Baader-Meinhof to Bin Laden
Nadeem Rahman explores the ideological foundations of terrorism
"What is a rebel? He is a man who says no!"
"Remember, remember, the fifth of November
The gunpowder treason and plot,
I know of no reason the gunpowder and treason
Should ever be forgot"
On November 5, 1605, Guy Fawkes was caught with thirty-six barrels of gunpowder, attempting to blow up the House of Lords in the Palace of Westminster, during the State Opening of Parliament. The plot was to assassinate the King of England along with almost the entire British aristocracy. Since then, in adherence to tradition and the true spirit of British democracy, parliament has never been opened on the November 5 (except once), and the Houses of Parliament are ceremoniously searched by the Yeomen of the Guard, as a precaution against traitors and religious zealots. Parliament was subsequently opened on November 9, when His Majesty did not miss the opportunity to wax eloquent on "the divine right of monarchs" to rule, and the infernal "Catholic question".
The King was not alone in anti-Catholicism. Even those reluctant to accept his divine credentials were one with him on this issue. Anti-Catholic sentiment was rampant throughout Medieval England, and the very next verse of the 5th of November nursery rhyme is unambiguous proof of its popular fervour :
"A penny loaf to feed the Pope
A farthing o' cheese to choke him
A pint of beer to rinse it down
A faggot of sticks to burn him
Burn him in a tub of tar
Burn him like a blazing star
Burn his body from his head
Then we 'll say ol' Pope is dead
Hip hip hoorah! Hip hip hoorah!"
What is perhaps not appreciated enough, however, is the realisation that the gunpowder plot was nothing less than an act of war -- a religious coup d' état which, had it succeeded, would have proved as thoroughly comprehensive as France's infamous reign of terror, and far more devastating than America's 9/11. England might have been a part of the Pope's domain. In spite of this, or rather as a consequence of its failure, history cannot credit the gunpowder plot with England's civil war, Cromwell's Commonwealth, or the Glorious Revolution. It stands alone, foremost on the list of lost causes.
Ironically, Guy Fawkes, "that brave bad man," who was the inspiration for the Devil in Milton's Paradise Lost, has of late acquired something of a cult status. In 2002 he was ranked 30th in a list of Briton's 100 greatest, and among Yorkshire's 50 greatest. In a strange twist of fortune, Guy Fawkes, who was once demonised as Briton's best known traitor, is today celebrated as "the only man ever to have entered parliament with honest intentions".
Not surprisingly, Catholics were not the only irritants to early English society. The Edict of Expulsion of 1290 expelled all Jews from England for over three hundred and fifty years, until it was formally revoked in 1656. It was immensely popular at the time, and countless colourful anti-Semitic myth have emanated from that formative era. Indeed, well before the expulsion of Jews from Spain and Portugal and long before the notorious Nazis, England was the first country in Europe "to require Jews to wear a marking badge." But the Jews never produced a Guy Fawkes of their own -- on the contrary, the virgin Queen's personal physician was a Jew, who is believed to have inspired Shakespeare's Shylock. The quiet comeback of the Jewish community culminated in Benjamin Disraeli's assumption of office as Prime Minister of Great Briton. Although a convert to Anglicanism, he was nevertheless essentially of Jewish origin.
Be that as it may, the November 5 has come and gone for four hundred years since that fateful night, and sectarian differences, indeed religion, is no longer the great divide of the British body politic. Great Britain, which has always been a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural realm, finds itself once again, in the twenty first century, under siege by yet another non-Anglican faith. Despite the diligent Yeomen of the Guard, since then, religious zealots abound and the sinister Catholics are replaced by British radical Muslims, who have sprung from British soil, and made no pretence of loyalty and bore no allegiance whatsoever to King and Cool Britannia. These "revolutionaries" are a new species of "crusaders," whose hearts and minds belong to a world apart from the middle gentry of merry England.
Increasingly, this scenario can be seen throughout Europe, indeed the world. Muslim militants have become an unwelcome phenomenon even in Muslim cultures. Not since the "Hashisheens" despatched by "the old man of the mountain," from whom the punishing word "assassin" is derived, has history witnessed such a deluge of dedicated executioners, on a global scale.
They are not alone. In Europe, The Irish Republican Army (IRA), and the Basque nationalist separatist group (ETA) in Spain, are the two oldest guerrilla organisations, with an impressive catalogue of mayhem to their credit. Other more recent, but equally fierce bands of insurgents such as Baader-Meinhof of Germany, the Red Brigade of Italy, the Japanese Red Army, the LTTE of Sri Lanka, the Naxalites of North East India, the Maoists of South Asia, the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO), the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, Abu Sayef in the Philippines, the Freedom Fighters of Chechnya, the Mujahideen-Taliban of Afghanistan, and the omnipresent Al Quaeda of no specific abode, to mention a few, at some time or other, have not hesitated to display their propensity for violence.
In Latin America, the Communist Party of Peru, better known as Shining Path, and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), have survived countless administrations antagonistic to their cause. The latter is perhaps the largest and the oldest insurgent group in the world. Even US, the bastion of capitalism, where individual freedom is sacred, is not immune to its fair share of underground movements. The relatively peaceful Black Panther Party was hunted into extinction, almost single-handedly by J. Edgar Hoover, which in turn gave rise to the openly violent Black Liberation Army. The Weatherman Organisation and other similar quasi-militant guerrilla groups sprang like mushrooms, during the era of the Vietnam War, while the home grown "militia" is almost an American tradition. With the passage of time, wars have been fought, hostages taken, ransoms paid, territories lost and gained, but despite this virile legacy of insurrection, most have yet to achieve their desired aspirations:
The IRA has been officially disbanded, Baader-Meinhof were incarcerated, the Red Brigade and the Japanese Red Army disappeared into oblivion, and the LTTE would appear to have lost the war to the Sri Lankan army. Among European villains, only ETA remains a force to be reckoned with. The Maoists and the Naxalites continue their sporadic low intensity raids in the foothills of the Himalayas and the South Asian hinterland, but to no avail. In the Middle East, the indestructible Muslim Brotherhood is reduced to the ignominy of an underground "political" movement, and the PLO, desperate to shed its terrorist reputation, craves acceptance and "respectability," as the legitimate governing authority of the stateless people of Palestine. At the other end of the world, Abu Sayef, the "Jihadists in Paradise," struggle to survive, while the Chechen Freedom Fighters are forgotten and no longer regarded as "newsworthy." In this sorry state of affairs, Al Quaeda and to a lesser degree, the Taliban, stand out as something to cling to, for the disenfranchised.
Consequently, for some, rightly or wrongly, insurrection has become a way of life. It is a harsh and lonely life, bereft of hope and offering little comfort in the immediate future. Such men are driven by hate, or sustained by their dreams. Suicide is their ultimate weapon, the final coup de grâce of terrorist expletives.
Therefore, urban terrorism and violent revolt as a means of protest and drastic change, though obviously not the norm, is nevertheless not as unfamiliar a historical aberration as one is inclined to admit. Wherever there is a concentration of power, and the apparatus with which to ensure its exercise, there is always the potential for conflict and the rise of civil resistance.
Thus the rebel is born.
More often than not, the uprising is collective, though invariably inspired by charismatic leadership or a seminal nucleus. The rebel commander comes in many moulds, from Robin Hood to Ché Guevara, from Chief Sitting Bull to Martin Luther King, from Mahatma Ghandi to the illusive Osama Bin Laden. Each brings with him his own magnetic aura and his own vision of the future.
The Ghost Dance of the Native Americans was believed to foment an uprising against the white man's brutal occupation. This was considered a bad thing, because the natives were unreasonably warlike, uncivilised and godless but more importantly, there was gold in the Black Hills. Spontaneous uprisings do indeed occur simply to overthrow the status quo, but generally speaking, seldom with the sole intent to simply wreck havoc and declare anarchy. On the contrary, revolutions are invariably inspired out of the most altruist intentions, spearheaded by men of iron will, or inept idealists. In any event, there is usually an agenda. These are motivated by any variety of reasons, political, economic or even spiritual to resist foreign occupation, redress inequality, or overthrow tyrants. Whatever the cause, throughout the his tory of the human condition, the hungry and the angry have stormed the gates of civilisation. The clamour for justice has taken many forms, especially when the avenues of legal struggle are cut off from the mainstream. People have fought along the ramparts of philosophy, all manner of insult and injury. As much as they have fought for the right to life, they have fought for the right to dissent. They have fought for the freedom of the soul.
But, the high priests of every creed would shackle the soul and redefine civilisation in the image of Dante's inferno. They would take, in the name of divine salvation, what little joys this pitiful existence affords, with the promise of something, of which they themselves possess no firsthand knowledge. They would enjoin the faithful to accept their austere interpretation of the universe, and patiently endure every iniquity, for a paradise long lost to Original Sin. For the destitute and emotionally vulnerable, even this bleak hope is more comfort than they have ever known.
Intolerance, prejudice and hands on persecution, are the hallmarks of world history, which usher the unsuspecting traveller through a maze of subtle intimidation to "the final solution": ethnic cleansing and ultimately, genocide. The fruits of our family tree are laden with the sweet nectar of jealousy, envy, enmity and hatred. Race, religion and culture are powerful prime movers. Language, as an extension of culture, is a vital means to bridge the gulf, or widen the cleavage and establish an unbridgeable moat of mistrust and deliberate disinformation, a communication gap of poison waters. In the context of history, the long sojourn of the Jewish people is the obvious example of all of the above.
In our times, we have wounded the soul irreparably the same soul we sought to liberate from the first day of creation. Slavery and colonialism herded humanity like livestock, branded by the Cross, by the Crescent Moon and the Star of David, branded by the mystic Swastika. In our times, the so-called Cold War tore the world apart. Despite pretences, the superpowers alone were the only non-aligned nations. Everyone took sides and everyone changed sides with the ebb tide. China awakened, Russia waned, Europe united, and America rushed in, where Moses, Jesus and Mohammed once trod with discretion. The clash of cultures was truly afoot.
"The clash of civilisations" is not new to the pages of history, nor indeed "the remaking of world order." Both have occurred time and again. Consider the crusades, the discovery of the New World and the invention of the United Nations not to mention the information super highway and the internet. From the conquests of the early Greeks and the Romans, the rapacious Mongols, the elevating effects of the spread of religions, Buddhism in the East, Christianity in the West and Islam in the balance, the Exodus and the holocaust, civilisation without technology, each in their turn have redefined the destiny of the human species. All the turmoil of the twenty first century is the direct consequence of the sins of the past, the vulgarity of slavery, the evil of imperialism, patronising equality, and the dispensing of trade and aid as an instrument of hegemony. None are exempt however much the giants of geopolitical grandstanding scramble to gain the moral high ground.
In our times, it all began with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and though the Soviets are long departed, Afghanistan is still under siege, this time by former allies, and there is no end to her miseries yet, true to character, the Afghans remain defiant.
Afghanistan is a Pandora's Box. The first Afghan war in the early nineteenth century resulted in so resounding a defeat for the British, that only one solitary British soldier survived. Briton did not suffer such a humiliation again, until Dunkirk and the fall of Singapore. Smarting from its shame, the British credited this disaster with instigating the Indian Sepoy mutiny of 1857. Coincidentally, Britain's entry into Afghanistan and the "Great Game" was to act as a buttress against Soviet domination of Central Asia. Predictably, two hundred years later, history repeated itself, this time, with NATOin the vanguard.
Even then, the Afghan wars were never ending. Such a cherished culture of war has bred a breed as rugged as the terrain. The Afghan warrior will launch a cowardly ambush, beat a hasty retreat, and totally retract his bond on a whim, but surrender is not in his dictionary. Add to this the reputation of the Hindu Kush Mountains as "the graveyard of all foreign armies'. Hindu Kush meaning "the slayer of Indians or Hindus," did not earn that reputation lightly. With the exception of Alexander, no invading force has ever emerged from its bowels, with its pride intact. It is a forbidding tourist attraction, the perfect panorama for Armageddon. Strangely, and perhaps significantly, the Hindu Kush is "calculated to be the geographic centre of population of the world."
The Hindu Kush is also the most inaccessible battleground, the lair of every fugitive West of the Indus. In this setting, wars are not fought along conventional battle array, here the enemy is like mountain mist and victory is measured one day at a time. "Ghost Wars" is a most apt description. There is no "official" cessation of hostilities, only a lull between epochs of killing. Woven into the fabric of this vivid Afghan rug, are fractious tribes of differing religious sects and racial ethnicity, with an admixture of hybrid foreign mercenaries. Through it all, civilisation continues, despite the death and destruction.
In this backdrop, no military commander with the remotest instinct for survival would choose the Hindu Kush as the place to throw the gauntlet and make his stand. It was a foregone disaster, logistically and historically. Lured into "the jaws of death and the mouth of hell" the West with all its united might has embarked on yet another, and hopefully the last, Afghan war. The primary target wasn't even an Afghan.
The "enemy combatant" is a legend in his lifetime, Osama Bin Laden, a billionaire Saudi dissident and the West's public enemy number one. Unable to return to his homeland in the Arabian Peninsula where he is persona non grata, he took up residence in Afghanistan, where he found a sympathetic fundamentalist regime in the Taliban. His base camp is called Al Qaeda, which is what it means in Arabic, from where he directs his terror raids around the world, the most spectacular of which was the destruction of the World Trade Centre in New York, in 2001. With America's inexplicable invasion of Iraq, Al Qaeda found a new lease of life, gaining sympathy and support throughout the Muslim world.
Osama Bin Laden, who is neither Iraqi, nor an Afghan, nor indeed a Pakistani, wields sinister sway in all three countries plus a few more. As is invariably the case, there are in effect, two terrorists: Bin Laden the man, and the emerging myth. The real Bin Laden is a creation of the aftermath of the Cold War, of an inflexible and overbearing Saudi Monarchy, the CIA and the Pakistani Intelligence establishment. All these contributed to make the most dedicated malcontent in current world affairs. But Bin Laden the symbol, on the other hand, is a far more potent figure. Indisputably, he is today the most recognisable renegade, a Muslim rebel, and the darling of millions of fanatic Muslims. He is the symbol of Muslim outrage, and even those Muslims not sympathetic to his cause or his violent methods, will grudgingly acknowledge his symbolism in the larger context. There is reason to believe that he may be terminally ill. Nevertheless, it is conceivable that with or without Bin Laden, his revolutionary movement may ultimately reach the shores of his homeland the birth place of Islam. In any event, the legend of Osama Bin Laden will doubtless live on, well beyond the era of Muslim uprisings.
The West's response to Muslim militancy has been understandably harsh, but at the same time, disproportionate beyond reasonable measure. In retaliation for a single terror attack on American soil, a war of attrition was unleashed on Iraq and Afghanistan, with the death toll in the hundreds of thousands and counting. This in turn has fed Muslim paranoia to the point of no return. Both sides have enthusiastically contributed to escalate the tensions, and raise the stakes.
Is there an end to this cycle of violence? Not as long as one side or the other considers itself under siege and vulnerable, with the real or imagined imperative, for self defence. It is said that "old soldiers never die, they just fade away." Similarly, wars without end simply diffuse with the passage of time, when the cause is a lost cause, or no longer relevant. Yes, the war will end, when the will to fight is dissipated, as was the case with the war in Vietnam. When one or both sides are irreparably damaged, as in the case of the Cold War, or when there is an intellectual evolution motivating a shift in strategy, and a significant change in the dialectic, such as the dwindling gap between the tussle for supremacy of two economic theories, will the vicious circle cease. Above all, when everyone is emotionally exhausted -- not strategically or militarily, not politically, but purely emotionally, can we expect an end to the carnage. When all else is lost, peace is the most valuable prize.
For America, insulated by two oceans, there is little to lose, except face, since neither diplomacy nor adaptability are known to be their particular forte. For the Muslim community however, there is a real and present danger. Their need for peace is therefore consider goal, the Muslim Diaspora, the vast majority of which is moderate, must play a far more positive role than hitherto. It is in their interest, regardless of the hypocrisies of the famously free West, and unequivocally in defiance of Muslim terrorists.
No one will win this war, neither the invading force nor the native resistance. It is a war without frontlines, without rules of engagement, without mercy. It is based on terror, torture and ugly retribution. After the endless senseless barrage of suicide bombings, after Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib and Blackwater, after that enormous body of lies from the White House and 10 Downing Street, no honest observer can any longer distinguish good from evil. Bush, Blair and Bin Laden remain remorseless. If we are to believe them, all three men acted at the behest of God.
The days of the warlord are over, whether he wears a scruffy beard and a turban, or is clean shaven with a custom tailored suit, the resemblance is unmistakable. They deserve each other, and their accomplices alike, should rightly end their days together, in the same hell. The International Criminal Courts and the International Court of Justice exist for just such an endeavour, and the gentlemen of high office who have orchestrated the greatest tragedies of our times, should be held accountable and punished for their incalculable crimes, as an example to future generations. For once, let there be no exceptions.
Everyone has a different vision of the perfect ideal, of freedom, whether it is Canaan or Tamil Elam, Bangladesh or Biafra. Few however, live to see the dawn of a new beginning. Even the greats were tested to the bitter end. Socrates was sentenced to death. Jeanne d'Arc, "the maid of heaven," was burnt at the stake. Moses never entered the Promised Land, where Christ was later crucified, and Mohammed had to fight three major battles with his own countrymen. These are the roots of identity. Nationalism is as finite as faith is infinite.
One man's meat is another man's poison. For some, Guy Fawkes was a Catholic martyr, to others a disgusting traitor. In Africa, a galaxy of freedom fighters such as Nkrumah, Lumumba, Kenyatta, Mugabe and Mandela, to mention a few, carried the torch of freedom with exceptional valour. Yet, once they were hunted and caged like animals in a safari. Men have always taken up arms for their beliefs, without regard to their personal fortunes. Unfortunately, sometimes good men in their zeal often resort to unsavoury practices, perpetuating the very evil they revile. Sometimes, rebels also renounce their ways, and sinners have been known to become saints.
Under any conditions, revolution and urban terrorism are the extreme. Baader-Meinhof to Bin Laden, represent the basest elements of the modern revolutionary, without any redeeming virtues. At the end of the day, there is little to choose between the global vigilante and the international gangster.
The search for social justice is an ardours journey where "many come but few are chosen." To redress a wrong, to bring hope where there was none before, to mend lives, one need not wage a bloodthirsty holy war.
True Jihad, is fought within the soul.
Nadeem Rahman is an author and a poet, his most recent work Politically Incorrect Poems is widely available.