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Books and Documents ( 17 Jan 2010, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Terrorism of the strong & terrorism of the weak

By Achin Vanaik

The US war on terror is auseful banner for the demonisation of Islam &Muslims

THE STRENGTH of edited volumes organised around a particular theme is precisely the variety of authorial perspectives made available.

But such collections really work if despite the inevitable unevenness of quality, the reader feels that s/he has benefited significantly from the time and effort spent. By that benchmark this collection of 16 international contributions brought together by the editors is a welcome addition to the expanding literature on terrorism. One group of contributors engages in essentially abstract, philosophically oriented ruminations about the meaning of terror/terrorism in the wider context of the emergence of a post- Enlightenment modernity, of a media-obsessed society where the representative politics of a constitutionalised democracy and legitimised statehood are supposed to reign supreme. Another group focuses more strongly on specific conflicts.

Artemy Magun claims that terrorism as symbolic violence could not have the power it does were it not for sustained media exposure of its ‘threat’ in what another contributor Ivaylo Ditchev calls the society of control. Terrorism is in a sense then the logical offspring of the Enlightenment’s stimulus to the creation of the public sphere, and therefore of the public media, in which deliberative reasoning was supposed to deliver its modernist promise of progress and justice.

The Foucaldian theme of the technologies of disciplinary and regulatory power feature in the chapter by P.K. Bose, who talks of the tension between the two. The discourse on security is about regulation and its elevation into a prime concern of the democratic state, apparently justified by the threat of terrorism, helps to make law and violence indistinguishable, depoliticising society, thus helping democracy to slide increasingly towards becoming like its authoritarian opposite.

For Boyan Manchev, terror is that ‘surplus’ that escapes the state’s monopolisation of violence. Indeed terrorism reinforces the state’s “sense of being” the legitimate sovereign. To think beyond global terror will require us to think beyond sovereignty and the nation-state.

Giorgio Agamben has proposed, according to Didier Bigo, a pessimistic grand theory of how the state of exception has become an increasingly dominant practice globally leading to what some have called the “fascization of democracy”. Bigo is more optimistic. The structured separation of the executive and the judiciary still provides resources for the framework of the law and courts to still effectively resist the government’s use of emergency laws even when constitutionalised.

Paula Banerjee takes inspiration from the remarkable struggle of Manipuri women against the gendered and other dimensions of the Indian state’s brutality in the northeast and Samir Das points out how this state simultaneously brands insurgents as terrorists and as potential insiders, thereby legitimising alongside its repression the use of dialogue and negotiation to bring “our boys” back into the constructed nationalist of course ruled out, no matter what the peoples of the northeast might think or feel.

Ranabir Samaddar, in the one chapter that deals with a past conflict, looks at Bengal’s revolutionary terrorists of colonial times and at the philosophical impulses and literary sources that inspired them to reject the dominant political discourse and constitute themselves as independent political subjects opposed to colonialism.

Francisco Naishtat, Shahnaz Rouse and Daho Djerbal link the rise of new global terrorism to the debilitating pressures of contemporary neo- liberal globalisation and to the US effort to stabilise this process. The US- led war on terror serves as a useful ideological banner for purposes which have included support for repression in Algeria and the demonization of Islam and Muslims.

Virgilio Alfonso da Silva rejects the notion of a war on terror, for Al Qaeda- type actions are a “momentary affront to effective sovereignty”, not a warlike existential threat to countries or part of some project of territorial occupation. Unfortunately, even some who reject the war metaphor nonetheless seek interrogation tactics” and detention of mere suspects, to be denied legal recourse.

In an interesting intervention, Alain Brossat dissects what Agamben calls dangerous “assemblages”, this one being an “extraordinary rendition”. The terms refer to (respectively) rules and norms — for instance, formal extradition processes and emergency or exception, thus uniting law and violence/ lawlessness, making the victims of such renditions effectively invisible in a way that internment in territorially fixed concentration camps could never do.

MY OWN favourite piece is by Stephen Wright on rumour as symbolic violence, just as terrorism is a violently symbolic act.

Rumours are performative and self- sustaining, always passed on, all too often indeterminate in their veracity, sometimes spreading fear even as they construct a community of sorts by being the same thing spread Israeli armed forces deliberately spread rumours in 1948 to terrorise and displace the large majority of Palestinians.

But it is Wright’s comparison of terrorism to the earlier function of art that really made one sit up. By this he meant that before the late twentieth- century emergence of a media- saturated world of an immense excess of diverse messages, it was art that represented a sense of danger, and which, when allied to rumour, became a “ language of being noticed”. This sense of danger is now represented by the constantly referred to “ threat of terrorism”, alerting us once again to the never- to- be underestimated power of symbolic action, even as we should always remember that it is the terrorism of the strong — of the state, not of the weak ( non- state actors) — that remains overwhelmingly the main problem, all the more difficult to diminish because it does not dominate contemporary public discourse on terrorism.

Achin Vanaik is the head of the department of political science, University of Delhi

Source: Mail Today, New Delhi

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