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Pax Americana and the Islamic threat

Since the bombings of the American embassies at Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam, on, August 7 this year, much of the writing on terrorism has been exploring the contours of life after Osama Bin Laden. For many, the doomsday predictions of a great global conflict between the socio-political cultures of Islam and the Western world had, through this act, come a step closer to realisation; the "clash of civilisations" was at hand. The Embassy bombings and Bin Laden's elevation to the superstar of terrorism—with generous inputs from the American propaganda machine—have had significant impact on Indian threat perceptions as well, and the role of Afghan mercenaries, a visible fact of life in Kashmir for the past six years, has acquired new and ominous dimensions.

The danger of terrorism by fundamentalist Islamic groups is real, both within India and globally. A significant majority of all terrorist movements in the world today claim—rightly, or otherwise—inspiration from, and affiliation to, Islam. Nevertheless, current evaluations of the magnitude of this risk, and of the objective validity of the "clash of civilisations" paradigm, have been substantially distorted by US perceptions and pretensions. America, today, sees—or at least seeks to project—itself as the primary and innocent target of world terror. The US Department of Defence, on the basis of calculations that remain something of a mystery, contends that, "Historically, the United States has been the target of over 32 per cent of all terrorist attacks worldwide, second only to Israel." President Bin Clinton voiced this sense of siege in his address to the United Nations General Assembly this September: "Because we are blessed to be a wealthy nation with a powerful military and a worldwide presence active in promoting peace and security, we are often a target... we know many people see us as a symbol of a system and values they reject, and often find it expedient to blame us'' for problems with deep roots elsewhere",

The US is, of course, something of a hate figure in large areas of the world today. As the last superpower, it does have a worldwide presence, though its record of "promoting peace and security'' in the regions where it intervenes—overtly or covertly—is certainly suspect. But its evaluation of the magnitude land virulence of the terrorist offensive directed against America can only be justified in terms of the grossly skewed value attached to the lives of its own citizens in comparison to victims In other countries—and in particular, in the Third World,

Over the past 15 years there have been only seven terrorist incidents involving the loss of American lives, of which one, the Oklahoma bombing, was essentially a case of internal terrorism. The others include the recent Embassy bombings, which claimed 12 American lives; the 1993 New York World Trade Centre explosion, with a death toll of six; the 1988 bombing of the Pan Am Flight 103 in which 259 persons drawn from 30 different countries were killed; the 1986 TWA Flight 847 bombing in which one child died; and the murder of two CIA operatives by Mir-Aimal Kansi in 1993, an affair that was more in the nature of a falling out among thieves than political or "Islamic" terrorism. In comparison, take the numbers relating to India alone: Close to 30,000 civilian lives and Over 5,000 security personnel lost to terrorism in under a decade and a half.

The American posture of extreme threat is essentially a justification for an interventionist agenda. Many a commentator has drawn attention to the American "need for an enemy another "great Satan"—after the collapse of the Soviet Union. This need is at least obliquely acknowledged by the American President when he admits "Americans are targets of terrorism. In part, because we have unique leadership responsibilities in the world,.," Xenophobic frenzies have inspired some of the most momentous social and political movements in the US, and the economics and development of many of its industries—particularly the gigantic defence and armaments sector—are directly correlated to prevailing levels of nationalistic paranoia and the continued possibility of selectively "humane" exports to movements against what America chooses to recognise as "oppression". Samuel Huntington's "clash of civilisations" thesis thus emerges as a convenient and elaborate justification for frequent and otherwise unjustifiable (at least within the context of international law) interventions in areas of perceived American "strategic interests"—such as the missile attack on Bin Laden's bases in Afghanistan and a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan; or covert operations to destabilise or overthrow Saddam Hussein—actions that could not otherwise find justification or support in the international community, even among Western nations that now stand virtually as a block behind the US.

There have been several criticisms of the idea of an imminent and global clash between the Islamic and Western "civilisations". Crucially, Huntington's reduction of what constitutes "civilisation" to a mere question of religious identity is fallacious; and his perception of the "great religions" of the world as monolithic entities ignores the deep ideological, cultural and historical divisions between sects, races and nationalities and the unending friction within each region despite supposed commonalities of faith; his thesis, moreover, grossly underestimates the role of traditional geo-political and economic factors in regional conflict, subordinating all other interests to the supposedly overwhelming factor of faith against the cumulative burden of the evidence of history.

But there is a great and hitherto unrealised danger in the "clash of civilisations" concept. While it may not be valid in terms of objective and contemporary reality, it contains within itself the seed of a self-fulfilling prophecy. To the extent that it shapes the Western—that is to say, predominantly American—international agenda, it creates the circumstances for its own realisation.

Osama Bin Laden's creation of an "international Islamic Front for Jehad against the Jews and the Crusaders", his "Declaration of War" against the "American crusaders and their allies", his declared intention to avenge the crimes against the Muslim nation and "the blood spilled in Palestine and Iraq... the massacre of Qana, in Lebanon... and the massacres in Tajakestan, Burma, Cashmere, Assam, the Philippines, Patani, Ogadin, Somalia, Erithria, Chechnia and in Bosnia Herzegovina..." may inspire a few thousand fanatics among Muslims across the world; he may successfully instigate bloody terrorist strikes in the. West an d in South Asia; but he cannot even bind together the fratricidal tribes of the Middle-East into a unified "Islamic World" that would stand as a bloc against the "cursed infidel".

That power belongs to the Americans. If they continue to pursue their policy of rampaging intervention, of alternating support and betrayal, and of discriminatory punitive expeditions in the Middle-East and other predominantly Muslim nations in Africa and South Asia, they will gradually impose a common identity upon vastly disparate cultures and civilisations that will find it expedient to ignore, albeit temporarily, their deep and rooted differences to confront a common danger to their sovereignty and survival, America's hegemonistic ambitions, the heavy-handed imposition of an oppressive Pax Americana, the unscrupulous and single-minded pursuit of American "economic interests" in sensitive and unstable regions of the world, and the ubiquitous face of the "ugly American" in increasing numbers of the world's conflicts—these are the elements that can fan an unprecedented wave of Islamic fundamentalism in regions that have a history of tolerance, and of reasonably secular and democratic politics.

(Edited version published in Pioneer, November 28, 1998.)





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