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Terror and Cultural Diversity

in Times of Adversity



Nur Yalman

Professor of Social Anthropology and of Middle Eastern Studies,

Harvard University

TFF associate

October 22, 2002


The Problem of Cultural Paranoia

My topic today is Terrorism and Cultural Diversity. The tragic events of September 11 are still reverberating around the world. I am sure that the question of the role of cultural diversity in providing the breeding ground for "terror" is on many people's minds. Does "terror" arise from cultural distance? Is it the "foreigners", those people we do not understand, who are the "troublemakers"? To be anxious about strangers in our midst is a natural reaction. In times of fear and panic, the "aliens", the "foreigners" become suspect. We must be very careful to distinguish between realistic threats to security from those paranoid reactions against all foreigners. The very great danger in times of crisis is the focusing of anxiety and anger on outsiders. This leads to "ethnic profiling", or "stereotyping", and then, as a direct result of this, the "scapegoating" of innocents. Such times are also very convenient for unscrupulous politicians to manipulate the public mood for their advantage.

I do not wish to minimize the scale of the disaster that struck New York and Washington. It is however also true that in the panic that ensued, the major constitutional safeguards for individual liberties were swept aside in a stampede for national security in America. The Patriot Act has given the US President very wide discretionary powers. "Foreigners" can now be arrested, tried with secret evidence, in secret trials and they can be sentenced to death in the US. This can be done all the more easily in an American military base like Guantanamo which is outside the jurisdiction of US Courts. Hence the delicate diplomatic status of the Taliban and al-Qaeda prisoners held there. This situation is no different than the notorious "disappearances" of persons in Chile, Argentina and elsewhere. Fortunately, there has been serious opposition to these policies: it is reported that the administration, under pressure from its European allies, has finally decided to change its position on the status of these prisoners. The International Geneva Convention will now be applied to them (New York Times, Feb.23, 2002).

We have seen the tragic consequences of these kinds of reactions in our recent history. The burning of the Reichstag in Germany gave the Nazi's the excuse to attack those elements they regarded as alien to German society. The results were disastrous. There are similar histories associated with the ordeal of Koreans during the Tokyo earthquake in Japan at the end of the WW1, but it must be admitted that no society is totally immune to these profound troubles which represent a combination of psychological, anthropological, and political anxieties.

The personal tragedies associated with the McCarthy era in the US have not been forgotten. Large numbers of brilliant people were smeared with the broad brush of Communism. They were accused, harassed and forced to escape their country. I had numerous friends in Cambridge England who had found refuge in the brilliant intellectual circles of a great University who had provided a home for these unfortunate Americans. One of the most outstanding of these persons was Moses Finley, the great classicist. He was in origin Mr. Finkelstein, a Jew from New York. He refused the "loyalty oath" that was demanded by his University. Accused as a "commie", he left for England in 1956. He was so much appreciated in England that he rose to become the Master of Jesus College in Cambridge and was knighted by the Queen. He ended his stellar career as Sir Moses Finley. So, in times of crisis, cultural and ethnic categories and the accusations they may lead to may become highly dangerous weapons for the body politic.


Focus on "Scapegoats"

The unfolding of the human disasters in the heart of Europe, ethnic conflict in the Balkans a few years ago, began with simple stereotypes and then escalated into political murder as cathartic human sacrifice. There was the stereotype of the "enemy" for the Serbs; the "enemy" was defined as the "Muslims" and dehumanized. The use of the media (especially television) in categorizing, labeling and stereotyping the "target" populations was crucial in this respect.

The process outlined above can be readily adapted to different situations. The New Yorker (March 15, 1993, p. 4) ran a Comment entitled "Quiet Voices from the Balkans." It reported on the visit to New York of the editor of Vreme ("the only independent magazine still publishing in Belgrade"), Vasic, and a Professor of Law from Sarajevo, Pajic. This is what Vasic was reportedly saying: "Both stations began to traffic in stereotypes.... On Belgrade TV, the Croats became Ustashas. On Zagreb TV, all Serbs were Chetniks. These are terms from the Second World War that today are ethnic insults. And then both stations began to play with the notion that Muslims are unreliable, dangerous fundamentalists. You could just watch these stations and know that something really big was rolling behind. (What was rolling behind...was War.)...It is very easy.... First you create fear, then distrust, then panic. Then all you have to do is come every night and distribute submachine guns in every village, and you are ready."

These comments of Vasic were evidently not to the liking of the American correspondent for Belgrade government television. The New Yorker ends the Comment: "That detail made it especially chilling, somehow, when she glared at Mr. Vasic, her fellow Serbian journalist and spat "Traitor!" Note the pattern: frustration, the focusing of anger, scapegoats, sacrificial violence. And behind all this generating, manipulating, directing the passions, political agents calculating their moves with the care and attention of chess masters.

It is thus that all the daily frustrations of the unfortunate masses in the streets can be mobilized to attack those institutions which are held to be responsible for their sorry state of affairs. Liberal institutions of government, the more clear-headed newspapers, those who might claim that the "hated" populations have some "constitutional rights," all these "soft" nationalists can then be ridiculed or worse, attacked and frightened. Step by inexorable step, one moves towards a dismantling of "constitutional liberal" safeguards, until the levers of power are in the grasp of the most unscrupulous of political elements. This is, in outline, what had happened, fortunately for a short period, in Sri Lanka. (Tambiah, Buddhism Betrayed). There are hopeful signs to-day that the we may see the end of that disastrous conflict which has cost almost 100,000 lives among the Sinhalese and Tamils.

We have been much more fortunate in the case of India. The extraordinary complexity of languages, traditions, castes, and etnicities have been accommodated by a reasonable constitution and representative institutions so that the many potential dangers have been avoided. The danger of conflict, however, is always in the wings. We have all heard how the whole India used to come to a stop when the great epics of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana were being aired on national TV some years ago. But there evidently was also an underlying message, a targeting going on towards perceived "alien" elements.

This process has the psychological advantage of the focusing of frustration on people perceived as "outsiders," "foreigners," "immigrants," even if they have lived in the country for centuries. So one can pretend, for example, that Muslims - all 130 million of them who are as local as can be imagined - do not "really" belong to India. They came too late, only 1000 years ago, they are still not Hindu's, and it is time for them to leave. (See also, Rudolph, Susanne H. and Lloyd R., "Modern Hate" in The New Republic, March 22, 1993, pp. 24-29).


The Calais Incident

Some years ago, The New York Times (October 30, 1992) reported on a remarkable incident in Calais, N. France. A rumour had suddenly swept the town that a dark skinned fellow, a stranger, had been kidnapping, raping, torturing and killing some children from one of the local schools for some infernal purpose. As the rumour spread, anxious parents converged on the school to save their children. The principal was called out to meet the parents. He denied that any such incident had taken place at his school. No one believed him. The matter got into nationwide TV in France. A swarthy, ex-drug addict, partly Algerian, whose French mother lived in Calais, was "discovered." He was accused of committing the heinous crimes. He barely escaped with his life. After considerable commotion, it was clearly established that no child was missing, no murder had taken place and that there was no basis at all for the panic. The "Algerian" could not be accused of any tangible misdeed. The townspeople remained unsure: some dark act had to have taken place which was being denied by the authorities as usual. Eventually, the "Algerian" escaped to the safety of Paris. Calais simmered down. By way of explanation, The New York Times suggested that unemployment and frustration with the economic situation had been particularly high in this neglected northeastern corner of France.

There are obviously many ways of approaching the complex subject "ethnic labeling" and "scapegoats". However, the question of political manipulation, the political psychology of "crowd-hysteria," of "targeting" and focusing of mass frustration is evident. The cases mentioned above may provide some basis for further thoughts on the subject. This is something on which there is much to be said from an anthropological perspective.


The Experience of Islam and India

While there is always the danger of "categories" being utilized for political mischief, we are also well aware of the different experiences of civilizations on the question of "diversity". I would argue that both in the Islamic Empires and in India, in other words a vast area of the ancient world, the very complexity of the ethnic background of the populations was so great that "difference" became an everyday matter. The acceptance of difference as a matter of course in ones life rendered human relations more tolerant . It was part of the fabric of life. You could speak one language at home, another one in the school, a third one with your neighbors and a fourth one in the market. No one would be surprised at that anywhere in India or, to a lesser extent, in Western Asia. While the language issue might not have given rise to such a rich variety, the Islamic societies managed the human relations between the different elements without resorting to "caste" divisions as in the case of the Indian sub-continent.

So cultural diversity need not lead to trouble and division. It can increase the cultural richness and creativity of a society. It does however need good and effective administration. The bloody European experience of the 19th century, with nationalist ideologies and extensive ethnic cleansing on the continent, must make us wary of lurking "totalitarian" attitudes in diversified societies.

Allow me to give you some sense of the complexities involved.


On Diversity In West Asia

It was Mansur, the second Abbasid Caliph (754-775) who built the city of Baghdad on the banks of the Tigris near the ruins of the old Sasanid capital of Ctesiphon. The geographer Ya'qubi describes the idea:

"This island between the Tigris in the East and the Euphrates in the West is a market place for the world. All the ships that come up the Tigris from Wasit, Basra, Ubulla, Ahwaz, Fars, Uman, Yamama, Bahrain and beyond will go up and anchor here; wares brought on ships down the Tigris from Mosul, Diyar-Rabi'a, Adharbaijan and Armenia, and along the Euphrates from Diyar-Mudar, Raqqa, Syria and the border marshes, Egypt and North Africa will be brought and unloaded here. It will be the highway for the people of the Jabal, Isfahan and the districts of Khurasan...It will surely be the most flourishing city in the world." (Lewis 1958) , p.82.

So, Baghdad was to be a great trading center. The civilization of the early Islamic 'Empire fulfilled those hopes. Historians report that "...muslim merchants (leaving the Gulf ports) traveled to India, Ceylon, the East Indies and China, bringing silks, spices, aromatics, woods, tin and other commodities...Alternative routes to India and China ran overland through Central Asia." The goods brought from China included, silk, crockery, paper, ink, peacocks, horses, saddles, felt, cinnamon, pure Greek rhubarb; from the Byzantine and silver utensils, gold coins, drugs, brocades, slave girls, trinkets, locks, hydraulic engineers, agronomes, marble workers and eunuchs; from India...tigers, panthers, elephants, panther skins, rubies, white sandalwood, ebony and coconuts." "...Muslim navigators were quite at home in eastern seas, where Arab traders were established in China as early as the eighth century.

There was also extensive trade between the Islamic Empire and the Baltic via the Caspian, the Black Sea and Russia. "With Africa too, the Arabs carried on an extensive overland trade." The Jews served as a link with Europe. The early ninth-century geographer, Ibn Khurradadhbeh, tells of Jewish merchants from the south of France - "...who speak Arabic, Persian, Greek, Frankish, Spanish, and Slavonic. They travel from west to east and from east to west, by land and by sea. From the west they bring eunuchs, slave-girls, boys, brocade, castor-skins, marten and other furs and swords...they sail on the eastern (Red) Sea from Qulzum to Al-Jar and Jedda, and onward to Sind, India and China. From China they bring back musk, aloes, camphor, cinnamon, and other products...Some sail with their goods to Constantinople, and sell them to the Greeks, and some take them to the king of Franks and sell them there."

In other words, a "common market" without boundaries and with considerable mobility was evidently a characteristic of the brilliant period of the early Islamic Empire. The historian again, "We hear of banks with a head office in Baghdad and branches in the other cities of the Empire and of an elaborate system of cheques, letters of credit, etc. so developed that it was possible to draw a cheque in Baghdad and cash it in Morocco."(Lewis 1958)

It was this coherence of the Islamic lands within their immense diversity that the Ottoman Empire had tried to preserve against the predatory attacks from west. It is astonishing also that they were relatively successful in doing so until 1918, the end of WW1.

The reason it is worth mentioning these matters is twofold: first, the idea of a "common market" among Muslim countries at least, is as old as Islam, and second, a sense of security and easy personal relations with full freedom of movement was the norm until very recent times. After all, it was not at all surprising for the intrepid and indefatigable traveler Ibn Batuta to go from Fez and Meknes in Morocco all the way to Cairo, Anatolia, Crimea, Baghdad, Delhi and the Maldives and to be received as a learned 'Alim - professor - in the Royal courts of all those places. He even found the time and energy to make a trip to West Africa after his return to Fez.

A more controversial recent example maybe the sorry adventure of Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda Arabs in Afghanistan. How is that these Arabs who did not speak a word of the local Pashto language were somehow accepted and given a respectable welcome in a most unlikely context? There is a story to be told here. We have not yet heard the anthropological side of it.


Terror, Diversity? Freedom Fighters?

Now what about "terror"? Does cultural diversity as such provide the fertile ground for acts of terror? I indicated above in connection with the Balkans or Sri Lanka how trouble ensues when matters are allowed to get out of hand. But this is no different than relations within a family where matters can also get out of hand with tragic results. There is no substitute for intelligent administration. Cultural diversity in itself is not the cause of terror. Diversity has obvious political repercussions, but just as all politics does not end up in hostilities, cultural matters need not end up with Kalashnikovs. Terror, especially terror of the kind we have witnessed, is a profoundly political act with serious political implications and repercussions. It is intended to be so. It is said that War is an extension of diplomacy by other means. Similarly the use of "terror" is a kind of warfare by other means.

Robespierre in one of his speeches said that "the maintenance of popular government in time of revolution is both virtue and terror: virtue, without which terror is evil; terror, without which virtue is helpless. Terror is nothing but justice, prompt, severe and inflexible: it is therefore an emanation of virtue" (quoted by Elie Kedourie in Nationalism in Asia and Africa, p. 103)

Robespierre was formulating the use of terror by the state presumably for lofty ideals. All states claim the monopoly of force, and thereby the use of deadly weapons for their own purposes. We do not need to be reminded of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. When the state engages in "terror" to crush "terrorists", as is often the case, then it is the very conception of justice which rises to the surface.

Terror in the hands of rebel groups is the problem in question. We may agree or disagree with the intentions of such groups. There is little doubt though that great states are formed which begin with the rebellion of small armed groups. The US is one example: Paul Revere and the actions of the rebellious group of people in Boston would have been regarded as "terrorists" in London. Israel came into being in 1948 after much illegal activity by underground armed forces both against the British Administration in Palestine and against the UN. The Irgun and the Stern Gang, secretly supported from abroad, finally forced the British to give up the Mandate in Palestine through "terrorist" activity. Once Israel was recognized as a state, past members of these underground groups, Yitzak Shamir and Menahem Begin both became honored Prime Ministers. So the nature of "terrorist" actions have to be examined in the context of the political circumstances which give rise to them. This does not mean that they can be excused. It only means that a "political" position must be formulated to deal with them. However much the Sinhalese may have referred to the Tamil Tigers as "terrorists", a civil war of 50 years ensued which demanded a "political" solution.

The problem of "terror" before us is not "cultural diversity". Terror arises out of political grievances. It is the sense of dishonor and injustice which drives people to undertake extreme actions as injured and victimized parties. After September 11 there was much speculation whether the large Irish constituency in the US would regard the actions of the IRA in Northern Ireland as "terrorism". The British had no doubts about it.

Cultural diversity is an essential ingredient of a modern, vibrant, creative society. It would be impossible to imagine Paris without a Picasso (Spaniard) or Van Gogh (Dutch), or NIjinski and Nureyev (Russian). The vitality of the US is impossible to imagine without the contributions of the millions of gifted immigrants. Only in the last 20 years have the Indian immigrants put their mark on many American businesses from the Patidar in Hotels and Motels to the great entrepreneurs in Information Technology coming out of Indian technical colleges. We need hardly ;mention the immense contributions of Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese and other Asians in the US. Terror is another matter altogether.


Terror and the Clash of Civilizations

Terror and cultural diversity is parallel to the problem of war and the "clash of civilizations". Here again, there is much loose talk these days about the great division between Islam and West. Bernard Lewis has written of the "Revolt of Islam" (New Yorker, Nov.19 2001) He had also written of the "Roots of Islamic Rage" in which he predicted a coming "clash of civilizations" long before Samuel Huntington became the Cassandra of doom. "When civilizations clash, there is one that prevails, and one that is shattered", he wrote, and he added prophetically, "the usual result of such an encounter is a cohabitation of the worst." (B , Lewis, Middle East and the West, 1964) Edward Said and Roy Mottahedeh to take two of the most prominent critics of Lewis and Huntington have provided us with all the reasons why these thoughts are unfounded. Nonetheless, the suspicion persists that there must be some cultural incompatibility between Islam and the West which makes for a "clash" to seem inevitable. Osama bin Laden certainly was more in the "Huntington" mode than Huntington himself. He would have wanted to play the role of the Leader of a Universal Islam against the West.

Are we going to have a "clash of civilizations" a la Hollywood as predicted by Osama bin Laden and Samuel Huntington? Is this going to be between Islam in general and the West, or only between Arabs and the Anglo-Americans? And who is going to lead it? Some lieutenant of Osama and his Wahhabi warriors? Saddam Hussein and his secular forces? Colonel Khaddafi supported by his oil fortunes paid for by Europe? Or perhaps will the forces of a militant Islam be led by President Khamenei of Iran? Even the mere mention of such names is likely to remind us of how preposterous these paranoid speculations turn out to be. There is now in the West a curious inchoate anxiety about a huge swath of mankind who, it is thought, is somehow out to destroy Western capitalist civilization. At least so writes, Paul Kennedy, the celebrated Yale historian in his review of the views of Bernard Lewis, in the New York Times Book Review of 27 January. "The unvarnished truth is that the tensions there are of a different order of magnitude...a vast, sprawling area, where a badly damaged though powerful and religiously driven order is locked in battle with global trends more penetrating and unsettling than could ever have been imagined...What Lewis is writing about...concerns one of the greatest cultural and political divides in modern history." There has been nothing like this fear since the days of the Berlin or Cuban crisis and the Iron Curtain. We need to examine the basis for these exaggerated worries.

What is amazing is that this vague fear of "terrorism" is so much more acute in the US, with the most powerful military/industrial complex in the world, than in Europe which, after all, is home to many millions of Muslims. Allow me to raise the question as to whether this is a matter of cultural difference or whether some of these Islamic countries have some good hard political reasons to detest the high handed policies of the West.

Osama bin Laden in his Oct. 7 videotape spoke of the "more than eighty years" of "humiliation and disgrace" suffered by Muslim peoples at the hands of Westerners. Many in the West wondered what he could have meant by that date, though in the Middle East his listeners could relate immediately to the cataclysmic events at the end of W.W.I. In 1918, the last great Islamic state, the Ottoman Empire of 600 years, was defeated and its provinces divided up between fractious victorious powers who could hardly agree among themselves to share the spoils. In 1924, the Turks who had provided the military shield for the Islamic and Asian world, decided to cut their losses and go their own way. They abolished the ancient institution of the Caliphate in 1924 which had provided a sense of unity to Islamic peoples. It has not been revived since.

These catastrophic events were followed by much further humiliation especially for the Arab speaking peoples. The Turks rejected their defeat. They fought back the allies, won back their liberty, and reorganized themselves to form their secular republic. They have been cultivating their love affair with the West in NATO, and in the Council of Europe, since then. The Arabs on the other hand were misled by their leaders, thoroughly double crossed by the allies, led astray, broken up into various so-called "protectorates" and finally totally dominated by Britain and France between the two World Wars.

As if these colonial disasters were not sufficient as a severe punishment and a stern example to others in the British Empire, such as India, who might have entertained dangerous ideas of "independence", Britain also decided to provide a "homeland for Jews" in Palestine, an ancient land that was densely occupied by a rural population of mainly Arabic speakers. There were Jews among them, and Christians of various denominations. The majority were Muslims.

Up to this point in the rich history of these lands no one in this vast region had been conscious of belonging to "nations". As far back as one could recall, all these peoples had been subjects of the Sultan. It was the Ottoman Sultan who had the duty to make sure that the subjects of his domain were contended and at peace with each other. And, indeed, a large degree of local autonomy and a general peace had reigned over these lands ever since the defeat of the Mameluk Turks of Egypt by the Ottoman Turks of the north in 1517. The peace had been punctuated, it is true, by local troubles from time to time, but these had been manageable. They had not led to large scale "national" movements of any kind. The Middle East in this respect was unlike the troublesome Balkan lands in the 19th century where "nationalist" passions engendered by European ideological currents had been the order of the day.

With the defeat of the Ottomans, the British and the French proceeded with the effective policy of "divida et impera". So, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Transjordan, Saudi Arabia and a multitude of small Sheikdoms on the Persian/Arabian Gulf were created in the 1920's with entirely artificial borders which are still in dispute. The Kuwait affair in 1990 is part of this story. They were controlled by colonial officers through indirect rule. Egypt, occupied earlier, was constantly chafing against British rule, and there were many uprisings in Iraq, Syria, Palestine and elsewhere. Their troubles read like a depressing history of intrigue and deception between the colonial powers and the local populations.

Enter America. American anti-colonial influence, combined with the great oil discoveries in Saudi Arabia eventually undermined British and French rule in the Middle East. The Suez War of 1957 was the last direct attempt by the old colonial powers to hold some military outposts in the region. Meanwhile, with the arrival of millions of Jews escaping from the racism and the unspeakable outrages of Europe, the Israel problem came to dominate Arab consciousness. The pitiful plight of the Palestinians who had been chased out of their homes and villages with the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, could not be evaded. The continuing tragedy in Palestine began to haunt every Arab regime. It led to hopeless wars with Israel in which many thousands lost their lives.

Given all this sorry history, and the daily humiliation of Palestinians for the last 50 or more years, is it surprising that some people have become desperate. Are American Ambassadors not aware of the negative mood in Arab streets? How long is it going to be possible to control the ordinary people by rich and powerful elite groups? Franz Fanon wrote bitterly about the "collaborating middle classes" in Africa in relation to white colonial rule. Similarly, the ordinary people in the Arab lands feel that their rulers have betrayed them.

Listen to the chief of Intelligence in Saudi Arabia:

The recent eloquent warnings of Prince Abdul Aziz, the director of the Saudi intelligence service, are quite telling. The New York Times (Jan.27, '02) reports that the Prince indicated that according to a Saudi intelligence survey, "of educated Saudi's between the ages of 25 and 41...95% of them supported Mr. bin Laden's cause"..."even though they rejected the attacks in New York and Washington". Arabs, and many others, in Iran, in Pakistan, and elsewhere are angry. "All the governments, the people of the region believe that America is supporting Israel whether it is right or wrong, and now if something happens to Yasir Arafat, the feeling against American policy will be stronger." He also had something quite pointed to say about American attitudes to the region. "Some days you say you want to attack Iraq, some days Somalia, some days Lebanon, some days Syria," he said. "Who do you want to attack? All the Arab world? And you want us to support that? It's impossible. It's Impossible."

America had made this mistake before in Iran when it supported the Shah against the nationalist Mosaddeq. Eventually the Shah regime was destroyed by a popular revolution which took an Islamic form. Similarly, the popular feelings in Arab countries are also turning in the direction of Islam.

None of this has to do with the diversity of Islamic or Western civilization. It has everything to do with hard political facts on the ground in various parts of the world in which the US projects her power. The fight has nothing to do with Coca Cola, but everything to do with the use of F-16's in Israel, and Apache helicopters in the Philippines. It is part of the concern that is widely shared with the use that is made of the overwhelming military, economic, political instruments in order to control the fate of entire nations. The temptation is towards a new Imperium. We are now facing great dangers in the creation of a more equitable and peaceful world. We will need much greater international cooperation and much more effective international institutions. There is no question that better and more statesmanlike policies - not simple minded slogans - are needed to solve the urgent problems that confront us.

Levi Strauss warned us 50 years ago with some memorable lines on this subject of diversity. "The necesity of preserving the diversity of cultures in a world which is threatened by monotony and uniformity has surely not remained unnoticed by international institutions...We must listen to wheat growing, encourage secret potentialities, awaken all the vocations to live together that history holds in reserve...Tolerance is not a contemplative position, dispensing indulgence to what was and to what is . It is a dynamic attitude, consisting in the foresight, the understanding, and promotion of what wants to be. The diversity of human cultures is behind us, around us, and ahead of us. The only demand that we may make upon it (creating for each individdual corresponding duties ) is that it realize itself in forms such that each is a contribution to the greater generosity of the others." (in Race and History, Structural Anthropology 2).


Cambridge, February 23, 2002




© TFF & the author 2002  


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