After Mumbai: Winning the Global War on Terror

JAKARTA, Indonesia—My first reaction to news of the Mumbai attack was “Oh sh**, not again!”

My second was “Thank God it wasn’t here.”

Many of my Indonesian friends had almost exactly the same reactions. We felt guilty for being relieved that the attacks were, as one put it, “in someone else’s country.” But it could have been here. Unless things change, there almost certainly will be another attack in Jakarta at a time none of us can predict. If not here, it will be somewhere else—in another global city where local contexts make it possible.

I first learned of the attacks when I switched on Channel News Asia Thursday evening (Jakarta time) after spending the day with leaders of two of Indonesia’s most important Muslim NGOs. We were discussing the question of how democracies can best respond to extremist religious movements while at the same time preserving civil liberties, especially freedom of religion.

A fresh outbreak of religious violence in Mumbai came as no surprise. But the scale of the attacks was a shock. It was unprecedented. There are no comparable cases, not even those icons of global terrorism: the 9/11 attacks in the United States, the 7/7 attack in London, and the 11/11 Bali bombings here in Indonesia.

The next morning the headline in the English language Jakarta Post read “India Under Siege.” That of the Mumbai Telegraph read “Fear.” Both were understatements. The lessons to be learned from this tragedy are that seven years after 9-11, no real progress has been made in the so-called “War on Terror,” and that it is past time to rethink the strategies and tactics employed in what, more than ever, is clearly a global struggle.

The Context

This is what happened: an unknown number of gunmen conducted an amphibious invasion of Mumbai and mounted attacks on hotels, cafes, transportation hubs, a police station, and a Jewish cultural center. The ensuing battle lasted more than sixty hours. The gunmen were very well-armed, equipped, and trained, and knew their targets very well. The Hindustan Times quoted an Indian army commando saying: “we found them matching us in combat and movement. They were behaving the way Indian commandos would behave.”

This is very alarming. It means that terrorist leaders now command formidable conventional military forces. At least 200 people were killed. Hundreds more suffered physical injuries. Thousands more suffered psychological wounds which, left untreated, will affect them for the rest of their lives. Preliminary reports indicate that the attackers intended to kill as many as five thousand people.

The Taj Mahal Palace Hotel was the central target. This venerable hotel is among the most exclusive in India. It has been described as a “watering hole” for expatriates and local elites. It is also a very popular venue for weddings and other social functions. It was built in the early twentieth century at the height of the British Raj, and is among the city’s most visible symbols of colonialism. It was the perfect target.

A small Jewish cultural center staffed by an American-Israeli Rabbi and his wife, both of whom were killed, was also singled out. This indicates a transnational orientation. Mumbai does have a small Jewish community, but the center served a Jewish tourist community. It was a symbolic target because in South Asia and elsewhere in the Muslim world, “Jews” and the religion of Judaism are routinely implicated in complex, absurd conspiracy theories—linking them with Crusaders, Christian Missionaries, the Knights Templar, Freemasons, Hindu Fundamentalists, and even Lions and Rotary Clubs bent on destroying “Islam and the Muslims.” Tragically, such theories are widely accepted by otherwise rational people.

India and neighboring Pakistan were born in an ethno-religious bloodbath. Hundreds of thousands were killed and millions left homeless in the wake of the division of British India into independent India and Pakistan in 1947. The wounds of partition have never healed. The two countries have fought a series of wars; both have nuclear weapons aimed at the other.

Speaking by satellite phone, one of the attackers explained that he loved India, but that Muslims could not stand by while their mothers and sisters were killed. This indicates that revenge was one of the motives for the attacks. One of the consequences of this cycle of violence is that Mumbai is now a highly segregated city, so much so that Hindus now refer to traveling to a Muslim area as “going to Pakistan.” For its part, Pakistan has encouraged and supported Muslim insurgent and terrorist groups in Indian-controlled sections of the disputed province of Kashmir and other parts of the country.

Starting the Blame Game

The Mumbai attacks were brilliantly organized and planned. An operation of this scale and complexity requires sophisticated intelligence and logistical capabilities; the ability to recruit, motivate, and train paramilitary personnel; and massive financial backing.

All of the usual subjects have been implicated: namely al-Qaeda and South Asian Muslim militant organizations, including Laskkar-e-Taiba, as the most commonly mentioned. The Indian press has also blamed national and local security forces for not preventing the attacks, or responding quickly and effectively enough.

A previously unknown group calling itself the “Deccan Mujahedeen” sent e-mails to Indian media claiming responsibility and explaining that their goal was to “Indianize” the war against America. The Deccan Plateau is a region in south central India with a large Muslim minority population, located hundreds of miles from Mumbai. It is impossible to assess the accuracy of these claims.

As of Sunday morning, CNN and Channel News Asia have provided background information and stories of human tragedy, but no clear indication of who actually carried out the attack. The fact that the Indian government has refrained from blaming the Pakistani government or security forces is a sign of the serious and unprecedented nature of the situation. They seem to have recognized that this is not the time for scoring political points at the expense of their Muslim neighbors. India has claimed that “elements operating within Pakistan” were involved. The government of Pakistan has denied responsibility. Both are almost certainly correct.

What does seem to be clear is that local conflicts have been globalized and the “Global War on Terror” localized on the streets of Mumbai.

And What Now?

India’s President Pratibha Patil was visiting Bali—Indonesia’s only Hindu island and site of an earlier terrorist attack—when the Mumbai attack occurred. On Saturday she prayed at a local Hindu temple and called on all people to “come together for the peace and happiness of mankind.” She continued, saying that “terrorism is high on the agenda of the international community, and we must jointly and relentlessly fight it.”

These were brave but hollow words. They are little more than a call to continue and intensify the “Global War on Terror” that has now lasted longer than First and Second World Wars and clearly has not worked. And as long as the world community focuses primarily on military options, it will not work, and the attacks will continue.

Combating global terror requires a combination of hard and soft power at international and local levels. Clearly this struggle includes police and military components, but that is not enough. The “Global War on Terror” is ultimately a “war of words and ideas,” because extremist ideologies provide the moral justification for violent acts. It is a theological battle that can only be won with theological weapons—and those weapons can only be wielded by Muslims.

In this theological theatre of the “War on Terror,” non-Muslims stand on the sidelines and can assist only by engaging and nurturing politically moderate Muslims and establishing political contexts where these weapons can be wielded effectively.

I believe that the single most important thing that Western powers can do in this struggle is to facilitate and, if need be, demand a just and equitable solution to the Palestinian problem—even if it’s politically unpopular in the United States or Israel. The plight of the Palestinians is a global issue that feeds the fires of hatred and extremism across the Muslim world; many believe there will be no peace until there is a just resolution.

Supporting Moderate Islam

“Moderate” Muslim leaders are capable of combating the theological problem of violent extremism. Here is an example: in the Indonesian city of Yogyakarta where I now live, an extremist group calling itself the “Front for the Defense of Islam” (FPI) recently attacked the local branch of a mystical brotherhood it considers to be heretical and whose members it denounces as kafir (unbelievers).

Fortunately no one was killed; the attackers were armed only with sticks and rocks. One man was injured and the house of worship ransacked. Local Muslim leaders quickly denounced the attack in sermons, speeches and pamphlets.

They spoke not in the transnational language of human rights and religious freedom, but rather in the theological language of Islam. One pamphlet widely distributed in Islamic schools, universities, and mosques denounced FPI as “arrogant” for claiming to have a monopoly on religious truth. It explained that “during the time of the Prophet Muhammad, people and local cultures were never declared to be deviant or kafir because the Prophet always tried to accommodate local beliefs and cultures.”

It concluded that “groups that conduct violent actions have departed from the principles and teachings of Islam.” To those who do not understand Islam, the language may seem mild, but in Islamic terms, it is one step short of declaring the attackers kafir—something that moderates will not do, because using this language would be resorting to the tactics of the extremists. However, there is a Hadith (tradition of the Prophet Muhammad) according to which a Muslim who denounces a fellow Muslim as a kafir becomes one himself.

Wars, including the Global War on Terror, cost billions of dollars.

Talk is cheap, and Inshallah (God willing), more effective.

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