November 25, 2009

Nightmares of a Dystopia

Published in HARD NEWS, October 2009

It’s that time of the year again, when the ghost of a recent past knocks on fear’s doors and holds the future hostile… A day eight years ago when history seems to have turned its current course. A day after which nothing seemed the same, after which, as a line from W.B. Yeats says, “All, all is utterly changed…” Or is it? In some parts of the world, at least. For some groups of people, at least. September 11, 2001 -- a day that still holds freedom hostage for the world’s majority; for the world’s “other” people; a day that redefined liberty, terror, movement, freedom, self-expression, tolerance, identity, and geopolitics.

Much as I would rather not talk about this 9/11, I feel compelled to, given the paralysed state of the world, where a self-imposed fear defines who can and who cannot be. Where the other is more sought after, more rejected, and more oppressed, than ever before. Where brown, black, beards and beautiful unfamiliar languages are untolerated, suspected and decried. Where smiles, glances and emotions are analysed by “terror experts” and labelled “suspicious.” Where hunches are legal. Where instinct is doubt and normal is evil. Where difference is danger. Where no one is innocent. Where humanity lives within a vacuum of trust.

Fear is always self-induced, and finds its origins in the annals of individual insecurity. Yet when it is transformed into a collective phenomenon and institutionalised, it is indeed a fearful occurrence. And when this hyped up, baseless paranoia bred on ignorance and xenophobia, defines law and foreign policy, it is intensely alarming.

It is not so much the date September 11, 2001, but the unrelenting spiral of events it is associated with having unleashed. Even though most of these are outcomes of events predicated on phenomena that predated it greatly. Avoidable yet inevitable, miscalculated yet ominous.

Eight years later, there is much to lament and still much to fight for. Much we need to question – the prejudicial jingoism in the media and vacuous speeches of war mongerers, the rampant propagation of the psychosis of fear, the redefinition of what is acceptable and unacceptable… Many we need to confront – the Bushes, Blairs, Modis, the weapon and humvee manufacturers, the uniformed and ununiformed who kill for peace, who arrest to free, who obliterate to preserve, who violate to protect, who annihilate to liberate…

And as we struggle to challenge the ironies the system breeds, the deceit it propagates, the injustice it legalises, and the violations of human rights it justifies as protection from “terror,” there is much to grieve – the erosion of democratic principles, the burgeoning of mistrust, the concretisation of a “philosophy of revenge,” the bloodshed, the thousands of deaths – Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, Kashmir, Lebanon, Madrid, New York, Mumbai, London, Manipur, Chhatisgarh, Assam... the child graves, the young Muslim men languishing in detention centres without any hope of a fair trial, the constant ridicule of those who look different, the condemnation of girls in headscarves, the young widows and orphans, the broken hearts and dreams, the soldiers who shoot when their hearts say no, the tears that don’t stop, the wounds that don’t heal, and the anger that doesn’t quell …

Yet all is not lost. There are subversive counter-currents rising, a resistance brewing, a hope rooted in justice, substantive equality and non-discrimination. A vision that is giving many the strength to defy, resist and recreate, against all the odds.

And let us not forget that it was also on September 11, 1906 that Mahatma Gandhi launched his satyagraha in South Africa. Satyagraha literally means “clinging to truth” though the term satya encompasses a much broader understanding of truth. It is not merely truth as opposed to falsehood; but also signifies the ‘real’ as opposed to the unreal or non-existent. Satyagraha is a force manifested through non-violent persuasion. While it was the driving philosophy and praxis of the Indian freedom struggle, 103 years later, the spirit of Gandhi’s satyagraha lives on and the incessant struggle for truth goes on, in different forms, around the world. And it is probably only through a creative satyagraha that we will be able to ultimately rescind the repressive forces that the more recent 9/11 unleashed.

Gandhi’s satyagraha was spurred by a personal racist attack when he was thrown out of a train for the inappropriate colour of his skin. It is in this context that history brings us another significant anniversary from South Africa: September 12, 1977. The day when Stephen Biko, the founder of the Black Consciousness movement in anti-apartheid South Africa died, as a result of injuries received from authorities while in detention.

An outspoken student leader and a fearless visionary, Steve Biko was arrested at the age of thirty in the wake of the urban revolt of 1976. He remains a controversial figure for his radical philosophy, but for the majority of South Africans, Biko was the greatest revolutionary who gave them fire to fight the oppression. Lovingly called “bantu” – an isiXhosa word meaning, “people,” Biko was a legacy and the spoken conscience of a people who lives on 33 years after his brutal murder.

We still live in a world dominated by the politics of exclusion, which though the same, take on different hues. And in this era where fear of a typecast other of a specific colour drives foreign policy, travelling prerogatives and racial profiling, Biko’s philosophy holds more true than ever. South Africa might have vanquished apartheid, but today’s fear-induced world is creating vicious forms of global apartheid.

The philosophy of Black Consciousness evolved not just to challenge white supremacy but also to express group pride and the determination of the black to rise and attain the envisaged self. It aimed to rid blacks of any attacks on their self-esteem from within or outside. It was through this politicised reclamation of identity that resistance could become real. Within the dialectic of Biko’s “black consciousness” lies the gestation of “brown consciousness” and perhaps an “Islamic consciousness,” which in this age of growing Islamophobia, could probably evolve as a powerful tool to combat it.

Just as Black Consciousness reclaimed the positive political identity of blacks while dispelling fear and engendering respect, the progressive articulation, dissemination and internalisation of “Islamic consciousness” could do the same in order to reclaim its terrain, reassert its pride, and dismantle phobic stereotypes, while charting its future struggle.

In a book of his selected writings, I Write What I Like, Biko claims that, “We are oppressed not as individuals… We are oppressed because we are black. We must use that very concept to unite ourselves and to respond as a cohesive group. We must cling to each other with a tenacity that will shock the perpetrators of evil.” In these times when difference is the basis of the exclusion-building project, this tenacious clinging in struggle, is perhaps the only way to bring down the oppressive system.

Racism, as we know, has always been about power politics, phobias, prejudices and subjugation for self-interest. Much as I abhor the word, in this post 9/11 world, an extreme form of racism has become institutionalised and horrifyingly, legalised. From the rewriting of airport security rules to the passage of draconian laws like the US Patriot Act, from the uncondonable existence of Guantanamo Bay to the internationally unjustifiable invasion of Afghanistan, Iraq and Lebanon, the international community, despite its remonstrations, seems to have swallowed these as “inevitable outcomes” of the dangerous times we live in.

The way fear is being used to create fear only creates an interminable cycle built on the self-defeating irrationality of paranoia. The propagation of this fear is also spurred by the systematic diffusion of illusion. An illusion that the dominant media disseminates with an alarming non-objectivity, largely because of what Edward Said in Covering Islam ascribes to as the profoundly one-sided and skewed interchange between Islam and the “west,” particularly the US. And to the fact that even when religiosity is spreading everywhere, it is ascribed solely to Islam. The irony lies in how unilateralism is used to challenge unilateralism, and in how the fascist “war on terror” is labelled the war on “Islamist fanaticism” when it is fed and fuelled by an extreme fanaticism.

Driving this agenda has been the ideology of neo-conservatism, which has proliferated itself as the preferred political paradigm of those who worship neocon icons like Cheney who peddle the rhetoric of fear and politics of empire through measures like oil for blood.

As the post 9/11 world moves forward on its trajectory of redefining normal and typecasting the other, I believe a reflection on Biko’s treatise is useful. Even though we occupy different social, political, geographic spaces, and might have different histories, I think, through a philological understanding, there is something in each of us that Biko speaks to. Just as Gandhi does.

Biko, like Gandhi, dreamed of a non-racial egalitarian society. A society, in which, Biko says, “Each group must be able to attain its style of existence without encroaching on or being thwarted by another. Out of this mutual respect for each other and complete freedom of self-determination there will obviously arise a genuine fusion of the life-styles of the various groups. This is true integration.”

Let us remember that Black Consciousness is a way of life. Let us hold in our hearts that it is also brown consciousness, coloured consciousness, subaltern consciousness. A consciousness to trample repressive ideologies of racial/ gender/religious/class/caste supremacy, to reclaim usurped spaces, to shape satyagraha, and to define praxis for an integrated society.

The context may be different. The dominant discourse might be dystopian. But we can rechart its direction. Not one defined by restrictive binaries of non-violence or violence, of moderate or extreme, but a resistance shaped by creative mutations of organic strategies born of local histories, sufferings and visions of justice.

Though Biko would probably not agree, because in some ways one has to be of the oppressed to fight the oppressor, I still feel, that in some sense, we are all black today. We are all brown. Just as we are all Muslims, all Palestinians, all Lebanese… Just as we are all on the other side of the system’s fence. Just as we are all struggling to reclaim democracy and justice. And it gets harder when they keep building more fences and fuelling more fears. But fear is futile, and fences are made to be torn down. And until we dismantle the fences, we will need Biko and Gandhi and others like them.

The author is a human rights activist based in New Delhi 

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