City-as-Target: Tania Roy on Terrorism

Tania Roy, editor of the City-as-Target section of the TCS Annual Review writes on the Mumbai terrorist attacks and the complexity of modern-day Islamic fundamentalism ‘drawn from modern, even plural societies’ but ‘ultimately abstemious, abjuring (political) form and so outstripping the promissory idiom of the very modernity through which it is shaped and ultimately tried’. 

On May 3rd, Ajmal Kasab, the lone survivor of the terrorists that attacked Mumbai in 2008 was sentenced to capital punishment on four counts, including that of waging war on India; and life imprisonment on five others.  In a refusal of the American precedent, no exceptional legal status was invented for or accorded to Kasab, who was identified as a Pakistani national and tried as a criminal by a trial court in Mumbai. The judge explained his verdict in part by characterizing Kasab’s decision to join the Karachi-based Lashkar-e-Taiba as an exercise of choice. Twenty-one at the time of the attacks, Kasab was judged (against the argument made by his defense) to have made an informed decision to participate in the assault on Mumbai’s main commuter train station.

            In tandem with these events, more about the identity of the Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad has been coming to light, with the retraction last week of initial claims that he acted alone; it appears that Shazad might in fact have been mentored by the so-called “Pakistani” Taliban (to follow media-usage of the nationalized distinctions deployed, for some time now, by US state officials). The Mumbai verdict’s careful emphasis on the value of choice is a deliberate if implicit valorization of the liberal individual, the legal subject of rights and responsibility; its lucidity on this point is particularly provocative when read together with the photograph of the youthful Shazad in designer sun-glasses, as it circulates in the global media. The simultaneity of these two images raises haunting questions about the psycho-social genesis of jihadist identities – in its manifest contemporaneity — with liberal modernity.

            If Kasab arrived in South Mumbai through a circuitous route, then Shahzad made it to the center of New York city, from all appearances, with comparative ease. Having lived his formative years in Karachi, this son of a retired Air Vice-Marshall took an MBA degree from the University of Bridgeport to subsequently acquire American citizenship. A product of a generation that grew up under the shadow of Zia-ul-Haq’s education curriculum reforms, Shahzad appears to have been schooled, more recently, by media images from last year of Gaza’s decimation by the Israeli army; a self-confessed trip to Waziristan, it is speculated, brought him to the abstractions of a global redressal and a disembodied Islamic caliphate.  Kasab, on the other hand, seems to have followed a perverse trajectory of social mobility, appearing in down-town Mumbai from origins doubly marginalized by national and global economies. The son of a village snack vendor from an impoverished district of the Pakistani province of Punjab, he had worked on and off as a day-labourer like his brother, before taking to a life of petty crime. (This turn was taken in fit of adolescent temper, according to accounts, after his father could not afford to buy him new clothes on Id; there is both pathos and irony in this narrative, given the banal fascination exercised by Kasab’s terrifying entry into the CST train terminal in a “Versace” T-shirt, that uncanny marker of global cultural capital (see Kaplan). Kasab’s defense had suggested that he had been recruited at the Karachi headquarters of the Lashkar allegedly, in part, through the prospect of a lakh of rupees (about USD $2, 200/-); a reward that would be disbursed to his father on his martydom.

            If the idiom of jihadist movements such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba draw on readings of Islam, the divergent personal histories of these two contemporaries poses the renewed question of an emergent ‘Islamist class’. It is not so much the analytical and ideological plausibility of such notion that is at stake, but rather, its manifest discrepancy from the civilizational presuppositions that underly references to transnational ‘Islamic’ extremism; and to the attendant notion of an institutional-religious ‘madrassa’ elite that articulates and mobilizes these. The instance of the Indian Mujahideen – whose members have been held responsible for the thwarted bombing of a Bangalore sports stadium during an Indian Premier League cricket match last month, for the deadly attack on the German Bakery and café in the city of Pune in February 2010, and for the bombings in Ahmedabad and Jaipur in 2008 before that – proves to be instructive. An amalgam of the radicalized and now banned civil society group, Students Islamic Movement of India, and localized “sleeper” cells of the Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Indian Mujahideen hysterically refuses any identification with its transnational, that is to say, “foreign-hand” dimension. Even as it rejects any form of domestic political representation, and despite its venomous polemics against a Hindu cultural majority, its self-understanding is positioned well within the secular vocabulary of the Indian public domain. The Indian Mujahideen is notable for its histrionic sense of “responsibility”, which is claimed in prolific written statements electronically generated and circulated in tandem with attacks on urban targets; statements in which the city-as-target is conflated with a totalized demand for restitution against communal and police persecution in the wake of militant Hindu nationalism. In attributing its origins to the riots directed against poor Muslims in Ahmedabad after the Godhra riots of 2002, the Indian Mujahideen must be viewed as a secular ideological formation, which nonetheless loops under and over the state; embracing its ‘national’ character by refusing its trans-national links, while simultaneously rejecting any formal political representation. As such, its claims might be read as a chilling inversion of the idiom of liberal politics – as ventriloquising the nation-state’s own fundamental discourse on minority rights through a moral assertion of a “multicultural” title to violence. In their disembodied embrace of what Faisal Devji has identified as “purely existential forms of agency and self-respect” in acts of violent retaliation, the Indian Mujahideen might be seen as exemplary in their indifference to strategic logics of calculation, exchange and negotiation that characterize politics, and political violence, proper.

                 For our purposes, it is interesting to note that the de-politicised “speech” of urban violence deployed by the Indian Mujahideen is marked by a symmetrical indifference to religious value. In July 2008, days before 21 improvised explosives ripped through Ahmedabad, the young cleric Sheikh Abul Bashar arrived in the city to provide religious instruction to the bombers. Police investigators say that Bashar hoped to deepen the bombers’ theological understanding of their destinal role in a religious war (The Hindu, ‘Islamism, Modernity and Indian Muhjahideen’; March 22nd 2010). But the members of the Indian Mujahideen were bored by the sermonizing, and turned instead to Anurag Kashyap’s film, Black Friday, a gripping realist thriller that provides a dramatic account of how Mumbai’s muslim underworld organized serial bomb blasts in 1993 as reprisals for the anti-muslim riots that ravaged the city after the demolition of the Babri mosque. Despite its quasi-documentary mode of narration and its rigorous suppression of sentimental or political evaluation – the film is based on the remarkable journalistic account by S. Hussain Zaidi – Black Friday discloses an urbane view of the world of corporatized crime. Indeed, in exposing the mafia’s transnational links, the film presents a shadow-city of official accounts of the financial capital as India’s historic “gate-way” to the world. Further, the spectacularly organized reprisal of the 1993 blasts dramatized a mode of sovereign violence that was simultaneously parallel to yet incommensurate with state violence, insofar as it bypassed claims on the state altogether. The experience of Mumbai departed from the previously contained moral economy of the “riot” which historian Gyan Pandey, among others, has demonstrated in his authoratitive ‘The Construction of Communalism in Colonial North India (1990). As Faisal Devji underscores, prior to 1993, violence on or around one community’s religious sites was, in an historic continuity with colonial reasoning from another century, routinely revisited on those of the “other” in an additive, escalating, and calculable logic of internecine reprisal (Devji, Attacking Mumbai, It is striking, then, that it was figures of urban charisma, the hard-drinking, womanizing gangster in possession of specialized metropolitan knowledges —  and not the evangelical video Salamat-e-Kayamat that Bashar carried in his mission to the city — that served  the young members of the Indian Mujahideen as a proper idiom for “pure”, that is to say super-political,  jihadist identity in Ahmedabad in 2008.

            These youthful male figures – Kasab in his incredible border-crossing adventure, the globalised double-profile of Shahzad, and the white-collar graduates of the Indian Mujahideen within Indian metros – triangulate the emergence of an existential fundamentalism drawn from modern, even plural societies. It is not only, as Devji’s sobering argument shows, that the Al-Qaeda  brand of global violence has been returned, via the circuit of Pakistan-based networks and a post-colonial history of regional violence, to highly localized yet geographically disparate urban milieus. It would appear that this process of historical involution has produced a new kind of “global” militant youth in the sub-continent, whose demand for self-respect does not originate in a civilizational “crisis of [secularized] mythology” (as James Howarth has suggested of the Al Qaeda:; it does not arise so much from the seminary’s struggle with modernity, as it does from this world. Yet the demand is ultimately abstemious, abjuring (political) form and so outstripping the promissory idiom of the very modernity through which it is shaped and ultimately tried.

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