What does the coming “war” against terrorism mean for South Asia?
A geopolitical realignment is now occurring in South and Central Asia. This is clear even if the end result is not. Where Afghanistan and Pakistan once stood on the fault line between competing powers and survived the “Great Game” by playing one against the other, now the self interest of many countries is coming together violently in their rugged highland s. The US and Europe energised by the attacks in New York, Russia facing instability in Chechnya and the former Soviet Republics, China worried over the discontent of ethnic minorities in Xingjiang Province, many Muslim nations with populations divided by differing interpretations of Islam and, of course, India tense over Pakistan, Kashmir and its own internal religious-ethnic divisions; all have interests in the region.
The geopolitical shift is of a new type. Where once states were arrayed against each other, now the conflict—at least at its start—is between broad, loosely allied, coalitions of states and elements of their own populations. Will it continue to develop in this direction? Many point to the risk of a Third World War. While global politicians and some religious leaders (such as the Pope) struggle desperately to ensure that this is not perceived as a fight between Islam and the West, the world is dangerously close to doing this. If it occurs, only a few countries are likely to fall unequivocally on one side or the other. Other countries, such as India with its huge Muslim population embedded in an even larger Hindu-dominated polity, are likely to find that the battle ground is as much internal as external. In any case, the pressure of newly-realigned global interests- and the inevitable military action-are likely to tear open the many divisions within and between countries that have been papered over in the past. Where will it all lead? That is anyone’s guess, but the starting point for understanding probably lies in Pakistan.
General Musharraf’s speech to his country on 19 September was carefully crafted to give his numerous polarised audiences essential reassurance and thinly-veiled warnings. He talked about Pakistan’s unwilling acquiescence to America’s demands for support while emphasising that such support would occur under UN resolutions approved by all Islamic nations. Visibly angry, he mentioned Pakistan’s “strategic assets” (nuclear weapons) numerous times along with the readiness of the Pakistani military. Pakistan’s fears of encirclement were clear in references to officials from India attending meetings in Dushanbe (Tajikistan), and the instant ease with which India offered broad military support to American action in the region. The most intriguing part of Musharraf’s speech, however, was in his references to Islam and the Sharia’a.
Musharraf is a Muslim who comes from a section of Pakistani society that is relatively liberal and, while bruised by past relationships with the West (most recently, USA), is none-the-less relatively Westernised. In parts of his speech, however, he sounded, as a Pakistani friend here in Kathmandu commented, like a mullah. Speaking not to his Western audience but to a broad swath of Pakistani and Muslim society, he told the story of the first few years of Islam’s existence. At that time, Prophet Mohammed had signed a six-year treaty of friendship with the Jews followed by another brief no-war pact with kaftrs (idol worshippers) from Mecca. These were essential because Mohammed’s forces could not manage two enemies at once. The first treaty enabled Islam to establish itself and grow. The second enabled it to conquer the Jews and, ultimately, the Meccans as well. The treaties were not real pacts of friendship. They were signed under duress as strategic moves. In addition, the no-war pact with the Meccans was, from the Islamic perspective, inherently false because the Meccans forbade Mohammed from signing as “Prophet”. Mohammed justified the omission because it was done for a higher good: advancing the cause of Islam. It was a strategic compromise that, in no way, compromised Islamic fundamentals.
The message Musharraf formally drew from this is that it is better to act with prudence rather than emotion in times of crisis. “Pakistan comes first”, and for its survival it must work with the Americans and the wider international community. But the underlying message that much of his Urdu-speaking audience might have drawn must be different. For them, the speech anchored Pakistan’s current support for the Americans, in the life and teachings of Mohammed, and stressed that this support in no way compromises Pakistan’s basic Islamic credentials. Furthermore, the parable from the Sharia’a suggests that while Pakistan may make agreements with Americans or Indians (implicitly today’s equivalent of the Jews and the Meccans), this is a temporary strategic move that does not reflect more fundamental realities, beliefs and positions. Expediency is allowed and can be justified for a higher good. The message for his more fundamentalist audience was that Pakistan is “a citadel of Islam”, and needs to survive today so that it and Islam may win tomorrow.
Musharraf’s speech is a microcosm of the tensions within South Asian society. Splits within Pakistan are turning violent and lives have already been lost in protests against the country’s cooperation with the USA. The middle ground of secular, “rationalist” dialogue and co-existence is evaporating. People in Pakistan, including perhaps Musharraf himself, are being forced to choose between unconditional and distasteful acquiescence to Western demands or a combination of blind nationalism and fundamentalism.
Peeling the onion
As interesting as Musharraf’s speech itself were the interpretations of it in the Indian, Pakistani and Western media. The BBC carried the speech live but the translator either missed or did not cover many points, including the Slraria ‘a references. While recognising the tensions within Pakistan, Western media summaries primarily emphasised the government’s decision to support America. Summaries in the Indian press mostly reacted angrily, viewing Musharraf’s speech as an attempt to shift the focus away from terrorism to accusations of Indian aggression. Finally, summaries in the Pakistani press tended to highlight the Slraria ‘a angle and the need for Pakistan to maintain its sovereignty, economy and strategic assets.
The separate international, regional and domestic streams of press information bypassed each other.
Each selected different aspects of the speech and drew different interpretations. Musharraf was attempting to speak to many different audiences at the same time. To a large extent, those audiences may have absorbed the messages intended for them while. ignoring (or playing down) the messages intended for others. In many cases, the Western interpretations were factually different from the meaning of Musharraf’s words whether spoken in Urdu or English. The BBC commentator who summarised the speech immediately following its conclusion, for example, indicated that Musharraf had told the Taliban to “lay off”; he hadn’t, those words were targeted for India. While this misinterpretation was later corrected, the fact that the commentator jumped to the conclusion that Musharraf was criticising the Taliban is suggestive of the preconceptions that often underlie reports in the Western media.
As Musharraf’s speech indicates, Operation “?” (once “Infinite Justice” now “Enduring Freedom”) will be enacted on global and regional stages where many of the participants either intentionally or unintentionally speak past each other, and opportunities for misunderstanding are rife. This is, perhaps, the most fundamental implication for South Asia. The battle against terrorism is more a battle of ideas, beliefs and positions than a military battle. It is also steeped in existing disputes. One religion’s blasphemy is another religion’s worship. One person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter. In South Asia, these contradictions were already intense points of conflict within most societies before last week’s terrorist attacks in New York. From Ayodhya to the Bamiyan Buddhas, tolerance and understanding of other religions has been on the wane for decades. India is concerned about the West’s rapid rapprochement with Pakistan, and may feel that its own offers of military support are being unjustly spurned-but even India must recognise that any attack on Afghanistan from its soil would be perceived as anti-Muslim by most of the Islamic world. Similarly, President Bush’s use of the term “crusade” was, at the very least, unfortunate. Even though it has now been deleted from his public vocabulary, many Muslims in South Asia and elsewhere see it as symptomatic of Western attitudes. According to a BBC correspondent, “There was little support for a jihad until US President George Bush spoke of a “crusade” against terrorism.” If such slips force people to take sides not in a battle against terrorism but in a larger geopolitical shift with distinct religious overtones, Operation “?” is likely to deepen these contradictions in the multi-layered war of words and ideas. Clear communication is an essential prerequisite for peaceful solutions to complex problems. There are, however, many layers to the n-dimensional onion of South Asia. Foreign advisors (those who have flown over an area) and foreign experts (those who flew over in daylight) will have trouble peeling the layers.
Economy under stress
All of the above implies an increasingly complicated political situation for governments in the region. Western pressure and attention will increase, and will often reflect simplified understanding or lack of real information on the social and religious dynamics within South Asian polity. Polarisation is also likely to increase along fault lines within society. Some fault-lines, such as the one between religions, are obvious however much governments attempt to play them down. Others may be equally important. Take, for example, the tensions generated by modem communication systems. Satellite TV now transmits images of Westernised lifestyles into the homes of millions of South Asians. Some Muslims interpret this as a Western attack on Islam. Most in the West would deny any such attack, instead viewing the spread of ideas and lifestyles as demand-driven. From this perspective, technology simply delivers the images and ideas many people, particularly the young, demand on their own initiative. This demand is eroding traditional values across the spectrum of religions and cultures in most South Asian countries. The clash of values is far more fundamental than it seems. The West places responsibility for individuals and their beliefs primarily in their own hands, while many regional cultures locate individuals within a social space that is far more tightly defined by community and religion. Whether or not this more broadly felt line of tension will be opened by the developing conflict or papered over is impossible to tell at this point. Economic pressures are, however, likely to increase and when they do, the affluent life many in the Subcontinent aspire to-and some have begun to experience-will decline. This life and the expectations it raises for the future lie at the root of a tolerant social space in which contradictory value sets often peacefully co-exist.
South Asia’s economic foundations will come under intense pressure if conflict adds to existing global economic uncertainty. A major challenge may lie in changes to global economic systems that emerge as part of the war against terrorism. Governments increasingly recognise that the financing of terrorist networks is made possible by global systems that enable funds to flow instantaneously from one part of the world to another. It will be difficult to restrict the ability of terrorists to do this without restricting the functioning of global financial systems for all users. This could have major, though unpredictable, impacts on all aspects of economic life in South Asia. Some economic impacts are, however, already evident. Tourism and travel are immediate victims. In Nepal, tourism was just beginning to look up after a disastrous spring and summer when fears of the Maoist uprising in combination with the royal massacres and economic uncertainty, drove visitor numbers down. Now tourism is wilting. Hotel bookings are low and little work is available for guides and porters. The economic lifeline for many at the base of Nepali society is fraying. India’s economy is also under increasing stress. From tourism to software, India’s economy has benefited hugely from increasing interaction with the rest of the world. Now, shrinking global demand is only one aspect of the challenge. South Asians travelling to the West face increased discrimination and personal risk.
Travel is, however, fundamental to business as well as personal relationships. If South Asians feel unsafe in the West, the economy of both regions will suffer. An equally fundamental concern may be the reluctance of Western companies to locate critical functions in countries that are perceived as vulnerable. One of South Asia’s greatest assets is the large pool of highly trained computer professionals it contains. If Operation “?” develops into a war between religions or cultural values, this pool could itself be perceived as a source of risk. Pakistan’s economy, already in shambles before this, is likely to contract still further unless the aid it receives is sufficient to counterbalance the disruption it will experience as a theatre of war. Overall, the region could see a dramatic reduction in its economic prospects.
Economic contraction is likely to exacerbate the social tensions already inflamed by any extensive military action in South Asia. Without rapid growth, the region will be unable to create the numerous jobs its growing population requires, to say nothing of meeting their rising expectations. Over the past two decades, large populations have left rural areas and migrated to towns and urban centres. This migration has been driven by many factors but better livelihoods rooted in growing urban economies have provided many with hope for a better future. Equally importantly, wealthy urban centres are places of social tolerance and relative anonymity. In them, individuals can pursue their own lives whether traditional or cosmopolitan with far less social pressure than in small villages and rural areas. As a result, urban centres endowed with increasing job opportunities have served as a social release valve reducing tensions within and between communities. Urban anonymity combined with economic expansion create a social space in which contradictions can coexist. Urban centres in which high expectations compete over a shrinking pool of opportunities and where mistrust between communities reduces anonymity, are very different. If the safety valve of anonymity and hope for better futures evaporates, internal tensions within South Asian urban and rural society will come to the fore. There is a real danger that the politics of religion and community will come to dominate everyday life.
At this moment of uncertainty, it is easy to see the potentially large negative consequences of the emerging conflict. The conflict is, however, also an opportunity. To many analysts, its roots lie as much in poverty, inequity and corruption as in fundamentalism and anti-Western sentiment. The first three causes may, in fact, provide the intellectual justification; the evidence of moral failure that is needed to draw highly intelligent and educated individuals to the fundamentalist, anti-Western perspectives some use to legitimate terrorism. If governments, communities and corporations identify this, and make effective moves to address the first three causes, the social space available for the last two will contract.
The fight against terrorism does require direct action against terrorist networks and their financial base. Long-term solutions, however, depend on the creation of a global ethical and economic order in which the anger and despair driving terrorism evaporate. The implications of the coming fight against terrorism for South Asia depend heavily on how global and regional actors respond to this challenge. If serious and effective efforts are made to address poverty and inequity, then many of the tensions discussed above may be defused.
Initial signals on this account are mixed. Pakistan will receive very substantial aid from the West in return for its support against the Taliban. Although this is clearly an immediate political sop, it could lead to a fundamental rethinking of the relationship between economic conditions and security. In his press conference with the Japanese prime minister on 25 September, President Bush commented that Khosumi “talked about $40 million of aid to Pakistan”. He then went on to say that “that’s a very important contribution. And I repeat the reason why: A stable Pakistan is very important to a stable world. Throughout Pakistan, there’s nuclear weapons, and we want stability in countries that may have nuclear weapons. And so that’s a very important financial contribution.”
From sanctions to aid as a strategy for nuclear containment, a fundamental policy shift has occurred. While such aid is, at present, very directly related to the immediate interests of the West, it could provide an opening for broad-based re-evaluation of the links among aid, economic and trade policies, poverty, and the social instability that breed terrorism. Many argue that economic sanctions are an ineffective and unethical tool: they hit populations while giving regimes (such as that in Iraq) a cause celebre that strengthens rather than weakens their grasp on power. New perspectives could emerge that have efforts to address poverty and inequity as one of the cornerstones in combating the roots of terrorism and social instability.
The challenge is, however, not just for governments. Regional cultures see many elements of the global economic system as containing basic ethical flaws. Take the case of the recent battles over intellectual property rights. Many in South Asia view as theft the Western patent systems that allocate intellectual property rights to corporations for substances that have a long history of traditional use. There is a similar tension over medical patents that deny people access to medicines they need for survival. While many people acknowledge that corporations investing time and resources in the high risk process of developing medicines require an adequate return, they see a huge ethical question when only those in the West can afford such medicines. Not all such issues can be solved, but sincere attempts to acknowledge and mitigate them both within and outside South Asia would dilute the impressions of inequity that provide terrorist leaders with ethical arguments that resonate in educated as well as fundamentalist circles.
If efforts to combat terrorism bring greater attention to its roots in poverty and inequity, South Asia could see major long-term benefits in the form of growth and sustained economic development. The challenge lies in whether governments and society as a whole can see the opportunity and take advantage of it.
Terrorism has provided a wakeup call. And how we react has fundamental implications for the future. Some analysts see Osama bin Laden’s ability to articulate and combine ethical insights with religion as his greatest strength. Beyond funding and organisation, it is those ethical arguments that enable him to weave together fundamentalists and highly educated, “Westernised” individuals into a powerful terrorist network. While we need to dismantle the infrastructure of terrorism, the greatest challenge to global economic and political systems lies in how we counter such ethical arguments. Our actions will speak louder than our words. If, through effective action to combat poverty and inequity in regions such as South Asia, the world can rebuild the middle space in society in which contradictions are muted by tolerance and well being, then the social tensions from which terrorism grows will decline. We now have an opportunity.