There is something about the recent attack on Mumbai/Bombay that makes it seem so immediate. Perhaps it is the ghost of an ancestral memory, generations removed. Perhaps it is because it is another Anglophone metropole that is besieged by the insanity of hatred. Perhaps it is because it is the home of so much of Salman Rushdie’s fantasies; fantasies that do not exist because of his words, but a fantastical place in its own right that he seeks to describe. It is a place where here people sing the classic line from a Bollywood film “hindu, muslim, sikh, isaa’ii/sab ko mera salaam” (Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Christian/Peace [Greetings] to all). It is, as Laurie Patton wrote, the place of Haji Ali, a Muslim shrine where everyone comes for blessing.
What is clear is that the horrific events of last week crystallized at least three media narratives that help define people’s places in the world, fairly or not:
1.) Not all life is equal. Some lives are worth more than others.
2.) Muslims have always hated Jews and are commanded as an act of faith to kill all Jews.
3.) The problem is that Muslims do not condemn terrorism.
1. Not all life is equal. Some lives are worth more than others.
As a case in point, I mention that Mumbai represents another Anglophone metropole, and I assume most people think of New York (9/11) and London (7/7). How many thought of Madrid (3/11)? With New York and London we are witnesses, at a distance, of the lives of the people who died and, to a certain extent, the people who carried out these attacks. We know at least some of their names and we’re inundated with multiple day coverage of the event. With Madrid, the dominant coverage after the attack was the arrest of an American-born Muslim lawyer, Brandon Mayfield. We did not hear from the survivors, or the families of the victims, nor learn anything of the attackers. They are simply anonymous, non-English-speaking dead.
Naomi Seidman, here at RD, makes a similar point specifically about Mumbai. She talks about her immediate concern for Jewish life. That type of response is understandable, the concern for tribe. We are always concerned with that which is most immediate to us. The question is what do we do from there.
American news has a responsibility to report on American deaths. British news has a responsibility to report on British deaths. And so on. What happens once that reporting is over? What of the other lives that were lost? CNN, at least, reported on the death of Hemant Karkare, the city’s counterterrorism chief.
The rate of death, approximately 30 people/day, is horrible. There is no justification. The incredible number of deaths in a short period of time is what made this event so newsworthy. In addition, many of the killed are not Indians, they are foreigners, they are us, and the assumption is that none are Muslim. The reality is that at least one person killed that day, and up to five, based on current information, are Muslim. If one believes that it really was the scale of carnage over such a short period of death that made it noteworthy, not tribal affiliation, then what do we make of Iraq? According to Iraq Body Count, the rate of civilian deaths in Iraq for 2007 was about 30 people/day for the entire year. We are outraged by this rate of death over the period of less than a week, but we are unfazed by the same rate over the span of a year. Perhaps one can argue it is the concentrated violence in a traditionally peaceful area, unlike Iraq which is an active war zone.
In 2002, Gujarat state in India, the home of Gandhi, saw riots over the span of two months that resulted in the death of over 2000 Muslims and the displacement of over 150,000 people. The rate there was also 30 people/day. The complicity of Indian state actors, notably Narendra Modi, resulted in a denial of entry into the US. However, the loss of life over those months has not entered our consciousness. We are creating a hierarchy of the value of lives. We have already ignored genocide, but seem to have learned nothing from the experience.
We need to be better than that. If life is valuable, it is valuable, there are no qualifiers. We need to be appalled at every violent death, not just of those “like us.” Alternatively, we say there is a relative value to life and “our lives” are more important than “their lives.” Our media can feed it to us, but only reporting our deaths, and ignoring theirs. What we need to understand is that “they” are only hearing about their deaths, not “ours.” This way leads to a mindless slaughter, as we seek revenge without realizing the cost we have already exacted.
2. Muslims have always hated Jews and are commanded as an act of faith to kill all Jews.
The slaughter of people in a place of worship is particularly reprehensible to people of faith. We recoiled when Baruch Goldstein killed 29 Muslims praying in the Ibrahimi Mosque, and rightfully recoil now. Right now it is unclear who, organizationally, carried out these attacks. Some have speculated, despite the conflicting claims of some groups, that this may be the first instance of “celebrity terrorism,” akin to Columbine. There was a familiarity and intimacy to these killings that is not exhibited in the last decade of Islamist campaigns.
Until we know who was responsible and why the Chabad center was attacked, it is possible, as Naomi Seidman suggests, that the center was attacked because of its profile, not because it was Jewish. While I do believe it was most likely an attack based on religion, we do not know any facts at this point.
However, the master narrative is easily propagated: Jews need to fear Muslims. Mik Moore at Jewish Funds for Justice gives a summary of how this fear was used in the last election cycle.
The last 60 years of violence between Jews and (Arab) Muslims is shocking. Yet, it is the history of the last 60 years and involves Arab Muslims. As much as Israel/Palestine is framed as a religious issue, most Muslims (the 80% who are not Arab) are not invested in it in the same level. We know Israelis will never desecrate the shrines of our shared prophets. The Dome of the Rock is a uniquely Muslim place, but the people most invested in blowing it up are Christian Zionists, not Israelis – at least not on religious grounds. What must happen for these 60 years to be the only history between Muslims and Jews is that history must be re-written, but both Jews and Muslims. Reza Aslan describes this is as a cosmic war, where there can be no winner until the other side is destroyed. In order to have this cosmic war, any history of cooperation must be effaced. The Ashkenaz must erase the Mizrahi from collective Jewish memory. The fact that almost 90% of worldwide Jewry lived under Muslim rule for near a millennium must be ignored by both sides. Violence against communities of Jews is portrayed against violence against the Jewish Community. Muslims forget the contributions of figures like Samuel HaNagid and Ibn Killis. If there was a divine command to kill all Jews, it seems that waiting 1400 years and operating from a position of military and political weakness is a poor strategic decision. The point is that there is NO divine command to kill Jews, and despite what Hamas may argue, it is politics being read into texts. MJ Rosenberg comments that reading the Mumbai attack as an attack on Israel is dangerous for Israel. However, the people who do not live in Israel, whose lives are not challenged daily, are the first to encourage Israel to respond with violence.
We need to move beyond the rhetoric of Muslims must kill and/or convert everyone. Looking at India gives lie to that myth. It was under Muslim control for centuries, and at best is currently 10% Muslim. Even if Pakistan and Bangladesh are counted as part of larger South Asia, only 1/3 of the population is Muslim, spread through the north, the center, and the south. There is no universally recognized command to convert and/or kill.
3. Muslims do not condemn terrorism.
Part of moving beyond this simplistic idea of Muslims is to move beyond simplistic pronouncements. Muslims are constantly condemning the violent acts committed in the name of Islam. The reality is most Muslims do not communicate in European languages, and those that do are fragmented over the various European languages. Here is a link to an English language denouncement of the Mumbai attacks from Muslims in India and Pakistan. Below is a simple statement that should should help in Google searching other condemnations:
الارهاب من عمل شيطان
الارهاب كار شيطان است
الارهاب شيطان كا كام ?ے
الارهاب ش?طان جو ?ام اه?
अलइरहाब शैतान का काम है
અલઇરહાબ શૈતાન નfiં કામ છે
Ugaidi ni kazi ya shetani
It seems the best way to use resources is to direct them where they are needed. If Muslims who do not understand English, people arguing against nihilistic ideology should be communicating with them in a language they understand, such as Arabic, Persian, Urdu, Sindhi, Hindi, Gujarati, and Swahili. Now that the average reader has the statement, “terrorism is the work of Satan” in seven widely spoken languages in the Muslim world, he/she can find all the statements condemning terrorism on the web read them at leisure. In addition, this Saturday, in New York, there will be a press conference, in English, at a synagogue, condemning these attacks. It will be interesting to see how much press it does get. Most Americans do not know the languages of the Muslim-majority world, of which there are over a 100, yet fell quite comfortable saying Muslims do not condemn terrorism. The narrative has been set to cast Muslims as alway supporting the actions of terrorists. Looking at Mumbai again, we see that Muslim leaders refuse to have the terrorists buried in a Muslim cemetery, because they consider the attackers to have abandoned Islam by carrying out these attacks. There is a fight for the nature of Islam everyday that does not get reported. Mark Woodward highlights one particular case when he says:
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.
These master narratives gloss over real nuance, ignore a history of violence, possibly tied to a specific conflict, that can only lead to more violence, and more violence. Suketu Mehta, author of the magisterial work Maximum City, writes in an Op-Ed that the attack was not so much about religion as it was about what Mumbai – like New York, London, or Madrid – represents: an indiscriminate openness. Anna does a much better close read than I could, and I refer you to her thoughts.
The reason that it seems that all Muslims do is support violence is because there are circles upon circles of ignorance, both from Muslims about others and from others about Muslims. I do not hold a panglossian view that the more we know about each other the less we will fight. I do hold that the more we know about each other the more likely we are find solutions to problems, areas to agree to disagree, and a way to live our own lives that does not intrude on anyone else’s way. Osama bin Laden does not control the Muslim world. There cannot be a level of centralized control over 1.6 billion people. Nor can all non-Muslims, over 6.5 billion people speak with one voice. Once we use a little commonsense it becomes easier to move away from master narratives and look at problems that have causes that can be addressed, and successes that can be emulated.