Sunday, 3 June 2012

Alternative Perspectives

Ali Ahmed 

By Ali S. Awadh Asseri 
Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2009, pp. 196, Rs 450.00


It can be inferred from the author’s profile on the dust jacket that he is bassador in Lebanon, he has earlier been the Saudi kingdom’s ambassador to Pakistan between 2001 and 2009. His earlier career was in the police prior to his moving to appointments in which he looked after the security of Saudi diplomatic assets. With an increase in the threat and incidence of terror, this background as an ‘insider’ no doubt placed him at a vantage point for authoring the book. The book can be taken as reflecting the official Saudi perspective on the issue of terrorism. This is evident from the author’s acknowledgement that he is indebted to the Assistant to the Minister of Interior for Security Affairs, Prince Naif, for ‘guidance’, ‘material’ and ‘numerous meetings’ (p. xii).
Asseri’s attempt, in his words, is an articulation of ‘an alternative Saudi or Muslim perspective’ on ‘various conceptual and contextual issues relating to terrorism’. It is interesting that he does so without a mention of Wahabbism or the context of absence of democracy in his country.
In the first four chapters, the author discusses terrorism in theory and practice, the Islamic perspective on terror and root causes. He ably counters a view, originating in Islamophobic sections of the West and purveyed by the western media, on the ‘Islamic’ roots of contemporary terrorism. He distinguishes between the Islamic concept of Jihad and its appropriation by Islamists for their own political and ideological purposes. This distinction is important. However, there is a tendency towards extremism inherent in a narrow reading of Islam such as is the Saudi backed Wahabbi interpretation. This version of Islam lends itself to terror, as is seen from the perpetration of terror by its adherents both in Arabia and elsewhere.
In his discussion of ‘root causes’, of interest to Indian readers is Asseri’s mention of Kashmir: ‘in the absence of an early political settlement, the Kashmir issue may continue to provide the political context for deviant groups to engage in terrorist activities…’ (p. 77). This is in the same breath as Chechenya etc. This mistakes an essentially territorial issue between India and Pakistan as a religious, identity related one. This is the manner in which Pakistan has utilized religion to further its irredentist case. Pakistan’s use of terror is not so much religion inspired as a proxy war strategy in its ‘balance of power’ game with India. The author’s reductionist approach to the contrary apparently legitimizes terrorism. It shows that he has not been able to balance the context that he deems legitimizing, and violence against civilians which he condemns. This conceptual confusion is characteristic of those who claim that one man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter. Their position would be less confused if terror targeting civilians is condemned, irrespective of any rationale provided by the context.
In the following two chapters Asseri discusses Saudi initiatives against terror, in the domestic and international dimension respectively. In the internal dimension, the Saudis follow a three-pronged strategy: prevention, cure and care. The measures include restrictions on financing, legal and security sector measures, social sector reforms, regulation of the internet and media and, lastly, a reform programme in prisons. That no section is devoted to political reforms indicates the glacial pace, if not a complete absence of these.
On the international plane the initiatives include bilateral and multilateral cooperation in pursuing the Al Qaeda, particularly with the patronstate, the US. The author expends considerable space dealing with the Saudi organized conference on countering terrorism and the first interfaith dialogue held at Makkah. He discusses the contribution Saudi Arabia has made in shaping the perspective of the Organisation of Islamic Conference. The role of the Israel-Palestine issue as a ‘root cause’ and Saudi Arabia’s role in attempting to solve it are covered in some detail.
In his last chapter, Asseri reviews anti-terror measures in countries such as Indonesia, Egypt and Pakistan in the light of the Saudi Arabian experience. He is complimentary and informative on the ‘war on terror’ waged by Indonesia describing the national effort undertaken by the Yudhoyono regime; its enlisting and use of former terrorists in the campaign; the employment of elite police, Detachment 88, to lead the fight; and lastly the judicial steps that have had a positive effect on public opinion. The de-radicalization programme of Egypt is covered in the manner the ideologue and compatriot of Ayman al Zawarhiri, Sayyid Imam Abdulaziz al Sharif, converted to moderation. By writing a slim volume, Advice Regarding the Conduct of Jihadist Action in Egypt and the World, he has considerably reinterpreted his earlier work, The Basic Principles in Making Preparations for Jihad, said to be the constitution of jihadi radicalism. The author opines that the Indonesian and Saudi model has much to offer Pakistan as it engages with terrorism. His critique of the NATO operation in Afghanistan is that, ‘There is hardly any effective governmental initiative in sight that aims to win the ‘hearts and minds’ campaign…the problem is likely to conflagrate in the absence of a strategy that prefers a non-military solution to a military solution (p. 164).’ The author does not reflect on the most significant cause of international terrorism, that of lack of democracy in most states across the Middle East and Maghreb ruled by varying shades of authoritarian regimes largely supported by the US. This was the original critique of the Al Qaeda.
The level of popular endorsement of the extremists owes in part to disillusionment with the repressive regimes, particularly their neo-colonial linkages with the US. In the Middle East in particular, the perception of access of the authoritarian regimes to a US umbrella requires dispelling by the US itself. The West has interfered with democratic outcomes in Algeria earlier and in Palestine. This suggests that it is unlikely to countenance a change in the status quo. The status quo is instead preferred by the West for control of oil prices, for energy security and preservation of their way of life. Given its influence and the grip of these regimes, the counter gets restricted to violence. While the likes of Al Qaeda cannot be expected to bring democracy to their lands, they have an argument that can only be dispelled by the advent of democracy.
Given the constraints of the author’s background, it is understandable that the political approach to defusing terrorism does not find mention in this critique. It is similarly silent on the Saudi regime’s links with spreading Wahabbism, a doctrinaire version of Islam. This has had a particularly baleful influence in Pakistan, where originally syncretistic Sufi Islam held sway. Not dwelling on these two aspects detracts from the merit of the book; one that is otherwise strong on the shortfalls of the approach and prescription of the West as witnessed in Afghanistan and Iraq.