Monday, July 25, 2011

Terror: What Are We Fighting?

The terror attacks in Mumbai and Oslo within the span of just this one month left me deeply disturbed at a personal level. While Mumbai is home to me and my family, Oslo is home to some very dear friends who hosted us on our visit to their peaceful and scenic country last year.

The highlight of our 2010 summer holiday was the "Norway in a nutshell" tour package, which took us by train through the hills, then by boat through the fjords, then by bus on steep winding roads down the ravines and then by train again. From Oslo to Bergen, where we stayed back for a few days to witness the Constitution Day celebrations, and back to Oslo, it was perhaps the most picturesque journey I have ever undertaken. The more or less ubiquitous music of Edvard Grieg complemented the visual experience beautifully to complete the experience. We stopped over on our way back for a couple of days at a quiet little hamlet called Ulvik that might well have popped right out of a Nordic fairy tale, to nestle itself in the neck of Hardangerfjord.

View of Hardangerfjord from our hotel room in Ulvik

I was shocked to learn just the other day that the very same irenic idyll of Norway we took delight in a little over a year ago was shattered by the boom and staccato of terror. It was even more shocking because barely a week earlier the thronging chaos Mumbai thrives on was benumbed by yet another round of brutal bludgeoning by a series of bomb blasts; the buoyant, vibrant spirit of cosmopolitan Mumbai dampened by the persistent overhanging clouds of terror.

On deeper reflection today, a simple truth shines through the miasma of IED explosions even as the dust settles and the bereaved are condoled. And though its voice is soft, its import is clear: we have not framed the problem correctly. Our perspective on terrorism is fundamentally flawed, informed as much by the perfervid rhetoric of ideologues and demagogues, of politicians and religious leaders alike, as by the subtle predilections of prejudiced op-ed columnists, jaundiced celebrity intellectuals and biased news anchors, all cleverly packaged around media coverage of terror attacks and delivered directly to our homes. These opinion-shapers, whose combination of confirmation bias and cognitive fluency recognizes only the vile hand of another religion, would have us believe that such senseless carnage is an extension of some medieval "clash of civilizations" playing itself out again after a thousand years. No. This violence is actually just the visceral reaction of a fanatical kind of jingoism directed against the universal celebration of diversity in an increasingly globalized world.

Norway's stand on terror opens our eyes to this simple truth -- one that we have overlooked for too long now -- that the real clash is not between Islamic and Judao-Christian/ neo-Nazi/ Hindu bigotry, but between tolerance and intolerance; between pluralism and parochialism; between the warm, welcoming, hospitable inclusiveness of the open-minded and the frigid, insular, hostile exceptionalism of rigid xenophobes. While we mechanically mouth clich├ęs such as "terror knows no religion" on the one hand, on the other we are quick to classify terrorists as Islamic or Christian or Hindu fundamentalists. What we should be crusading against is not the intolerance of a specific religion but intolerance per se. When we see it this way, it changes the game. Intolerance is palpable in many small, mundane, routine acts of ordinary people, even atheists. It lies at the very core of discrimination of all kinds, based not only on religion but also politics, ethnicity, race, culture, gender, nationality, language and so on. Perhaps even favorite football teams or preferred Operating Systems. But what do we do about intolerance, once we spot it?

To the naive mind it may appear that we are stuck in an intractable trap of a vicious logic. Living out the paradox of fighting intolerance with intolerance would mean playing into the hands of the intolerant. And typically, this is how minor conflicts escalate and become wars. On the other hand, fighting intolerance with passive tolerance would mean exposing our soft vulnerable underbelly in a tacit invitation to more barbarism. (Example of the latter: in the aftermath of a series of attacks in recent years, helpless Mumbaikars seem to have resigned themselves to a "do nothing; get back to business as usual" approach, more by default than by design.) So the dilemma seems to be: "an eye for an eye" versus "turn the other cheek". We must be quick to realize that this is a false choice.

There is another way, and that is the way of aggressive constructive engagement. It involves more dialog with the intolerant and more debate among the tolerant (including religious moderates) on how to conduct that dialog and trigger reforms. More dialog, actively and proactively pursued. And pursued relentlessly. This is what we should do: appeal to the rational side of intolerance (yes, there is one, weak and small though it might be), get the xenophobes, the alienated, the disaffected, the disenfranchised, the marginalized to the negotiating table, understand and sort out their issues without shying away from them. In many cases there are simple socio-economic realities underlying their feelings of deprivation as some observers argue. In many cases there are simple political motivations (of internal seditionists or external adversarial rogue states) that instigate violence by stoking simmering discontent or sense of alienation. Where religion is concerned, we must work with religious leaders to initiate reforms aimed at removing elements of intolerance and replacing them with elements of inclusiveness; at muting elements that sanction violence against non-believers and amplifying elements that promote love for all humanity.

We must learn the art and science of conflict resolution through peaceful dialog and negotiation. In every situation of conflict, there is a way to look for trade-offs and find positive-sum outcomes. The trouble is that the very voices that have colored our perspectives on terror with the tint of religion are also the voices that hanker after a zero-sum outcome. These voices talk of victory and defeat. As long as there is talk of victory and defeat, nobody wins. Today's victor is tomorrow's vanquished. Then the cycle turns. And "in the long run we are all dead" as Keynes warned us.

Sadly, India and the US (two of the highly affected nations) play to the macho "no negotiation with terrorists" attitude, which eliminates the possibility of any kind of dialog. Guess where that leaves the intolerant fanatic.

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