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War On Terror

by | 19th, July 2006

WE live in a world of borderless war. This war has been joined by those who feel uncomfortable with a world at peace. The threat of perpetual conflict spreading across the globe cannot be underestimated. On one side you have military alliances in search of a unifying cause; on the other side you have an angry rabble of dispossessed easily misled by power-hungry clerics and demagogues.

Extremism has become a useful political label in a world where nation states no longer clash on battlefields because such a scale of destruction is unacceptable in a democracy. Extremists present shadowy targets that call for full deployment of military force and a state of war over a wide area, but don’t necessarily involve high casualties and unacceptable costs. Extremism and militancy, broadly defined, offer states a tangible target for an affordable form of warfare.

Lest we forget the way in which security threats can be manipulated and amplified for the purpose of state policy, in Joseph Conrad’s “The Secret Agent” the bungling anarchist Verloc is hired by an unnamed European power to blow up the Greenwich Observatory and force Britain to into supporting tougher limits on political freedom. This diabolical premise, though fictitious, more than faintly echoes the host of conspiracy theories that have swirled around the current War on Terror since the attacks on New York and Washington DC in September 2001. Certainly the extremist threat, real as it may be, has been used as an excuse to curb freedoms and withhold legal rights. In the Middle East, the extremist card is played to deny those under occupation the right to resist, whilst elected representatives are arrested with impunity.

All this suggests that extremism has its strategic uses.

On the other side of the equation there are angry, misguided people who are persuaded to throw away their lives to blow up a roomful of wedding guests, or tourists at a beach-side restaurant. In a recently uncovered transcript from a computer belonging to one of the Indonesians who master-minded the Bali beach bombings of October last year, it was revealed that the young Muslim men sent to their deaths were asked to find places with the least security where the most foreigners congregated. If possible, they were asked to avoid killing Muslims. In the end, the majority of those killed were Indonesian. What does this tell us about the state of society?

Here then is another conspiracy—a conspiracy to mislead young frustrated idealists from the dusty slums and refugee camps on the margins. The aim is to provoke hatred and accelerate social upheaval. The vision is of a divided world. The people behind this conspiracy hate the West; they and their supporters regard the United States government as extremist for punishing the Taliban in Afghanistan and incarcerating hundreds of suspects in a remote prison camp on the island of Cuba without recourse to justice. And yet they are virtually in collusion with those in the West who benefit from a perpetual state of war.

Somewhere in the middle of all this there are the genuinely dispossessed who are turning to violence as a last resort to win their freedom. What was once called liberation struggle is today labeled terrorism—even when the so-called terrorists attack military targets. These people are trapped between states interested in amplifying and exploiting the terrorist threat and the lunatics who believe that liberation struggles are a useful way of achieving dogmatic goals. There are no more freedom fighters; there are only extremists and terrorists.

These new dynamics of global conflict are leading us towards social and military catastrophe. Firstly because the global war on terror precludes any form of negotiation to end conflict and therefore raises the prospect of the perpetual state of war envisioned by George Orwell in the world of 1984. Secondly, this conflict is breeding deep resentment and divisions in plural societies across Europe and Asia and threatening a political upheaval that could undo the stability of the past sixty years.

What should we do?

First the international community must stop imposing limits on dialogue. There must bee an immediate move to engage with those branded as extremists. To exclude them is to encourage and prolong conflict. As Lakhdar Brahimi put it recently; there has to be someone, somewhere where really bad people can go to talk.

Secondly, there is no point in talking about international law when there is no even or fair application of the law. There is an International Criminal Court and International Court of Justice, but the cases these courts try are determined by political powers, while judgments can be ignored with impunity by those the powerful protect. Justice in the international arena must be as blind as it is in a county court house.

Thirdly, we must confront the growing trend towards seeking revenge, an eye for an eye. We see in the Middle East how much the senseless cycle of violence seems driven by the collective urge to take revenge—and also how asymmetrical the application of force or taking of lives can be. Now, even major powers like the United States and Russia are joining the fray. When extremists strike, we strike back. President Putin of Russia publicly ordered the deaths of those who were responsible for kidnapping Russian security staff at the Iraqi embassy. There was official state cheering for the recent killing of the Chechen guerrilla leader Basayev. Whatever happened to rules of engagement and the Geneva Convention?

Finally, we must consider the role of coercion in addition to dialogue and negotiation as a means of resolving dangerous conflicts. Parties unwilling to negotiate from extremist positions may need to be coerced into dialogue and settlement using sanctions and if necessary military force. The United Nations is engaged in the passive business of peacekeeping, but there is also a need to consider a more active peacemaking role. Can we really expect the world’s religious leaders to agree on a way to create a truly open city of Jerusalem—and then for the politicians to listen to them? Sadly, perhaps the only way to imagine such an outcome is if a blue-hat force patrols the holy basin. For if so much blood can be spilt because of the way that one religion’s holy places overlap another’s, there is surely no better case for a neutral party to be policing the two sides.

As unrealistic as some of these points may be in the current global and regional context, it would seem that the actions of extremists, however they are defined, are pushing the world towards more radical measures.

What would dialogue achieve? What is there to talk about? By definition, extremists steer clear of middle ground. Perhaps the best approach is to consider the cathartic effects of dialogue rather than the role of substance. Extremists live on the margins; they inhabit a world in which they see themselves as outliers. They feel left out and consigned to the darkest corners of the world—or they have a persecution complex. Dialogue is a form of contact that immediately chips away at their isolation, hooking even the most stubborn extremists in the mainstream flow of social discourse. Dialogue is not a sign of weakness. It doesn’t have to legitimize extremism or militancy. Dialogue is at its most basic form a civilizing act, one of humanity’s lowest common denominators.

By Michael Vatikiotis (Based on a speech given in Amman, Jordan at a meeting entitled "Voices from Asia: Promoting Political Participation as an Alternative to Extremism” organized by Majlis El Hassan and the Sasakawa Peace Foundation in partnership with the Helsinki Process on Globalization and Democracy on 11–12 July 2006.)

Michael Vatikiotis is the Southeast Asia Regional Representative of the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue.

www.hdcentre.org



Posted: 19th, July 2006 | In: Reviews Comment | Follow the Comments on our RSS feed: RSS 2.0 | TrackBack | Permalink