September Eleven

By Anjum Altaf

We have short memories.

Terror did not arrive in America in 2001 when Mohamed Atta flew a plane into the World Trade Center. It did not arrive even in 1993, when Ramzi Yousef planned to blow up that very same bastion of American power.

It arrived almost a hundred years ago when, after a spate of bombings in New York City, the abode of J.P. Morgan – then the symbol of American capitalism –  was wired up with explosives.

The protagonist was not a Muslim, but a black Christian man. It was neither his blackness nor his Christianity that made him do it – he could just as easily have been white, or any other color or religion. His principal munitions expert was as white as one could be.

And nor was he was poor. Indeed he was quite well off: in those days he was the proud owner of a Model T Ford; he spoke good English, and was courting the woman he looked forward to marrying.

So what happened? Why did Coalhouse Walker give up everything, declare himself President of the Provisional American Republic, and invite certain death by embarking on a suicide mission? Why did others join him in this act of rebellion? Why did Mother’s Younger Brother, a talented youth from an upper class white family, switch his allegiance to Coalhouse Walker? Did all these men, as normal as you or me, suddenly go insane from one day to the next?

You must have guessed by now. It is a fictional account, one of the stories from Ragtime, a novel published by E. L. Doctorow long ago in 1975. But fiction is often more compelling than fact. It is not for a description of events that one reads fiction; it is for the insights into what lies underneath and behind those events.

The insight could not be any clearer. Humiliation: the Negro’s Model T Ford trashed by the arrogance of power, with no amount of pleas, interventions, or recourse to the law able to get it restored; the man himself denied a place in society, denied the dignity due a human being, humiliated again and again with impunity.

This is how Doctorow describes Coalhouse Walker’s reaction:

Even to someone who had followed the case from its beginnings, Coalhouse’s strategy of vengeance must have seemed the final proof of his insanity… Or is injustice, once suffered, a mirror universe, with laws of logic and principles of reason the opposite of civilization’s? 

Ponder this. Coalhouse Walker did something so seemingly insane because he was pushed to the point where the laws of logic and the principles of reason no longer made sense. Note how fiction foreshadows fact:

All of this happened over a period of two to three weeks. Later, when the name Coalhouse Walker came to symbolize murder and arson, these earlier attempts to find redress no longer mattered. Even at this date we can’t condone the mayhem done in his cause but it is important to know the truth insofar as that is possible.

I first read Ragtime a long time back, and in 2001 all the talk about poverty being the root cause of terrorism brought it back to my mind. Poverty has always been with us; terrorism occurs in long-separated spikes. The association of poverty with terrorism is very weak; that of humiliation is quite strong.

I had thought of this off and on, written around it, but never explicitly in the context of September 11. As compelling as the story of Coalhouse Walker was, it was fiction. I was seeking a confirmation from real life that was unambiguous, not inferred – one in which the correspondence of humiliation to defiance was beyond doubt. 

Then I found it, in an odd place, and, by itself, an incident in a minor key. Here is Yehudi Menuhin, describing in his autobiography how his parents, newly arrived in New York City from Palestine, searched for an apartment in the Bronx in anticipation of his birth:

Obliged to find an apartment of their own, they searched the neighborhood and after several disappointments chose one within walking distance of the park. Showing them out after they had viewed it, the landlady observed, with every intention of pleasing her new tenants and clinching the bargain, ‘And you’ll be glad to know I don’t take Jews.’ History, in New York at any rate, has muffled that voice, but how bitterly in my parents’ ears must have sounded the hostility which, having propelled them to the shores of the New World, had followed them there! Her mistake made clear to her, the anti-Semitic landlady was renounced and another apartment found where in due course they gathered friends about them, fellow students and other young people as poor and light-hearted as themselves, who created a cheerful haven against prejudice. But the landlady’s blunder left its mark. Back on the street my mother took a vow: her unborn child would wear a label proclaiming his race to the world. He would be called ‘the Jew’.

Yehudi Menuhin describes his mother’s reaction: “that an insult to her race should prompt the proud assertion of it [was] a reflex absolutely to be expected.”

Humiliation is a powerful motivator eliciting reactions that can vary from the personal defiance of Yehudi Menuhin’s mother to the destructive vengeance of a Coalhouse Walker. It is a provocation that upends the laws of logic and the principles of reason. And when the humiliation is visited on entire nations the reactions can be even more unpredictable defying the expectations of conventional rationality. They can lead directly to the violence of anger or be tapped into a battle for the restoration of dignity. It matters little whether the battle is real or contrived, whether the end is victory or defeat. The laws of logic cease to hold.

There were times when power could strike in the far corners of the world and the response could not but be localized. But this is the age of globalization – as capital is global, so is vengeance. The arrogance of power could do well to glimpse itself in a mirror, even if it be the mirror of fiction.

This article has the following sequel: 9/11: The Burden of the Past and the Promise of the Future

Back to Main Page

  • Anil Kala
    Posted at 09:55h, 12 September Reply

    I don’t get it. Are you suggesting that utter humiliation is driving these nuts to blow themselves up? And there is the contradiction itself. What about Jews, haven’t they been humiliated enough? What about Romas, the gypsies or the black slaves? There is a three fourth non-native population (the Indians, Pakistanis, Lankans, Philipinos etc) in gulf undergoing various degrees of humiliation, we don’t see acts of terrorism there.

    The Red Brigade of Italy, the Naxalites of India, Japanese Red Army are ideology driven terrorist outfits, LTTE is a mixture of greed, pride and megalomania, Japanese terrorist group Aum had religious agenda so each has different reason for terrorism.

    There is no one logic for terrorism. Sometimes it is due to humiliation, sometimes due to sense of injustice and no recourse to rectify it and sometimes possessed men driving their band of loyal followers to death. Islamic terrorism is completely incomprehensible. Under the overt cockiness there is this covert doubt in faith therefore the external props to keep it going like Saudi Arabia will not allow other religions practiced, a believer is not allowed leave faith and hysterical reaction to any tinkering of religious symbols.

    Modern terrorism is politics by other means.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 13:29h, 12 September

      Anil: The minimalist claim would be that humiliation is a more powerful motivator of strong emotions than poverty. All incidents of humiliation would not result in vengeful defiance but most acts of vengeful defiance would tap some feeling of humiliation. In the post on the road to partition it was argued that 1857 was a happening that tapped into feelings of humiliation generated from the arrogant denigration of Indian values by the British.

      Just being a serf or servant or slave is not enough provocation because these are social arrangements that have long time horizons relative to the life spans of individuals who are born in them. But insulting the mother of a serf or servant or slave elicits a different type of response because it violates some norm of expected behavior. The tangible outcome of the response would of course depend upon circumstances – the servant might not be able to do no more than spit in the soup; the personal guards might assassinate the prime minister.

      Therefore all vengeful defiance would also not necessarily manifest as acts of terrorism in the way we know it today. But the politics of terrorism (and you are right, it is a politics) taps into a sense of humiliation. This may be completely contrived. The children that are being brainwashed by the Taliban and trained as suicide bombers are being fed a huge dose of imagined humiliation. The First Crusade was similarly launched by stirring a manufactured sense of humiliation which had no basis in fact but which could not be verified at a distance of many thousand miles.

      So, a simple conclusion would be that it is not a good idea to humiliate people or to be seen as humiliating people. The reactions can be unpredictable and, in some cases, very dangerous. Globalization extends the reach of such dangerous actions.

  • Sheema Kermani
    Posted at 18:16h, 12 September Reply

    I like and agree about what you say about humiliation and then the episode of Menhuin’s mother. Reminds me of the many times I have looked for places to rent and what reactions I have had from people – so many times I have not been able to hold back tears of humiliation because every time the landlord has looked at me as if I am some extremely corrupt person who will pollute the entire building if they were to rent it out to me. I feel that humilitation at the human level is a strong emotion and can push one to act in strange ways. Think of the humiliation a wife feels when the husband decides to take on a younger wife. There have been so many cases of violence leading from such situations. So of course when we talk of humiliation of nations … sure it takes on other levels.

  • Hasan Davar
    Posted at 05:14h, 13 September Reply

    This is an excellent analysis. No doubt that humiliation is a powerful emotional motivator that can impair an individual, or a group of them collectively, of rational thinking. Many studies have shown that strong emotions can overwhelm the part of the brain that controls logical thought. Does that mean it is almost inevitable for the humiliated to respond illogically? Can it possible for the humiliated to respond to a humiliating provocation in a rational way that extracts them from the circumstances that allow them to be humiliated?

    The response of Yehudi Menuhin’s mother to a humiliating provocation and of Coalhouse Walker are qualitatively different. Both encountered the arrogance of power, both suffered a profound indignity, yet they saw their future and their course of action differently. Yehudi Menuhin’s mother’s unassailable vow that her unborn child would be called ‘the Jew’ is, at the least, inspirational. That was her way of eventually neutralizing the humiliation. And so it was, in due course, on the day her son gained the respect of the world. For Coalhouse Walker, was the humiliation ever neutralized? Did he really gain the respect of anyone?

    While it may be known that humiliation leads to unpredicatable and irrational responses, the real question is what next for the humiliated? Certainly, it is not the humiliators that will guide them out of their humiliation. The Coalhouse Walker-like acts of global vengence, unless they can destroy the humiliators, will not lift the humiliated from their abyss. Rather the humiliated could see even more indignity inflicted upon them. Ultimately, the humiliated themselves must find the answer to how they can command respect. Whether or not this is just or unjust, fair or unfair, it remains the only way. The fate of the humiliated, like that of the humiliators, remains in their respective hands. The inequality of the relationship will be corrected only by the humiliated, probably when they can, despite the odds, respond rationally.

    The humiliated face a tangle of complexities that are ocean-deep. The challenges seem insurmountable and their impotence in front of the arrogant seems absolute. The cycle of history may yet turn a corner that will show an answer. At some stage, the arrogance of the humiliators may lead them to mistakes at a time when the humiliated are beginning to turn the sharp edges of provocation into rational tools of power, instead of into explosions of frustration. The balance may begin to tip. Only time will tell, but in the same way that the negative irrationality of the humiliated disfavors them, so does the vain arrogance of the humiliators disfavor them too. In any case, the sensible will always, from Yehudi Menuhin’s mother, find the inspiration to lift themselves from humiliation or to correct their arrogance.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 07:10h, 13 September

      Hasan: The intention of the post was simply to make the big point that humiliation is a particularly powerful driver of action – something that the arrogance of power ignores at its own peril.

      However, if one were to parse the contents of the post in greater depth, one would need to see that the two provocations were also quite different: in one case, an insult to another’s race by an ignorant individual; in the other, a denial of someone’s existence (and the killing of his wife with the old-world equivalent of a drone missile) by a dominant and power-drunk social system. The novel is a must-read to get a sense of the context – it is an ingenious intertwining of three families: mainstream White, immigrant Jewish, and marginalized Black at a particular time in American history. You will appreciate the novel much more if you first read its cultural context in the essay that is archived in The Best From Elsewhere section (#33).

      As for the rational response to humiliation, that is the crux of what Doctorow is trying to communicate when he asks: “Or is injustice, once suffered, a mirror universe, with laws of logic and principles of reason the opposite of civilization’s?” To expect the cost-benefit calculus of rationality to hold in the face of deep provocations could be to expect too much – even at an individual level, it is often difficult to restrain the emotional rage without consideration of personal consequences (people hand in their resignations and quit their jobs only to worry later where the next meal is going to come from).

      Just today I was reading the October issue of Harper’s magazine and it has an extract from the online diary of the Pittsburgh computer programmer who was acting on his own imagined humiliations when he killed three others and himself earlier this year in an aerobics class. This is the entry for December 30, 2008:

      While I was driving, I radio-surfed to a talk show. The caller was a thirtyish black man who was describing the despair in certain black communities. If you know the past forty years were crappy, why live another thirty crappy years, then die? His point was they engage in dangerous behavior that tends to shorten their lifespans, to die now and avoid the next thirty crappy years. It was a useful point for me to hear.

      It was a useful point to hear for me too. Perhaps the responses to humiliation and injustice and helplessness remain rational but the values that get assigned to the costs and benefits of any action have no relationship to those of “civilization.”

      And then, of course, there is the important dimension highlighted by Anil in his comment. The interaction between the humiliated and the humiliator(s) is not always one-on-one. It is often mediated through third parties who could have very different agendas – that is how terrorism can become a part of politics. We know from personal experience it is possible to convince someone that he/she has been humiliated when nothing of the sort might have actually occurred. All one needs is to tap into some imagined historical injustice from a distant past.

      Humiliation, real or imagined, is like a match to a powder keg. It calls for speaking out loudly against all actions that humiliate others, willfully or inadvertently. At the same time, there is need to break the grip of those who make political capital of the humiliations, real or imagined, of others.

  • Anil Kala
    Posted at 12:12h, 13 September Reply

    I don’t buy this. Humiliation is first impact thing; sustained humiliation tends to engender immunity. To eke out response you need to raise level of humiliation on the other hand ideological motivation is sustainable until a guy is disillusioned which does not occur often.

    In reality it is a combination of real or perceived injustice, humiliation, absence of redressal mechanism, an appealing ideology and deprivation.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 12:58h, 13 September

      Anil: I couldn’t follow the argument you are making. ‘Humiliation is first impact thing and sustained humiliation tends to engender immunity.’ This seems to be implying that humiliation has no impact whether one time or sustained – even to ‘eke out response you need to raise level of humiliation.’ The next part I was unable to understand at all perhaps because it is too cryptic: ‘On the other hand ideological motivation is sustainable until a guy is disillusioned which does not occur often.’

      I gave two examples, one fictional the other real. to illustrate the point I wished to make. Perhaps if you could also cite some incidents exemplifying what you have in mind, it would be easier to get the point.

  • Anil Kala
    Posted at 15:02h, 13 September Reply

    I meant if you are able to absorb first impact, humiliation as a stimulant loses force whereas ideological motivation does not.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 21:10h, 13 September

      Anil: Ragtime, at least, seems to be making the opposite argument. Coalhouse Walker was driven to vengeance by repeated humiliations; and Tateh, the Jewish immigrant, lost his ideological motivation in America. This last mirrors the experience of many youth who do so similarly by the time they reach middle age. As I said before, some examples to illustrate the scenario you have in mind would help to clarify. I hope other people would join this argument so we can get more perspectives on this important point.

    • Vinod
      Posted at 03:18h, 14 September

      I believe that ideology gets its potency only if there are ‘facts of humiliation’. It is the combination of humiliation and ideology that triggers revenge. Both cannot do much without the other.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 02:01h, 15 September

      Vinod: This may need to be qualified because not all ideologies seem to need ‘facts of humiliation’ to gain potency. For example, Marxism was a very powerful ideology and the free market ideology is dominant today – one cannot say that they rest on humiliations. Ideologies whose objective is revenge (like that of Al Qaeda) or the need to shed an inferiority complex (like Muslim and Hindu revivalisms in British India) more clearly belong to the set you have identified.

    • Vinod
      Posted at 02:26h, 15 September

      SA, that qualification is appropriate. Only ideologies related to assertion of the superiority of community identities would be pertinent to what I’ve stated.

  • Hasan Davar
    Posted at 20:31h, 13 September Reply

    I completely agree with the point that humiliation is a particularly powerful driver of action – something that the arrogance of power ignores at its own peril. However, it is possible that this state of affairs may continue for some time into the future, unless the humiliated respond with a force that can destroy the humiliator. That seems difficult. In the meantime, the humiliated remain mired in indignity and an impotent fury.

    I believe there must a group of people amongst the humiliated that understand the need to develop a rational response to overcome this pathetic state of affairs. In the same way, hopefully, there is a group of people amongst the humiliator that seek to moderate its arrogance. But life goes on for the humiliator and the humiliated on the humiliator’s terms. The humiliated have to take the initiative to change this, else it never will change. My question is: How will the humiliated come out of their humiliation?

    I don’t have an answer. I don’t know who does either. I don’t know why it so happened that it was not the Indians that colonized Britain. Why it was not Iraq that occupied the US. Why Afghanistan cannot install a puppet regime in Washington. And so on. The reverse is happening for deeper reasons that the humiliated as a group don’t understand. But the humiliator does. When the humiliated move beyond the mostly superficial and erroneous explanations that they have made for themselves, the balance may change. Somehow the humiliated have to begin to understand what the humiliator does. As a philosopher once said: Nature has the primary claim on mankind, only after that comes the luxury of reason.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 21:05h, 13 September

      Hasan: There are indeed such people. You can count Edward Said on one side and Noam Chomsky on the other as just two examples. It seems the difficulty is that intellectual and sophisticated arguments find it hard to make a dent when emotions are heated and vested interests are powerful. George Bush and Osama bin Laden carry the day.

  • Hasan Davar
    Posted at 02:14h, 20 September Reply

    More on humiliation…

    If The Shoe Fits
    by Mutadhar al-Zaidi

    “Here I am, free. But my country is still a prisoner of war… traveled through my burning land and saw with my own eyes the pain of the victims, and hear with my own ears the screams of the bereaved and the orphans…I am not a hero, and I admit that. But I have a point of view and I have a stance. It humiliated me to see my country humiliated. And to see my Baghdad burned. ” [Read More]

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 14:32h, 20 September

      Hasan: Thanks. It couldn’t be clearer. Whether the action was right or wrong what led to it is in no doubt and comes across repeatedly with intense power.

  • Anil Kala
    Posted at 17:03h, 20 September Reply

    Just a thought; if the threat of swift and brutal reprisal existed, would Mr Zaidi dare to repeat the act. For instance nobody threw shoes at Saddam Hussain.

    Brings into contrast the benefits of a constitutional democracy against a whimsical dictatorship.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 19:57h, 21 September

      Anil: I feel we are digressing from the main point especially because no one is trying to prove that a whimsical dictatorship is better than a constitutional democracy.

      The point being argued is that humiliation can trigger strong emotional responses. It is rare that these responses are constructive; most often they are destructive. The can be destructive to the individual who is humiliated or to the humiliator if the response is confined at the level of the individual. However, it is easy for the responses of the humiliated to be channeled into collective actions which can be destructive to society. The issue in this discussion is whether this is a correct characterization.

      Whether fear of retribution can keep the humiliated from expressing his or her emotions is a separate discussion. There is little doubt that it can but that does not imply that the emotion is absent. Whether Mr. Zaidi did not feel humiliated and did it to attract attention is also possible but again tangential to the issue under discussion. The same is the case with whether the action is to be celebrated or condemned.

      Just by way of interest, the article that I have recently archived on the blog reveals the limits of constitutional democracy.

  • Hasan Davar
    Posted at 04:11h, 21 September Reply

    Anil, that is an excellent question. We could attempt to answer it by theorizing in the following way: Mr. Zaidi could dare repeat his act in the face of certain death if the degree of the humiliation he felt had triggered in him that response which would make death the acceptable alternative over the humiliation. One reason nobody threw shoes at Saddam was because he did not humiliate his nation collectively. A Kuwaiti might have done it if Kuwait had been occupied long enough. To some extent, there is an analogy with suicides in Japan, where people do so when they feel they have committed an act or mistake that has brought humiliation or disgrace upon themselves or their family or even their employer.

    But the key lesson here lies not in what Mr. Zaidi did or could have done – it lies in what Bush did. Here is why: Mr. Zaidi’s act, in his own words, was triggered by what he felt was the humiliation of his country and therefore of himself. His humiliation triggered in him a response in which he was willing to face the consequences of what he thought was his best revenge – to throw a shoe. It created jokes all over the world and sent him to jail for a while. A great symbolic act of defiance was seen again and again over television in every country. People talked about his guts. But symbolism never cracks the substance – even Mr. Zaidi probably knew that. Yet he went ahead anyway. Could it be because he did not believe he could take respond in a way that could create a crack in the substance?

    Bush, despite the disgrace of having to duck a shoe being thrown at him, responded without letting the humiliation overwhelm him. He confronted the incident head on, belittled it, and intelligently let it fade over time. In a way, his response was similar to Yehudi Menuhin’s mother, he responded rationally. One could argue that the provocation faced by him was much less than the provocation faced by Mr. Zaidi, whose country was bombed and occupied. But when we enter into the realm of irrational responses, the degree of provocation and its subsequent response is subjective and not proportional.

    The lesson here is the crux of my argument: For the humiliated to extract themselves from their humiliation, they have to stop letting themselves feel humiliated so that they can think and work rationally. They have to not let their ego get in their way and ask the question: “What is it that the humiliator is doing right to be in a position to humiliate us and what is it that we are doing wrong to let ourselves be humiliated.” It is by far so much easier said than done. But in a smaller and simpler way, that is what Bush did. The same will have to be expected of Mr. Zaidi in his future actions.

    • Anil Kala
      Posted at 17:02h, 21 September

      There have been instances of irate litigants throwing shoes at Magistrates and even High Court Judges in India. No humiliation involved, merely exasperation at delay or perceived bias of the judge. In the case of Mr. Zaidi, it could be combination of humiliation of nation coupled with the instinctive knowledge of instant hero status. After all deal making is our basic nature.

  • Vikram
    Posted at 20:48h, 21 September Reply

    Would SA agree that overall, the Chinese have successfully used humiliation (during war with Japan) as a constructive collective tool ?

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 01:41h, 22 September

      Vikram: Yes, that would be a fair proposition to start with unless someone can disprove it.

  • Arun Pillai
    Posted at 19:44h, 10 September Reply

    South Asian,

    I followed your link at the bottom of a different post to this post and read it. While you are certainly right that humiliation has the potential to trigger irrational responses, the question still remains why someone chooses violence to respond. Also, one might expect that an ordinary person without much education (e.g. Narendra Modi) might respond to some provocation with violence, but how can one explain the fact that religious leaders who are supposed to be wise and learned – like Khomeini – react the way they do – to provocations like Rushdie’s or the Danish cartoons? When someone like Modi or other reasonably educated persons in Gujarat or elsewhere support or instigate violence, we roundly condemn them and their prejudice and their ideology; why should one not similarly condemn Islamic religious leaders and their beliefs too?

    Why are the Sunnis and Shias literally killing each other? This should also point to the need to look at the beliefs of the perpetrators of violence.

    I do think that the logic of explanation I offered at the bottom of the other post is ignored by both the left and the right. Let me repeat it here:

    “… the full answer lies in the combination of external and internal factors. Abstractly put, the logical form is “p and q implies r.” You need both p (external factors) and q (internal factors) to bring about r (the current situation).”

    I believe the left conveniently leaves out q and the right conveniently leaves out p. That is part of the reason they talk past each other on the issue of recent global terrorism.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 11:01h, 11 September

      Arun: I think we would make progress by looking at this at two levels. At the level of the individual, humiliation can lead to violence or to latent, unexpressed, sentiments of violence. If you have read Ragtime you would know that Coalhouse Walker exhausted all the remedies within the system before he flipped. So, clearly one way to reduce violent responses is to make social systems more open to the redress of genuine grievances. This is important in a region like South Asia where the excluded cannot get any justice.

      We are in a different ballpark altogether when we are dealing with religion in the service of politics. Here we must realize that it is the politics that is the driver and religion that is being employed for tactical purposes. Your questions are no different from asking why Pope Urban launched the First Crusade, or why there used to be such severe sectarian conflict in Christianity. There is a clear case for condemning religious leaders for such behavior and for using religion to incite violence. But one should not make the mistake of giving primacy to the religion instead of to the politics.

      Religions are complex systems and every religion has contradictory messages that are contextual. When one set of messages begins to get primacy and a religion becomes excessively political or social, one has to look at the politics that is driving the transformation. In a sense this is the theme of the series on cultural bypass being contributed by Ahmed Kamran to this blog – how did Sufi Islam become Jihadi Islam; At bottom it is the same Islam.

      I agree with your observation about the importance of incorporating both external and internal factors in an analysis. This too separates the academics from the ideologues. We are never very far from the politics that determines the tools that are used and how they are employed and we are short of the public intellectuals who are needed to keep the debate honest and balanced.

    • Vinod
      Posted at 11:07h, 11 September

      Arun, the beliefs precede the humiliation and before the humiliation they do not cause violence. When faced with humiliation a person(s) catapults to violence by leaning on his/her fundamental identity that justifies the violence.

      It’s important to see that the beliefs are not the root cause. Beliefs, even violent ones, need external gunpowder/circumstances to explode.
      I reckon I just contradicted what I said earlier. You are right then. Beliefs encouraging violence are contributory causes as well.

  • Arun Pillai
    Posted at 13:50h, 11 September Reply

    South Asian,

    I have enjoyed reading the first two parts of Kamran’s historical outline but to me it raises more questions than it answers. Why was jihad a possible response to external circumstances in the first place? Where did such an apparently violent concept come from? Why should it be part of a religion? Proselytizing has been a part of both Christianity and Islam and perhaps this is why it is these two religions that have waged religious wars unlike any other religion I can think of.

    My point has been that there is something in the internal make-up of contemporary Islam that lends itself to violence. It seems bizarre to me that Rushdie’s novel should have provoked a fatwa from a religious leader. That is not a matter of politics at all. More recently, the response to the threat by the Florida pastor to burn the Koran brought forth a response in which religious leaders urged ordinary Muslims in Afghanistan to protest semi-violently. Where are the Gandhis and Mandelas of Islam? And why does Islam dominate the thinking of Muslims? Why is it that external pressures through history called forth a religious response from Muslims?

    In medieval times, the Muslim world was known for its astronomy and algebra and art and architecture. It came close to the Copernican revolution. Why did these impulses not play a larger role in the responses of Muslims to the onslaught of history? There were many reform movements in Hinduism during British times, especially in the twentieth century. Why did such movements not bring Islam into the twentieth century? These are the sorts of questions that Kamran’s post raises in my mind. It is these differences that ultimately lead to the modern differences between India and Pakistan.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 17:04h, 11 September

      Arun: I will leave it to Kamran to answer your questions but I do wish to comment on some of your generalizations that I feel need more discussion.

      When you ask why such an apparently violent concept should be a part of religion you are clearly unaware of the history or etymology of jihad. It is a concept, like many others, that can be benign or violent, depending upon how it is leveraged. I am sure you will be able to recall how much the recent upsurge of jihadi violence owes to its championing by the Americans to defeat the Soviets in Afghanistan. Ronald Reagan was the patron saint of the modern jihad.

      When you point to the internal make-up of ‘contemporary’ Islam, the focus clearly is on the term contemporary. This is what Kamran is trying to elucidate. If, on the other hand, you are making the argument that violence is inherent to Islam then you should state that unambiguously.

      You are also generalizing when you say that external pressures through history have called forth religious responses from Muslims. As I mentioned in an earlier comment, many other responses have been seen – Arab socialism was one, secular democracy was another. In India, Jinnah began from a position that was much less religious and confrontational than that of Gandhi. A historical analysis is needed to understand the path that has led to the present outcomes. And what is the evidence that Islam dominates the thinking of all Muslims any more than Hinduism dominates the thinking of all Hindus?

      There were reformist movements in India – Syed Ahmed Khan’s was one. But I feel you are moving into a cultural domain in explaining the modern differences between India and Pakistan along the lines of Weber’s ethic of Protestantism. Let us start by spelling out what the modern differences are between India and Pakistan before we look for explanations.

      My overall sense is that you are mistaken in looking for evidence of intrinsic violence in systems instead of what makes a system resort to violence at a particular time. The Japanese have waged vicious wars in their neighborhood and both Tamils and the Sinhala have inflicted immense cruelty on each other in Sri Lanka. These wars have remained confined only because the religions are geographically delimited. But we are not seeking the source of inherent violence in either Buddhism or Hinduism. Hinduism is amongst the most oppressive social systems in history. One can just as well ask why such oppression that leads to recurring violence, both active and passive, at the local level should be part of a religion or system. But this perspective would engulf us in rhetorical arguments and not enhance our understanding of specific instances of violence.

      It is also mistaken to generalize that Islam is not in the twentieth century. There is no one Islam; there are parts of the Muslim world that are in the 20th century and parts that are way behind. All of Hinduism is not in the 20th century either; there are people in the forests whom you would not place in the 20th century. The irony is that it is the moderns who are either waging war and inflicting violence on the ancients or inciting them to violence. This should suggest what happens when a group of people are sitting atop resources that are coveted by others. Religion on both sides becomes irrelevant except as an instrument in the struggle for power. You would recall Churchill’s comments about the religions of India and how they needed a superior culture to make them fit for the 20th century and for self-governance.

  • Arun Pillai
    Posted at 18:13h, 11 September Reply

    South Asian,

    I will try to respond to the many points you have made more or less paragraph by paragraph.

    1. By focusing on external factors like Ronald Reagan and the Americans, you are again ignoring internal factors and the agency of Muslims. Why did the Muslims of Afghanistan react the way they did apparently allowing a foreign power to distort or leverage its internal religious concepts like jihad? How could that happen?

    2. I just do not know Islam and its many variants well enough to make such a claim. Kamran has stated that often the response to external pressures was to hark back to a pure caliphate and want a universalization of the religion. Is that an inherent part of all Islam? I just do not know. That is why I confined my statement to one or two variants of *contemporary* Islam.

    3. Regarding the reaction of Muslims to external pressures, I grant you that there were other responses like Arab socialism but I had in mind Kamran’s narrative. In it, most of the reactions involve religion. My question was why did that happen? Also, I certainly am not implying that Islam dominates the thinking of all Muslims. What I meant to ask was why is that today Islam has become so important to so many Muslims? This is similar to the question why in the US is there a resurgence of Christianity? While there has been a resurgence of Hindutva, I believe it is a little different from a religious resurgence.

    4. Regarding reformist movements and Weber-style explanations, my point is that the information one gets from the media is overwhelmingly about the role of religion in the Middle East. Here is a paragraph from the latest Economist about Iran:

    “As the president’s closest adviser, the slim, handsome, self-confident Mr Mashai has come to represent all that traditionalists in Shia Iran find odious about Mr Ahmadinejad’s presidency. The Islamic Republic was founded on the idea that the Muslim community awaits the reappearance of the hidden “12th imam”, a messianic leader who was “occulted”—hidden by God—in the ninth century; in the meantime it is up to the clergy to run human affairs, under an arrangement known as the Guardianship of the Jurist. Mr Mashai, it is strongly rumoured, believes himself to have a direct link to the hidden imam, and hence regards the intercession of Iran’s clergy as superfluous. He is also said to have encouraged the president’s well-known millenarian tendencies.”

    Why has religion played so important a role in Iran for example even in modern times?

    5. I don’t believe the Sri Lankan strife was religious, it was ethnic. I am not saying all violence is religious. Clearly, man’s inhumanity to man knows no bounds. As regards the oppressiveness of Hinduism, I would be the first to say that violence, especially of a subtle sort through the mechanism of caste, is deeply rooted in Hinduism and needs to be completely eradicated. Rohinton Mistry’s heartrending account of the caste oppression in “A Fine Balance” makes the point more clearly than I have seen elsewhere. But, to the credit of India, caste has been made unconstitutional. However, of course, it still persists and its effects are heinous. But see also the following article in the NYT:

    The main point about caste is that many many people in India and elsewhere overtly condemn it and acknowledge its ugly presence in the center of Hinduism. Where is the corresponding condemnation in Islam of its violent tendencies? Why do we not hear secular Muslims and religious leaders condemn violence?

    I do believe that – just like the presence of caste in Hinduism – violence can be intrinsic to a system. Looking again for external things that might trigger violent reactions is again an evasion.

    6. Again, I am certainly not saying that all of Islam is not in the twentieth century. My point is more that just as there are many Hindus and secularists who are openly critical of Hinduism’s oppressive side, there ought to be more such vocal criticism of all religions including Islam. Perhaps it is there, perhaps I just do not know of it. All I have seen is statements like some terrorists have hijacked Islam. But they never ask: how is such hijacking possible?

    The Hindutva movement in India has not succeeded in hijacking Hinduism even though they have tried to do it. Ordinary Hindus especially in states like Gujarat have many prejudices about Muslims and some of them have perpetrated violence against them, but Hinduism itself and systems of religious belief have remained relatively intact. People do not see something like the Ramayana in overly narrow ways though the fundamentalists have tried to do that.

    It is no argument to point to external factors or the problems of other religions. Of course every religion is problematic. But that does not absolve any particular religion of its particular problems. As I have kept saying, current terrorism has both external and internal factors and the left conveniently leaves out internal factors and the right conveniently leaves out external factors.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 21:11h, 11 September

      Arun: Let us continue the discussion.

      1. What are the internal factors in Afghanistan that you would like to focus on? It was quite a secular place under Zahir Shah. Then it got invaded by the Soviet Union. How was this invasion to be resisted? The most unifying device that could bring together its various ethnicities was religion. How would you have advised the Afghans to fight the Soviets?

      2. How many Muslims support the struggle for a caliphate? It is a fringe group. In India, the lead on the Khilafat Movement was taken by Gandhi, again an exploitation of religion for purely political objectives. This stance was roundly condemned by Jinnah, a Muslim.

      3. There is a rise in fundamentalism to varying degrees all over the world One has to seek the reasons for this phenomenon. Hindutva is the same thing but in a different form because Hinduism is not a religion in the same way as monotheistic religions.

      4. I don’t think it is a good idea to rely on the role of the media. Do you really believe that the pastor in Florida is as big as the media is making him out to be? On the role of religion in Iran, you have to go over its history. When did you start hearing about the role of religion in Iran? The first resistance to the Western grab for Iranian oil resources came in the form of a secular democratic movement. This was sabotaged by the Americans in 1953 and replaced by a puppet Shah. The resistance to the Shah came from communists and socialists who were eliminated by the Savak with American assistance. Only when all these forms of resistance were eliminated did religion emerge as the force that could withstand the undermining by Western powers. This is not to praise the turn to religion, only to explain it.

      5. Whether the strife is religious or ethnic it has to be sustained in some way. One could ask how people belonging to such pacifist faiths as Hinduism and Buddhism find such brutality compatible with their fundamental beliefs. Did we miss out some inherent violence in the faiths of the same sort that plagues Islam?

      6. You are not listening carefully enough. Condemnations of terrorism are are as routine as those of caste oppression and it is not constitutionally protected or sanctioned in any country. But just as there is lingering sympathy for caste privileges, there is lingering sympathy for terrorism as the last resort against powerful adversaries. It is wrong but it is there. How would you advise the Palestinians to resist the encroachments on their rights? Had Mandela failed would he not have been condemned by history as a mere terrorist?

      7. If violence is intrinsic to systems how would you explain people living peacefully as neighbors for decades and then suddenly deciding one day to slaughter each other? Would you look harder for something in the system or for what happened on that day?

      8. Your knowledge of Hinduism is based on concrete observations while that of Islam relies largely on the media. The international media has very little interest in picking up the oppressiveness of caste discrimination because it is largely irrelevant to the rest of the world. Rush Limbaugh is not ranting about caste the way he is about Islam. Sarah Palin probably does not even know what caste means. Even Indians themselves are unwilling to acknowledge in international fora that caste oppression is an issue for consideration. Within India, where is the open criticism of the oppression of the adivasis? Someone like Arundhati Roy who does raise the issue is pilloried as a traitor.

      9. Let us conduct a thought experiment. Let us suppose that the people living atop the majority of the world’s oil resources had been Hindus or Buddhists. What would the world have been like? What would the media coverage have highlighted? Would we have seen more of Churchill’s attitude in play? Or the one that prevailed about American Indians (less than human) before their resources were expropriated? In the case of the American Indians, would you look harder for something in their system or in the external motivations? Could it be that many Muslims are not ready to accept the fate of the American Indians? It seems far-fetched but is still a question worth asking.

      10. Every religion is indeed problematic and has its particular problems and has seen episodes of violence. But violence is not endemic to religions nor is it manifest at all times. It breaks out at particular times and for particular reasons. Even non-religions like Soviet Socialism and Cambodian and Chinese Communism are problematic when it comes to periodic episodes of violence. You are correct that both internal and external factors should be investigated to understand the outbreak of violence.

    • Vinod
      Posted at 06:13h, 13 September

      I will second SA’s point 6. I too have seen plenty of condemnations of terrorism by muslim religious groups. It is just that they don’t figure prominently in the media.

  • Arun Pillai
    Posted at 03:59h, 12 September Reply

    South Asian,

    Actually my point is very simple at one level. Caste is a central concept in Hinduism, yet it has been made unconstitutional, and there is widespread criticism of it in society. That does not mean it does not persist but it is a spent force and will sooner or later disappear. Almost no one would publicly speak out for caste in India, in fact it is against the law to do so.

    The corresponding concept in Islam is not terrorism but jihad and the possibility of fatwas. I have never heard any full-fledged criticism of it by Muslims, only equivocations. It is possible to equivocate about caste too by bringing in philosophical ideas but no one does it. Are there Muslims who are willing to say that jihad and fatwas are wrong?

    The left has taken the position that only external factors should be criticized. When they do consider internal factors, they are things like puppet regimes and poverty and internal oppression but they are unwilling to say there is something internal to the religion. These are some of the same people who will criticize other religions like Christianity or Hinduism internally. No one on the left criticized religion when the Bamiyan Buddhas were destroyed. I feel there is a double standard in the way the left sees it.

    Is there a lack of honest criticism here?

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 17:38h, 12 September

      Arun: We are now coming to grips with the real issues but I feel the analogies you are drawing are misplaced.

      Caste is not a concept; it is a concrete reality. It is on par with slavery and race discrimination that severely circumscribes the choices of individuals for arbitrary reasons. Till a hundred years ago there were laws in the US that did not allow slaves to read, write or vote. This kind of discrimination cannot be lawfully protected in the 21st century and any country that persists in doing so would fall foul of the declarations of human rights.

      Jihad is an abstract concept, a grossly abused one, but still an abstract concept. There is no way a concept can be declared unconstitutional. What is needed are much stronger and unequivocal actions condemning and proscribing the misuse of the concept. There have not been anywhere near enough of these although see the recent Mardin statement. Also, see this term paper on Jihad by an American college Freshman.

      Fatwas are nothing more that pronouncements by people in authority. Papal encyclicals are fatwas. In Islam there is no central authority, so any religious scholar can issue a fatwa. The majority are silly and self-serving just as the fatwa by the Florida pastor is silly and self-serving. But all silly statements are protected under the right to free speech. Maturity lies in treating them as silly and ignoring them. In this regard, Muslims have demonstrated tremendous immaturity in their knee-jerk reactions to deliberate provocations.

      The added complication with both the concept of jihad and fatwas is that they become tools in political games to distract attention from internal issues in ways that caste does not. The Pakistan military has been encouraging and exploiting the notion of jihad in Kashmir, buttressing it with indoctrination in schools, to sustain its hegemony inside the country. The fatwa by the Florida pastor has become integral to the Fall elections in the US. The percentage of the population in both countries that swallows such nonsense is depressing. This failing is a function of intellectual deprivation more than anything else.

      Regarding the Left, you have stood the reality on its head. There is hardly any Left in Muslim countries because of its mindless aping of the Marxian attitude to religion being the opiate of the masses, forgetting that Marx was coming at the end of a very different interaction with religion in Europe. The Left did not feel the need to intelligently critique religion because it dismissed it as irrelevant. The Indian Left did not fall into the same trap and did much better.

    • Vinod
      Posted at 08:04h, 13 September

      Arun, there is also the traditional islam school that is taking on the wahabi islam intellectually. Many of the scholars in there are against the idea of empire-like muslim states with shariah. Instead they advocate decentralized local govts with Islam woven with the specific cultural norms of the place. This school is not funded very well and its presence is only gradually and slowly being felt.

      Another school of thought within the muslim world is that of the Javed Ghamidi school or Farahi school centered in Pakistan. Check out the website of the student of Ghamidi Saheb, Moiz Amjad at

      Javed Ghamidi has become so popular that many of the jihaid groups have tried to assasinate him and his students and bomb his publishing house. He gets good airtime on Pakistani television. I wish his exegesis of the Quran gets popular in the muslim world. It will do a hell lot of good to muslims in bridging the gap between modernity and traditional values.
      Let me know what you think.

  • hajikulkul
    Posted at 07:25h, 12 September Reply

    I agree 100% with the author. There can be several other examples of the fact that when one humiliates the results are same as analysed. Referring that to incident of 9/11 is very obvious too. I wish we could be a more tolerant world otherwise more is to come.

  • Arun Pillai
    Posted at 16:40h, 12 September Reply

    Hasan Davar has said above:

    “Can it be possible for the humiliated to respond to a humiliating provocation in a rational way that extracts them from the circumstances that allow them to be humiliated?”

    This is the key question to ask oneself in honest self-reflection. Is it not possible for a country and its religious and intellectual leaders to think of constructive and long-term ways to deflect humiliation? For example, by building up the economy based on the revenues from oil, to diversify its economic activity, to modernize etc.? China, India, Latin America, the UAE are all getting the attention of the world because this is the path they have chosen. This can alleviate humiliation in a constructive and permanent way.

    If A insults B, is the best course of action for B to insult A or simply to kill A? There are many other responses possible for human beings. I have not read Ragtime though I have seen the film a long time ago. To me, the situation is quite different from the situation of Arab and nonArab Muslim countries. They do have a certain autonomy and sovereignty and could have done and still could do many many things to change their own circumstances.

    There is much injustice in the world. But Gandhi said – an eye for an eye only makes the whole world blind.

    • Vinod
      Posted at 06:25h, 13 September

      Arun, I think that question can be asked of any community. I don’t know of any community that has consistently responded with such maturity enmasse when humiliated. They may have at times. But human societies have for the most part reacted immaturely to humiliation. Do note that the Indian freedom struggle had its fair share of “terrorists”.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 17:05h, 13 September

      Arun: I have reservations about this perspective. If everyone were rational we would not have these problems. We can either wish for an ideal world or work with the one we have.

      Once again, it does not help to lump individuals and countries together. In the case of individuals, the saying ‘the last straw that broke the camel’s back’ exists for a reason. You have to read Ragtime to understand this. You wish to bring into being a world of camels with unbreakable backs. I am arguing for a world in which we try and avoid loading on that last straw.

      When you move to countries, you cannot get away from the political context. Many countries are under the control of unrepresentative rulers who are looking for opportunities to divert attention from the real issues. Real or imagined humiliations are a god-send to them. One would wish the populations didn’t fall for these ploys but they do. One can also argue that people get the governments they deserve but that would also not solve our problem.

      Look at the way the US, where a representative government exists, reacted to a perceived humiliation and chose its mode of vengeance. A tissue of lies about Iraq was sold to a public that bought it and then re-elected Bush. You can look for the cause in religion, politics, money, immaturity, gullibility, etc. This was not constructive way to deflect a perceived humiliation. We could wish it were otherwise but that is the point that Doctorow makes: Humiliation breeds irrationality and the manipulation of the desire for vengeance.

  • Arun Pillai
    Posted at 19:26h, 12 September Reply

    South Asian,

    I have read the Mardin statement and the term paper by the American freshman.

    With regard to the Mardin statement it is obviously a step in the right direction. It clarified certain concepts for me. It is still possible to debate and discuss what the statement says but I will refrain. I hope the statement is widely publicized globally.

    With regard to the freshman’s paper, I found it exemplary because I am always impressed when someone tries to understand the other person’s point of view. Are there such examples in the Muslim world that you are aware of where some student or older person has tried to understand where the West is coming from and tries to set right misconceptions in the Muslim world about the West? I had posted elsewhere an article from the NYT where the action described was also exemplary – here is the link again:

    Regarding concepts and practices, most things in the world have a dual existence, inside the head as a concept and outside as a reality. For example, there are tables and chairs in the world and we also have mental concepts of tables and chairs. That is how we can talk about them and do things with them. Likewise, caste is both a concept and a reality and so are jihad and fatwa. Caste has been written about in many places starting perhaps with the Rig Veda. There are many dimensions to the concept and it influenced the Greeks including Plato and his Republic. But it also has a reality and it has solidified in modern times and perhaps in earlier times as a rather heinous practice with morally reprehensible consequences. While the concept cannot be declared unconstitutional its practice can and has been so declared.

    I do not think it is adequate to say that Muslims have demonstrated tremendous “immaturity” in reacting to provocations. People have often been killed or wounded by such reactions including the perpetrators’ fellow Muslims. There is certainly immaturity in such reactions but there is a lot more that could be said about this matter. But this can only be said by Muslims and that is why I say that the Mardin statement is a step in the right direction.

    Would you say the fatwa against Rushdie was just “silly”?

    It does not help if one points to similar actions by others. Others may behave in morally reprehensible ways, why should we?

    Regarding the Left, it is much more sophisticated in its ideas today than at the time of Marx. There are many criticisms by the Left of Christianity and Hinduism but I have never seen one of Islam. I personally know many Indian leftists who will criticize Hindu fundamentalism but not Muslim fundamentalism.

    • Vinod
      Posted at 06:21h, 13 September

      Are there such examples in the Muslim world that you are aware of where some student or older person has tried to understand where the West is coming from and tries to set right misconceptions in the Muslim world about the West?

      I recommend the talks by Tariq Ramadan. He considers himself both a European and a muslim and has been calling for a ‘European Islam’ distinct from Arab or South Asian Islam.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 13:25h, 13 September

      Arun: If you have not seen critiques of Islam or objective interpretations of Western thought, the more likely cause is a gap in your awareness. I am aware of some writings in English and contemporary names that come immediately to mind include Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Irshad Manji, Pervez Hoodbhoy, Anwar Shaikh, Zia ul Haq, Tariq Ali, Hanif Kureishi, Salman Rushdie, Taslima Nasreen, Fatima Mernissi, and Ibn Warraq. I am sure there are more from the Arab world and in local languages. I checked with Pakistanis and was informed of the very influential Urdu writings of Sibte Hasan and other documents from virtually all segments of the Left when it was intellectually vigorous. A 2009 book by Mubarak Haider that is being much discussed is called Tehzibi Nargisiat aur Taliban (Civilizational Narcissism and the Taliban). Then there is the entire tradition of critiques of orthodox religion contained in the output of the Sufi and Bhagti poets like Bulleh Shah and Kabir and in the verses of popular poets like Ghalib and Mir.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 17:20h, 13 September

      Arun: This is to respond to the remaining points made by you.

      At a macro level everything is both a concept and a reality but at a micro level there is some difference between a thing like a table and an idea like that of struggle.

      You wish to offer a different characterization of the reaction of Muslims to provocations. What is it? How would you compare it to the reaction of Americans to the provocation of 9/11 or the Cordoba Institute?

      You neither wish to characterize the fatwa against Rushdie as silly or as a political ploy. What would be your characterization?

      We are dealing with an issue of human psychology that cuts across many divisions. We can discuss what gives rise to such a universal response. While we should applaud exceptions, wishing for any one group in its totality to be the exception is not a fruitful way to proceed in my opinion.

  • Arun Pillai
    Posted at 15:41h, 13 September Reply

    South Asian,

    I am aware of most of these names. But not a few have received death threats etc. I have met Hoodbhoy, Shaikh, and Rushdie.

    I was referring more to local people and local languages who are read largely by locals. Your further names are of some interest.

  • Arun Pillai
    Posted at 15:52h, 13 September Reply


    All your posts above are of interest. Thanks for the links and the names.

    I think there is a huge difference between a literal freedom struggle of the kind the subcontinent faced and the kind of thing that has happened int the Middle East.

  • Arun Pillai
    Posted at 17:45h, 13 September Reply

    Here is one reaction by an American rabbi to the Cordoba Center:

    Shame on America, Jews & the ADL
    By Rabbi Bruce Warshal*

    To begin, the mosque controversy does not involve a mosque. It is
    planned as a 13-story community center encompassing a swimming pool,
    500-seat performing arts center, gym, culinary school, restaurant
    and, yes, a prayer space for Muslims, which already exists in the
    current building. A formal mosque would forbid eating or the playing
    of music on the premises. I guess that we are now at the point in
    America where Jews can have our JCC’s and Christians their YMCA’s, but
    Muslims are not wanted.

    There is also the controversy over the proposed name, Cordoba House.
    The hate-mongers have described this as a reference to Muslim designs
    to attack western culture, hearkening back to the Muslim-Christian
    wars of domination in medieval Spain. The name was chosen for
    precisely the opposite reason. In the tenth century Cordoba was the
    center of the most liberal and sophisticated Caliphate in the Islamic
    world. All religions were not merely tolerated but respected.

    The caliph, Abd al-Rahman III, had a Jew as his foreign minister and a
    Greek bishop in his diplomatic corps. He also had a library of
    400,000 volumes at a time when the largest library in Christian Europe
    numbered merely 400 manuscripts. There were also 70 other smaller
    libraries in Cordoba. The very reference to Cordoba reflects the
    sophistication and liberality of the Muslims behind this project.
    They have changed the name of the center to the address of the
    building, Park 51, to deflect criticism. This was unfortunate, since
    nothing will quiet a hate-monger.

    Feisal Abdul Rauf, the Imam behind the proposed community center, has
    been attacked as an Islamic terrorist, even though he is a
    practitioner of Sufi Islam, which reaches out to all other religions
    as manifestations of the Divine. My God, the conservative Bush
    administration utilized Rauf as part of an outreach to the Muslim
    world. You can bet your life that he was thoroughly vetted by our
    government. He is currently being used by the Clinton State
    Department as well in the same capacity. Fareed Zakaria of Newsweek
    and CNN succinctly put it, “His vision of Islam is bin Laden’s

    And what is Rauf’s sin? He will build a Muslim community center two
    blocks away from Ground Zero, variously described as a “hallowed
    battlefield,” “holy ground,” and a “war memorial.” Even President
    Obama in his defense of religious freedom commented that, “Ground zero
    is, indeed, hallowed ground.” I beg to differ.

    If Ground Zero is holy ground, then the railroad station in Madrid,
    the Underground in London, the federal building in Oklahoma City, the
    Pentagon (where there is presently a prayer space for Muslims – yes,
    patriotic, religious Muslim Americans work at the Pentagon) and every
    other physical location that has been the object of terrorism is holy
    ground. If Ground Zero is holy space why plan for it to be developed
    with office buildings (in which the object will be to amass money –
    obviously a holy pursuit), a shopping center (in which consumer goods
    will be peddled to continue to gorge the American appetite for
    material possessions), and with a theater for modern dance (a project
    to which I personally look forward as a devotee of the Joyce, the
    modern dance Mecca of New York)? I’m sorry, but someone has to tell
    America that this designation of holy space is merely part of a mass
    hysteria that really scares me.

    The question which must be asked is why this hysteria? The impetus
    comes from a triumvirate of right-wing Christians, Jews and
    politicians. Fundamentalist Christians are still fighting the
    crusades, still vying to convert the world to their truths. Islam is
    the fastest growing religion in the world, to the distress of these
    Christian proselytizers. What better way to win this battle than to
    brand all Muslims as terrorists?

    Right-wing Jews think that they are doing Israel a favor by painting
    Islam as a terrorist religion thereby proving that Israel need not
    negotiate with the Palestinians. The idea is to project the concept
    that we are civilized and they are not. This theme is picked up in
    the right-wing press of Israel. Commenting on the New York proposed
    “mosque,” a columnist in the Jerusalem Post declares that “Islamism is
    a modern political tendency which arose in a spirit of fraternal
    harmony with the fascists of Europe in the 1930’s and ‘40’s.” Ground
    Zero isn’t Israel’s “holy ground.” Why would he be involved with this
    discussion? Simply because right-wing Jews in Israel as well as the
    United States believe that demonizing the religion of 1.3 billion
    people is good for Israel. God help us.

    Right-wing politicians join the fray. On Fox News Newt Gingrich
    compares a mosque at Ground Zero to Nazis protesting at the United
    States Holocaust Memorial. The Democrats are cowed by the American
    outpouring of hate and even Harry Reid voices disapproval of the Park
    51 site. It’s a perfect storm of hate.

    Periodically we go through this in America. The anti-Catholic
    No-Nothing party ran ex-President Millard Fillmore in the presidential
    election of 1856 and garnered 27 percent of the votes. We deported
    over 10,000 people during the First World War because they opposed our
    entry into that war and we incarcerated loyal Japanese Americans
    during the Second World War. Now during this “war on terror” I
    shudder to think where we are headed.

    The tool used in this hate campaign is the concept of collective
    guilt. Based on that, all Jews are traitors since Ethel and Julius
    Rosenberg sold out this country. All Christians are terrorists since
    Timothy McVeigh attacked the federal building in Oklahoma City.
    Neither are all Muslims traitors nor terrorists. Islam is not
    monolithic. Its forms are as varied as Judaism or Christianity. I do
    not practice Judaism the same as a Satmar Hasidic Jew. A Catholic
    does not practice Christianity the same as a Jehovah Witness. Imam
    Rauf does not share the same Islamic beliefs as bin Laden.

    Of all people Jews should beware of collective guilt since we have
    suffered from it for millennia. Yet the organization that started
    this hysteria is headed by a right-wing Jewish supporter of Israel by
    the name of Pam Geller. She is quoted in the mainstream media
    (including the Jewish Journal) as if she is a legitimate political
    voice. Yet on her blog, Atlas Shrugs, she has declared that “Obama is
    the illegitimate son of Malcom X.” She has written that we have “an
    American-hater for president.” She has proposed that devout Muslims
    should be prohibited from military service. She asks, “Would Patton
    have recruited Nazis into his army?” To all of the rabbis quoted in
    the Jewish Journal urging that the “mosque” be moved, know who is
    pulling your strings.

    Finally, to the role of the Anti-Defamation League and its director,
    Abe Foxman. The world was literally “shocked,” that’s the word used
    by the Associated Press, by ADL’s call for the mosque to be moved.
    Fareed Zakaria called it a “bizarre decision.” Foxman, a Holocaust
    survivor, said, “Survivors of the Holocaust are entitled to feelings
    that are irrational.” Referring to loved ones of the September 11
    victims, he continued: “Their anguish entitles them to positions that
    others would categorize as irrational or bigoted.”

    How dare Foxman use the Holocaust to justify prejudice. He does
    blasphemy to the memory of Jews and other oppressed minorities whose
    lives were sacrificed on the altar of bigotry. Zakaria responds:
    “Does Foxman believe that bigotry is OK if people think they’re
    victims? Does the anguish of Palestinians, then, entitle them to be

    Five years ago the ADL honored Zakaria with the Hubert H. Humphrey
    First Amendment Freedoms Prize. Incensed over ADL’s succumbing to
    bigotry, he has returned the award with the $10,000 honorarium that
    came with it.

    The last word was recently written by Daniel Luban, a doctoral student
    at the University of Chicago, in Tablet Magazine: “While activists
    like Pam Geller have led the anti-mosque campaign and the broader
    demonization of Muslims that has accompanied it, leaders like Abe
    Foxman have acquiesced in it. In doing so they risk providing an ugly
    and ironic illustration of the extent of Jewish assimilation in
    21st-century America. We know that Jews can grow up to be senators
    and Supreme Court justices. Let’s not also discover that they can
    grow up to incite a pogrom.”
    Rabbi Bruce Warshal:

    ** The article originally appeared in the “Florida Jewish Journal”

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 19:57h, 13 September

      Arun: You are missing the point I am trying to make. As I mentioned, there are many sensible reactions to such situations and all sensible reactions are to be lauded. Still, what matters more in the end is the collective response. And, so far, the sensible individual responses have not been able to outweigh the irrational collective response on either side.

      I am puzzled by your expectation that there cannot be a sensible response by Muslims. Here is a list of responses by Muslim organizations and individuals to terrorism. There are many in the local languages that are not accessible on the Internet. Here is a critique of and an explanation for the abuse of jihad before 9/11 by Asghar Ali Engineer. Dr. Engineer has been writing consistently against terrorism for years under the auspices of his Institute of Islamic Studies.

      Despite all these individual and organizational condemnations the fact remains that a collective sentiment of irrationality continues to find support and this is no different from the situation in the US. We have to seek an explanation for this kind of collective response and we are unlikely to find it exclusively in religion. We need to build support for a different type of response to terror, of the sort you have termed constructive. Here is an effort on our own blog that was initiated in response to the terrorist attack in Mumbai.

  • Arun Pillai
    Posted at 19:39h, 13 September Reply

    Let me make some general points. I have tried above to give examples of self-criticism – the Jewish woman who became a widow after 9/11 and began to help Afghan widows; the Jewish rabbi; the American freshman who analyzed the concept of jihad; and I myself who without equivocation criticized caste as being morally reprehensible and heinous.

    The strongest words you have used in your criticism have been “irrational,” “immature,” and “silly.” When I have raised questions, you have turned them back to me, asking for how I would characterize things. It is not for me to criticize the actions of Muslims, it is for Muslims to do so without equivocation.

    I could have tried to give a historical account of the evolution of caste and so on but I did not. One can always say things are political. Just as in the natural sciences where the same phenomenon can be explained at different levels (I can explain why water boils at 100 degrees C at normal temperature and pressure either through a macro level of Boyle’s law or through statistical mechanics or through quantum mechanics), so can historical phenomena. The Jewish rabbi did not mince words and try to give a political explanation of why people in America are behaving as they are; no, he said unequivocally: shame on American and the Jews.

    The beliefs people have make a huge difference to how they react to external provocations. Since you have given the example of Ragtime, let me give the example of a play “Death and the Maiden” that was made into a movie by Roman Polanski. Here is a brief synopsis:

    “Paulina Escobar is the housewife to a prominent liberal lawyer in an unnamed third World country. One day a storm forces her husband to ride home with a neighbor. That chance encounter brings up demons from her past, as she is convinced that the neighbor (Dr. Miranda) was part of the old fascist regime that tortured and raped her, while blindfolded. Paulina takes him captive to determine the ‘truth’. Paulina is torn between her psychological repressions and somber memory, Gerardo is torn between his wife and the law, and Dr. Miranda is forced to endure captivity while husband and wife seek out the uncertain truth about the clouded past. At the end, it becomes clear that Dr. Miranda was indeed the person who had tortured and humiliated her. The husband and wife take him to the edge of a cliff blindfolded and bound where they contemplate pushing him over where he would die and perhaps never be discovered. But the liberal beliefs of the lawyer and the housewife stop them. They ask themselves: how could they possibly justify taking the captive’s life even if he had tortured and humiliated her? They let him go completely free.”

    This play, also fictional, shows how the beliefs one has can make a huge difference to how one acts in the world no matter what the external circumstances.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 20:10h, 13 September

      Arun: I am also unable to speak on behalf of Muslims but I have provided you with a list of statements of condemnation by Muslims. I also referred you to the writings of Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Irshad Manji who do not mince any words.

    • Vinod
      Posted at 02:15h, 14 September

      SA, i hold Ayan Hirsi, Irshad Manji and Ibn Warraq to be very poor muslim or ex-muslim intellectuals. Some of their opinions are outright lies against Islam. They may be quite right about muslims though. Ayan Hirsi disappoints me the most.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 18:31h, 14 September

      Vinod: These are the severest of the critiques. Whether they are sensible critiques is a separate issue.

  • Arun Pillai
    Posted at 20:23h, 13 September Reply

    South Asian,

    I was certainly not suggesting that Muslims cannot be and have not been self-critical. The list of organizations you linked to was worth seeing. It is not well-known enough. I have admired Asghar Ali Engineer’s writings since I was in my twenties which is many many years ago.

    My main point – if I try to extract it from the above posts – is that it is not enough to give historical/sociological/political explanations. These are important but one also has to ask simple questions like: If A insults B, is the best course of action for B to insult A or simply to kill A? What leads B to make a choice? In other words, one has to be analytic and moral as well.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 16:27h, 14 September

      Arun: It has been a long detour but we have extracted a key question that we can explore further. I am going to address it in a separate post. Most readers still don’t realize that on this blog the comments are of much greater value than the posts themselves. In fact, a post is only meant to anchor a conversation amongst friends.

  • hmani
    Posted at 16:47h, 07 March Reply

    I read the blogs ,but many times I find some are not fully honest,I would not classify them as intellectually dishonest,but they come close.Bloggar are not politicians and there is no excuse to be politically correct and trim facts and dance around the words.What if yo ur conclusions and your point of view are wrong,all the same they are mine.If you read the life of the founder of Islam,you will see from year 619 to 622 A.D. it was one battle after armed campaign and violent struggle with people who opposed his Faith,-Islam.So what do you expect,a non violent operation?It is for that reason Kuran has many Suras which has urged its followers to be ready at least for the possibility of blood shed.Weather this violence is inherent to Islam and makes muslims violent prone is depends on if you are Muslim or non Muslim.I happen to believe that it does.I fear no man,devil or god if I offend any one.I do not have to,I do not live in Pakistan or Saudi Arabia.I live in USA and guard my right of free speech and right to free expression.I won’t dance around this and will not be ambiguous.I have no malice and none is ever intended.I believe it is non-sense to say Islam does not dominate the thinking and life of Muslims.Chirtianity also influences the life of its folks but not to the level of Muslims.A hindu does not have to toe the line as there are no fixed tenets or rules to follow and there is no apostate law hanging like a sword on your neck.Even my wife has no problem me being a total “UNBELIEVER”.She hasn’t left me yet.!It is very difficult (UNLIKE JEW AND HINDUS)for muslims to condemn terror acts or Jehad as they are part of their holy Kurran,by doing that they are contridictting the word of Allah and which is no no in Islam.When some one mentions name like Ayan Hirshi,Irshad and Anwar Shaikh ,they are Apostates and they live in west and outside Fatwa.I have immense respect for late Anwar Shikh,whom I went to see in Cardiff and I consider myself a very lucky man.He was fearless and his honesty stood out as a virtue and I swore never to be afraid again come high waters.I have no bone to pick with the”BELIEVERS’ each to his own,just do not put bomb when I’m in subway or in office working and minding my own business.I’m happy my President past and present take my life seriously and thought a lesson to over reaching fanatic like Mullah Omar blind Shaikh and Bin Ladden,Can India deter Pakistan ,answer is clear “No”there lies the difference.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 18:08h, 08 March

      hmani: Whether Islam and Muslims are violence prone should not depend on whether one is a Muslim or non-Muslim. It is either true or false.

      But even if it is true, it leaves a lot unexplained. There is much variation in the level of violence in Islamic history (as there is in Christian history or Japanese history or Sri Lankan history). What one needs to explain are the causes that contribute to these variations. And that requires a deeper analysis of the contextual conditions. A general explanation that some people are inherently violent is not enough.

      You have mentioned Anwar Shaikh who was a Marxist. The holy book of Marxists was Das Kapital which talks a lot about class war. Yet British Marxists were much less violent than Stalin or Mao or Pol Pot. One cannot explain these variations with a general characterization of Das Kapital or Marxism or Marxists. Ironically, while British Marxists were non-violent, pious Christian Britishers wreaked a lot of violence in Africa and Asia during colonialism. And while you live in the USA you cannot ignore the fate of the Native Americans at the hands of non-violent Christians.

      The point of all these examples is that generalizations don’t help much in historical analysis.

  • hmani
    Posted at 16:56h, 16 March Reply

    Dear South Asian,noted your civil reply,human being and their culture,social behavior is very complex,history itself can only explain to some degree the past events.Why Henry the 8th unwittingly brought reformation in Europe,(unintended),Maxmillian Robespeire brought “Reign of Terror” in French Revolution,Lenin and Mao let lose genocide in Russia and China.I can go on without explaining man’s cruelty to fellow man,there are rational explaination,we can read history and learn,and most often we repeat them,WHY?I can only partially answer that,GREED, REWARD AND FEAR.If you think deeply,that is the primary reason behind our actions and why we behave the way we do.That too drive people towards violence ,the reward of ‘Grace of Allah and a place in Heaven.When I said depends on “believer or non believer,I’m not guided by reward of eternal enjoyment in paradise so I have no incentive to violence as a reward.I do not know how old you are,where you were raised,the friends you have or had.I was raised in north ,a child of partition and educated in Hyderabad,and have lived in fairly free society and liberal culture for almost 47 years.I have both ‘Pakka Believer”as friend then I had Shaikh Anwar as a friend,I read him extensively,he was for social justice his entire life in Uk was free of any violence,he got in trouble on account of his honesty of opinion.I value,”HONOR,FRIENDSHIP,LOYALTY,HONESTY and gratitude as most cherished virtue,it makes no difference if the practicener is Marxist

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 23:35h, 16 March

      hmani: My interest is in the logic of arguments. My opinion about anything is just an opinion; it is the history that delivers the verdict. So, I have the following questions to pose in response to your comment:

      1. If social behavior is very complex and history cannot fully explain events, what is the logical stance to adopt? If we cannot explain why Robespierre brought the Reign of Terror, Stalin organized the Gulag in China, or Mao let loose genocide in China, how can we be sure why Bin Laden did what he did? Why in that case the alacrity to ascribe it to Islam and the Koran?

      2. If the answer is that these acts are caused by the secular values (or anti-values) of greed, reward and fear, then anyone can be susceptible to these anti-values. Why bring in religion into the argument? Is there conclusive evidence that followers of some religions are more susceptible to these anti-values than others?

      3. Granted Muslims may be driven to such acts by the thought of reward in heaven but is the belief of reward in after-life confined just to Muslims? And what about all those who might be driven by the incentives of greed and fear? Are greed and fear also selectively distributed across religions?

      4. If Anwar Shaikh is a friend does that mean that we can disregard all the violence that has been carried out in the name of Marxism? Does that mean that if some Muslim is a very dear friend one can disregard all the violence that may be perpetrated in the name of Islam? Don’t we have to separate the individual (the good as well as the evil) from the collective?

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 18:25h, 30 November Reply

    Interesting evidence on the power of humiliation as the driver of actions:

    “Henry Kissinger, Rumsfeld’s old antagonist from the Ford administration, when asked why he supported the Iraq war, had reportedly replied, “because Afghanistan wasn’t enough.” The radical Islamists had wanted to humiliate us, he went on, “and we need to humiliate them.” This was about restoring national credibility, about rebuilding the national power—consisting in no small part of the image of power—that had been severely diminished by those world-altering real-time pictures of the collapsing towers. Such images must be vanquished, supplanted by those of American tanks rumbling down the streets of an Arab capital.”

    From: Rumsfeld’s war and its consequences now by Mark Danner

  • Ghania Shuaib
    Posted at 20:55h, 01 December Reply

    This humiliation mentioned is more about racial profiling which has high incidences after the September 11 attacks. It is ironic while many countries feel threatened by the so called “radical fundamentalists” they fail to address several factors that actually contribute towards the formation of such radical people.

    The politicians and authorities condemn factors such as humiliation and discrimination on the basis of castes and creed yet they do not carry out legally binding law enforcement policies to eradicate such problems
    “■ In June 2003, the Department of Justice issued its Guidance Regarding the Use of Race by Federal Law Enforcement Agencies forbidding racial profiling by federal law enforcement officials. Yet, the guidance does not cover profiling based on religion, religious appearance, or national origin; does not apply to state or local law enforcement agencies; does not include any enforcement mechanisms; does not specify punishment for violating officers/agencies; and contains a blanket exception for “national security” and “border integrity” cases. The Guidanceis an advisory, and hence is not legally binding.
    ■ On February 27, 2001, President Bush said, “racial profiling is wrong” and promised to “end it in America.” Yet, almost four years later he has failed to support any federal legislative effort to eliminate racial profiling in the United States”

Post A Comment