Wednesday, 11 March 2009

VCD Blues

End of lectures has surprisingly come sooner than I had imagined. I knew that the second term was going to come to an end on 20 March and so on, but the end of lectures has crept up much sooner. I feel a bit blue as this was our last week of lectures associated with new topics  - next week is going to be wrap-up, open panel sessions. I guess I feel blue because I am very much into the rhythm of lectures, classes, reading, hanging out with friends, doing presentations, mulling over essays and so on. 

This week's lecture was 'Terrorism and the War on Terror.' It is a good place to start describing my VCD blues. I did my essay on this topic and, was fuming quite early on that given the focus on so-called Islamic terrorism, why there was not a Muslim or Arab writer in the core readings. Nevertheless, I went to the lecture to see how the topic would be presented. To say the lecture could have been a little bit more exciting would be to put it mildly, sourly even. I think the topic was generally covered and, most of the information that was presented to us is pretty much basic knowledge. We all know terrorism is a highly contentious word used by those in power. We all know that the mujahideen were armed and trained and funded by the Americans, Saudis and the Pakistanis to oust the Soviets. We know the deal. We know this 'infrastructure of 'terror' was set up by the very people who now call these mujahideen terrorists. So what's new? (Although I would have liked the lecturer to explicitly say that Islamic terrorism was created by the Americans and Saudis and let's even Pakistanis although we were just a bunch of idiots playing their game.)

When it came to talking of terrorism in a more abstract and theoretical sense, it seems that the lecturer had nothing really to offer us. Is terrorism part of war or not? Is it a tactic merely? Is it action-reaction? Can it be war between non-state actors and states? 

If the majority of the lecture was on so-called Islamic terrorism, then why are not offered any Islamic analysis of it? 

I have done a lot of reading on terrorism for my essay and frankly, I do not know anything more than I knew before. And, these academics start getting into theorising, the whole thing falls apart. For the bloody sake of it, they want to see if they can box terrorism into rational-choice models, sociological theories, psychological theories, Marxist thought*, you name it. Is terrorism individually-motivated or collective? I mean what can I say, can one be dumb enough to reduce terrorism, a highly effective tool of war, to any one of these?  How can we become so apathetic and cold in analysing terrorism? Do we not know which conflicts and grievances are home to terrorism? Have we not seen enough faces of suffering Palestinians humiliated by Israelis? Have we not seen families slaughtered by mistake by American bombardment in Afghanistan? There are people out there for whom the possibilities for a future, of a life of dignity, are doomed. 

A few weeks ago, I was watching Al Jazeera and they were showing a family grieving for its members who were killed by mistake by American bombardment. It was - as it is always - a harrowing clip. This one young boy was saying he will join the Taliban and blow himself up. What can I say? There was helplessness in that picture, in that family's grief and the helpless viewer. 

There's a couple of words and phrases I have picked up since I started the masters. One is 'dangerous economists and armchair academics' - I pretty much came up with myself. The other is 'befuddling.' Aitzaz Khan used this word and, I have  hijacked it (no pun intended) and, try to use it very often when thinking fondly of the academic heroes that we read (no sarcasm intended).  What I am trying to say is that the lecture befuddled the topic. We did not go into great depth or breadth in trying to understand terrorism in all its forms, all its geographical instances and its motivations. Heck, we could have gone through a bin Laden speech/text together to get a richer understanding of what the Number One Terrorist is saying. We could have watched a clip. We could have been more explicit in drawing parallels between the Cold War and the War on Terror. Focus dammit, don't give us the basics! And, if you are not an Islamic scholar, then get someone from the Middle East department or the History department to brief us.  Make it interesting, make it relevant and please consider your audience! Some of us may actually be Muslims and, cringe at 'Islamic terrorism,' cringe at 'terrorism,' cringe at a careless sweep of it. 

So let's see, one of the most important topics there is today when we think of violence and conflict, that has seen a re-assertion of American hegemony, imperialism befitting Cold War foreign policy in not only demonising and creating an evil, indescribable enemy, has seen a Vietnam of our generation has been treated as follows:

- without depth
- without voices and analysis from the Arab and Muslim word
- failed to capture the deep crisis that is afflicting the Muslim world and identity


Let me see - what did I really expect from the the VCD course? Please note I am specifically talking about the Political Economy of Violence and Development class. I would have thought we would be studying violence not just in 'developing' countries but also in 'developed' countries. It is not an affliction which affects us only. 

We have to some extent been offered historical roots of many conflicts in Africa and Asia but, let us not kid ourselves. We have only paid lip service to colonialism and slavery. I do not believe for one minute that the conflicts which have erupted in our countries are something 'new' that have a few links to the past but are more or less new phenomenon. The legacies of colonialism and empire are so deep rooted and continue to permeate structures, power dynamics, ethnicity and race and religion. It is within these legacies that we can find the roots to this violence and conflict. 

Trying to box the roots of violence and conflict into rational choice theories, greed and grievance, resource scarcity, resource abundance, inequality or religion has 'befuddled' my understanding of it. I feel my brain has shrunk instead of being expanded. I feel like I am looking at the base of tree and trying to find its roots in its branches which go in different directions. It is like taking a backward twisted look at the root and causes of something. 

Without a deep understanding of history of post colonial states how can we possibly hope to understand the deep crises that afflict our countries and peoples? The absolute failure of the nation state project in some and relative success in others? What is the reason that you go to Africa and find such mickey mouse countries, some so tiny they 'befuddle' imagination, some so large they could squeeze in all of Europe? Is there any sense and logic? Look at Liberia - a country of hardly three million but what a storm in a tea pot - and look at the DRC, the size of Western Europe. Both these countries have less than 5% of their road networks paved? ** How do you explain that? These nation states were set up to fail! Liberia and DRC are the most resource rich countries you can imagine but are dirt poor. Is it a resource curse, really, Mr. Collier? 

The trauma and deep breakdown of society and culture of post conflict societies was completely ignored and neglected. The nuclear family breaks down, prostitution becomes an attractive livelihood, survival becomes critical, people are traumatised, their brains are still wired on a short term circuit, they can't think long term. You find crazy people on the street lost in their madness. You find an explosion of religion, Pentecostal churches in Africa and, South Korean missionaries in Afghanistan. 

What I find amusing is that half of these VCD people will end up with jobs in peacekeeping missions, most likely in Africa, completely unaware of the trauma of a post conflict society. I certainly was not trained or oriented in how I should conduct myself or be more sympathetic to such a society. Zoe Marriage's book does touch upon this actually, the fact that most aid workers have no clue about war or conflict, have never experienced it, therefore, how can they be expected to deal with its issues. It was only after spending quite a bit of time and putting two and two together that I realised how traumatised Liberians actually are. 

The thing about working and living in a post conflict country in the development sector is that you are dealing with two layers - conflict and lack of development. I am saying a very obvious thing but the reality is very complex and frankly, the course is not appreciating this or shall I say, exploring this. We have been dealing with issues way too superficially. We have not really focused on any country or region, it's done very ad hoc and, I feel like I still only know about Liberia and Liberia only. 

I would have thought that at least I would be offered more in-depth understanding of another peace building project. That comparisons would be explicitly made so that we could appreciate such projects. 

I would have also thought we would really delve into the dynamics of peace keeping missions, interactions of the military and local population, the cultural contact, the politics, the bad stuff, the good stuff. I would have thought we would look at the dysfunctional aspects, the contradictions much more deeply.  Okay, we know it's liberal peace building, we know that peace accords are more times a failure than success, we know that NGOs are chasing the money, we know all that, but we have to get down to a more micro level. I thought there would be at least some commentary on the use of funding! How much the UN blows on itself! 

Last but not least, I was really hoping to be exposed to some African and Asian thought on violence. Surely, there are other philosophers besides Europeans who have some idea on the role and place of conflict in history, nations, society. No other dude or dudette? African and Asian and Latin American civilisations have nothing to say? 

European noises, our voices

Looking at conflict and violence in developing countries through an academic microscope objectifies and distances you from it. And this applies to general development speak. If you only hear European noises, you take away other voices. You take away their voice in the whole matter. It actually disempowers you. Because at the end of it, for Europeans it is a study, an inquiry. They fail to realise this is something real for us from the developing world. I think the entire course and, actually the other development studies courses, forget that some of their students hail from the Third World. That for us, it is home. 

* Thankfully, Marxist analysis can be applied to any kind of struggle. It does not have to be class struggle, any struggle is understood, justified in Marx. Therefore, yay to Marx!
** I am making up that statistic but it is probably true. And I randomly mention these countries.

No comments:

Post a Comment