Mumbai’s 9/11 Meme

Mumbai’s 9/11 Meme

We have much to fear from easy evocations of 9/11, but in India, it is a call to the world to recognize their loss.


New Delhi

There are very many good reasons to resist imposing a 9/11 narrative on the Mumbai attacks, the most important of which is the inevitable “war on terror” framework and its various evils: the demonization of Muslims, the crackdown on human rights and freedoms, the justification for unilateral war. Certainly, the relentless use of 9/11 language and imagery on Indian television–the repetitive montage of smoke-wreathed buildings quickly dubbed “Ground Zero”; the wartime captions: “Ladega India” (India will fight), “India at War,” “Another 9-11”; and of course, the chest-beating patriotism and shrill demands for action–should give any right-minded Indian pause. The US media has done no better, recasting the siege to fit its narrative of global jihad, in which every spectacular terrorist attack by Islamic terrorists, be it in Madrid, London or Mumbai, is quickly dubbed “another 9/11.”

Yet the resistance to all this chatter about an Indian 9/11 has been just as disheartening in its own way, often taking the shape of a determined, almost unseemly insistence to the contrary. According to this version, the attacks were Indian politics as usual, albeit of a more spectacular and horrific kind. “Indians will have a strong incentive to link this to Al Qaeda,” Christine Fair, a RAND Corporation analyst told the New York Times the day after the Mumbai attacks. “But this is a domestic issue. This is not India’s 9/11.”

To rephrase Fair’s blunt analysis, Mumbai flunked the 9/11 litmus test, whereby some tragedies are deemed to be part of a broader “war on terror,” while others are merely symptoms of a local sectarian conflict, in which some are deemed important and noteworthy and the others are buried in the back pages of the morning newspaper.

One unspoken criterion of a 9/11 litmus test is that it conform to the core premise of the “war on terror,” which views Islamic terrorism as a “clash of civilizations,” between “us” and “them,” or, let’s be frank, between the West and Islam (with Israelis awarded the role of honorary Westerners). In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, journalists in the United States and Britain were quick to recast Mumbai as a Bali nightclub-style attack on Westerners. Hence, the prodigious attention to the tourists trapped in the luxury hotels and at the Jewish center, with little regard for the carnage at the railway station.

“I found it almost surreal to comb the front pages of many British newspapers on Thursday morning. It was as if India was merely another faceless arena for the clash between the West and radical Islam,” wrote Kanishk Tharoor in The Independent.

But the publications that did choose to emphasize the far greater Indian death toll did so for a less appetizing reason: to debunk the 9/11 analogy and categorize the tragedy as merely “Indian.” “Their soft-target selection wasn’t designed, as a number of recent spectacular terror strikes have been, to kill as many Westerners as possible–the Mumbai attackers appear simply to have killed whomever they could,” noted Time correspondent Bruce Crumley, who then went on to quote French counterterrorism expert Roland Jacquard as saying, “This detail suggests the group behind this has regional and political objectives particular–and perhaps unique–to Indian Islamists…. Despite a few common elements with Al Qaeda-inspired attacks, this one didn’t come out of the usual international jihad playbook.” And this despite the fact that the vast majority of Al Qaeda victims–in Pakistan, Iraq, Afghanistan–have been non-Westerners, especially Muslims.

The 9/11 test also requires that the perpetrators be incontrovertibly “foreign,” preferably linked in some way to Al Qaeda, which has become a discursive shorthand for the irremediably “other,” fanatical extremist Muslims at war against the West. To debunk the “Indian 9/11” claim, therefore, some outlets pushed to definitively establish the identity of the terrorists as Indian, at times invoking a degree of callousness that would have been remarkable in the wake of any other such event. Claims by New Delhi of a Lashkar-e-Taiba/Pakistan connection were brushed aside as mere political posturing, a typical reflexive attempt to avoid responsibility for its own failings. “There are a lot of very, very angry Muslims in India,” Fair told the Times. “You cannot put lipstick on this pig. This is a major domestic political challenge for India.” Susan Sontag was publicly lynched for saying far less in her post-9/11 New Yorker piece.

The Guardian‘s Jason Burke offered this astonishingly confident theory, even before the events on the ground had fully unfolded” “Even if…there is some involvement, rogue or otherwise, by the Pakistani security establishment, autonomous Pakistani jihadi groups or a more direct link to al-Qaida, it will have been alienated and angry young Indian Muslims who heeded the call to arms.” If the terrorists were Indian Muslims–or even now, as some claim, if there was some kind of assistance offered by local groups, be it terrorist or mafia–then the calamitous events can be safely labeled an “internal” problem.

The problem with the 9/11 litmus test is that it relies on an inside/outside distinction that is untenable in any nation with a significant Muslim population. In this age of global terror, where borders are no protection against the transfer of ideology, people or resources, the domestic/foreign distinction is becoming impossible to sustain when labeling terrorist groups. These days, we can play the Kevin Bacon game with any given Islamic jihadi group and come up with an Al Qaeda connection. Even if the so-called Deccan Muhajeddin did exist and were entirely comprised of radicalized Indian Muslims, their established Kashmir connection makes them a hop, skip and jump away from the Taliban and Al Qaeda (many of whose members fight/have fought on the Kashmir front). If, as the Indian government claims, this is the handiwork of the Pakistani Lashkar-e-Taiba , then the ties are even closer. According to known intelligence, LeT members have embedded themselves with Taliban units in Afghanistan to gain battle experience, and an Al Qaeda lieutenant was captured in one of its camps in 2002.

In terms of ideology, any Muslim minority that is alienated and underprivileged is likely to include Al Qaeda sympathizers, be it in Britain, France, Germany or India. If the British Muslims who masterminded the London subway bombings are part of the the international jihad, then why not homegrown Indian extremists? Muslim alienation at home is connected to Muslim alienation at the global level. And while their individual priorities may differ, radical Islamic groups around the world share a worldview which sees Palestine, Kashmir, Iraq and Gujarat (genocide of Indian Muslims) as part of a global assault on Islam.

The most telling argument against the inside/outside classification is the reality that fighting terrorism in India–at least the Islamic kind (Indian terrorists include Tamils, Marxist-inspired Naxalites, Hindu fundamentalists and, previously, Sikhs)–will require an international solution. Yes, New Delhi will have to take significant steps to address the real grievances of Indian Muslims, but apart from the recent emergence of the Indian Mujahedin, they have not been the primary recruiting ground for terrorists–contrary to what Hindu fundamentalists like to claim. Ending Islamic terrorism requires a sustainable Kashmir settlement and hence dealing with Pakistan, and therefore a stable, strong Pakistani government that is not just willing but also able to negotiate a genuine peace, which in turn requires stability and order in Afghanistan, all of which will entail a significant role for the United States. Such is the reality of our post-9/11 world.

The past eight years have given Americans–especially progressives–plenty of reason to fear the media’s post-9/11 narrative of loss and retribution, but we cannot forestall its ills by succumbing to its logic. Well-meaning progressives who point the finger at Hindu nationalists in their desire to protect Indian Muslims unwittingly play into its polarizing dynamic. Toronto Globe and Mail columnist Doug Saunders writes, “So it’s tempting to describe this week’s outrages as ‘the Sept. 11 of India.’… Let me suggest that you ignore this narrative. To follow this storyline, to see these events as civilizational warfare, is to misconstrue the nature of India.” He goes on to suggest that the true terrorists are not Muslims but Hindu nationalists, and that the attacks, in the words of University of Chicago legal and ethics scholar Martha Nussbaum, are “not a clash of ‘civilizations’ but another consequence of the ‘clash within.’ ”

The greater irony is that this push to define the attacks as part of an “internal” conflict does Indian Muslims no favors, both in suggesting that they’d be justified in launching such a horrific attack (or likely to do so given their grievances) and in blaming a grieving Hindu majority in these volatile times. Whatever his motivation, the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s staunch denial of any local involvement is a much-needed reprieve for a community that will face terrible reprisals if the attacks do indeed have a domestic connection.

We progressives would also do well to remember that the World Trade Center attacks are now an international symbol for a nation’s grief and courage in the face of terrorism. A good part of the Indian need to claim the Mumbai attacks as another 9/11 is a call to the world to recognize their loss, to stand with them in their moment of tragedy. To deny or bracket their self-description of the events for whatever reason is both unkind and presumptuous.

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