|Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
27 Aug. - 2 Sep. 1998
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Current issue | Previous issue | Site map|
Age of reason
The war of civilisations is finally at hand. America and the forces of Islamic revivalism are locked in deadly combat. Or are they? If one is to believe the posturing and the media hype, there is no doubt that the bombings of the American embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, and US "retribution" two weeks later, were the first shots in a long-drawn and vicious war. It is, moreover, pundits tell us, a new kind of war, one in which the whole world is a potential battlefield. Nowhere and no one is safe.
The greatest and most technologically advanced military machine in the world is pitted against thousands of ever-elusive fanatical terrorists bent on killing Americans and Jews, and anybody else who happens to be in the way. Not only are these terrorists motivated by a fanaticism that CNN anchors and their "expert" guests never tire of telling us "Americans would find difficult to understand", they have potential access to chemical, biological and even nuclear weapons. Press reports have been (typically) quoting other press reports as reporting that Bin Laden has been shopping for nuclear warheads on the Russian black market...
And it's not just Bin Laden's "network of 4,000 to 5,000 well trained, ruthless fighters across the world" that Western civilisation has to fear. Images of angry mobs burning American flags are accompanied by banner headlines reporting the outpouring of fury throughout the Islamic world. Such anger, commentators warn, is an abundant source of grist for Bin Laden's mills. "Will the US strategy reap an Islamic hurricane?" asks the Sunday Times in large print; "Bin Laden has been turned overnight from a little known militant leader in a state marginal to the Middle East to a hero throughout the Islamic world," the newspaper's writers answer.
Not known for mincing its words when it comes to anti-Arab and anti-Muslim racism, the Jerusalem Post puts it bluntly. "Civilisation strikes back" was the title of its editorial extolling the virtues of the American attacks. "The terrorists are the enemy of civilisation -- not just of the United States or its president," frothed the Post's editors, who went on to express their amazement at Arab and Muslim ingratitude. "The US has been a remarkably benign superpower. It is hard to fathom the fanatical hatred of it by Islamic terrorism. The US helped Bin Laden's guerrillas fight the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, it curbed the maniacal activities of Muammar Gaddafi directed against his neighbours, it came to the rescue of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. All the thanks Washington has received for these arguably pro-Arab and pro-Moslem actions has been ever increasing terrorist hatred and ever weaker and ungrateful friends." Clearly, the Jerusalem Post's definition of "Islamic terrorism" is all-encompassing.
And the war will go on. "This will be a long, ongoing struggle between freedom and fanaticism," declared Bill Clinton; "This is going to be a long-term battle against terrorists who have declared war on the United States," echoed Madeleine Albright. Missile strikes at targets identified unilaterally by the US as "terrorist" were not a one-off retaliation against the embassy bombings, US Defence Secretary William Cohen asserted in an opinion article in the Washington Post, but should be seen as "the long-term fundamental way in which the United States intends to combat the forces of terror".
The promise of a long war was music to Republican ears, especially since it implies greater military spending. "The president's decision to strike, and his administration's promise to prevail in what may well be a long-term campaign, were right," declared Senator John McCain of Arizona in the weekly Republican radio address. House Speaker Newt Gingrich coupled his support with a call for increased military spending: "We have a lot of equipment getting old and we've allowed the forces to become too small and we're using them in too many places."
A long and brutal war it will be, the Islamists were also promising. "The battle has not yet begun. We plan to answer with actions, not words," Bin Laden reportedly declared following the American strike. Ayman El-Zawahri, leader of the Egyptian Jihad organisation, told Pakistan's The News, "The war has just started and the Americans should wait for an answer," while a spokesman for the Kashmiri militant group, Harkut-ul-Mujahidin Jammu and Kashmir, declared: "The Americans and Jews should now prepare for their destruction."
Al-Gama'a Al-Islamiya, after having tried to distance itself from Bin Laden's jihad front, outbid all the rest. Its warning was nothing less than a global cataclysm; a billion Muslim human bombs, "which are equal in force to all the weapons of extermination and mass destruction possessed by the Americans."
The two poles of what Mohamed Sid-Ahmed has termed a new post-Cold War bipolarity, are full of sound and fury -- promising us a long-drawn global war in which star wars technology is pitted against "thousands of well-trained, ruthless fighters around the world" -- not to speak of a billion human bombs.
But where, for God's sake, is the fighting? The international jihad front gave it its best shot and struck the first blow. The element of surprise and what commentators have noted was an exceptionally high level of planning, as well as considerable technical, organisational and logistical capabilities, ensured that the blow would be as devastating as it was spectacular. Almost simultaneously, two US embassies in two east African capitals were hit, buildings were reduced to rubble, for weeks the media could speak of little else, and... hundreds of Kenyan and Tanzanian civilians were killed and thousands wounded. The mujahidin and their exultant supporters, meanwhile, have yet to explain how exactly, in the midst of this monstrous bloodbath, is the almost incidental killing of 12 American embassy personnel supposed to have hurt American imperial hegemony and international brigandry, "crusading" or not.
And what of "the boldest, firmest use of force ever by the Clinton administration"? The Sunday Times waxes poetic: "As night fell on the Red Sea, the satellite-guided arm of American military retribution was reaching out once again to punish an unseen enemy in a distant, hostile land. Whatever guidance problems may have afflicted earlier cruise missiles, there was no doubting the brutal accuracy of the newest high-tech version of the terrain-hugging, long-range Tomahawk. The El-Shifa pharmaceutical plant was reduced to a smouldering heap." In a similar vein, "On a high plateau in the mountainous wilds of Afghanistan, a firestorm of 75 titanium-covered warheads suddenly rained from the sky in the middle of the night onto four well-ordered terrorist camps..."
But besides giving the Sunday Times writers the opportunity to revel in imperial nostalgia -- one can sense the shudders of excitement -- what exactly has been accomplished? The one sure "achievement" that Defence Secretary Cohen could report was that the Al-Shifaa pharmaceutical factory in Khartoum was "functionally destroyed". Later, the US was to reject a Sudanese request that a special UN technical commission be assigned the task of ascertaining the truth of American allegations that the plant was used to manufacture VX gas. And, "with respect to the terrorist camps in Afghanistan... the attacks have significantly disrupted the capability to use these camps as terrorist training facilities," was all the defence secretary could boast. What this is supposed to mean, in a country literally littered with military camps and weapons-dumps -- weapons, it may be recalled, which the Americans and their Pakistani allies have been supplying in abundance for over nearly two decades -- is anybody's guess.
Asked to assess the strikes, Albright "stressed the symbolic message... rather than [the] military effect," Reuters reported. Symbolism, in fact, is all the current global war of civilisations is about. A lot of innocent, and very few not-so-innocent, people may be killed or maimed, but as far as the two major antagonists are concerned, it is all shadow boxing -- a truly post-modern war. It is a CNN war; image is all.
And it is so apt. The banner of Third World anti-imperialism, once held by Mao and Ho Chi Minh, Nasser, Nkrumah and Che is now supposed to be in the hand of a CIA-trained, petro-dollar-rich, construction-entrepreneur Saudi millionaire, and the Taliban -- known for their great victories over Afghani women -- provide the safe haven for the world Islamic revolution. Instead of people's wars, the latest of which left some 57,000 American soldiers dead, we get sordid and nasty bombings, in which everyone except the enemy is hurt.
It is so apt that imperial America should go to war even as a report is being prepared which reportedly includes "graphic vignettes" of its leader's sexual encounters with Monica Lewinsky -- such details, we are promised, which will make people "want to throw up". The sole superpower, the leader of the Western world, must make of its own president the star guest in a giant Oprah Winfrey show, in order to keep its populace -- the very people who have to work harder for less pay even as the economy witnesses half a decade of uninterrupted "robust" growth -- entertained.
The modern "age of reason" has been criticised, both fairly and unfairly. The harshest criticism that could be levelled against it, however, is that it had the capacity to turn upon itself and give us this post-modern age of stupidity.