Thursday, May 22, 2008

The Struggle Against Terrorism

Cambridge defines terrorism as “violent action for political purposes”. Though bloody acts of violence killing innocents have been a part of many revolutions in the past, it is only in the last two decades that terrorism has taken its present form. Earlier the acts of violence were highly localised with the perpetrators not able to woo a mass support base. Now in the era of globalisation with the help of the internet, a large scale operation can be planned and executed with a high level of collaboration among terrorists in different parts of the globe. Propagating the terrorist ideology and wresting support from an increasing number of people has never been easier.

Don’t mistake me now. I am not going to blame either globalisation or the internet as the root cause of terrorism as seen today, but there is no mistaking that they have played an important role. But what specifically happened in the last two decades for terrorism to become such a dangerous development?

For one, public usage of the internet started in the 90s and here it is easy to see the connection between this contrivance and the formation of a global terror network. Secondly, globalisation has led to a flattening of the world. By a flat world, I mean that we are on the path towards the formation of one global society. The levels of business collaboration among countries has reached a stage which has no precedent and with outsourcing, off-shoring and other means of international collaboration, the economic prosperity of all the nations involved has only been on the rise. This whole article is almost entirely based on the ideas discussed by Thomas Friedman in his book “The World is Flat” and thus I am not duplicating his book here by explaining how globalisation leads to economic welfare. Anyway, this is essentially a development only possible in a capitalistic society where margins of profit determine the success of a business. Now let me connect this phenomenon to the rise of terrorism.

The world is now changing at a pace faster than it ever has, and at that speed many of us have been caught unawares. In this scenario, with no guidelines at all, MNCs have exploded, a dominant middle class has been formed, but many have borne the brunt of globalisation because in a capitalistic society, social responsibility may be insignificant in the face of profit. And thus only the lucky few who have been fortunate enough to gain a significant level of technical expertise to take advantage of the latest technologies empowering international collaboration, have joined the bandwagon thus far and the rest have been left in the lurch. This has bred an escalating feeling of frustration and yes, frustration borne out of the inability to break the shackles of the local society and government, and enjoy the fruits of globalisation.

Local societies in many places especially the Arab world are so rigid that people are not empowered enough to use technology for the benefit of their society. Moreover, a flat world means that no one can any longer hide behind walls of the nation’s foreign policy and thus any shortcomings in their society are increasingly noticed by the world around, and vice versa they can no longer, not notice the prosperity in the rest of the world. And considering a history that speaks of a superior prosperous society, it would be too harsh to blame them if ego does not get the better of them. And at the same time, the reluctance to evolve with the times has resulted in the formation of a different ideology, an ideology that promises prosperity to the same level as their history speaks of, without any change in their society, an existence back to the medieval period, where they are on top and the rest are too weak to even think of a collaboration. And the power in the hands of the proponents of this new ideology is the very same power that flattened the world – technology and the internet.

With that, the scourge of terrorism was born and after a first look at 9/11 and other terror attacks all over the world (most recent, the Jaipur blasts) there seems to be only one solution, a solution which comes more from the human heart than the rich brain nature has endowed upon us – “To go hard on the terrorists”. Crack down on all the terrorist networks. Have tougher anti-terrorism laws. Identifying all breeding spots and a quick retaliation and counter strike to trade blood for blood will certainly solve the problem in the short run. Fear of retaliation would be a perfect disincentive against further terrorist attacks. This is an easy solution for the leaders, which also gives an impression to the general public that the government is strong and wilful to take up the fight against terrorism. It immediately creates a feeling among the public that some action is being taken.

Fortunately, for us there is a precedent right before our eyes to see why the above solution is all wrong. Analysing that precedent, it is easy to see that make shift solutions of retaliation, though augur well in the short run, are not going to make even an iota of difference to terrorist strikes all over the world, if at all, the number of strikes is only going to increase.

George W Bush, the eminent President of the USA, recently slammed Presidential hopeful, Mr. Barack Obama on this issue among others. He justified his War against Terrorism drawing a parallel to the Second World War. He talked of the appeasement policy that bred Hitler and about how it eventually led to an even greater disaster. I have no idea of American Politics or of the collective American psyche, but I feel Bush is blind or at least has a veil shrouding his eyes. Either way he is yet to perceive that the world has changed. He certainly has not noticed that after almost seven years of his War against Terrorism, the problem has only exacerbated. He may have managed to confine Osama to the caves, but he still has not understood that in a flat world, even a caveman with internet access can wreak havoc. Think about it. Our own asset is now being used against us.

What we need here thus, is a more proactive solution, a solution that is more pragmatic and long term. Actually we already have a solution. We have, in our possession, a strong weapon, to battle the scourge of terrorism. The leaders today know of this weapon, but are either unwilling to go through the arduous process of wielding its full power or under-estimate its potential. Either way, our leaders and their political and security advisors are not using their faculty of thought to the full extent.

To understand this solution, we have to first understand the root causes of terrorism. As written earlier, advancement in world society always has its flip sides. This is mainly because many want to enjoy the benefits of a prosperous society without accepting any changes to their way of life that would empower them to use the latest technologies to create an affluent society. How technology empowers a society depends upon one’s imagination in wielding it. And the right imagination comes from a right context. Thomas Friedman explains this point beautifully by recalling an anecdote.

An Indian Muslim family split in 1948, with half going to Pakistan and half staying in Mumbai. When a child in the family, asked his father one day why the Indian half of the family seemed to be doing better than the Pakistani half, his father said to him, “Son, when a Muslim grows up in India and he sees a man living in a big mansion high on a hill, he says, ‘Father, one day I will be that man.’ And when a Muslim grows up in Pakistan and sees a man living in a big mansion high on a hill, he says, ‘Father, one day I will kill that man.’” As Friedman puts it, when you have a pathway to be the Man or Woman of your dreams, you tend to focus on the path. When you have no pathway, you tend to focus on your wrath and on nursing your memories. Such contexts breed people who surrender to their bleak or rather rich dark imagination and use some of our finest technologies to destroy rather than to construct.

Further on I am going to use Thomas Friedman’s lines and as he puts it, if you want to understand the difference context can cause to one’s imagination, study the second largest Muslim country in the world, India. Being that the case, there are no Indian Muslims that we know of in the al-Qaeda and there are no Indian Muslims fighting alongside jihadists in Iraq. Yes, Indian Muslims do have their grievances about access to capital and political representation. Inter-religious violence has occasionally flared up in India, with disastrous consequences. But this is not the norm. Why?

The answer is context – and in particular the secular, free-market, democratic context of India, heavily influenced by a tradition of non violence and tolerance. The only large Muslim community to enjoy sustained democracy for the last fifty years happen to be the Muslims of India. Yes, there are tensions and economic discrimination. But the fact is, the Indian Constitution is Secular and provides a real opportunity for economic advancement of any community that can offer talent. That’s why a growing Muslim middle class here is moving up and generally does not manifest the strands of deep anger you find in many non-democratic Muslim States.

Where Islam is embedded in authoritarian societies, it tends to become the vehicle of angry protest, but where Islam is embedded in a pluralistic democratic society, those with a more progressive outlook have a chance to get a better hearing for their interpretation and a democratic forum where they can fight for their ideas on a more equal footing. The dominant feature of such a society is that authority comes from bottom-up, and people can and do feel self-empowered to improve their lot. People living in such contexts tend to spend their time focussing on what to do next, not on whom to blame next.

Thus, give young people a context where they can translate a positive imagination into reality, give them a context in which someone with a grievance can have it adjudicated in a court of law without having to bribe the judge with a goat, give them a context in which they can pursue an entrepreneurial idea and become the richest or the most creative or most respected people in their own country, no matter what their background, give them a context in which any complaint or idea can be published in the newspaper, give them a context where anyone can run for office – and guess what? They usually don’t want to blow up the world. They usually want to be a part of it.

Now as I was saying, we do have a weapon against terrorism. It obviously has got to do with changing the context and certainly leading to the formation of more open, democratic societies. But how do we go about it? Is it by bombing rigid parts of the globe and setting up a democracy by force? Such a solution will only breed more frustration. It will result in walls being constructed. The world will be surrounded by shrouds of secrecy and the aspect of trust, essential to the success of a flat world, will be all but dead. Such a solution will only un-flatten the world.

But we have with us capitalism. It was capitalism that created the flat world in the first place. The growth of business enterprises that use the benefits of the flat world positively, in the rigid Muslim societies will create economic prosperity in those regions, creating jobs and reducing frustration to a certain extent. But the problem of an unhelpful government still remains. No business would be ready to set up an enterprise in its presence. That happens to be one of the problems of capitalism, the lack of social responsibility. That is why the best way out is to breed social entrepreneurs, someone who burns with a desire to make a positive social impact on the world, but believes that the best way of doing so, is not by giving poor people a fish, but by teaching them to fish. Such considerate, responsible capitalists will gradually manage to empower the people in rigid societies and in time, changes in the governments will be automatically initiated, since, there is no catalyst to change, like the belief that ‘we too can become economically well-off’.

What we need is a proactive international collaboration in this direction and the sooner the world leaders realise this and thinkers ponder more on this idea and come up with more sustainable solutions with the same aim in mind, a wonderful global society has a future. What we need now is thus a Struggle against Terrorism, not an all out war, for a war would be more like killing the sinner without actually rooting out the sin.

Ps: My knowledge on the above topic is limited and most of it has been inspired by Friedman but if we can now initiate a global discussion on the above lines, the collective input from all responsible global citizens can certainly go a long way in initialising a change.