, puts his little boy on his lap, and starts shooting machine-gun fire into your nursery?

QUESTION 2: What would you do if your neighbor across the street digs a tunnel from his nursery to your nursery in order to blow up your home or in order to kidnap your family?

The way this comes across is as if everything was going along swimmingly, we were the greatest of friends, and suddenly I discover you are sitting in your balcony pointing a machine-gun or digging a tunnel into my nursery.

Clearly that’s not the way it is.

Leave aside the contentious history stretching back decades about who’s sitting in whose balcony at the end of the tunnel. A few weeks ago three Israeli boys were kidnapped and murdered. In a law-abiding society one would expect a search for the kidnappers and murderers. One would not expect an exhaustive retaliation against all those in any way related or connected to those suspected of the crime.

Try and imagine this in any other country that aspires to be judged as civilized. This kind of response would be inconceivable and unacceptable. It would be a throwback to at least a hundred years in the past.

Therefore, might one conclude that the motivation was not to bring murderers to justice but something else? What that might be we could leave to the analysts. It could be a political calculus aimed to alter the trajectory of some dynamic in favor of another. But it could also reflect the belief that fine distinctions are no longer relevant, that all Palestinians are murderers and that all unborn Palestinians are potential murderers.

I hope you would agree that such a belief is to be resisted, that its encouragement is to be resisted, that its spread contains the seeds of the kind of madness we have witnessed and suffered from in the past.

In Pakistan, we have seen some factions of the Taliban training children as suicide bombers. Some groups in Hamas might be doing the same in Gaza. But can that justify eliminating all the children who might possibly become suicide-bombers in the future?

We had asked this question earlier in the context of the Taliban in Pakistan:

The Americans and the Pakistanis are at war with Baitullah Mehsud. Assume that Baitullah Mehsud is guilty of war crimes. Does that justify the killing of Baitullah Mehsud’s wife as the Americans have done with a missile strike?

One central question is clearly that of collateral damage and the extent of it that can be plausibly justified. Is it justifiable in the present conflict in Gaza to consider all Palestinians, or all Arabs as some have done, as terrorists and thereby acceptable as collateral damage? If not, should there be sanctions on those propagating and encouraging such a view?

This is not to say that such a situation may be inconceivable. John Gray, in his review of Amartya Sen’s The Idea of Justice, presents the following moral dilemma:

On any reasonable view, Allied saturation bombing of German cities in the Second World War inflicted severe injustice on civilian populations. A Nazi victory, on the other hand, would have spelt the complete death of justice in Europe. Leaving to one side the case that Allied bombing made that dreadful outcome less likely – despite clever-silly arguments to the contrary, I believe it may have helped – there is here an intractable moral dilemma. However one describes this dilemma – as a quasi-utilitarian trade-off between injustices of differing degrees of severity, or a tragic choice in which the injustices involved were of such different kinds as to be incomparable – one thing is clear: a readiness on the part of the Allies to sanction grave injustice was a precondition of any kind of justice surviving in Europe, and perhaps the world.

The question is whether the intentions and actions of Hamas can be considered equivalent to those of Hitler with the same potentially catastrophic outcomes for the region and the world to justify recourse to the kind of saturation bombing the Allies rained on German cities? Once again, an honest answer would have to make fine distinctions of scale and balance of power.

In Pakistan, we have seen how cynical and calculated manipulation of the tribal areas and its people over decades has evolved into the problems we face today. I was at a meeting once when a representative of the state was asked why the areas had remained so undeveloped and underserved half a century after the creation of the country. A lack of financial resources was the proffered answer. Could any semi-intelligent person take that answer seriously? No resources for a population of no more than three million people in a country where billions of dollars in assistance have disappeared and billions of Rupees in taxpayer money have been consumed by little-used motorways?

Is that really the way towards inclusive development or even, to be cynical, to buy peace? Isn’t Gaza like the tribal areas in Pakistan, just even more bottled up because of inability of the residents to escape their misery? Is there a real argument that reasonable, serious people were not able to think of a better way to buy peace in Israel?

It would be difficult to make such an argument honestly and therefore one has to ask what has been driving the decisions of the leaders who wish the best for Israel. Here, for consideration, is the answer offered by Ron Rosenbaum for what might have motivated Hitler:

Hitler didn’t lose the war. Not the war Evans argues was most important to him: the racial war. Hitler won that war. Six million to one. Yes, he committed suicide at the end. (And yes, 50 million others lost their lives so he could win the part of the war he cared about most. Collateral damage.)

Thinking about that suicide now, in the light of 9/11 and the subsequent exaltations of suicide bombing on messianic, theological grounds, does in fact offer a radical new way of characterizing Hitler. In retrospect at least, it’s tempting to argue that Hitler was, if not the first, then by far history’s greatest single suicide bomber. He blew up Europe to kill the Jews in it, even if it meant killing himself and tens of millions of others in the end.

In looking at two sets of suicide-bombers, is it conceivable we might be looking for the next-greatest ones in the wrong enclave? And could that enclave be a mental and not a physical one?

Anjum Altaf is dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at the Lahore University of Management Sciences.

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

September 11, 2011

By Anjum Altaf

The response to 9/11 has been challenged along two lines: that it imposed a huge cost on the world without making it much safer; and that a legal-political approach would have yielded better outcomes. Both arguments, implicitly or explicitly, presume that an alternative response was possible. A reassessment of this presumption can help highlight some less discussed aspects of our world before and after 9/11.

Prima facie it is plausible to assert that it was not necessary to frame the 9/11 provocation as an act of war. It could have been classified as a crime, albeit a spectacular one, and prosecuted using political leverage as needed. Given the near universal condemnation of the act and the swell of support for the US from nation-states, concerted political pressure on a weak Afghan state would in all likelihood have delivered the masterminds of the crime to be dealt with according to established legal procedures.

The apprehension of Osama bin Laden might have occurred much earlier but even if it had taken ten years, as it eventually did, the cost to the US and to the world would have been much lower.

There are recent precedents for the response to an Al-Qaeda (AQ) style movement. All through the 1970s, the Red Army Fraction (RAF) and the Red Brigades (RB) terrorized Europe using extremist ideologies and very violent means to destabilize states. In both cases their acts were treated as crimes and it took about ten years to completely snuff out the movements.

At its peak, AQ had no more than between three and five thousand core members. Why could it not have been dealt with along similar lines? Both the similarities and the differences between AQ and the European groups are instructive for this argument. The similarities are so striking that one is forced to take seriously the question of why they were treated so differently. Why, in particular, was the ideological rhetoric of the RF and RB never taken seriously while that of AQ was taken at face value, a stance that opened the door to a declaration of war?

The differences suggest possible answers to the question. First, both the RAF and the RB were largely confined within national borders (of Germany and Italy, respectively). Second, the motivations of the RAF and RB were entirely ideological; there were no specific criminal acts of the German and Italian states to which the groups could lay claim as the motivation for their acts of terror or which the states had credible need to defend in front of any audience. Third, the ethnic and religious identities of the contending parties were the same.

In the case of 9/11, it can be argued that AQ brought into the US the kind of ‘crime’ that was a commonplace in the global international order – that of attempting to destabilize other countries for self-proclaimed aims of national interest. How else would one classify the acts of the US government in Iran and Guatemala, of the USSR in Hungary and Afghanistan, of Iraq in Kuwait, or of Pakistan in India, to list just a few examples? It would be hard to argue that the determination of a crime turns not on the violation of a law or norm but on agreement with the self-serving rhetoric of the violator. It stands to reason that treating 9/11 as a crime, apprehending the AQ criminals alive and prosecuting them in a public trial would have forced an open discussion of the relative merits of such claims even if they were to be ultimately dismissed.

Given that the American citizenry has remained largely unaware of the long history of such US interventions (for which those at the receiving end consider the term ‘crime’ appropriate), it was far easier to cloud the issue in the rhetoric of war and ride the swell of patriotism to minimize any debate that might otherwise have transpired. The ‘otherness’ of AQ in terms of ethnicity and religion helped press all the old stereotypes into action to inflate its threat, couch the war in the frame of a ‘clash of civilizations,’ and trigger a discourse of ‘them’ hating ‘us’ because of our values.

This argument can be better appreciated in a longer time frame. In the age before the emergence of the nation-state and sovereign borders, these types of interventions did not fall into the category of crime. Alexander could attempt to subdue India, Changez Khan could roll across Central Asia, and Isabella and Ferdinand could conquer Mexico. In retrospect we can deplore such ‘violations’ but there was no framework that classified them as such. The interventionists neither needed permission from their own subjects nor were answerable to any international body charged with protecting the rights of non-subjects.

This began to change with the emergence of representative governments. Even though no global institutions existed to protect non-subjects, even if only in name, till much later, governments intervening outside their borders had to provide some convincing narrative to their own voters. This is when the ‘burden of civilization’ was born as a serviceable rationale. Thus the British takeover of India after 1857, though it did not need to be covert, was couched in the heavy rhetoric of bringing enlightenment to natives living in darkness who had to be gradually raised to the position where they could deserve to rule themselves. It was accepted that some people needed to be suppressed for their own good.

By contrast, American interventions, especially those following WWII, occurred in times when they were in violation of international norms. Therefore, they had to be covert and when they couldn’t, they needed to be legitimized. Wars of self-defense and pre-emptive actions to make the world a better place were among the sources of such legitimacy. In this perspective, one can understand how 9/11 was framed as an act of war – the US had been attacked and forced to retaliate in its defense. In order to forestall a discussion of the past, 9/11 was transformed into another Zero hour of history.

Once declared, the ‘war on terror’ elicited all the accompanying rhetoric; it would not only avenge humiliation and ensure justice, it would make the world safer, spread democracy to places where dictators reigned, and liberate women living under oppression. Left unsaid, since the past had been obliterated, was the fact that it was the US itself that had derailed democracy in many of these places and installed the dictators who were now to be replaced. And that the plight of women, or of dissidents struggling for civil and political rights, had heretofore never been a concern warranting a call to arms. Given the burden of history, all this could not have been said without exposing US officials to criminal charges of the kind that those from smaller countries (Serbia, Croatia, etc.) were expected to face under international law.

There was thus no alternative response to 9/11 except a ‘war on terror’ quite independent of its costs and consequences. It is of course quite probable that US officials underestimated the cost and duration of the war (indeed the selling of the war made such underestimation inevitable) or that alternative ways of waging the war could have resulted in lower costs. The fact remains that is difficult to conceive of a viable alternative response given the magnitude of the provocation and the prior understanding of history by the citizenry. Hence the almost immediate decision to commit to war and a strong discouragement of any questioning of that choice.

Ten years later, the costs of the war, the fact that it has exacerbated the very dangers it was supposed to quell, and the huge encroachments on individual liberties are all forcing into the open the very issues that the war was intended to bury. A potent new source of global instability and uncertainty has emerged. It is a fact that there is no nation-state that can do in the US what the US can do in other countries relying on the imbalance of power. What remained unanticipated, a failure of intelligence, was that changes in technology might enable a non-state group to commit an act of terror of such magnitude inside the US. The imbalance of power now stands reversed because non-state actors only need a few successful acts to destabilize the world or impose a huge cost on it while nation-states need to prevent each and every such attempt to feel secure. Even so, the uncertainty can never be reduced to zero.

The open-ended war against terror poses a further dilemma. The pronouncements of NATO powers justifying the war to their citizens fuel the resentments of those whose lived experiences are consequences of what they consider criminal acts in their countries. This is clearly an unsustainable situation that signals a shift towards a different equilibrium in the future.

The framework of rights can possibly provide a glimpse of that future. Rights to date have been wrested by citizens, workers, minorities, women and children. But all these rights have protection, to greater or lesser degree, inside national boundaries. There has been no equivalent protection of the rights of non-citizens. The citizens of Egypt, for example, had no effective recourse against the alleged complicity of the US in the violation of their rights. There was no forum to which such a charge could be brought for deliberation.

Ten years after 9/11 we are beginning to conceive a world in which such acts would be more openly questioned, where violation of the rights of non-subjects would trigger legal consequences, where countries would not be able to exempt themselves from international conventions, and where, when such acts are committed, the perpetrators would be subject to prosecution.

9/11 was a major crime committed by a murderous gang. The response to 9/11 began to lift the veil from the imbalance of global power in which this was just one crime among many and highlighted the fact that the world would only become a safer place when all such crimes are reduced by a credible threat of prosecution and arbitrary retaliations are ruled out. The rights of all citizens of the world need to be formally guaranteed and effectively protected. For that to happen there is need to advance to the stage where justice is no longer selective or subservient to power.

This article is a follow on to September Eleven.

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The Meaning of Mumbai

July 16, 2011

By Anjum Altaf

There are incidents in the lives of big cities that call for sorrow, but once the dust clears, no lamentation and no expression of sorrow can really do a city justice. A place that is home to millions deserves better. I aim to explore the meaning of Mumbai and then return to the salience of this latest incidence of violence in the frame of that larger context.

The meaning of a city like Mumbai is mirrored in a million stories. Take one, that of the renowned music director Naushad. Born in Lucknow and obsessed with music, he was given the choice between his home and his passion by his father. Naushad ran away to Bombay; the rest is history. (more…)

Aid to Pakistan: Advocacy or Analysis?

June 9, 2011

By Anjum Altaf

Beyond Bullets and Bombs is the title of the latest report on aid to Pakistan from the Center for Global Development in Washington, DC. In light of the increasingly anti-Pakistan sentiment in the U.S., the report, addressed to decision and policy makers in Washington, takes on the brief to make the best possible case for the continuation of aid. Hence the subtitle: Fixing the U.S. Approach to Development in Pakistan. The report is a revealing illustration of advocacy over analysis; a more open examination would have begun by questioning the impacts of U.S. aid to Pakistan, before deciding if the total benefits of “fixing” it exceeded the total cost to both sides.

It is to the report’s credit that it is forthright and includes all the relevant pieces of information, but the way it uses that information is determined by the choice it makes. (more…)

Osama: What the ISI Knew?

May 23, 2011

By Anjum Altaf

Opinion is divided between those who assert the ISI knew where Osama was hiding and those who believe it didn’t. This way of framing the situation obscures what might be the reality.

Some months back, before the discovery of Osama, I was reading a book in which the author narrates a discussion with a Pakistani, now an ambassador, that took place towards the end of the Musharraf period when the interviewee was out of favor. A remark attributed to the Pakistani left such an impression that I repeated it to as many people as I had occasion to between then  and the discovery of Osama next to the military academy at Kakul. (more…)