Epistemic upheaval
Interview with Amitav Ghosh
The Hindu
December 2 and 16, 2001

'I believe that the American relationship with the world, political and economic, has gone catastrophically awry, especially over the last decade. But if you ask me whether there is a direct connection between this and the WTC attacks, my answer is no'.

The following interview with the leading writer AMITAV GHOSH was conducted soon after his lecture on the ``The Power of Language/ The Language of Power'' at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). In his lecture, Ghosh had sought to identify the common thread of memory and sorrow that linked the horrors of the 1983 riots in Colombo, the 1984 Sikh riots in Delhi and the events of September,11 in New York. Through finely textured arguments he concludes that ``the greatest sorrow lies in recalling the times of joy in moments of wretchedness''.

The questions posed here by RAHUL SAGAR are drawn from the content of Ghosh's lecture. The first part, presented here, addresses the justifications that some have sought to provide in order to legitimise the events of September 11. The second and concluding part of the interview, to be published next week, addresses the ideological consequences of September 11, including the significant wounding of a Westphalian notion of statehood that has informed the telos of the modern world. Ghosh describes this latter event as an epistemic upheaval, similar in nature to the disruptive and traumatic events of 1983 and 1984.

You have written that the ways in which we remember the past are not determined solely by the brute facts of time: they are also open to choice, reflection and judgment. Why has the deployment of history and memory since September 11 failed to exercise these restraints? Instead we hear of a clash of civilisations...

FOR me the most important lessons of the anti-colonial struggle are those that emphasise responsibility. If anyone expected that the end of colonialism would produce instant international equity and a sunny future for all then they were bound to be disappointed. But the end of European colonialism did briefly create a space in which newly independent countries had some freedom to manoeuvre. Within those parameters some nations made sensible choices, and some nations made disastrous ones. Those who failed to steer the ship of the present can't place the blame wholly on the past. Take Pakistan: the modern history of the country is a litany of disastrous choices, starting with their long dependence on the United States and leading up to their sponsorship of the Taliban. On the other hand I would say that India made some sensible choices along with some bad ones. The nuclear policy, for example, was a very bad choice in my opinion. Yet, I think India is a country that is sound enough today to preserve its autonomy in the world of tomorrow. Pakistan on the other hand, is probably going to undergo a process of recolonisation, with some kind of permanent Western military presence. In the long view, when historians look back on the second half of the 20th Century, I think they will see an interregnum in which some countries succeeded in creating viable societies and some didn't. I think we Indians owe a great deal of gratitude to our leaders of the early 20th Century, for their emphasis was as much on building a society as it was on expelling the colonialist.

How do you respond to Susan Sontag's stance in the New Yorker where she wrote that the terrorists were a consequence of specific American alliances and actions?

I believe that the American relationship with the world, political and economic, has gone catastrophically awry, especially over the last decade. But if you ask me whether there is a direct connection between this and the WTC attacks, my answer is no, I do not think there is. Although much has been written linking the one with the other, I do not think this connection can survive close examination: it is like trying to hold apples responsible for the colour of oranges. Take the Israel issue for instance. As you know, I speak Arabic and have spent a long time in the Middle East. In 1987, when an Israeli publisher bought my first novel, I chose to donate the money to Palestinian refugees. I believe that what is happening in Palestine is horrific and the U.S. should certainly reconsider its policies there. But does this mean that there is a direct link between the sufferings of the Palestinians and the WTC attacks? Look at the evidence: there was not a single Palestinian among the terrorists; the majority were Saudis. But the economic distress of the Palestinians today is in part a result of the refusal of the Gulf States and Saudi Arabia to re-employ Palestinians after the Gulf War. If Palestinian suffering were the issue, then surely the terrorists would have had some history of trying to give shelter to Palestinians in their own country, or of participating in the Palestinian cause? But in fact, none of the movements with which these men were associated have ever tried to do this. Bin Laden, Al Qaeda and the Taliban have never taken much interest in Palestine: they have been much more concerned with Kashmir, Bosnia, the Philippines and so on. As Ahmed Rashid has shown, the Taliban at one point actually took assistance from Israel. If you ask me whether Palestine was the fundamental motivating factor behind the WTC attacks I would say that the evidence is to the contrary. Yasser Arafat has repeatedly said that these terrorists were trying to use Palestine as an alibi. I think he is right and we should believe him: no one knows better than he that Saudis have never been good friends to the Palestinians.

Similarly, consider another grievance that is frequently adduced: U.S. support for the current regime in Saudi Arabia. This is to my mind one of the world's most horrible regimes. But the fact is that if a credible alternative existed, U.S. support could not have kept the House of Ibn Saud in place look at the example of the Iranian Revolution. But the problem is that no one has bothered to create a real alternative in Saudi Arabia least of all Osama bin Laden. What is the form of government that bin Laden has in mind? When the Taliban came to power they immediately promulgated an Emirate an Islamic monarchy. They took this to be in keeping with the Sharia. In effect the alternative that bin Laden has in mind for Saudi Arabia is one in which he himself will replace the House of Saud as Amir, or possibly even Caliph. As you know, the bin Laden family and the House of Saud are very closely linked. Pol Pot similarly was very closely linked to King Sihanouk. Years ago, when I was writing about the Khmer Rouge I once discussed this with a knowledgeable Cambodian. I said: ``Isn't it strange, that Pol Pot grew up in the palace and still wanted to kill the king?'' He said: ``It's not strange at all: it's because he had lived in the palace that he thought he could remove the king.'' I think this is the basic dynamic that is at work here.

Or, take the suggestion that the WTC attacks were in some sense caused by globalisation. The people who have suffered most from globalisation are sub-Saharan Africans but these are not the people who are turning to terror. Most of the terrorists were from the oil-rich countries of the Arabian peninsula; globalisation had given them lives where everything was taken care of and they never had to do any work. If they were concerned about oppression, the first people they would have tried to liberate would be the huge servant class of foreigners that keeps their countries going the millions of South and South-East Asians who live there without any political rights whatsoever. None of them have ever uttered a word on that score. The fact is that globalisation's most effective opponents are the thousands of young people who have become active in the anti-globalisation movement. Many of these activists are Westerners and many are American. So if the terrorists attacked Americans because of globalisation, then in fact they were also attacking the people who were their potential allies in that struggle. America is not one place there are many different ideas and people here. If globalisation is going to change then it will be because it loses credibility in its homeland, the West and terror attacks are not going to be of any help in this.

As you can see, many of the links that have been drawn between U.S. policy and the WTC attacks do not stand up under scrutiny. The motivations for these attacks have a longer historical pedigree than a few years or even decades. The Ikhwan al-Muslimeen was founded in 1928, when there was no Israel, and America was still in the shadow of the older colonial powers. Sayyid Qutb, who wrote Signposts, the manifesto of contemporary Muslim fundamentalism, was in America in the early 1950s, a time when the U.S. had actively intervened on Egypt's behalf, to prevent a Franco-British takeover of the Suez Canal. This did not prevent Qutb from becoming violently anti- American. In fact Qutb saw the nation-state itself as his real enemy: he thought of it as a fundamentally idolatrous institution. That is why he declared jihad on the Egyptian state as a whole. There are echoes of this in bin Laden's latest letter, where he denounces the entire system of nation-states as well as the United Nations.

I think we must be careful even in making the assumption that an articulate grievance existed at all. I have heard it said that the very enormity of the WTC attack and the multiple suicides involved indicate the existence of a monumental grievance. But in some parts of India even such events as the death of an important public figure sometimes leads to dozens of grisly suicides. What is the grievance here, except mortality itself?

The WTC terrorists themselves were careful not to provide a list of motives or grievances; perhaps they knew that this would leave people free to invest their acts with whatever meanings they chose. This is why I think we must be particularly careful to resist the temptation to supply these connections. If we are not, then acts of terror will always come with inbuilt justifications for, no matter what the policies of any country, you can be sure that there will never be a shortage of grievances in this world.

In the conclusion of a two-part interview, noted writer Amitav Ghosh speaks to RAHUL SAGAR about the future of the modern nation-state after the events of September 11.

RAHUL SAGAR: Is it possible for the non-violent to have faith in American public opinion? Susan Sontag, for example, wrote that the American public ``is not being asked to bear much of the burden of reality and there seems to be a campaign to infantilise the public.''

AMITAV GHOSH: It is true that in the late 1990s America often seemed like a terribly introverted, arrogant place. There was a sense of smugness that was tacitly encouraged by politicians and the media. I was always revolted by that triumphal sense of an achieved empire to me it was appalling. But to characterise all of America in that fashion is also inaccurate. America was also a colony once, and a strong vein of anti-imperialism does run through American life. I live in a predominantly African-American neighbourhood. I know many of my neighbours disagreed with American actions abroad. But they were no more able to change them than say, the average person in Hoshangabad is able to change the situation in Kashmir or north-eastern India.

I'd like to add that as an Indian, I have been much struck by the responses that I have received from India in the wake of the WTC attacks. These have consisted essentially in saying either ``we told you so'' or ``you had it coming''. Now, I don't know if these two things are true, maybe they are. There is no doubt that U.S. foreign policy has created enormous resentment. But if there is any other country in the world of which the same could be said, then surely that place would be India. As an Indian, travelling in other parts of South Asia, I've often been astonished by the anger that people have towards India in Nepal (remember the riots?), in Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Burma, and even further afield. It's unpalatable but true, that if there is any country that evokes a depth of feeling similar to the U.S., it is India. India is guilty of exactly the same things as the U.S., if only on a regional scale pursuing its own narrow economic interests, fomenting terrorism and fundamentalism (Punjab, Sri Lanka) when it suits its purposes, suppressing local cultures with its exported forms of entertainment and so on. Does this mean that it would be legitimate to respond to a terror attack on an Indian city by saying: ``I told you so'' and ``you had it coming''? We have to be very careful here: there is sometimes only a thin line between the languages of description and prescription.

To what extent are individuals like Frank De Martini (about whom you wrote in the New Yorker), counter-examples to the conservative critique of modern American society having become too atomistic and selfish?

To me my relationship with America is not a relationship with some grand idea or a model of society. My relationship is with my family, my friends, and my neighbours. I have always known that people are far from being atomistic within my community. My neighbour, Frank De Martini, whom I have written about, stayed behind in the WTC to help other people. This was when his wife was begging him to escape; instead he stayed behind to help others. What he did was genuinely heroic and there were many like him.

Despite all that has happened there is very little warmongering in New York. In fact there have been large demonstrations where people have carried placards that say ``Our grief is not a call for war''. To be in New York now is to witness the extraordinary dignity of collective grief. I have also seen this elsewhere: in Delhi in 1984, there was a similar sense of mourning. People everywhere always find resources. It is a mistake to underestimate America and Americans this is actually a very resilient society.

You have spoken of September 11 as an epistemic upheaval: the maps and certainties of the world have changed. By contrast, the Arab writer Rami Khouri has termed it America's entry into world history. This epistemic upheaval is America's alone the first and last example of textbook sovereignty.

I agree and disagree. I think the reason why this is an epistemic upheaval is because the idea of the nation-state had been the guiding idea of the 19th and 20th Centuries. It is what makes sense of anti-colonialism to take just one example. But today that idea is slowly collapsing, among the rich as well as the poor. The countries of Europe, North America, Australia and so on, are gradually melting into one transnational entity: the West. In parts of the Middle East and Asia national boundaries have already melted away; in other places huge swathes of territory have passed out of effective government control this is true of the borders of Burma, parts of north-eastern India, northern Sri Lanka, and much of central Asia. But to date we do not know what is going to take the place of the nation- state. So it seems right now that we are in a moment when the future is still unborn and the past is not quite dead.

Despite the epistemic upheaval, shouldn't international civil society look toward the prevailing state system to police these terrorist groups?

The military historian Martin van Creveld has argued that the world is living through a fundamental change in the nature of conflict one that will transform the prevailing state system whether we like it or not. He argues that the world is moving from a pattern of war, conducted between states, to low-intensity conflict that is guided mainly by non-state players. Thus, it seems that in the end the only appropriate methods will be policing but policing itself will look increasingly like war. Also, policing will herald a new level of surveillance. That is where the erosion of the nation-state will impinge upon all our lives whether we like it or not.


Rahul Sagar would like to thank Professor Sugata Bose for making this interview possible. The essays by Amitav Ghosh and Susan Sontag are available on the web site of the New Yorker.