A Dangerous Oversimplification

To the editors: Lucy Caldwell’s recent piece (“Lessons From Mumbai,” column, Dec. 3) on the terrorist attacks on Mumbai was deeply unsettling. Her elliptical logic re-frames a complex historical issue as a simplistic issue of ‘radical Islam’, a dangerous oversimplification of the struggle that precludes nuanced dialogue on issues of national security not only in India but around the world. The terrorist attacks in Mumbai were not the most recent avatar of some insidious force of radical Islam sweeping across continents and cities throughout the world, using terrorist means to bring down democracy, kill the infidels, and raise the crescent banner over the rooftops of the world. Lashkar-e-Taiba is indeed an Islamic terror group, and may even form part of a larger network of groups located in the NWFP and along the border with Afghanistan. But the group is based in Kashmir, the land that India and Pakistan have been clashing over since Partition in 1947. Estimates differ, but somewhere near half a million people may have died in massacres and pogroms in the year following the division of Pakistan and India. Whole communities of Sikhs, Hindus, and Muslims were slaughtered, and the streets of Delhi ran with blood, as William Dalrymple writes in his history of the city, “City of Djinns.” In 1984, when Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards after ordering a raid on the religion’s holiest shrine to evict the militants holing up there, the citizens of Delhi formed mobs and the violence ended with several thousand Sikhs dead. The point here is that the modern history of the subcontinent is marked by bloody outbursts of sectarian and religious violence, driven by a complex mingling of historical, religious, regional, and national circumstances and forces. The attacks in Mumbai must be contextualized as another chapter in the fraught, complex history between the two nations, paying full attention to conflation of religious and national identity. To dumb down and repackage this struggle as one between radical Islamic terrorists and the peace-loving citizens of “the world’s largest democracy” is to deny this complex history, lower the level of discourse, and ultimately justify bad decisions on the policy-making level. It was a similar sort of re-framing that led the American fiasco in Vietnam to occur. The hardliners in the foreign policy apparatus in the late years of the 50s refused to see the fight in Vietnam as one of local politics, denied the overriding issues of nationalism and dressed it up as a Communist bogeyman for the American public and the world. Communism turned out not to be a monolith, just as Islam isn’t, but a force shaped by local history and regional circumstances. The results of this were disastrous. This sort of logic, that simplifies, reduces, and decontextualizes, is intellectually irresponsible and dangerous to boot. If “intellectual honesty” is to be given its due at Harvard, in the halls of Washington, and in the streets of Mumbai, the attack this week needs a longer look. RUSSELL F. RENNIE ’10 Cambridge, Mass. December 3, 2008