Saturday, November 1, 2008

A war on terror or a war on reason

India defies description, especially after you spend only a week there and in one city, Delhi. Delhi is a great city of the world, embodying dozens of cultures, old and new. The city survives on teeming markets selling anything from bananas to electronics and a modern financial sector that is expanding rapidly.

The Indian economy has been growing at an annual rate of 8% to 9% recently, the second-fastest expanding economy in the world, behind China.

However, when I first arrived in Delhi, the signs of this new economic giant were hard to spot. The airport was underdeveloped – OR Tambo International Airport, in Johannesburg, makes it look like a small regional airport time-warped in the 1960s. At first glance, the city looks like it is more in decay than development. Crumbling buildings, beggars and poorly kept streets with children in gutters and thousands of people peddling cheap small items is the norm.

However, as I acclimatised to the bustling capital, I started to see development everywhere. In the middle of a row of rundown buildings and behind people, cars, animals and bicycles are upmarket clothes stores, software companies and international banks. Once you start to head out of the city, it becomes even more evident: new shopping malls, office blocks and modern apartments for sale. This is a country on the move, although still with a massive underclass.

Billboards advertise "the lifestyle you want", complete with pictures of compact apartments, swimming pools, fully equipped with 'German kitchens' and a photo of a smiling family, which invariably includes daddy, mommy, son and daughter. The influence of the West is pervasive and growing.

However, it is not only the Western lifestyles that is being imported. Ethnic strife, marked by what George W Bush would call the 'war on terror', is also notably present in India.

This was made all too real on the last night of my stay, when a series of five bombs exploded across Delhi, killing 25 people and injuring over 100. Two of the bombs went off fairly close to my hotel. I had eaten in the bombed district and driven through the area numerous times. The attacks were claimed by a group called the Indian Mujahideen, which is said to be linked to al-Qa'ida.

Immediately following the blasts, eerily familiar debates began playing themselves out on television. Was the government tough enough on radicals, asked the media. And the word 'terrorism' was thrown about by the Indian government in a way reminiscent of a US Republican convention or Sunday lunch on the Bush ranch.

Of course, the bombs in Delhi are acts of terror. Blowing up innocent people is immoral. But is it helpful to lump every act of terror in the same boat? Those setting off the bombs and world governments are equally guilty in that.

It is comfortable for governments to frame all extreme acts of violence as being about the war on terror. Such language justifies tough military action and tighter police control, while often diverting attention from other problems, such as poverty, structural discrimination and long histories of political tension. Governments seem to take perverse pleasure in being part of the global 'war on terror' club.

The alleged perpetrators also like to oversimplify matters. In an email from the Indian Mujahideen, the bombs are said to be a response to the "hostile hatred" of Islam and justified punishment for the "sins" of the people.

But when did global politics and political ideology become so simple?

Bush wants us to believe that there is only one war, and the bombers that there is only one justifiable struggle.

The rise of the totalising discourse is of great concern. Surely, it denies complex local politics, individual power struggles and massive cultural variations in how the so-called war on terror plays itself out. Painting everything with the same brush is not only lazy, antiexplanatory and culturally vacuous, but dangerous.

Brandon Hamber writes the column "Look South": an analysis of trends in global political, social and cultural life and its relevance to South Africa on Polity. Copyright Brandon Hamber, June 2008. "Look South" Column published on Polity on 3 October 2008