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American perceptions of the Mumbai attacks

Thomas Ash
29 November 2008

Until it hit the headlines after the Mumbai attacks, India did not tend to receive much attention in the international press - at least not as much attention as China, Asia's other major rising power. Even with the Olympics over, China has been the subject of innumerable recent news stories and feature pieces. In noting this, I am not trying to suggest that China gets too much attention; my point is only that India could use a little more. (To this end, openDemocracy has just launched a new editorial section on India, which had been planned for some time.) In the absence of detailed reporting on India, three images of the country have tended to coexist (somewhat uneasily) in Westerners' imaginations.The first image is that of an exotic tourist destination, described by my Lonely Planet guidebook as a land of swaying elephants, prowling tigers and Henna-tattooed locals. This image has taken a hit, and I can testify to this first hand from having spent the past few days talking to friends who were planning to attend a mutual friend's wedding in Delhi and visit Bombay along the way. The second stereotypical image is that of a major source of outsourced labour, with computer programmers and internet-enabled call centres looming large in the popular imagination. The third image comes from the countless television documentaries which highlight grinding poverty in the slums of cities like Calcutta, often featuring white saviours like Mother Teresa. The international media's accounts of the recent atrocities in Mumbai may yet add another stereotype or two to that list. Understandably, most reporters provide little context for what has happened, focussing on the immediate facts on the ground rather than India's complicated history of Hindu-Muslim relations. Less forgivably, some accounts have portrayed what has happened in Mumbai as just the latest example of militant Muslims targeting 'the West', ignoring not only India's history but also its geographical location. Of course, not every journalist has the time or knowledge to describe Britain's rushed partition of India and Pakistan in 1947, and the persecution that has since been suffered by both Muslims and Hindus in some areas. That makes it important to read the few who do. Besides Kanishk Tharoor's recent article in openIndia, I would recommend taking a look at the recent Sachar Report on the status of Muslims in India (an English language summary is available here). This government-sponsored investigation found that Indian Muslims are in many ways more disadvantaged than even low caste Hindus. Notwithstanding these facts, it is true that the Islamist ideology that apparently lay behind Wednesday's attacks reaches beyond national borders. That is why it commands that attention of the world in a way that Hindu extremism, to take just one example, does not. If local grievances provided the fuel for the attacks on Mumbai then Islamism likely provided the oxygen. At any rate that is the interpretation adopted by Andy McCarthy. (If his name sounds familiar, it may be because he recently alleged that William Ayers secretly authored Barack Obama's putatively autobiographical first book.) He writes at the website of America's conservative National Review that:  "The obsession over whether al Qaeda or its endless jumble of affiliates pulled off the operation is a misguided attempt to mimimize [sic] the challenge.  The bin Laden network is not unimportant, but it is tapping into something that is much bigger than itself.  It's become fashionable for pundits to confine the threat of radical Islam to a relative fringe of disgruntled takfiris and rationalize that if we could only eliminate them all would be well.  But that fringe represents only a strain of the virus ... local issues are fitted to an ideological framework that is global, hegemonic, and more about the ultimate triumph of fundamentalist Islam than, say, a Palestinian state, Kashmir, Danish cartoons, economic inequality, or whatever this week's complaint is." The other writers at National Review take similar lessons from the attacks in India. Several express the hope that they will make President-Elect Obama reconsider his promises to close Guantanamo and roll back some of President Bush's tougher (and more constitutionally dubious) anti-terror legislation. As Kanishk noted earlier, the ruling Congress Party had repealed India's equivalent of the Patriot Act. Unfortunately, the online sections of many of the American left's most prominent journals have had little to say about the attacks thus far. The front page of the American Prospect's website does feature one relevant story, confusingly titled ‘Attacks in Indiana'. Other than that, it is largely silent. The New Republic has had a bit more to say, but has mainly carried anecdotal reports from Indians. The ideologically heterogeneous writers at The Atlantic do have some interesting things to say, and I recommend that interested readers take a look at Robert Kaplan's dispatch in particular. I for one hope that prominent liberals work out a more detailed and historically informed response to what is happening in India. Only then can they counteract the cruder, more chest-thumping reactions of the American right, which - while they may contain some grains of truth - ultimately only serve to obscure the true story.

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