Vinoth Ramachandra

Archive for July 2009

Imagine a young IT “geek” in an operations room at the CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia.  Since he was a little kid he has been slaying thousands of nasty characters in simulation war games on his home computer. But now the characters are real human beings, and most of them are not nasty.  Some of them are women and children. They just happen to live in southern Afghanistan or the northwest region of Pakistan. They have lost their lives or seen their houses destroyed by missile attacks from pilotless “drones” operated by the CIA. Every week since September 2008 reports of civilian casualties in such US drone attacks have been widely reported but they have not been condemned in the Western media with the same indignation that similar indiscriminate military actions by non-Western armies are.

In an earlier post (“Killing Civilians”, 29 May 2009) I pointed out the morally important distinction in warfare between combatants and non-combatants. Non-combatants are those who neither produce nor possess the means to inflict injury on others. Just rules of military engagement not only prohibit the targeting of non-combatants but also expect professional soldiers to bear risks in war that should not be imposed on non-combatants.

The deployment of drones, high-altitude aerial bombing and cruise missiles launched from offshore warships has changed the nature of warfare. The US and its allies can now fight wars with minimal face-to-face combat. In his book The New Western Way of War, Martin Shaw dubs this style of combat “risk transfer” war: the deliberate and systematic transfer of the risks in warfare from Western military personnel to local soldiers and local civilian populations. Such risk-transfer is a blatant rejection of  just-war principles. In their strategic planning, the risk to U.S soldiers is weighted more heavily than to all others, including local non-combatants.

The hypocrisy and double standards practised by US and European governments when it comes to charges of “war crimes” and the dismantling of civil liberties in the so-called “war on terror” is one of the biggest obstacles to securing human rights around the world. When many Third World peace activists and human rights advocates challenge their own governments’ sanctioning of torture or indiscriminate methods of warfare, the response they receive is either outright denial or the excuse, “If the Americans, Brits and Israelis can do this, why are we being condemned?”

I wonder how many Christians in the US and Britain write to their political representatives or their national newspapers on this issue? It would certainly make talk of “mission partnership” with Third World Christians, most of whom are too powerless to confront their own governments, more than an empty slogan.

The traditional notion of winning a war was fairly clear: defeating an enemy on the battlefield and forcing it to accept political terms. But what does victory mean in a war on terror? Will this kind of war ever end? Fighting a diffuse, loose-knit collection of cells like al-Qa’ida is very different from fighting a territorially demarcated, insurgent army like the Tamil Tigers. (The Sri Lankan government has hailed its military victory over the Tigers as a significant breakthrough in the global “war on terror” but this is simply self-serving hype).

Terrorism will continue as long as human life continues on the planet earth. The myth that we can make our societies “completely safe” is to make national security an idol; and, as we saw in the last blog post, all idols demand innocent humans as propitiating sacrifices.  We can, however, reduce the risk of terrorism to such a level that it will not significantly affect the daily lives of citizens, preoccupy their thoughts, and provoke fear. This will involve better intelligence-gathering, and winning the trust and confidence of local populations by responding to their grievances rather than embittering them further. Pursuing the goal of eliminating terrorism by harassing and even killing innocent lives in order to reduce the short-term risk to national leaders will only result in more terrorism.

Victory  will come not when Washington and its allies kill or capture all terrorists or potential terrorists but when the ideology the terrorists espouse is discredited, when their tactics are seen to have failed, and when they come to find other paths to the goals they pursue. At that point, hopefully, even the terrorists will realise that their violence is futile.

Every year, far more people die as a result of road accidents, easily preventable diseases or severe climatic events caused by global warming, than as casualties of terrorism.  Why, then, do these not merit the massive funding that is poured into high-tech weaponry and “national security”?

An astrologer was arrested in Sri Lanka last month. His crime? Predicting that the President’s popularity would decline and that he would soon be ousted from power. It didn’t help that the astrologer had connections with the opposition political party. Many politicians and their acolytes are buried neck-high in superstition; and despite modern institutions such as a constitution, a parliament and a professional bureaucracy, political decisions are often controlled by feudal notions of patronage, beliefs about “auspicious” periods, and practices involving “charms” and other occult protective powers.

The astrologer was subsequently released when produced before a magistrate. But the incident well revealed, ad absurdum, the paranoia and deep-seated insecurity that lies behind the arrogant masks of would-be autocrats everywhere. Also the way that the police cease to be a law-enforcement agency and become instead the private employees of such men. But the deeper question which it raised is rarely addressed in contemporary political discussions, either in South Asia or Western Europe. Can democracy, social responsibility and respect for the rule of law flourish in societies when the underlying cultural worldviews are made immune to criticism, either in the name of “multicultural tolerance” or because they are regarded as irrelevant to politics?

The Hebrew Bible tells the story of the creator God whose character is revealed, and purposes for the world put into effect, though his calling of ancient Israel. This God, known by his covenant name Yahweh (Exod. 3 14), was no tribal deity but the unrivalled lord of all nations and active in the histories of all peoples (e.g. Amos 9:7). Israel was called to bear witness to Yahweh’s unique character and purposes by worshiping him alone, a worship that involved seeking justice for the weak, the vulnerable and the forgotten, and rejecting the oppressive political and economic structures that marked its neighbours.

While the gods of their neighbours and the great empires of the day (Egypt, Assyria, Babylon) were identified with powerful males- kings, warriors, priests- the God of Israel identified himself with the “widow, the orphan and the stranger”. Thus, when the people of Israel turned their backs on Yahweh, or worshiped Yahweh as if he were just another fertility god like the Canaanite Baal, they also turned their backs on the poor. Idolatry and social injustice are two sides of the same coin. It was true then, and it is true today.

Idolatry involves a contractual approach to the deity: in return for the appropriate sacrifices, the gods are expected to give health, prosperity, military victory, and protection from evil forces.  Worship is thus about finding the right technique to obtain the end desired. The final stage in idol formation involves a role-reversal: the idol now controls the life of its worshipers, re-shaping them in its own image.

The worship of that which is inferior to us can only de-humanize us. It turns us into objects rather than persons. The prophets developed a rich language of mockery and satire directed at the false gods of the nations, proclaiming their impotence. They also taunted the arrogance of nations and cities that imagined themselves to be immortal “gods”.

It is here that the biblical language of demonology is relevant for modern politics. For, whether we take “demons” to refer to invisible sentient beings or, mythologically, as the spiritual ethos of deformed social, cultural and political structures, not only are individuals “possessed” by such malignant powers but so are entire societies. When human beings give to any aspect of God’s creation (e.g., sexuality, family) or to the works of their hands (e.g science, the nation-state, technology) the worship that is due to the Creator alone, they call up invisible forces that eventually dominate them. When what is meant to be a servant is treated as a master, it quickly becomes a tyrant. Having surrendered our hearts, individually and collectively, to idols, we become enslaved by demons. Such demons always demand human sacrifices. So idolatry leads to the sacrifice of the weak and apparently “useless” members of society, to the destruction of the earth’s eco-systems, and the abdication of all responsibility for each other and the non-human creation.

So idolatry is not found exclusively in what are called “traditional cultures” and “non-Christian” religions today. If the Hindu pantheon bears similarities with the amoral or immoral gods of Mesopotamia and Canaan, so does the “health and wealth” cult pervasive in many churches. Jesus repeatedly warned his disciples against the allure of wealth, which he personified as a rival god Mammon. The most powerful idols are not physical objects but mental concepts, including our concepts of God. When “God” is co-opted to bless our private or national projects, when pastors compete for bigger and richer churches, or when worship is evaluated by “how it makes me feel”, rather than how we are transformed into Christ-like service to the world, we are practicing idolatry.

Those who worship false gods, in order to secure power (whether religious or secular), live in a constant climate of suspicion, insecurity and fear. Their greatest enemies are within themselves. The only effective antidote to fear is a vision of the One who having all power at his command, humbled himself, embracing the role of a lowly servant to unmask and dethrone the powers that have ravaged his world.

Back to President Obama’s Cairo University speech. There were many good things in it, not least the frank acknowledgment of America’s failure to live up to the values it proclaims to the world. Humility in a politician is so rare that even the most grudging admission of wrongdoing is worth highlighting. And Obama’s admissions were not in the least grudging. Of course, humility is easier when it is the mendacity of the previous administration one is recounting; and one can only hope that Obama will retain the same humility and sincerity when his leadership is truly tested. In the meantime, he deserves widespread support for his bold attempts to reduce nuclear stockpiles and cut back on greenhouse emissions.

In addressing the disparate “Muslim world” from Egypt, it was disappointing that he did not take the opportunity to call for democracy and respect for human rights in his host country. The Mubarak regime is more despotic than successive Iranian governments have been, yet it is regarded as a loyal American ally. So is Saudi Arabia, another Muslim country over which Obama drew a veil. The repressive Wahabi brand of Saudi Islam is propagated around the world to the deep dismay of many tolerant Muslims. And while he called for an independent Palestinian state, just as Bush did, there was no discussion of whether a “Jewish state” was any different in conception to a “Muslim state” or whether it too was incompatible with the democratic freedoms that American people prized.

Obama held up Malaysia and Dubai as examples of progress that Muslim-majority states that the rest of the “Muslim world” should follow. This was unfortunate, in my opinion. Malaysia may boast First World amenities, but it is one of the most “racist” states in the world. Its constitution enshrines open discrimination against non-Malays. The latter are also defined as Muslims and they lose their civic rights if they convert to another religious faith. Moreover, governments since that of Mahathir Mohammed have routinely used the notorious Internal Security Act to muzzle all political dissent and imprison critics. This situation is rarely reported in the Western media, and elicits little criticism from US and European governments simply because Malaysia is an important trading partner.

As for Dubai, to begin with it is a city not a country; and a city comprising 85% expatriates. I was in Dubai last month and much of it reminded me of the biblical tower of Babel. The skyline is dotted with unfinished office towers and empty cranes, testifying to the hugely debt-financed development of the city. It is a place that speaks of insecure egos: the would-be tallest building in the world, the would-be biggest shopping mall in the world, the would-be greatest financial centre in the world, artificial ski slopes, islands and golf courses, and seven-star hotels for the playboys of the Middle East and South Asia. Dubai is a place for making money, which is not a bad thing in itself, but also for flaunting how much money you make. In this it is not unique.

Also, the money-making takes place in a highly stratified, almost apartheid-like, society. At the top of the social pyramid are the relatives of the Arab sheikhs, in their palatial homes and fleets of luxury vehicles. Next come the American and British executives of banks and corporations who have their own private enclaves where they socialise with each other. Below them are the rich Indian and Pakistani businessmen, and lower down are scores of Filipinos and other Asians who do the humdrum jobs in airports, shops, and offices. At the bottom are the tens of thousands of cheap migrant labour from Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, employed mostly in the construction industry and housed in conditions that some human rights groups have complained are tantamount to torture.

Finally, we cannot separate history, geopolitics and theology in any meaningful discussion of “Islam and democracy” in the Middle East (or elsewhere). The ordinary people of the Middle East have suffered for decades as a result of the Western world=s (and recently, China=s) insatiable appetite for oil. Oil company executive and investors have propped up their despotic rulers and made enormous profit in the process. The oil industry has so ravaged the planet that global warming threatens to turn the Middle East and North Africa into a vast desert, with nations turning on each other in battles for water. It is unlikely, therefore, that either Islamist militancy or terrorist recruitment will wane in the foreseeable future.



July 2009