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Can the attacks in America be compared to Pearl Harbour?

When the world is confronted with the unprecedented and the extraordinary, it grapples with language and images to express the enormity of what has occurred. And so, awestruck by the devastation of the suicide-aviation terrorism at the World Trade Centre and Pentagon, a catchphrase was coined – Pearl Harbour II, and there are certainly crucial parallels between that earlier catastrophe and the events of the Black Tuesday this September. The first of these, as one observer astutely noted, is that it took the devastation of half of the US Pacific Fleet for America to recognize the dangers of Fascism and enter World War II; and it has taken the thousands of deaths in this latest terrorist outrage to bring it to recognize the real threat of global terrorism.

A second crucial parallel exists in terms of the enormous and recurrent threat that absolutist ideologies hold out to the fundamental values of humanity and civilization. The Nazi-Fascist ideology was based on three fundamental principles: group superiority, or, in the case of the Germans, the claims of the purity and pre-eminence of the ‘Aryan race’; Lebensraum, or the overriding right to an expanded ‘living space’ for this ‘superior race’; and the reliance on overwhelming violence. The religious fundamentalist terrorism of our age – and I refer here not only to Islamist terrorism – share each of these elements, though their fundamental premise is religious-millenarian rather than racial-political. In both cases, however, these premises are fundamentally flawed, and contain within themselves the seeds of their own destruction.

One of my overriding beliefs, in the context of Khalistani terrorism in Punjab, was that Sikhism and terrorism were essentially incompatible, and I had said repeatedly that no true Sikh can be a terrorist; no terrorist can be a true Sikh. This had earned me the opprobrium of many of my fellow Sikhs, but it remains my unshakeable conviction that the same is true of the followers of Islam; the Islamist terrorists insult and violate the basic tenets and humanism of their Faith through their actions.

There is, however, a crucial and positive difference between Pearl Harbour and New York-Washington. When Pearl Harbour occurred, the entire world had already been irrevocably divided along two irretrievably hostile and massive axes. The Islamist terrorists, however, are a minority – a lethal and committed minority, but a minority nonetheless – even among their own co-religionists. Unfortunately, there has been a tacit acceptance or sympathy for terrorism as a legitimate weapon even among those who do not share the extremist vision. Worse still, the persistent belief among Muslims, and their insistence on their inability to live in a multicultural and pluralistic society have been encouraged by a short sighted and opportunistic political leadership. But some of the unhappiest Muslims that I have met come from the mono-cultural and intolerant societies they have constructed out of their religious absolutisms. The day the Muslim intelligentsia and leadership realizes that terrorism and their Faith cannot share the same premises, that a universal humanism lies at the essence of their religion as of all others – and this is a truth to which these religions themselves testify – Islamist extremism will become a marginal and minor activity, easily isolated and defeated. The crucial difference between Pearl Harbour I and II, consequently, is that the first occurred after its supporting ideologies had consolidated themselves completely and been translated into mass violence openly backed by some of the most powerful states of that age; ‘Pearl Harbour II’ has come at an earlier stage of ideological stratification, and can still be fought at an intellectual level by the international community.

This is crucial. The initial response to the terrorist attacks in USA may, of course, be of retaliatory violence and military containment, but the continuing response will have to be a process of indoctrination, of re-education, and of widening cultural exchange. The extreme (Christian and racist) right has substantially been contained and intellectually defeated in Europe and America; this process will have to be replicated in what is called the ‘Muslim World’. But the international coalition against misguided fundamentalism anywhere in the world cannot be founded on the kind of perceptions and principles, for instance, that the neo-Fascist British Nationalist Party seeks to pursue in the UK in seeking to construct a Sikh-Hindu-Christian axis to fight ‘Muslim hooliganism’ in that country. There are grave dangers in demonising Islam, as there are in a reflexive anti-Muslim fundamentalism that has been witnessed – no doubted in a very small manifestation – in the recent racial and retaliatory violence in USA.

(Published in The Sunday Times, September 16, 2001)





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