Swans Commentary » swans.com September 8, 2008  




An opportunity


by tiziano terzani






The world is no longer the one we knew. Our lives have changed for good. Maybe this is the opportunity to start thinking differently from how we've done till now, the chance to reinvent the future for ourselves and not just retread the same old path that's brought us to today and could lead us to annihilation tomorrow. Never has the survival of man been so much at stake.

Nothing is more dangerous in a war, and war it is that we are heading for, than to underestimate one's enemy, to be unfamiliar with his ways of thinking, to deny every one of his motives and label him "mad". Islamic jihad, the clandestine international network currently headed up by sheikh Osama bin Laden, which in all probability lay behind the appalling attack-cum-challenge on the United States, is anything but an instance of madness. If we want to find a way out of the chasm of terror into which we feel we have been thrown, we must try to understand who we are dealing with and why.

No Western journalist has ever managed to spend much time with Bin Laden or observe him at close quarters, but several have succeeded in approaching and listening to his associates. In 1995 I had the chance to spend two half-days in one of the training camps he was financing on the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. I left feeling dismayed and alarmed. All the time I was with the hard, smiling mullahs and the many young men with their cold, contemptuous stares, I felt plague-ridden, the bearer of a disease with which I'd never before felt infected. In their eyes this disease was simply my being a Westerner, a representative of a decadent, materialistic, exploitative civilization which was insensitive to the universal values of Islam.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the demise of communism, I experienced first-hand the truth that this fundamentalist, militant version of Islam was the only ideology still intent on opposing the US-led New Order which was promising peace and prosperity to a globalized world. I first understood this while travelling in the Muslim republics of the former Soviet Central Asia,* and felt it just as keenly when I met some anti-Indian guerrillas in Kashmir. I interviewed one of their spiritual leaders, who gave me my first copy of the Koran when he bid me farewell "so I might learn something from it".

The youngsters I'd seen in that training camp, all different nationalities but with one single firm faith, came back to my mind as, stunned like everyone else, I watched again and again the pictures of the aeroplanes crashing and wreaking havoc in the heart of New York, just as they had in the days leading up to it when I'd read the stories of Palestinian suicide-bombers blowing themselves up on the streets of Israel, reaping victim after victim. They were from a different planet, these boys, a different century, people who believe as we ourselves once used to but no longer do, and who think sacrificing one's own life in a just cause is holy. They were made of a stuff we would find it hard to imagine. They were indoctrinated, accustomed to the most spartan of lives marked by a strict routine of exercise, study and prayer, highly disciplined, with no sex before marriage, no alcohol and no drugs.

War is not a profession for Bin Laden and his people. It's a mission. Its roots lie in the faith they acquired in the closed-minded Koranic schools, and above all in their deep feelings of defeat and impotence, in the humiliation of a civilization, Islam, which was once great and feared but which now increasingly finds itself marginalized and offended by the overwhelming power and arrogance of the West.

It's a problem which various other civilizations have had to face in the course of the last two centuries. It's the same humiliation the Chinese felt at the hands of the English "red beards" who imposed the opium trade on them. The Japanese felt it too when the "black ships" of U.S. Admiral Perry wanted to open up their country to trade. Their initial reaction was one of bewilderment. How could their civilization, which had for so long been superior to that of the foreign invaders, now find itself powerless and under the cosh? The first solution the Chinese sought was a return to tradition, in the shape of the Boxer rebellion. When that failed, they set out on the path of modernization, first Soviet-style then Western-style. Meanwhile, the Japanese had made this transition in one leap before the end of the nineteenth century, slavishly imitating all that was Western, copying the uniforms of European armies and the architecture of our railway stations, even learning to dance the waltz. In the course of the last century the Muslims also had to address the problem of how to survive and maintain their own identity when faced with the West. Their responses likewise swung between resorting to tradition on the one hand, as in the Yemen or with the Wahhabis, and varying degrees of westernization on the other. The boldest and most radical of these was initiated by Kemal Atatürk, who rewrote Turkey's constitution in the 1920s, removed the veil from women and exchanged Islamic law for a copy of the Swiss civil and Italian penal codes. He thus set his country on a path which today is leading Istanbul towards membership of the European Community, albeit not without the odd hiccup.

The westernization of the Islamic world is anathema to the fundamentalists, and now more than ever this process threatens its very soul. According to the Muslims, the West began to show its hand once the Cold War ended, and its diabolical agenda of bringing all mankind under one global system is becoming clearer and clearer. Technology has helped the West to have access to and control of the entire world's resources, including those which the Creator, in their view deliberately, placed in the lands where Islam was born and spread, from the oil of the Middle East to the timber of the Indonesian forests.

It's only in the last ten years that this phenomenon of globalization, or rather Americanization, has fully emerged. And it was in 1991 that Bin Laden, hitherto an American protégé (his first job in Afghanistan had been to build the CIA's great underground bunkers to stock weapons destined for the mujahideen) first rebelled against Washington. The stationing of American troops in his country, Saudi Arabia, during and after the Gulf War, was to him an intolerable affront and a violation of Islam's holy places. He made his position clear in his first declaration of war on the United States in 1996: "The walls of oppression and humiliation can only be broken down by a hail of bullets". Nobody took him very seriously. The manifesto which his organization Al Qaeda published in 1998 after a meeting of various affiliated groups was even more explicit: "For seven years the United States has been occupying the lands of Islam in the Arabian peninsula, plundering our riches, imposing its will on our statesmen, terrorizing our neighbours and using its military bases in the peninsula to fight against Muslim peoples". He appealed to all Muslims to "confront, fight and kill" the Americans. His declared objective is the liberation of the Middle East, but the unstated mission of which he dreams in the name of a heroic past could be something far bigger.

The first blows of the jihad were unleashed on American embassies in Africa, and caused dozens of deaths. Washington's response was to bomb Bin Laden's bases in Afghanistan and a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan, causing hundreds, some say thousands, of civilian casualties (the exact number was never known because the United States blocked a United Nations enquiry into the incident).

Bin Laden's counter-response has now made itself felt in New York and Washington. Unable to fire at the pilots of B-52s who drop their bombs from beyond his range, or to strike at the sailors who launch their missiles from ships offshore, his answer was to devise a terrorist attack on masses of defenceless civilians. What these men have done is atrocious, but it is not gratuitous. These are acts of war, and for a long time now war has not been a chivalrous affair. All the participants in the last global conflict bombed defenceless civilians, from the German V2s over London to the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki which produced a death toll of over 200,000, all of them civilians.

Unofficial wars have been fought with new means and new methods for quite some time now, far from the eyes of the world which has been tricked into believing it can see and understand everything simply because it could watch the Twin Towers collapse live on television.

The United States have been bombing Middle Eastern countries such as the Lebanon, Libya, Iran and Iraq since 1983, and the post-Gulf War US-imposed sanctions against Saddam Hussein's Iraq have left about half a million dead since 1991, according to American estimates. Many of these are children, victims of malnutrition. Fifty thousand deaths a year are a steady trickle which understandably generates in Iraq and everyone identifying with it the same kind of anger that the New York massacre generated in America and then Europe. It's important to understand that there's a link between these two expressions of anger. To do so is not to confuse the executioner with the victim, rather to realize that if we want to understand the world we live in, we must see it whole, not just from our own point of view.

We cannot understand what is happening if we only listen to what the politicians tell us. They're constrained to repeat rhetorical formulae and conditioned to react in the time-honoured manner to a situation which is completely new. They're incapable of an imaginative response, such as suggesting that this might finally be the moment to make peace rather than wage war, starting with the Israelis and Palestinians. No: there will be war.

An odd coalition is currently being formed via the mechanism of treaties such as NATO, which were entered into for one set of reasons but which are now being exploited for another. Countries such as China, Russia and maybe even India are getting involved, each goaded on by its own narrowly nationalist interests. For China, the global war against terrorism is a golden opportunity to try and resolve its age-old problems with the Islamic inhabitants of its border territories. For Putin's Russia, it's above all a chance to solve the problem of Chechnya and silence the charges it faces for its appalling record of human rights violations in that country. The same applies to India and its perennial struggle for control of Kashmir.

The problem is that it will prove extremely difficult to pass these hostilities off as merely a campaign against terrorism and not a war against Islam. Curiously enough, the coalition which is now being formed bears more than a passing resemblance to the two-fronted one Islam had to fight many centuries ago, with the Crusaders to the west and the nomadic tribes of Central Asia and the Mongols to the east. Then the Muslims held firm, and ended up converting a good number of their enemies.

Bin Laden and his associates may have made such a gamble today. Maybe they are counting on exactly this kind of reprisal from the Western world to mobilize massive Islamic resistance, and turn what is still a minority, albeit a determined one, into a more widespread phenomenon. Islam's simplicity and its fundamentally militant nature ideally lend it to being the ideology of the earth's wretches, the poverty-stricken masses who fill the westernized Third World, desperate and discriminated against.

Rather than remove the terrorists and those who have supported them (perhaps we'll be surprised to find out just how many are involved, including some we'd never have suspected), it'd be wiser to remove the causes that drive such people, especially the young, into the ranks of the jihad and make murder and suicide seem like a mission. If we truly believe in the sanctity of human life, we must acknowledge the sanctity of all human lives. Or are we ready to accept the hundreds and thousands of casualties, even civilian and unarmed, who'll be the victims of our reprisals? Or will our consciences be salved if, in the public relations jargon of the American military, these are passed off as "collateral damage"?

The kind of future which awaits us depends on what we do now, on how we react to this horrible provocation and how we see this moment in our history on the scale of the history of mankind. The problem is that we'll never be on the right path so long as we continue to believe we have a monopoly on what is good, so long as we continue to consider our civilization as the civilization and take no notice of others.

Islam is a great and unsettling religion, one which like many a faith has its own tradition of atrocities and crimes. But it's absurd to think that some cowboy can wipe it off the face of the earth, even if he is armed with all the pistols under the sun. Rather than stirring their fundamentalist fringes into becoming even more virulent, it would be better to help the Muslims isolate these fringes on their own and encourage them to rediscover the more spiritual side to their faith.

Nowhere is untouched by Islam these days. Even in America there are six million Muslims, as many as there are Jews. It's no coincidence that most of them are Afro-Americans, lured by the fact that since its inception Islam has transcended the concept of race. There are already 1,400 mosques on U.S. territory, even one at the Naval Training Centre in Norfolk, Virginia.

We mustn't allow ourselves to be borne along by partial visions of reality, or to become hostage to the kind of rhetoric now being used by those who are short on ideas to help fill the silence caused by dismay. As if those tragic, vile hijackings were not enough, the danger is that we ourselves as human beings will end up being hijacked away from our true mission on earth. The Americans describe this in their constitution as "the pursuit of happiness". Fine, but let's all pursue this happiness together, once we have redefined it in terms which are more than material and once we Westerners are fully persuaded that we can't pursue our own happiness at the expense of others, and that happiness is as indivisible as freedom.

The carnage in New York has given us a chance to rethink everything. It's presented us with new choices, the most pressing of which is whether to add to Islamic fundamentalism's reasons for existence or try and remove some of them, whether to transform the dance of Palestinians from macabre outbursts of joy at someone else's tragedy into expressions of relief at regaining their dignity. Otherwise every bomb or missile that falls on populations outside our own world will simply end up sowing more dragons' teeth and spurring more youngsters to shout "Allah Akbar", "Allah is great", as they pilot another aeroplane full of innocents into a skyscraper, or the day after that leave a briefcase with a chemical or nuclear bomb inside it in one of our supermarkets.

Only if we manage to see the universe as a single entity, in which every part reflects the whole and whose great beauty lies precisely in its variety, will we be able to understand exactly who and where we are. Otherwise we'll be like the frog at the bottom of the well in the Chinese proverb, who looked up and thought what he saw was the sky. Two and a half thousand years ago an Indian subsequently thought of as enlightened made an obvious point: "Hatred generates hatred", he said, and "war can only be fought with love". Few bothered to listen to him. Perhaps now is the time.



*  I wrote about this in Goodnight, Mister Lenin: A Journey through the End of the Soviet Empire ( Picador 1993).  (back)




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About the Author

tiziano terzani (14 September 1938 - 28 July 2004) was an Italian journalist and writer. Please read Gilles d'Aymery's introduction to Letters Against The War. You can also check terzani's entry on Wikipedia and visit tizianoterzani.com (in Italian).



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Published September 8, 2008