Mumbai attacks: Thinking through the debris of terror

With us or against us?

The recent terror attacks on Bombay/Mumbai, for which there can be no justification whatsoever, have targetted railway stations, restaurants, hospitals, places of worship, streets and hotels. These are the places in which people gather. where the anonymous flux of urban life finds refuge and sustenance on an everyday basis. By attacking such sites, the tactics of the recent terror attack (like all its predecessors) echo the tropes of conventional warfare as it developed in the twentieth century. These tactics valued the objective of the escalation of terror and panic amongst civilians higher than they viewed the neutralization of strictly military or strategic targets. In a war without end, (which is one way of looking at the twentieth century and its legacy) panic is the key weapon and the most important objective.

The history of the indiscriminate bombing of cities and inhabited tracts as acts of war in modern times (from Guernica in Spain to Dresden and London in the Second World War, to the bombing of Cambodia in the 70s and the attacks on Baghdad in the Iraq War) underscores the fact that the ultimate objective of contemporary military actions is not the destruction of military or state assets but the utter demoralization of the civilian population by deploying disproportionate and massive force against the softest of possible targets – unarmed, un-involved ordinary people. The terrorists who caused mayhem in Bombay, and their mentors, wheresoever they may lie, are no less remarkable in their lethal cynicism than those who sanctioned the bombing of Baghdad in recent times. They were interested in hurting people more than they were in tilting at the windmills of power.

If we accept the conjecture that the attacks were authored by Islamist organizations based in Pakistan (which by itself is not unlikely), then we also have to accept the irony that in their actions they have mirrored and echoed the tactics of the military leadership of the great powers they decry as their adversaries. Terrorists and war criminals are replicas of each other. The difference between them is only a matter of degree.The students have learnt well from their teachers.

No redemptive, just, honourable or worthwhile politically transformatory objectives can be met, or even invoked, by attacking a mass transit railway station, a restaurant, a hotel or a hospital. The holding of hostages in a centre of worship and comfort for travellers cannot and does not challenge any form of the state oppression anywhere. The terrorists who undertook these operations did not deal a single blow to the edifice of oppression in this country, or in any other country. On the other hand, they strengthened it.

By helping to unleash calls for war, by eliminating (unwittingly perhaps) those that have been investigating the links between fringe far right groups and home grown terror, by provoking once again the demand for stronger and more lethal legislation for preventive detention (in the form of a revived or resuscitated POTA), these terrorists have done statist and authoritarian politics in India its biggest favour. The sinister and lunatic fringe of far right politics of the Hindutva variety (which seems to have acted hand in glove with rogue elements within the security establishment) in particular, must be delighted to have been gifted this latest horror on a platter without having had to work hard for it.

While the agents of the attack in Bombay may have been genuinely motivated by their own twisted understanding of Islam, they have demonstrated that they have no hesitation in putting millions of Indian Muslims in harms way by exposing them to the risk of a long drawn out of spiral of retaliation. We need to underscore that they killed 40 innocent, unarmed Muslims (roughly 20 % of the current total casualty figures of 179) while they unleashed their brutal force on Bombay. The terrorists who authored their deaths cannot by any stretch of imagination be seen as partisans or friends of Islam. They are the enemy of us all, and especially of those amoungst us who happen to be Muslims, for they jeopardize the safety and security of all Muslims in India by unleashing yet another wave of suspicion and prejudice against ordinary Muslims. Any effort to rationalize their actions by reference to real or perceived injustices to Muslims in India, is patronizing at best, and insensitive at worst.

It is therefore neither surprising nor remarkable that several Muslim organizations and individuals in India have unanimously condemned the terror attacks and terrorism in general. The actions of the terrorists (their purported statements as aired on India TV notwithstanding) constitute an insult to anyone who is interested in seriously addressing the discrimination faced by minorities in India.

What is particularly reprehensible about the terrorist’s actions is their choice to target and kill unarmed Jewish travellers, a rabbi and his wife. This choice was not accidental, these people were targetted because of their religious affiliation and their ethnic origins. The anti-semitic edge of contemporary Islamic Fundamentalism has nothing whatsoever to do with any opposition to the oppressive policies and practices of the state of Israel towards Palestinians. Targetting Jews (who may or may not be Israeli) or individuals who happen to be Israeli in a house of Jewish worship in Mumbai for the actions of the State of Israel is not unlike attacking Carribean Hindus and Hindu Indians at a Hindu temple in Trinidad for real or imagined misdemeanours of the Republic of India. It would be similar to attacking ordinary Indian, Pakistani or Somali Muslims and Iraqis in retribution for the offences committed by the erstwhile Ba’athist government of Iraq on Kurds. The Israeli government treats Palestinians in occupied Palestine a shade better than Saddam Hussain’s Iraq treated Kurds (settlements in Gaza and the West Bank, though they have no doubt borne the brunt of Israeli state terror, have not to my knowledge been gassed by chemical weapons). Islamic fundamentalist anti-Semitism is as much an abomination as Hindu, Christian or Jewish Fundamentalist or secular Islamophobia anywhere in the world.

A military adventure into Pakistani held territory by Indian forces at this current juncture can be nothing short of a disaster, It risks taking South Asia and the world to the precipice of a nuclear conflict. It has been pointed out by some idiots on television that the United States is apparently safer today for having sent troops to fight into Afghanistan and Iraq. The truth is, the United States has made the world and Americans (and their allies) a great deal more unsafe , and a great deal more vulnerable to terrorism, by the conduct of its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The incidence of terrorism worldwide has increased due to its intervention, and even the attacks on Bombay can in a sense be seen as ricocheting off the mess in Iraq and Afghanistan. The deliberate targeting of British and American individuals by the terrorists in Bombay last week demonstrates how unsafe it is to be seen carrying a British or an American passport today. If India is to be pulled headlong into conflict with Pakistan as a result of the fall out of the attacks on Bombay, the world will automatically and immediately become a far more unsafe place. There will be more, not less terrorism for us all to deal with.

The only way for us to defeat terrorism in South Asia is for ordinary Indians and Pakistanis to join hands across the Indo-Pak divide to say that they will no longer tolerate the nurturing of terror, hate and division in their societies through the covert and overt acts of rogue elements in both their governments (which have a vested interest in the continuity of conflict) and powerful non-state actors in both societies. Neither POTA, nor military misadventures, nor harder borders can defeat terrorism. A suicide bomber can only be disarmed by the narrowing of the political and cultural space for hatred within society to levels of utter insignificance.

For this to occur, we all need to shed the cocoons of the assumptions of our own innocence. The sooner we do so, the sooner we realize that culpability in terror in South Asia is not a one way street with all signs pointing only in the direction of Pakistan, the better it will be for peace in our time. The automatic assumption of our own innocence, especially at times when we perceive ourselves to the be victims, is something we cannot afford to do. Whatever little illusory comfort it may give us in the short run, it will rebound to haunt us with unforgiving intensity.

If we are serious about putting an end to the seemingly endless spiral of retributive violence behind us we have to exercise the hard and necessary choice of leaving the discourse of ‘martyrs’, ‘victims’, ‘villains’ and ‘heroes’ behind us. The media, and especially the electronic media have a special role to play in this regard. They have much introspection to do. It will not do to have jingoist anchors and commentators protect their diminishing intelligence and rising moral culpability in stoking the flames of war themselves with the fig leaf of ‘national psyche’ and ‘popular sentiment’. It is they who fashion the chimera of ‘popular sentiment’ with their spin doctoring, and it is unacceptable to see people refuse to take responsibility for the very serious consequences of this dangerous spin.

Is there is anything specifically ‘Islamic’ about acts of terrorism such as we have witnessed in Bombay last week? Under normal circumstances, such ridiculous questions would not need any attention. Unfortunately, these are not normal circumstances, and it is at times such as these, that otherwise marginal irresponsibly articulated opinions get a disproportionate velocity due to the way in which they circulate, particularly on the internet and then leak out into the grit of innuendo, insinuation, half-informed speculation and rumour in daily conversation.

One particularly pernicious communication is the familiar litany of, “There are suras (chapters) in the Quran that justify the slaughter of unbelievers and what the terrorists were doing was only fulfilling the commands of their faith.” This kind of response asks us to assume two things. One, that the source of the motivation for the terrorists actions was predominantly scriptural (this bases itself somewhat on the scripture laden rhetoric and vocabulary of the so-called ‘Indian Mujahideen’ terror emails that accompanied previous attacks this year). Second, that if as a believing Muslim you do not follow Qur’anic injunctions to unleash violence, you are at best an insincere or inconsistent Muslim, and the only true Muslim is the one who kills unbelievers to earn his place in heaven.

The first reduces the speechless complexity of a terrorists actions to a few pithy and selectively quoted phrases. The second is an insult to the lives, actions and convictions of the absolute majority of believing Muslims. Both betray a singular and profound ignorance of Islam, of the concept of jihad within Islam and an unwillingness to engage with Islamic belief and the history of Islamicate societies.

This (completely erroneous) view of all Muslims as mindless ‘holy warriors’ takes the injunctions to do with the term ‘jihad’ (which translates, not as ‘holy war’ as is commonly thought, but as ’struggle’) as referring solely to acts of violence. It needs to be stated here, once again, as has been stated many times before, in many different contexts, that ‘jihad’ within the theological context of Islam is of two kinds, and that only one of these refers to the conduct of armed struggle. The greater and more commendable jihad is that which involves a personal struggle with one’s own baser and unethical propensities, which every believing Muslim is asked to conduct as a spiritual cleansing process. The ‘lesser jihad’ concerns specifically defensive military acts conducted against aggressors as a last resort, when all else fails.

The Quran is replete with statements such as ‘to you your religion and to me mine’, or ‘there can be no compulsion in religion’. When the adherents of other religions are specifically mentioned by name (Jews, Christians and Sabeans) it is said:

“Believers, Jews, Christians and Sabeans (the followers of St. John the Baptist or Hazrat Yahya) – whoever believes in Allah and the Last Day and does what is right – shall be rewarded by their Lord, they have nothing to fear or to regret”. (Sura Baqarah – The Cow – 2:62)

Jews are invoked as ‘the children of Israel (Bani Israil) and in the Quran, Allah only asks of them that they remain true to their faith. There is not a trace of anti-semitism in the Quran. When certain Jews are spoken of negatively, the statements echo the admonitions of the Jewish scriptures by saying that ‘those amongst the people of the book who were of little faith’ were worthy of God’s disfavour. Clearly, this indicates that ‘those amongst the people of the book who were NOT of little faith’ are to be favoured, and in fact Allah is heard saying in the Quran:

“O Children of Israel, remember the favours I have bestowed upon you, keep to your covenant, and I will keep to mine”. (Sura Baqarah – The Cow – 2:40)

It is important to keep this in mind specifically with regard to the special targeting of unarmed Jews by the terrorists in Bombay. Their acts, in this specific instance stand in direct contradiction to the spirit of the Quran. While there are anti-semitic traces in the Ahadis (the reported traditions of the prophet that were accumulated and collated over the centuries), there is no unanimity or consensus amongst believing Muslims about the authenticity of different ‘isnads’ (lines of transmission) attatched to different Ahadis. Therefore, in instances of ambiguity, as with regard to the attitude to Jews and those of other faiths, it is only the unquestioned authority of the Quran that can be seen as acting as the final arbiter and guide. From this standpoint alone, the anti-semitic edge of the terrorists actions in Bombay last week can be justifiably condemned as anathema by all believing Muslims.

Generally speaking, the quote that is most commonly hurled by Islamophobes is

“Kill them wherever you find them, drive them out of the places from which they drove you” (Sura Baqarah – The Cow – 2:190-191)

This verse was given to the prophet Mohammad before the advent of a major battle when all attempts at arriving at peaceful negotiations had been exhausted, and when the Prophet and his fledgeling community in Medina were in danger of being exterminated by invasive aggression. The injunctions are specific, they apply only to retaliation against armed bodies of men who have acted as aggressors. What is omitted when these verses are hurled, either by Islamophobes, or by Islamists, is that they follow immediately from the injunction that says:

“Fight for the sake of Allah those that fight against you, but do not attack them first. Allah does not love the aggressor” (Sura Baqarah – The Cow – 2:190-191)

It is also followed by the equally specific injunction:

“but if they mend their ways, know that Allah is forgiving and merciful.. but if they mend their ways, fight none other than the evil-doers.” (Sura Baqarah – The Cow – 2:190-191).

So, we have repeated caveats, repeated qualifications – ‘do not be the aggressor’, ‘fight only if they fight you’, ‘cease armed action if they see reason’ that immediately surround the quote that is so often pulled out at times like this like a tired rabbit from a magicians hat. And yet, the sleight of hand continues.

By what stretch of imagination can a chef’s assistant in a hotel, or a rabbi’s wife, or passengers trying to get to second class railway carriages or children who live on the street, ordinary Muslims, or police officers trying to investigate the terrorist outrages purportedly undertaken by radicals who happen to be Hindus with a view to intimidating ordinary Muslims be seen as ‘aggressors’ against Islam? By which Quranic injunction can we justify acts of aggression against such individuals?

Once again, by their concrete actions, the terrorists have demonstrated not their fidelity but their sharp deviance from the letter and spirit of the Qur’an. Those motivated and prejudiced slanderers who circulate the insinuations about the ‘Islamic’ provenance of the terrorists actions are actually just as much guilty of spreading a mistaken understanding of Islam as the terrorists themselves. In fact, objectively, once again, Islamophobes and Islamists are not adversaries, but allies.

The lineage of the terrorists who attacked Bombay is better traced to those vicious acts of twentieth and twenty-first century terror which feature self styled protagonists of all the faiths and ideologies that mark our modern world. They are to be found as much amongst the New Age-Buddhist-Hindu hybrid of Aum Shirin Kyo, the Branch Davidians, the Balinese Hindu vigilantes who slaughtered 40,000 unarmed Indonesian Communists and their suspected sympathisers in 1965, the ultra-left and far-right radicals of West Germany, Japan and Italy in the seventies and the hardened callousness of Palestinian, Egyptian, Israeli, Peruvian, Colombian, Basque and Irish terrorism as much as it is to be located in the enigmas known as the LTTE (all factions) , the Lashkar-e- Taiba, Jaish-e- Mohammad, HUJI, Indian Mujahideen and Al-Qaida.

Each of these organizations has contributed more than anything else to the hardening of structures of state power. As such, they, like the Indian Maoists and Salwa Judum, and the ingredients of the alphabet soup of insurgent and counter-insugent outfits operating through the length and breadth of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Burma are the objective agent-provcateurs of reactionary, authoritarian, statist politics. Terrorism, whatever else it may be, is in the end, the mightiest secret weapon in the arsenal of the state to beat and badger a terrified population into meek submission by creating a situation where the surrender and abdication of civil rights is seen as a normalized and natural response to a mounting crisis.

Even a brief history of the limited genre of terrorist actions such as ‘hotel bombings and attacks’ reveals a rainbow hued ecumenical pantheon of contemporary terror. The attacks on the Taj and the Oberoi Trident (which constituted the spectacular telegenic apex of the Bombay attacks) need to be seen as successors to the Marriott Hotel bombing in Islamabad, Pakistan of only a few months ago, the bombings of the Radisson SAS, Grand Hyatt and Days Inn Hotels in Amman, Jordan in 2005, the bombing of the Grand Hotel in Brighton, UK by the Provisional IRA in 1984, the bombing of the Hilton Hotel in Sydney, Australia by suspected Ananda Marg radicals in 1978 and last, but certainly not the least, the King David Hotel Bombing in Jerusalem, (then Palestine) in 1946 carried out by Irgun, a terrorist organization wedded to the Zionist ideal of a Jewish state in Palestine.

The actions of a terrorist are neither Hindu, nor Muslim, nor Jewish, nor Christian, nor a Sikh, nor Communist, nor Anarchist. The terrorist is simply the emissary and executioner of the mediocrity of organized violence, and an agent acting for a number of overlapping shadowy state and non-stage clients of different provenances, whose identities may be obscure even to him.

This profound ambiguity, if nothing else, should prompt us to be moderate and reasonable in our responses to the spectacle of terror. To buy into its proffered illusion of certainty is perhaps one of the greatest signs of submission that we can offer to those who have nothing other than terror to give us. Surely, we can be more intelligent, imaginative, self-aware, sceptical and compassionate. The two things we need to do is to stay calm, and keep our doubts alive.

(An extended version of this article can be found at

Shuddhabrata Sengupta is a media practitioner, artist and writer with the Raqs Media Collective and works at the Sarai Programme at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi, India.

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