The term ‘Islamic world’ is completely unhelpful


AS THE South Asia corres pondent for The Guardian,  Jason Burke began reporting from Pakistan in 1998. Currently based in New Delhi, Burke, 41, has covered the wars of 2001 in Afghanistan and 2003 in Iraq. After the success of two books, one on al Qaeda and another on the Islamic world, he has now published an exhaustive tome, giving detailed accounts of major conflicts in the Islamic world. Holidaying in France after a global book tour, Burke spoke to Kunal Majumder about the world after 9/11. Edited Excerpts

Chronicling the wars Jason Burke
Chronicling the wars Jason Burke

You have already written two books on this issue. How did the idea of The 9/11 Wars come forth?
I had covered Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq before 9/11, as well as other parts of the Middle-East Islamic world. In late 2001-2002, I suddenly found myself in Afghanistan covering the conflict, and then the invasion of Iraq. Soon, I found bombs exploding on the streets of my native town, London. At first, I was simply asking basic journalistic questions that a reporter would- who, what, and when. But what I was really interested in was the broader picture. What was all this about? What was the witness saying? What are the long-term significances? How would this be viewed in next few decades? There are extraordinary events going on in front of me. So, the book is an attempt to step back a bit, and see the events of the last decade of this conflict- I call them 9/11 wars- in some kind of historical perspective, to trace their form in certain ways and then explain. It is a book that I wanted to read.

You start with the description of the destruction of the Buddha statue in Bamiyan, and then go on to describe both the Iraq wars. Are you trying to link up things with what happened in early 90s?
My point is that you cannot consider anything in historical isolation. 9/11 was not a moment when the world changed. It was a watermark, a milestone on a long road this world was already traveling. You cannot understand bin-Laden without understanding trends in the Islamic world in 1970s and 1980s. You cannot understand al-Qaeda without understanding political Islam. You cannot understand the Taliban without understanding the previous decades of Afghan history; and so you cannot understand Iraq without clearly understanding the background of Saddam Hussein’s regime, and indeed that of the western intervention in the region.

From your experience as a reporter, how different is the Islamic world in West Asia from South Asia? 
My background is from South Asia. I started from Afghanistan and Pakistan and India in ’90s. I lived Pakistan for many years and if you look at later chapters, I have dealt with the country in great detail. My whole point is that you cannot talk about the Islamic world or indeed the west as a unity. The whole book is devoted to picking up parts of this generalisation. In conclusion, you’ll see that there are more global roots. In the beginning, I say that these gross generalisations have been the root of many policy failures of the last 10 years. What is far much more important in the world we live in today, is local identity and local politics. We have to see how individual communities behave and how they see the world. So, the term the ‘Islamic world’, which I qualify early in the book, outlining its problems, is in many ways unhelpful. However, because it is so widely used in contrast with the term ‘west’, the ‘west’ is also an unhelpful word. Look at the difference between French and the Americans, for example. Or even the British and the Americans, who despite being lumped together frequently have huge cultural differences.

These generalizations break down on the ground. My contention is that the generalizations drive policies, which then tend to fail. Both the American style of globalization, and the al-Qaeda style of globalization are very disrespectful of local differences. They ignore how normal people want to live their lives, a factor largely determined by local culture, local considerations and local interests. And it was only when this was recognized and acknowledged in 2006, 2007 and 2008 that the western strategy began to achieve greater results. The reason it was able to do so, was equally because strategic opportunity had opened up, and because Muslim communities across the world had rejected the globalizing ideology of al-Qaeda.

The 9/11 Wars
The 9/11 Wars
Jason burke Allen lane
752 pp; Rs 599

There is a chapter in you book called ‘Another country: FATA’. How different is this part of Pakistan from the rest of it that makes you to call it another country?
To a certain extent, it is a literally device to call it another country. The community in FATA has a distinct identity. One of the things we have seen in Arab spring is the strength of nationalism in the Arab world. We see a lot of flags being waved. Mubarrak and Ben Ali were accused of being traitors to their country, certainly not their religion. In Pakistan we see a great deal of patriotism or nationalism. In FATA, the vision of a predominate community is much smaller in scale — it’s about the valley, the tribe and the family. The people of FATA have chosen a path that sets them in odds with Pakistan, which in fact they are a part of. That’s why I call them another country. It is a very different place.

Ten years after 9/11, how has the area you have been reporting from – Pakistan, Afghanistan and India — changed?
India is different. You can’t speak about India, Pakistan and Afghanistan in one breath. India has its own evolution. It is largely determined by its economic growth and its position as an emerging global power. That’s not something that can be said of Pakistan or Afghanistan.

The main shift in the last decade has been that of polarised identities. You see much higher levels of both Americanism and anti-West sentiments. There is a more assertive vision of a national, and particularly Islamic identity. There is higher level of conservatism – social and religious. There is a new assertive Islamo-nationalist identity. The political and social centre has shifted to the right. This is partly because of the activities of the real extremists. They have succeeded in dragging the vast numbers of people, not into violence radicalism, towards a more rigorous interpretation of religion, and related social behaviour. That is one of the single biggest changes.

However, let’s put it in perspective. Alongside this change, there are a number of evolving trends that has been growing for decades — demographic trends that are very evident in the Arab spring. There are a lot of young people, who are getting integrated with global and technological trends. This is happening through satellite television, mobile phones, economic growth and large expansions of educational systems. These developments have been going on for long time, independent of the conflicts. There is a tendency to see these societies as changeless, conflict driven, and locked in some kind of a medieval mindset. But all the countries we speak of have ongoing social, cultural, political lives of their own, without necessarily being influenced by external actors.

You mention that India should be kept out of the Pakistan-Afghanistan bracket. But India has huge stake in what happens in this two countries. What do you think India shouldn’t do in Afghanistan? 
I would say one thing that India desperately needs to do is learn about rest of the world. Take the example of Hindustan Times. It is a good newspaper, but has just one page of foreign news. For a country of India’s size, and with a sizeable intelligent and educated population, this should be shameful. If India wants to assert itself on the world stage, it needs a greater general level of interest and understanding of what is happening overseas. So Indians and their policy makers don’t rely on a set of stereotype. Americans are nasty capitalists, British all wear bowler hats, Arabs are all crazy terrorist, and as for the Pakistanis we can fill in the blanks easily enough. That goes for the security establishment of India as well, which is at a pitiable level of quality when it comes to global thinking and understanding. That, in my opinion, is the bad thing about India.

Pakistan poses a very difficult problem for India. But the Indian government has actually got a few things right – the policy of treating it like a delinquent younger brother, and avoiding a direct response to the provocation of violence. The worse thing would be another conflict. Pakistan is likely to become more stable if, on a long term basis it is drawn to a kind of south Asian economic community where people get richer, and have a higher stake in collectively behaving better.

But would that be possible in the current disposition of Pakistan?
It is not realistic in short term. The best thing India can do is to not make things worse, which it has genuinely succeeded in doing in the last decade. Troops on ground in Afghanistan are simply not realistic. It is one of a series of completely non-realistic fantasies of Indian hawks that vastly exaggerate the capacities of their armed forces. It would be absolutely disastrous. Even the best Indian troops will be butchered within weeks of being deployed. Generally, in the short term, the policy of tough love, if you like, is the best one to follow. Manmohan Singh, in spite all of his faults, has pursued a reasonably intelligent policy – patiently trying to build better relations with Pakistan. No one is denying the very real problem Pakistan is for India. The challenge for India, as well as for the west, is for the Pakistan to have a stable government to represent, as governments should do.

You also say in your book that Arab Spring also represents rejection of al-Qaeda’s philosophy. How?
It is not a controversial thing to say. There is less violence from al-Qaeda now, than it was five years ago. There has not been any major, spectacular attack since 2005. The level of violence in Iraq is fraction of what it was in 2006. There is more violence in Pakistan-Afghanistan, but it is not linked to Al Qaeda. It is coming from different groups. The book’s point is that al-Qaeda is one of many Islamic militant groups. It’s weakening in the recent years doesn’t mean the end of Islamic militancy. It is means just the end of the al-Qaeda project. Many of its senior leaders are dead and many are captured. It doesn’t have any secure bases, and its main project of radicalizing hundreds of thousands of Muslims across the Islamic world has failed. But that doesn’t mean the end of Islamic militancy. You see that in India.

Kunal Majumder is Senior Correspondent with Tehelka.

The Brief, Wondrous Life of Harbart

A new translation finally gives us a closer sense of this madcap modern classic, finds Trisha Gupta

Puncturing gentility Nabarun Bhattacharya
Puncturing gentility Nabarun Bhattacharya

FIRST PUBLISHED in Bangla in 1994, Harbart brought its author Nabarun Bhattacharya — the only son of writer Mahasweta Devi and playwright Bijon Bhattacharya — a swift and certain radical cachet. The tragicomic tale of one Harbart Sarkar — orphan, general odd ball and communicator with the dead, Bhattacharya’s novel is also a mordant history of the Bengali present. It opens with the discovery of Harbart’s body — he has committed suicide after a night of drunken revelry with the local young layabouts — and moves backwards in fits and starts, taking us thro ugh episodes from Harbart’s orphaned north Calcutta childhood, jerky flashbacks into the lives of his parents and his transition from idiot savant to spiritualist.

Its cinematic quality is something theatre director Suman Mukhopadhyay noticed when he read the novel, choosing to inaugurate his filmmaking career with a dizzyingly energetic adaptation of it, the critically feted Herbert (2008). And having watched the film before reading the book, this reviewer feels compelled to quietly confess that she sort of likes the film better.

Nabarun Bhattacharya Tr. Arunava Sinha Tranquebar Press
150 pp; Rs 195

Having got that out of the way, however, Harbart is a strange and wondrous book, unlike anything you’re likely to have read before. Bhattacharya’s prose has been hailed (as well as attacked) as shaking up the genteel world of Bangla literature with its uncompromising references to the bodily and the sexual, in the unfettered language of the Calcutta street. And yet the Sahitya Akademi, which awarded Bhattacharya’s novel in 1997, published a translation by Jyoti Panjwani in 2004, which coyly papers over much of what gave the book its transgressiveness and immediacy. Which is why Arunava Sinha’s new translation is important. What Panjwani renders as “Drink and you vomit; don’t drink and you still vomit. This is why I don’t like drinking with you all. Slumbering loafers! Drunken loafers!” becomes, in Sinha’s version: “… Vomit if you do, vomit if you don’t. That’s why I swear I don’t like drinking with you arseholes. Fuck getting high. Fuck getting drunk.”

No English will never quite capture the madcap feel of the original, but Sinha’s version is idiomatic enough to allow us into Harbart’s surreal universe, where the nymph in the Park Street antique shop appears first as his neighbour Buki of “the ever-so-slightly-insolent breasts”, then as the naked Russian woman facing the machine guns in the Fall of Berlin, and he himself moves in and out of parallel dimensions: “Harbart raised the collar of his overcoat and now it was impossible to think of him as anything but Hollywood.” Or later: “Harbart kept waking up with a start. May Day, 1992. Boris Yeltsin had arranged a spectacular concert of ghosts in Russia. Millions of communists saw the ghosts of capitalism.” This is not a easy book, but it will always be an intriguing one.


The Word – Konkona Sen Sharma, Actor

Konkona Sen Sharma
Konkona Sen Sharma, actor

What kind of books did you read as a literature student?
One of my favourite books was Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov. I have the first line of the book memorised. I discovered Roddy Doyle, and also liked Margaret Atwood and Haruki Murakami.

How have your tastes in reading changed since college?
I don’t read Atwood now and prefer Paul Auster. One of my favourites is Mr Vertigo. I love PG Wodehouse. I detest fantasies but think Douglas Adams’ sense of humour is bizarre and interesting.

Which is your favourite book on cinema?
Ingmar Bergman’s The Magic Lantern. I also like pieces by The New Yorker movie critics Anthony Lane and David Denby. I didn’t understand the books written by my grandfather Chidananda Dasgupta — I have to reread his works now.

What are you reading currently?
The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee. Lately, I’ve taken to reading autobiographies. First-person narratives are fascinating, especially when it is someone you admire. I recently read Andre Agassi’sOpen, which is nicely written. Also, Sting’s Broken Music is something I liked very much. And I’m dying to read Keith Richards’ autobiography Life.

Is there one book you always carry with you?
One is Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood. It is dense and also has the crime element that I like, and interestingly weaves folklore into the narrative.

Janani Ganesan is a Trainee Correspondent with Tehelka.


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