Columns/Op-Eds, Non-Traditional Security, Politics / Globalisation

Column in The Economic Times: When the US dismembered Pakistan, 2009

by Samir Saran
February 27,2009
in: The Economic Times

The formal capitulation of the Pakistani government to the Taliban and the ‘liberation’ of the Swat valley evoked divided responses from within the region and outside. While voices emanating from India are concerned with this dangerous development, the US foreign policy team has predictably hedged its position and has begun testing the ‘Good Taliban-Bad Taliban’ dictum. The division of Pakistan has unfortunately legitimised the rule and role of two institutions in the politics of Pakistan; its religious extremists and its army and can be seen as a consequence of the US engagement with Pakistan post 9/11. To understand this situation and the initial US response, we must deconstruct the ‘war on terror’ policy of the US and analyse one of its key components: the engagement of the US with its ally Gen Pervez Musharraf. This engagement was political as it had the effect of demoralising the democratic presence in Pakistan.

It was also sociological as it redefined the western understanding of Pakistan and altered the space and voice available to the moderates and liberals. This engagement was articulated by the ‘Us vs Them’ foreign policy of the US, a description of the age-old identity discourse between the ‘self’ and the ‘other’. The description of the Muslim as the ‘other’ by the west (‘self’) is an area of historical interest. Much of the discussion establishes the act of describing the Muslims, as a means by which the west (and its media) seeks to define, assimilate and control them and is a result of the urge to create the identity of the ‘other’ through its own interpretative prisms.

This process not only fails to comprehend the ‘other’ in their entirety but diminishes their significance in any engagement. This practice is a political tool that has been consistently deployed in the past. The ‘secular wars’ or colonising endeavours of the western world were represented as a ‘solemn duty’, and as a British parliamentarian of yore put it, as a burden of the white man to civilise the east. The boundaries of this orientalist discussion, post 9/11 have been redefined and comprise of two dominant narratives, that of ‘Islamophobia’ on the one hand and the ‘war on terror’ on the other. Islamophobia arises from a lack of understanding and tolerance of the ‘other’. The ‘war on terror’ rhetoric of the US extends the understanding of the ‘other’ to that of ‘evil’ and justifies violence and war as the preferred means of engagement.

In its effort to punish the ‘evildoers’ (al Qaida), the US needed to depend on a Muslim ‘other’. The Pakistan army and Musharraf became its key ally. Their complicity in supporting global terror networks and the fundamentalist regime in Afghanistan were well known. However, strategic compulsions made it necessary to have them on board. The co-option of a Muslim and a dictator – an ‘other’ twice over – was an interesting challenge for the Bush administration. While it required the administration to discount the evil that Musharraf represented, something it has consistently done in its engagement with Muslim despots and royalty, it had to more importantly sell this unholy alliance to its own people, who were reeling under the ferocity of the 9/11 attacks.

Ironically, it was the military credentials of Musharraf that helped the US to achieve this. It was perhaps the only institution in the Islamic state that could be understood by the west from within the “irrational religiosity” the country was imagined to be. The development of the ‘western’ identity for Musharraf involved constructing him as a ‘moderate Muslim’ who shared the aspirations and virtues of the west (‘self’) and thereafter, justifying support for his dictatorial credentials. Co-option was achieved by projecting desirable qualities readily understood as virtues by the US citizens as attributes of Musharraf. Articles in newspapers across the political spectrum constructed the identity of Musharraf as a moderate, secular and progressive leader with zero tolerance for terrorism. Images of Musharraf lovingly playing with his pet dog struck a chord with western audiences.

Alongside this aggrandisement of the dictator, Pakistan, its civil society, their social and religious practices were subject to reductive portrayal by the western media. The description of the political and religious elements of Pakistan society was constructed around terms like corrupt, weak, fanatics, violent and backward. Their protests were irrational and did not deserve considered response. Many times anti-US demonstrations in Pakistan were presented as expressions of religious extremism and barbarism that pervaded the Pakistani society and what the good General was fighting against. The army rule was thus projected as an important component of Pakistan’s stability and Musharraf as the saviour leading his people towards modernity and peace.

By doing so, a dictator with strong extreme Islamist credentials – the stereotypical ‘other’ – was now imagined as the western ‘self’ while his countrymen, including the moderate and liberal citizens, were reduced to an irrationality whose voices and rights could be ignored. This denial of space and voice to the democratic forces allowed the spectacular rise of the Taliban, who now claim to speak for the ‘other’ who do not wear the uniform.

Non-Traditional Security

Radical Islam: Perspectives from India and Russia.

Observer Research Foundation and the Experimental Creativity Centre (ECC), Moscow, have completed their collaborative research project on Radical Islam. The first conference under this project took place in Moscow in October, 2009 while the final leg was held in New Delhi in March 2010. The papers and proceedings of these workshops have now been published in the form of a book titled “Radical Islam: Perspectives from India and Russia”.

The Russian language edition of the book was launched at the ECC premises in Moscow on September 27 2010. It was attended by senior faculty members of both ORF and ECC, including Mr. Sunjoy Joshi, Amb. M. Rasgotra, Mr. Samir Saran, Mr. Nandan Unnikrishnan, Dr Sergey Kurginyan and Dr. Yury Byaly. The launch was preceded by a press conference organised by the leading Russian news agency RIA Novosti.

This 480-page book is the result of cohesive and complementary research by 15 scholars from both India and Russia. The research for this project was based on both geography and themes. While geographies or nations provided the specifics on the interaction of the phenomena of Radical Islam with specific political units and local societies, the thematic research allowed the researchers to test the interaction of Radical Islam with other contemporary and older tendencies. This effort covers the experiences with Radical Islam in Maldives, Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Central Asia, Europe, Russia and spans the entire land mass between the Indian Ocean and the Arctic.

On the other hand, this project also tests the interactions between Islam and other contemporary challenges, including Global and Regional power struggles, Oil and Energy politics, Inequity and Poverty, evolving Identities, ancient Culture and tradition, Globalisation and indeed with Capitalism itself. This research proves the adage “the more we learn the lesser we know”. In spite of various assertions in the individual essays by the respective authors, Radical Islam is still indescribable and the very term “Radical Islam” is an attempt to describe the indescribable by reflecting a simplistic categorisation of a complex and dangerous impulse.

Speaking at the book launch, Amb. M Rasgotra said that it was essential for India and Russia to share their experiences in dealing with radical Islam since the nature of the problem is the same, even as its manifestations may be different. Mr. Sunjoy Joshi observed that elucidating the Indian and Russian perspectives on radical Islam is important because the West often “tends to look at Islam in black-and-white, while Indian and Russian researchers look at it in multiplicity of identities, discourses and ideas”.

Mr. Samir Saran asserted that Radical Islam in certain geographies is an expression for economic and political voice, while in other contexts, it is a hegemonic tool deployed by the West and the rest. In some other cases, it is an instrument of state policy deployed against the neighbour or rival…but universally, it is the story of two victims …the perpetrators who commit the crime and the civil population on whom suffering is inflicted…both collateral damage in the bigger game, he said.

“From an Indian experience, the attempt to describe, analyse and respond to Radicalism or Radical Islam becomes even more problematic…. after all we are turning the spotlight to ourselves…. to respond to radical Islam, we need to discover our own shortcomings…. it is as much about internal political and economic faultlines as it is about the exploitation of these faultlines by external actors,” Samir Saran said.

India’s interaction with Radical Islam is different to that of Europe or the West. It is mostly about internal reconfiguration and resolution. While some may look at this as an external tendency that needs excision or removal from their nation or society, in India we need a nuanced approach; one that balances security and equity, and if the scale should tilt …it should be in favour of equity.

The challenge of radicalism in India is real and imminent. With its fast paced growth, embrace of capitalism and western values and the rapid move away from the traditional and family oriented societies due to both poverty and aspirations are creating social conditions that prove to be incubators of violence and terror. This equation is exacerbated by insensitive policy making and poor governance leading to a rise in the constituency of those willing to live outside the civil society framework that seemingly serves the rich and the political elite. While violence and terror will deploy religion as an instrument of mobilisation, responses from policymakers and governments must remain secular.

October 2010, Moscow, Russia.