Tuesday, November 13

We can best stop terror by civil, not military, means

My editor, Aaman Lamba, sent me a note about the great Nobel Laureate Professor Amartya Sen's column in the Guardian about how to stop terror using civil rather than military means. It was prescient because in a forthcoming essay, I will be talking about how a purely military orientation towards fighting terror is misplaced. And in this case, I think the good professor errs on the other side, by trying to aim for political participation, dialogue, inclusion, media and communications, education and concentrating on young people, as well as a multilateral framework to fighting terrorism. Nice idealistic ideas, but they would not work. The way to fight terror, as I have spoken here and here, is to have a judicious mixture of the two. And the military means, I am afraid, come first .

I have to admit that the article was pretty heavy going. That man has quite a way with words, heavy words, that is. Here's an example.

They can nevertheless hugely contribute to generating a political climate in which the most peaceful of people come to tolerate the most egregious acts of intolerance and brutality on some hazily perceived grounds of self-defence, or retaliation, against the identified "enemy"

Now, I do not know about you, but it took me three re-reads before I could figure it out and I am still not sure. Here's another example:

Central to the civil approach is the recognition of the need to overcome the influence of confused and flammable readings of human relations that generate group-specific disaffection and hatred.

But besides the fact that he needs a good editor (perhaps TBS could help out?), this report, commissioned by the Commonwealth Commission, was released on November 9, 2007. Unfortunately, no electronic copy is available, only a printed copy. I have purchased a copy so let's see what it says, but in the meantime, all I can do is to comment on the CiF article, the speeches and the blurb to the book (If my opinion changes after I get the book, I will post a followup).

While giving a nod to the fact that they think terrorism is a criminal exercise, they concentrate on a single overwhelming idea, that jaw jaw is better than war war. And just to show his breadth of vision, he wants to talk about everything like religion, identity, civilization, language, economics, etc. Everything with everybody! To put it in his 'official' terminology, the recommendation is :

‘Civil Paths to Peace’ argues that the solution to conflicts within the Commonwealth should be rooted in the association’s agreed principles of human rights, democracy, gender equality, the rule of law and a transparent and accountable political culture.

The report recommends new forms of political participation, an emphasis on non-sectarian non-parochial education that expands rather than reduces the reach of understanding, and greater support to young people, who represent over half of the Commonwealth’s 2 billion citizens.

Very good sentiments! It's just too bad, that they are not really very well grounded in reality. Take the Commonwealth Commission itself. Can somebody point to anything substantial that it has actually managed to deliver? All I can think of is that it provides for a way for the heads of assorted manky British ex-colonial leaders to meet up, have cucumber sandwiches and take photographs. This multilateral organisation is useless. So if the founding principles behind the Commonwealth were to be used as an example, then what would the good professor point to as a successful example? Well, I will have to wait for the book, but based upon my limited understanding of the history, I cannot think of any instance that the commission has actually managed to push for a resolution of a terrorist campaign.

Further, the reason the commonwealth has survived is because they really didn't say anything to anybody. Like ASEAN. No interference in anybody else's affairs. The commonwealth saw rioting and genocide, ethnic cleansing, corruption, autocracy, despotism, tyranny, heavy pressure and removal of the freedom of speech and media and so on and so forth. So no, I am not very hopeful.

Also, if you look at how UK dealt with terrorist campaigns in Malaya, Aden, Northern Ireland, Rhodesia, Islamist terrorism in Afghanistan, insurgency in Iraq, terrorism in the UK itself etc., I am not really very sure if these high sounding principles have been or can be implemented in the UK itself.

In a way, the comment they make that people are more complex than we think is right. So for example, if we look at British Muslims purely as Muslims and that too of the Islamist variety, then they WILL assume that this identifier is primary and will react accordingly. So to point to British Bangladeshi Muslims as Muslims only is missing the benefits of seeing them as Bangali's (as Professor Sen and I are) or as Britishers. So the point that they are making is that we should be looking at people from multiple angles, such as nationality, language, gender, parenthood, hobbies, education, social standing, etc. and this might avoid the problems.

Good idea, Professor, but terrorism usually emerges through a single vector of religion or language or nationalism or an ideology etc. And the uglies usually do not care about the other vectors. Can you imagine going to OBL and saying something like dont kill me because I am Muslim as well, or I am a father like you, or I speak Arabic like you, or I like to follow football like you, or I am an engineer like you.... What exactly do you think he is going to say?

So to end the note, what I have basic problems with is this downplaying of the military/security angle and an extremely idealistic reading of the terrorist landscape, I am afraid. In every counter-terrorist campaign that has succeeded (Northern Ireland, Germany, Punjab, Malaya, etc.), both civil and military means were required.

I have to also caution, whenever only / or mainly military means were used, they always failed (Rhodesia, Kashmir, Iraq, Palestine, etc.). But first, the military means were required to thump the opposing forces into some kind of situation where they became willing to listen to civil means.

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