October 4, 2001


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Dilip D'Souza

To Civilisation, Take 2

Three weeks ago, I began a column with these words: 'I watched the blood-curdling images of the planes tearing into the towers ... Through it all, I thought: I hope they get these guys. I hope they get the sick bastards who conceived this inconceivable horror.'

Today, I find that hope reiterated. But the image that set it off, this time, is the one on all our front pages here in India: a severely bloodied man, his clothes in tatters, his face remarkably calm, reaching out to the photographer as if for help (so I also hope the photographer helped after he took his photograph). Just another victim, this forlorn figure, of just another massive bomb in Srinagar. Just some more carnage in that valley of fear we call Kashmir. I hope we get the bastards who dreamed up this slaughter.

In my previous column, I wondered about this thing called civilisation; about what an effort to rally the 'civilised world' can mean when so much happens in this world that is irredeemably uncivilised. This murderous bomb only leaves me wondering some more. China brutalizes Tibet; Pol Pot wipes out 2 million Cambodians; Saddam drives his people into misery; murky murderers profess a pretence of Islam and kill daily in Kashmir ... where on this third rock out from the sun is there any civilisation?

Hold on to your answer to that, whatever it is.

Much comment after the September 11 attacks has called for America to do a deal of introspection. What explains the extreme hatred for the US in so many parts of the world? Might this horror make Americans honestly examine their policies, their deeds over the years? Try to understand how they have caused deep resentment? Within the US and outside, on posters held up for cameras in Peshawar and Kabul, from writers in every corner of the world including India, we have heard these and related questions asked. Nearly every letter from American friends agonizes over them. I think they form, for Americans, an essential part of coming to terms with September 11. Without this introspection, I feel sure there will only be a continuing and escalating stream of violence.

But it is also interesting how, as every day passes, so many of these thoughts take on new shape, uncover new angles. Which perhaps is an indication of the impact those four hijacked jets made on all our minds. So, much as it is important for the US to introspect, what about the rest of the world?

For example, that the US is hated in Iraq is an axiom. That, because of the harsh sanctions that have killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqis over the last ten years, sanctions that in Iraq are seen as coming from America. No doubt Americans should ask themselves about the miseries these measures have wrought, and if that had any bearing on September 11. But has nobody suggested that Iraqis ask themselves what they did to bring this suffering on their heads, just as we ask Americans to think about the hatreds that left such a trail of grief in NYC? Why not? How much of the blame for Iraq's desperation can we place at Saddam's gilt-edged door?

Take Palestine. Certainly Israel, especially under Sharon, stokes hatred and resentment among Palestinians daily. Much of it is directed at the US, as Israel's firm ally, as well. But to what extent have Palestinian crimes -- bombs in discotheques, the lynching of Israeli soldiers and more -- brought on the oppression they feel? How well would it serve the Palestinian cause to ask that question of themselves honestly?

More generally, where's the introspection about the collection of oppressive regimes in Islamic countries -- Libya, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan ... ? Why is there little or no democracy, no concern for freedoms and rights and justice, in so many of these nations?

There's another aspect to such soul-searching. Just as Americans are hated in so many parts of the world, for better or worse, so are Muslims. ("I have a lot of Muslim friends," a mild-mannered friend wrote to me recently, "but there are some real Fanatics in that community.") In fact there are those, in India as well, who will proclaim with conviction that wherever Muslims live, they cause trouble. That nearly every conflict in the world involves Muslims. As feeble and lazy an argument as I think this last one is, it is made, and often. Why should Muslims not give some thought to these impressions, ask themselves why so many hate them so much? After all, that's just the advice that's being offered to the US, right?

How much do Muslims themselves contribute to the prejudices and hate directed at them?

These are not easy questions for me to put down here, nor are they likely to be easily answered. But surely that's what introspection is: facing and answering the hard questions. I hope after September 11, if perhaps in vain, such a process of questioning is under way in places like those I mentioned above, and also in Belfast, Rwanda, the Balkans, Turkey, Chechnya, Azerbaijan and more. Not just in the US.

And I hope, if again perhaps in vain, that it might also happen in India. Yes, it is by no means easy, it is almost distasteful, to ask the question after seeing that poor man on my front page. But just as we suggest to Americans after the planes smashed into the towers -- think what your country has done that might have caused such hatred, brought this tragedy on you -- let us have the courage to ask it of ourselves.

What has India done that has brought us the continuing tragedy in Kashmir?

"Nothing," you think? If so, is it plausible that the US has done nothing either? That a group of men just woke up one day so filled with hatred that they conceived this enormous crime?

Really, is it plausible that the answer to that question -- about what India has done -- is "nothing"? Is it plausible that we are utterly blameless?

What's more, just as we point out that Americans and Muslims are hated in so many parts of the world, it should alarm us that we are so mistrusted and hated in our own corner of the world. Could it be that such hatred has a connection to the bloodshed in Kashmir, exactly as hatred for America was at the root of September 11? Why is it that India is viewed with deep suspicion not just in Pakistan, but in Nepal, Bangladesh, Burma and Sri Lanka? What have we done to produce this? How have we managed to so profoundly alienate even the country we helped liberate, to bring into this world, in 1971? Just 30 years ago!

Is it plausible that we are utterly blameless?

Hard questions, all around. How will we answer them? On Gandhi's birthday, I attended a public meeting that took one path. The speakers railed against Pakistan; they wrung their hands about how the lives of the "poor," like us Indians, count for nothing in this world and particularly in the West; we spent a couple of hours wallowing in the grievous wrongs that have been done to us by everyone from Musharraf to Blair to Bush. Wallowing, in fact, in a vast victimhood.

Seems to me that path leads to a dead end. Because everyone can claim to be wronged, and if everyone does so, there are ever more gruesome retaliations that lie ahead. Can we instead do what we ask of Americans, of Muslim countries? Can we find the grace, strength and courage to examine ourselves, our deeds? Are we willing, in all humility, to introspect?

I don't know what comfort it will be to the man on my front page. But I also don't know how else we will find civilisation.

Dilip D'Souza

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