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|October 24, 2001||
T V R Shenoy
Is America losing the war?
Is the United States winning all the battles, but losing the war? That thought was provoked by a conversation with two friends.
"Why do you people insist on describing Osama bin Laden and his comrades as 'Islamic' terrorists?" my first friend, an Arab, demanded. "When was the last time you defined the Irish Republican Army as 'Christian' terrorists?"
It is a valid question. But, rather than answer it myself, I passed it on to another friend, an American. His answer was a long one, but I shall try to sum it up in a couple of sentences.
The first reason is that Laden himself makes a great play about fighting in the name of, and for, Islam. The second reason is that Laden is actively seeking to make the ongoing conflict a clash of civilisations, and the West is falling into his trap.
Neither is true of the Irish Republican Army, the ETA, or any of half a dozen similar outfits. These are terrorist organisations with specific territorial goals. As far as a clash of civilisations is concerned, there is none whatsoever.
This makes Laden's goals both grander than those of the Irish or Basque extremists, and, simultaneously, far harder to pin down. I do not care how many missiles the United States uses to pound Afghan cities, or how many commando raids it organises; this is as much a war for the hearts and minds of the Islamic world. And that is a war where the Western alliance finds itself floundering.
That mindset was betrayed by an early slip of the tongue, President George Bush's description of the conflict as a "crusade". Very few people in the English-speaking world remember the original sense of the word, using it as shorthand for any conflict fought with single-minded concentration. But it arouses bitter memories in the Islamic world.
(May I add, as a student of history, that it was an ill-chosen word even from the historical perspective? After all, the Crusades ended with the absolute victory of Islam!)
But let us not quibble about words; what is important is the state of mind it betrays. There was a certain arrogance in Washington when this war began. "You are with us or against us." "This is the time to choose sides." "Wanted: Dead or alive!" Pardon me, but these are not words that will win friends or influence Muslims.
Right now, the Western alliance's major partner in the Islamic world is Pakistan. Yet a Gallup poll claims that a whopping 83 per cent of urban Pakistanis prefer the Taleban, with a meagre 3 per cent backing the United States. (I am certain that the proportion will be even more lopsided in rural areas.)
That attitude is scarcely unique. On a visit to Washington, President Megawati Sukarnoputri of Indonesia went a long way in supporting the American stance. Once back home, the unrest on the streets forced her to withdraw.
Nobody has described Indonesia as a hotbed of fundamentalism at any point. So why is it that the CIA now suspects that Al Qaeda has a cell operating in that nation? And why is it that Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammed of Malaysia has openly decried the bombardment of Afghanistan, saying that it will simply lead to more people joining Laden's movement?
What is truly surprising is that neither Indonesia nor Malaysia is Laden territory. There is no history of support for the man or his ideology. (The rioting and communal disturbances in East Timor were really something of an aberration.) And, frankly, Laden himself never seemed very keen on bringing Muslims from Southeast Asia into his orbit.
Take a look at the 19 men who carried out the attacks on the United States. There was not a single one from Indonesia or Malaysia, or Bangladesh and Pakistan. There wasn't even any Afghan national as far as anyone knows. This indicates that Laden either did not trust anyone from outside the Arab world or that they did not trust him.
I understand that the United States and Europe have arrested roughly 700 men in connection with the terrorist attacks. Barely a dozen of them are from outside the Middle East.
The point is that Laden is a fish out of water outside the Arab states. (As I understand, Arab bodyguards surround Laden even in Afghanistan, which says a lot about how much he trusts his country of refuge!) So why is it that people are coming out on the streets of Jakarta, waving anti-American posters and shouting slogans in Laden's honour?
It is because Laden has succeeded in presenting himself as a warrior in the service of Islam. Frankly, Osama bin Laden the man has become irrelevant. If he dies, the legend of the man who dared to take on the United States will live on, inspiring a new generation (as Dr Mahathir predicted). If he survives the conflagration in Afghanistan, the prestige of the United States will take a beating. Either way, he has won.
I am sure the United States and Britain have bigger and better bombs and planes and missiles. But they do not have better communicators, nobody to put the West's side of the story to Asia and Africa. There was an initial sense of horror after the September 11 attacks, but this has been dissipated by the long wait for the American reaction. And the sight of mutilated Afghan women and children has overwhelmed whatever little emotion remained.
Don't get me wrong: I think Laden is guilty of using barbarian tactics. But it is also my understanding that he is a hero to Muslims across the world. And unless the United States can dent his image, all those 'smart' bombs in its arsenal will not win the war.
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