I should start this piece by clarifying that I am not by any stretch a historian, sociologist or political commentator. The only qualification I have to write on the topic of human conflict and terrorism is the fact that (like so many millions) I have lived in cities that have been the target of terror attacks – from Mumbai in 1993 to London in 2005 to Paris in 2015. I should also warn the reader that the title of the article is far more ambitious than its content.
What happened in Paris over a week ago has not fully sunk in. People are going about their daily business with admirable resilience and defiance but I can’t help think that it’s akin to throwing oneself into one’s work as a way to get over a personal tragedy. After the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January, anger was quick to surface and heated debates were in full swing in a matter of days. This time round, we’re a bit numb even a week later, still trying to take in the full extent of the barbarity.
There also seems to be a realisation after these attacks that there is an even more serious issue at hand than previously recognised. What Parisians are fighting for this time is not merely that they should be free to do exactly as they please in their city, however controversial the activity may be, but that they should be allowed to simply live their lives in peace. It is not merely a matter of principle like the first time, this time it is the principle itself.
As someone trained academically and paid professionally to analytically break down problems and try to solve them, I’ve been wrestling, over the past few days, with trying to figure out what could be the solution to the global terrorism issue. What is the answer to this menace? Should Gandhi’s principles of non-violence (satyagraha) be applied? Is war the only option? A complex issue such as this surely needs to be tackled on multiple fronts with multiple strategies but I think for a start it is imperative to understand what the problem really is before thinking about how to deal with it.
Why do human beings engage in conflict with one another? Most of the time it is for control of resources, land or power. But every now and then the cause of conflict is something far more chilling – the unwillingness of one side to recognise the humanity of the other, plain and simple. It is the dangerous idea that some human lives are worth more than others, just because. This most base of all notions was in operation when white colonizers took African slaves in the 17th and 18th centuries, when the Nazis persecuted the Jews during World War II and when imperialist powers afflicted atrocities on local populations in countries from India to Jamaica. When it comes to problems like this, eruption of conflict is not merely a failure of political strategy or security, it is a moral and spiritual failure.
What were the ways out of these conflicts? Non-violence and civil diobedience finally won India its freedom and were adopted by Martin Luther King who won African-Americans their status as equal citizens of America and by Nelson Mandela in the fight against apartheid. But surely trying to appeal to the conscience of a Nazi officer would have been a laughable feat for a Jew to attempt during World War II. The way out of that one had to be through the use of military power. Can we follow one of these precedents to defeat terrorism? I think not. Because even though at the heart of these conflicts, there is the same disregard for humanity in another, the present problem of terrorism is different – it is far more amorphous. It is not directed at just one set of people but at anyone who follows a certain way of life, no matter who or where they are.
The attacks have made Parisians think hard about who they are and what they stand for. Crossing paths with people in the street, I find myself really looking at the people who are passing me by to see a reflection perhaps of who I am as an inhabitant of this city. And I find other people doing the same back at me. As we often know ourselves in contrast to someone or something else, the attacks have made us clearer about what we are not, which also helps to define who we are. Most of all, we are coming to the worrying realisation that the values and freedoms we take for granted are actually a big deal and need to be protected. French thought has often been known to scale the most treacherous heights of idealism and perhaps it is only fitting that it is being called upon now to defend the values of liberty, equality and fraternity.
Terrorism, however, is a global problem which needs a global response. The world needs to unite in its efforts to defeat it. Unite in the name of humanity, human progress and peace. But we need more than that. The misguided youth that are joining in the terrorist activities are quite simply, lacking purpose and inspiration in life. We need to think of ways to inspire them and include them in our progress. These are youngsters sitting in delapidated apartments in the sordid suburbs of Paris but they may as well be living a million miles away from their Parisian neighbours with their stylish clothes and skiing holidays. IS has spun a story that makes the most maladjusted youth of our society feel like they will have a high and noble purpose in life should they join their ranks. What are we doing in terms of offering competing aspirations?
The Muslim community itself can play a pivotal role in this respect. The recent protests against IS by Indian Muslims are a stellar example of how we can create more unity in our society and ensure that all parts of it feel inspired and committed to the same cause. I believe that Indian Muslims can set a shining example for muslims in the rest of the world. Hindus and Muslims have not only co-existed generally peacefully for generations in India, but have been a source of inspiration for one another – whether it be through the Sufi movement beginning in the 10th century and continuing as a cultural tradition to this day or through modern mainstream cinema where the reigning actors are Muslims (often married to Hindu women).
What this requires is for us to be true to ourselves and shed any hidden prejudices that may be keeping us from being truly inclusive and united. This is a test for all of us and it is shining a light on the hidden recesses of our belief systems to see whether what lies there is truly what we profess.
Finally and more obviously, we need more security. That may mean sacrificing some privacy or personal freedoms from time to time but it would be a small price to pay. It is ironic that while from one angle, global terrorism seems to be a ghastly and powerful force that is attacking the very fundamentals of our value system, from another, it appears to be nothing more than a problem of crime on a large and complex scale.
Unite. Inspire. Secure.
Personally, I think a few listens to John Lenon’s ‘Imagine’ should be enough to convince someone about world peace, but that would be taking the popularity of the Beatles too much for granted…