New Age Islam News Bureau
27 Nov. 2015
Straws in the Paris wind
By Happymon Jacob
Terror versus what?
By Vappala Balachandran
Cults and conscience
A reminder from god’s own country
By Oommen Chandy
Straws in the Paris wind
A file photo of candles forming the word "Paris" outside the French embassy in Berlin, Germany after the terror attacks in Paris.
The Paris terror attacks seem to have challenged the foundational ideals that form the basis of the European Union, a project, many argue, is already on the verge of collapse. The supranational entity is clearly struggling to come up with an adequate response to terror.
“Could you please tell me what’s the purpose of your visit to Paris, sir,” said the receptionist at the Best Western Hotel Diva Opera, not too far from the Louvre museum on the Seine river, after carefully examining my passport, demanding a copy of my host’s credit card used to book my room, and inspecting the documentary proof for my visit. “What kind of a question is that? Why do people come to Paris?” I thought to myself, and told her I had never before been asked such a question while checking into a Paris hotel. “We are going through difficult times, sir,” she said.
The newly introduced security measures were not limited to the hotel alone. I had to get my passport verified at the Tegel Airport in Berlin while boarding a flight to Paris last week and repeat the same at the Charles de Gaulle Airport as well. The European Union (EU) citizens had to show their national identify cards for entry into the flight and Paris.
All these ‘first time’ security measures were understandable given what had taken place in Paris just the previous week; the country was still mourning its dead, and worried about its injured. But what’s worrying is that these measures may not be discontinued any time soon.
Paris removed from its usual self
Through the past week, the city of Paris was not its usual self: from its classy, crowded, almost-snobbish self, it suddenly looked like an insecure, tense old man wary of strangers. Every gaze one encountered in the streets had a question mark in it.
Emmett Strickland, a young American research student at Sciences Po, who I met at a seminar in Paris last week, had this to say: “There is now a genuine public concern for personal safety. I went outside in the popular Marais district the Saturday afternoon, the day after the attacks. Things were extremely quiet for a Saturday afternoon in downtown Paris. I went in a Starbucks, which is usually packed with customers, and less than half of the seats were full. Starbucks on Saturday is generally a loud, chaotic mess, but that day it felt more like an independent small-town coffee shop. Cinemas, fearing that they would be vulnerable targets, closed down entirely, and U2 cancelled the Paris leg of their tour. Part of me also would like to say that the train station that I pass through after work has also been consistently less busy since the attack, though I admit part of that may be my own imagination.”
The survival of a unified Europe requires a fine balance between the unique realpolitik instincts and strategic priorities of its member states, and its supranational ideals.
The buoyant and liberal French way of life suddenly seemed under the microscope: what did they do that the Islamic militants are so unhappy with them? Is it just the retaliation from the Daesh (the Islamic State, IS) for the French war efforts in Syria? Or has something gone wrong with the French social equation? This is an important question given that most of the attackers were born and brought up in France, not trained fighters slipped into Paris by Daesh.
My cab driver, a practicing Muslim of Tunisian descent, had a string of complaints about how France treats its religious minorities, especially Muslims. He left his job in an accounting firm, he tells me, because he felt it difficult to pray five times a day during office hours without attracting the disapproval of his employer.
Schengen Agreement under threat
The Paris terror attacks seem to have challenged the foundational ideals that form the basis of the European Union, a project, many argue, is already on the verge of collapse. Clearly, the supranational European entity is struggling to cobble together adequate responses to a phenomenon that traditional states have summarily failed in doing. How seriously does the heightened level of insecurity threaten the idea of a unified Europe? Can the institutional structures of EU address the local security concerns of states like France?
With France declaring a state of emergency and suspending the Schengen Agreement indefinitely, the grand dream of a borderless Europe and its impressive promise — “The free movement of persons is a fundamental right guaranteed by the EU to its citizens. Schengen cooperation enhances this freedom by enabling citizens to cross internal borders without being subjected to border checks” — are facing a huge challenge.
France had already taken the necessary clearances to suspend the Schengen Agreement for a month in preparation for the forthcoming Paris Climate Conference. The terror attacks have made the suspension indefinite and at the moment there is no clarity on when the suspension will be withdrawn, with French officials insisting that the full free flow of people and goods can happen only when the two key expectations from the Schengen system — border control by individual states (at the time of entry) and police coordination among Schengen states — are properly implemented. French officials are particularly annoyed with states like Belgium for serious lapses in this regard.
The uneven focus on border control stems from the fact that the problems of insecurity and terrorism are felt differently by different states, and so they deal with them differently. The survival of a unified Europe requires a fine balance between the unique realpolitik instincts and strategic priorities of its member states, and its supranational ideals.
Terror has an uncanny capacity to provoke hard-line political reactions, and France is no exception. French President François Hollande, a socialist leader, is under immense pressure from both the citizens and the right wing parties in the wake of the terror attacks. With the regional elections in France round the corner, Mr. Hollande, at least for now, seems to have stolen the thunder from the right-wing by sounding exactly like them. By declaring emergency, closing the borders, declaring a ‘pitiless war’ on terror, and amplifying the bombing campaign in Syria, the Socialist Party leader is riding high on the popularity charts and is set to take on the right-wing National Front in the upcoming elections. Moreover, Mr. Hollande has asked the Parliament to amend the Constitution to give him unprecedented exceptional powers to fight terror, including the powers to continue with the ‘state of emergency’ for three months instead of 12 days, as is the case now.
In response, the far-right National Front president Marine Le Pen, whose political prospects are benefitting from the terror attacks, is taking the debate to the next level by demanding an immediate halt to the French intake of refugees. Clearly, this display of competitive nationalism between the French Left and Right could make French politics and policies less liberal in the days to come, with adverse implications, especially for the country’s relationship with the EU.
The terror attacks in Paris are quickly leading to a humanitarian catastrophe of immense proportions for the refugees fleeing the ruthless methods of the Daesh and the air campaigns of the West.
The refugee flow, to be clear, is itself a result of the ongoing Western war on terror in West Asia. The renewed war efforts in the wake of the terror attacks would drive more refugees towards the West which, unlike in the recent past, is unwilling to admit them into its own borders.
Even prior to the Paris attacks, only nine out of the 28 EU states were admitting refugees but now even they are unwilling to do so. The new Polish government is rethinking its earlier policy of supporting an EU-wide agreement to accept refugees based on a quota system. The Hungarian government has also opposed the quota system. Sweden, which has just reversed a liberal refugee policy, is the latest to jump on the “no more refugees” bandwagon. In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel is under intense scrutiny for having followed a liberal refugee policy that has so far admitted over a million refuges into the country this year alone.
Moreover, if the feelings in France are anything to go by, there will be even more pressure on migrant populations in Europe to abide by the culture and values of the host country, which could, in turn, lead to more alienation and discontent.
Finally, and most importantly, will the liberal Europe — traditionally friendly towards refugees, promoter of human rights and defender of modern liberal values, often giving unsolicited advice to Asian and African states on the need to respect religious diversity and human rights — survive the shocking recognition that “security comes first, the rest can follow”?
(Happymon Jacob teaches Disarmament and National Security at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. E-mail: email@example.com.)
Terror versus what?
By Vappala Balachandran
November 26, 2015
terrorism-ill-759 History tells us that joint operations are difficult to execute even if top leaders have a personal understanding.
Secret armies are threatening modern civilisation. Like the mysterious 11th-century “hashshashins” of Hassan-i Sabbah, who spread terror among Seljuk Turks and Sunnis, these sneaking legions are attempting to destroy human habitations like the bustling Mumbai, enchanting Paris and distressed Bamako. Their terror has compelled France to employ 10,000 troops to protect Paris. Brussels, headquarters of Nato, is “locked down”. Yet the world’s top leaders, who had an unprecedented opportunity to discuss this problem twice this month — at Antalya, Turkey, and Kuala Lumpur — could think of only repeating hoary slogans like “stiffening our resolve”, “choking funds for terrorism” or “joint operations in a common battlefield”.
Unfortunately, all these slogans are ineffective. The US Treasury list of sanctions against terrorist financiers and designated terrorists, which is the most authoritative compilation, has grown from 127 pages in October 2003 to 994 pages on November 19, 2015, each page containing nearly 42 names. Yet, there is no visible reduction in terrorism. It is true that Russia and France are bombing Islamic State (IS) targets together. But that was because Russia lost its Metrojet on October 31 and Paris was humiliated on November 13. It was only on September 27 that French President Francois Hollande had criticised Russia, without naming it, at the UN General Assembly, while asking for the removal of Bashar al-Assad.
History tells us that joint operations are difficult to execute even if top leaders have a personal understanding. Former Newsweek editor Jon Meacham’s bestseller, Franklin and Winston: An Intimate Portrait of an Epic Friendship, gives us a vivid account of the difficulties faced by Britain and the US during World War II, although Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt were best friends. In the 1980s, we were worried about the dangers to our prime minister’s security from remote-controlled bombs fitted on toy planes. During that era, Indira Gandhi and Margaret Thatcher had excellent personal relations. It was Thatcher’s idea that both intelligence services should frequently exchange information on overseas Sikh militancy. Still, we faced stubborn refusal from the UK on technology to meet these threats. We had to procure a prototype from another country with great difficulty to prepare counter-measures.
The IS, with its 35 terrorist affiliates, is an “invisible” enemy, whose contours are not very clear, for India. It is trying to radicalise our youngsters through 50,000 twitter accounts, sympathisers like “Shami Witness”, and recruiters like Afsha Jabeen. While there is no possibility of organised Paris-like attacks on India, “do-it-yourself” terrorism is a certainty. Their biggest advantage is our unpreparedness. Our ministries are not compiling reliable data on Indian workers abroad or their overseas travels. We mostly come to know about them when they are deported by foreign governments. Some foreign governments, like Turkey’s, complain that the 1,085 recruits repatriated home by them till February 2015, including eight from India, were let off by their governments. They say that this is not the way to check IS subversion.
Even if the West eventually destroys IS terrorism through military action catalysed by Russia, there is no guarantee that Pakistan-sponsored attacks like 26/11 will cease. Our relationship with Pakistan is traditionally “sturm und drang”. We tried “containment” in 1998, threatened them with “Operation Parakram” (2001-02), attempted charm at Sharm el-Sheikh in 2009, and again threatened them through “slow burn” after May 2014.
Yet, the same Pakistan was forced to capitulate after 9/11. It was compelled by America to expel foreign jihadis and ban the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) in January 2002, when the LeT joined anti-US Islamic groups. Pakistan will act decisively only under severe pressure from the US, which is unwilling to exert that level of pressure unless its own security is threatened. Our normal diplomatic approaches or high-level parleys with the US against Pakistan-sponsored terrorism would, at best, result in diplomatic opprobrium. Pakistan has learned to live with that and carry on normal operations.
Israel had suffered a setback like that. In April 1981, the American Jewish lobby suffered a big defeat in their campaign for Israel’s security when the US-Saudi AWACs (Airborne Warning and Control System) deal was finalised over their objections. This made the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) drastically change their lobbying strategy. Instead of meeting only the executive branch and senior congressional leaders, they started “grassroots campaigning” to convince individual Congressmen on legislative measures to support Israel. The AIPAC opened several regional offices and marshalled Jewish votes, raising their polling percentage to 90 per cent against a national average of 50 per cent. US politicians soon realised that American Jews could tilt the scales in over 80 Congressional districts for the presidential elections. This grassroots campaign and Congressional pressure compelled then President Ronald Reagan to reverse the Jordan arms deal in 1986.
In the 1980s, the Indian-American leadership also realised the need for the diaspora’s political involvement. They set up the Indian American Forum for Political Education (IAFPE) in 1983 on the lines of the AIPAC. For two decades, they carried on relentless lobbying with US legislators on India’s strategic requirements. In 1986, they organised street protests against the proposal to supply AWACs to Pakistan. They managed to pass the “Kargil resolution”, criticising Pakistan, on June 29, 1999. They defeated the Burton amendment on aid cuts to India on August 2, 1999.
However, the present generation of Indian-Americans, whose median annual income has risen higher than that of even US households, does not take an interest in grassroots political activities. None in the Congressional India caucus was persuaded to back India when the US manufacturing coalition and big pharma waged an aggressive campaign against us in 2014. No Indian-American organisation has lobbied to incorporate a stipulation in US laws on security assistance to Pakistan that the LeT and Jaish-e-Mohammed should not operate from Pakistan for cross-border attacks, as was mentioned in the lapsed Kerry-Lugar bill. They have not lobbied to put Congressional pressure on the administration to compel Pakistan to discard its policy of patronising terrorists. This will need hard work but will be much more effective than glitzy Madison Square Garden-type shows.
Cults and conscience
The cultural and spiritual landscape of postcolonial India has offered up very different idioms for the expression of something like a popular conscience. From the iconic Gandhi and many revered Gandhians whose life, memory, or even depictions served to remind one of ideas of right and wrong, to the many spiritual and religious figures who play the role of therapist, teacher, entertainer and moral guide to ordinary Indians, the role of a conscience-figure has always faced the challenges of commodification and co-optation. Gandhi, for example, was frequently the ironic-conscience in Indian movies, a silent weeper for injustice and corruption done under his watch, at least until the Munnabhai franchise.
The transformation of Aamir Khan in the last few years from Bollywood celebrity to activist-crusader needs to be seen therefore in the context of the tension that exists between commodification and social change in the media age. One might critique him for not doing enough, or not being enough, from the point of view of what might be considered a progressive politics, but there is also a growing sense of emptiness surrounding him when it comes to what might be called a politics of the conscience.
For those who believe that India has become vastly intolerant in the last year, Khan’s admission that his family considered moving out of India for fear of being harmed by intolerance might seem a valid point, a “no-brainer,” as one might say. For others, though, who find the claims about this rising intolerance largely unfounded, such a statement appears very different; not the outcry of a concerned citizen pained about his country, but as a cynical expression of disdain for a whole country. Supporters of Khan will see his critics as proof of what they have been saying about intolerance, and critics will see, once again, not so much proof of intolerance, but only a privileged and exalted sense of self-righteousness.
The key question one might need to examine here is simply whether there really was an act of intolerance against Khan that warranted such a strong statement of fear and condemnation. As far as we know, Khan has continued to work freely, make movies, even movies of a controversial nature like PK, sell products, and enjoy a life of celebrity and fame. He has not been browbeaten by governments, political parties, nor by citizens. He has been criticised somewhat for his selective story-telling in PK, but that is not unexpected for anyone who is a public figure, a creative person.
Those who have assumed a public role and become conscience-figures cannot shy away from the need to be responsible in their pronouncements.
Yet, Aamir Khan too has joined a group of people who believe, apparently, with all their hearts, that India has become more intolerant since May 2014. The incidents cited for this claim have been three murders, none of which has been determined to be connected to the national government or the ruling party. Yet, somehow, the fact that the Prime Minister did not condemn it quickly enough, or “strongly” enough, has warranted one of the loudest acts of protest by a part of the intellectual and artistic elite who seem to see something that many others simply don’t.
The tragedy of this sort of protest at a predetermined conclusion (Modi got elected, Modi is from the RSS, RSS founders admired Nazis, ergo, India is now fascist) is that it has broken India’s sense of itself in two.
Even with many regional parties, caste-based parties, and all the politics of its diversity, India seldom showed polarisation on the fundamental definitions of reality on such a scale ever before perhaps. Whether this polarisation is real, or the symptom of an age when the pervasiveness of the media, and the power of the media environment to turn into an echo chamber and feed a contrived public panic, as much of the U.S. media did before the Iraq war, is a question that needs honest debate, and often sadly missing in the war of clichés and slogans that TV debates dominated by party spokesmen rather than independent observers get reduced to.
No one can presume to instruct a fellow citizen on how much of a sense of belonging he ought to feel for the nation. But those citizens who have assumed a public role and who have become, either through desire or clever commercial craftsmanship, or both, conscience-figures for the nation, cannot shy away from the need to be responsible in their public pronouncements.
Even if critics of the Modi government insist that they are calling a party intolerant and not the nation, loose statements about wanting to flee India because it is becoming intolerant inevitably appear condescending and hurtful, and even hypocritical. There is a growing sense among people that essentially a small, privileged section of India’s intelligentsia, accustomed to living in some post-national or transnational space of selective identity politics, has turned increasingly inward and unresponsive to an India that may not have had the fine liberal arts education of the sort it did, but still believes, even if in simple language and terms, in a deeper kind of conscientiousness than what fashionable identity-based menus for protest might say.
Many of the people upset by Aamir Khan’s statement are not innately minority-despising “intolerant” party-hacks but ordinary citizens who believe in an inclusive notion of India, and not some predetermined calculus about what identities are innately progressive and what identities are not. They see an India in which a very deep-rooted sense of acceptance, kindness, and patience helps it survive the chaos and struggle of the everyday. They live in an India where the basic goodness of its diverse people, and not the high distance of privilege, gives them their understanding of things like tolerance and intolerance. They might not have the sophisticated vocabulary for it, so they wave flags and say little more than simple patriotic slogans. But we cannot deny that they are from deep within a real India which knows itself very well. Meanwhile, though, the Neros and Batistas of our time, trapped in their palaces of high theory, cannot fathom this at all. Instead, they purport to destroy every drop of integrity and honesty in our discourse simply because their theories did not work out as planned.
(Vamsee Juluri is a professor of media studies at the University of San Francisco and the author of Rearming Hinduism.)
A reminder from god’s own country
Nov 27, 2015
Kerala MPs stage a protest outside the Kerala House, after buffalo meat was taken off the menu after a complaint by a group opposed to beef consumption, in New Delhi. (PTI File Photo)
A diverse culture, pluralistic traditions, abundant sources of knowledge, a tolerant ethos -- these are just some of the things India has been admired for in the world. But in recent times, I am disturbed to note that this once proud historic and socio-cultural edifice of our country is routinely being torpedoed by vested interests.
Many are holding positions of great power and are attempting to weave a web of intolerance that is shackling sections of our society. Among these elements are the RSS and a compliant BJP, which have already damaged the soul of our nation. They have begun undermining our unity in diversity through what could be fatal cuts. They have begun to put shackles on our freedom to choose. Tomorrow our freedom to express may come under their not so benign gaze.
Their undemocratic conduct has curbed the freedom of people’s choice of food, promoted intolerance on communal lines and mounted an attack on progressive thinkers. Incidents of burning Dalits to death, preventing Pakistani singer Ghulam Ali from performing in India and the killing of professor MM Kalburgi have created anguish among all. But then, this was to be expected from the RSS, which has derided Mother Teresa and celebrated the day of the hanging of Mahatma Gandhi’s assassin as Martyr’s Day. The PM was quiet on these issues when the whole nation looked to him for his intervention and preventive measures.
The veiled verbal attacks on Kerala by the RSS and the BJP have taken on a shrill tone. But, as a Keralite and the CM, I have the moral right to defend and secure secularism and harmony in Kerala. A role model to the world in social and physical quality of life and a source of constant inspiration and ideas for the nation, Kerala has been built on solid foundations of traditions, value education and healthy socio-cultural practices.
It would be worth their while for the RSS to keep aside their animosity and go through the annals of Kerala’s history. They will find that it is almost impossible for communalism or divisive thinking to take root in the state. Such is the conviction of this state and its people who have been nurtured on the far-sightedness and philosophical thoughts of Sree Narayana Guru, the enlightened Sree Sankaracharya; the epitome of brotherhood — Cheraman Perumal and the scientific acumen of Aryabhatta.
Let me also remind the RSS that Kerala is the only place in India and among the few in the world to have given asylum to the Jews, when they were driven away from their homeland. It is a land where devotees pay their respects to Vavar (the Muslim friend and confidant of Lord Ayyappa) at Erumely, before proceeding to seek the blessings of Lord Ayyappa at Sabarimala.
I also would like to remind the RSS that our’s was not a civilisation that invaded others. We always welcomed everyone to our shores. This is what prompted one of the greatest monks of India, Swami Vivekananda to say about the Roman Empire during a speech in Colombo that “the spider weaves its web where the Caesars ruled”. I hope the message is loud and clear.
Oommen Chandy is the chief minister of Kerala. The views expressed are personal.