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A War That Is Much More Than A Clash Of Abstractions

Thursday, Dec. 13, 2001

George W. Bush, Osama bin Laden, and the media all seem to agree that the current conflict should be understood as a clash of abstractions: Good vs. Evil, East vs. West, Cross vs. Crescent, and so on.

On the Al-Qaeda side, the abstractions are invoked to justify flouting the legal doctrines of Islam. In Washington, they are used to justify restricting the civil liberties that we are supposedly fighting to protect.

President Bush's executive order permitting secret military tribunals to try foreign terrorists ensures that 30 million foreign residents of the United States must now fear being tried, convicted, and shot without legal recourse of any kind. Only an abstraction could convince the government to put each of these individuals in danger.

Although the United States has tried to argue that we are not fighting a war against Islam, Bush is not shy about portraying the bombing of Afghanistan as a struggle between absolute good ("us") and absolute evil ("them," or rather "him"). Al-Qaeda, meanwhile, uses the double abstraction of holy war against the infidel to glorify suicide and the slaughter of innocents, both explicitly forbidden by Islamic law.

In order to make current events fit the simple paradigms upon which both sides are operating, one is of course forced to exclude a good deal of reality.

Guns and Beards

I recently watched two TV cameramen film a flowerpot outside the coffee shop of the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad.

Anyone who has watched television news over the past three months has seen the view from the Marriott roof, where most network correspondents stand to file reports from Pakistan. The hotel has been taken over by foreign journalists who are paying about eight times the going rate for a room, plus extra for roof rights.

The media compulsion to show "exciting" footage obscures many subtler realities. Pakistan, for example, is a country of 140 million people, only a few thousand of whom ever turned out for the pro-Taliban rallies organized by the country's small Islamist parties, largely for the benefit of the Western media in attendance. Yet watching the news coverage, one could easily conclude that this was a country of 140 million bearded men waving Kalashnikovs and yelling "Death to America!"

What the Cameras Rarely Show

In late October, I spent a week with a camera crew in Karachi and Islamabad, interviewing Pakistanis and Afghans from all walks of life for a VH1 documentary about Junoon ("Passion"), a local rock band that uses Sufi poetry and screaming guitars to preach peace and tolerance between East and West. Nearly everyone I spoke to was conflicted about the war in Afghanistan.

On the one hand, they despised the Taliban, and feared the prospect of a similarly extremist Islamic regime in their own country. On the other hand, they were appalled that the richest and most powerful country in the world was bombing one of the world's poorest countries in order to kill a single individual.

Most rejected Osama bin Laden's claim to speak for the entire Muslim world. And despite their anger against the United States, most understood that we are not fighting Islam, but a small group of criminals who acted in its name. Their question, though, is how highly American lives are being valued as compared to their lives.

We asked a female college student in Islamabad how she viewed America. "We feel for the people who died [on September 11,]" she replied. "But Americans don't think about others. All they think about is themselves."

A middle-aged Afghan refugee who had just fled Jalalabad to escape U.S. bombs put it even more starkly. Mohammed Zaman Khan was sleeping rough in a Karachi garbage dump, along with several dozen other Afghan men who each earned a dollar or two a day by scavenging rubbish from the bazaar and selling it to wholesalers.

"What sin have the poor people of Afghanistan committed?" he asked bitterly. "Our bare feet bleed when we walk up the mountain to find water for our families. We can't even buy medicine for our children. And when they die, we bury them in our own clothes because we can't afford the price of a shroud."

Bin Laden's Contempt

But the truth is that we are not fighting a war against evil or against Islam. Nor is Al-Qaeda fighting a war against the cross, or the West, or even McWorld. Contra Hegel, ideas don't fight wars. People fight wars, people with names and wives and credit cards, people with mothers in Cairo and brothers in L.A. and degrees from Pakistani madrassahs, even people like me who believe that Bush's "new war" amounts to an exceptionally violent and expensive police action against a small group of sociopaths who have sought to sanction mass murder by hijacking Islam.

Mass media projection helps make the abstractions appear real and authoritative, instead of the rhetorical mirages that they are. Al-Jazeera and CNN have transformed Osama bin Laden into an international terrorist rock star, shining floodlights on a man in a cave so that his shadow now looms large over the world.

But only politicians and news directors can afford to view this war in terms of abstractions. As U.S. warplanes drop 15,000 pound bombs outside the caves of Tora Bora and Osama thanks Allah on videotape because more people died in the World Trade Center than he had expected, we need less mediated triumphalism and more dialogue between real people across religious and cultural lines.

Under the legal doctrine of self-defense, the United States was fully justified in its military response to the tragedy of September 11. I am less convinced that self-defense can justify inflating Osama bin Laden into a kind of Muslim Beelzebub for the new millennium. Nor do the real sufferings of Muslims in Palestine and Kashmir justify Osama sending a few witting followers and a few more unwitting dupes to create apocalypse in the name of Islam, which means "peace, brother," as Pakistan's only Marxist rock critic once told me, flashing a peace sign to suit his words.

Richard McGill Murphy is a New York-based writer and editor. He started his career as a reporter in Afghanistan and was later a Fulbright Scholar in Pakistan, where he did fieldwork for his doctorate in social anthropology from Oxford University.

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