Adam Ash

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Friday, May 26, 2006

Deep Thoughts: on terrorism and post-colonialism

Globalized Terror and the Postcolonial Sublime: Questions for Subaltern Militants
The fantasmatic danger of terrorism scattered around the world now justifies this militarization of foreign policy and the willingness to intervene and engage even in “lots of small, dirty fights in remote and dangerous places” in the process of “draining the swamp” of civil society (to quote Defense Secretary Rumsfeld; Mahajan 2002, 97; Shank 2003). In addition to the “shock and awe” war against Iraq, endless and borderless war against anyone perceived or declared as “terrorist,” that is, anti-American, seems overreaching and out of proportion to the catastrophe of September 11 (Ullman and Wade 1996).

A few months before his death, Edward Said, arguably the founding “patriarch” of postcolonial studies, reassessed his critique of “Orientalism” by affirming the value of “humanistic critique to open up the fields of struggle” so as to enable the speaking of “issues of injustice and suffering” within the amply situated contexts of history and socioeconomic reality. He invoked sentiments of generosity and hospitality so that the interpreter’s mind can actively make a place for “a foreign other,” the “active practice of worldly secural rational discourse.” He strongly denounced the current U.S. government policy of celebrating “American or western exceptionalism” and demonstrating contempt for other cultures, all in the service of “terror, pre-emptive war, and unilateral regime change” (2003, xx).. In an earlier interview, Said asserted that his main interest was in neocolonialism, not postcolonialism (which, to him, was a “misnomer”), in “the structures of dependency and impoverishment” in the global South due to the operations of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank (1998/99, 82). Overall, a modernist humanism, not postcolonial hybridity, deconstruction, or genealogy of speechless subalterns, was for Said the paradigmatic framework of inquiry for a comparative analysis of cultures and societies in an epoch of decolonization.

After over two decades of intellectual specialization and investment, postcolonial inquiry has now enjoyed sufficient legitimacy and prestige in the Euro-American academy to make it serviceable for reinforcing the Establishment consensus. Decolonization is over. The natives now run the government. Long live the free market around the planet! Works by Homi Bhabha, Gayatri Spivak, and others are institutionally consecrated “touchstones,” to use the Arnoldian rubric, that, though somewhat vitiated as products of a “comprador intelligentsia,” nevertheless serve to authorize a validation of colonialism and its legacies as a useful if ambivalent resource. Informed by theoretical protocols and procedures hostile to nationalist movements, not to speak of antiimperialist revolutionary struggles and other “metanarratives” inspired by Fanon, Mao, Ho Chi Minh, Che Guevara and others, postcolonial studies today function not as supplements to the critical theories of Derrida, Foucault or Deleuze, but to the official apologetics of the “new world order” called “globalization” ushered with the demise of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, that is to say, the end of history and the eternal triumph of capitalism and its attendant ideology, neoliberal globalism. As Arif Dirlik summed it up, postcolonial discourse has become an academic orthodoxy in its “self-identification with hybridity, in-betweeness, marginality, borderlands”—a fatal move from the “language of revolution infused with the vocabulary of political economy to a culturalist language of identity politics” (2000, 5).

What happened to revolution and the decolonizing figure prefigured by Caliban and personified by Rizal, Sandino,Nelson Mandela, and others? In his master-work Culture and Imperialism , Said paid homage to the revolutionary militants, Amilcar Cabral, Frantz Fanon, C.L.R. James, and others, as the locus classicus of emancipatory “third world” discourse who engaged the recovery of lost integrity in the context of regaining the territorial habitat of memory—places instead of spaces--and popular sovereignty. But today, nationalism and national liberation struggles are anathema to postcolonialists. And with the neoconservative counter-revolution after the defeat of U.S. aggression in IndoChina, a “cultural turn” effectively replaced the revolutionary process in history with an endless process of “abrogation and appropriation” of colonial texts and practices in quest of an identity that is ultimately and forever decentered, shifting, borderless, fluid, aleatory, ambivalent, and so on. What encapsulates all these qualities is the term “transnational,”the prefix “trans” functioning as the magic word that would bridge the immense gap between the terrible misery of peoples in the underdeveloped South and the affluent suburban megamalls of the North. One might ask: Would transnationals and transculturals resolve questions of suffering and injustice that confront us daily in Iraq, Palestine, Afghanistan, Colombia, the Philippines, and of course in the “internal colonies” of North America and Europe?

Postcolonial singularities

In the canonical handbook Key Concepts in Post-Colonial Studies by the same Australian authors (Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin) of The Empire Writers Back, we do not find any entry for “Liberation” but one for “Liminality. And, more telling, there is no entry for “Revolution” either. Aside from the valorization of the liminal as the in-between hybrid notion, “rhizome” is privileged by our postcolonial experts as the concept (atributed to Deleuze and Guattari, but defined in Foucauldian terminology) that best describes colonial power: “it operates dynamically, laterally and intermittently.” Ashcroft, Griffiths and Tiffin assert that “There is no ‘master-plan of imperialism, and its advance is not necessarily secured through violence and oppression”; and therefore we should focus on the way “cultural hegemony” operates through “an invisible network of filiative connections, psychological internalizations, and unconsciously complicit associations” (1998, 207). Surely these generalizations will strike anyone as quite dubious, departing radically from Gramsci’s use of “hegemony” as a historically variable combination of force and consent.

One sign of the terminal exhaustion of this anti-totalizing stance is the reduction of the issue of globalization to “the nature and survival of social and cultural identity,” thus evacuating the arena of political and socioeconomic struggle which Said and his models (Fanon, C.L.R. James) considered salient and inescapable. Disturbed by this trend, students and teachers at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada, recently organized a conference on “the politics of postcoloniality.” Anticipating an “Empire Resurrected,” they posed the following questions in a futuristic or subjunctive mode (reproduced from a widely circulated flyer): “What are the chances of establishing direct colonialism again in the 21 st century? Why did the old empires give up their old colonies in favor of indirect colonialism? What are the conditions that would make them revert back to direct colonialism? What are the circumstances (economical/political/cultural/social) that would facilitate the resurrection of direct colonialism/empire? How can colonial schemes be countered? What should be the new mode of resistance? What is the role of civil disobedience in this case? Is terrorism/radical resistance the new mode for countering the new empire? What are the viable modes or resistance? How can postcolonial theory respond/react to such a possibility? What would be its role?” These are fresh winds blowing from the dusty ivory-towers and archives of academy, betokening grassroots unrest that might stir us up from dogmatic slumber induced by the seductive pleasures of postcolonial contingency and disjuncture.

We are at a pivotal juncture in critical self-reflective inventory. Instead of elaborating fully the historical circumstances that might explain this shift, a transition I have sketched in my Beyond Postcolonial Theory, what I would like to attempt here is to explore briefly the most suggestive ways in which we can restore the critical edge in postcolonial critique by engaging the problem of terrorism and its polar antithesis, the “New American Century” and the project of globalization designed to re-establish an imperial hegemony not dreamed of by either Cecil Rhodes or the architects of pax Americana erected on the ruins of Hiroshima, Berlin and Stalingrad. What I have in mind is the interrogation of the discourse of imperial neoliberalism as the wily, duplicitous mimicry of postcolonial agency. What is urgently needed is a new analytic approach to twenty-first century imperial hegemony and a corollary strategy of demystification that would advance the anti-globalization actions to take into account crucial developments since the disaster of September 11, 2001 and its aftermath, the ongoing devastation of Afghanistan and Iraq. This is both a pedagogical and mobilizing task aimed at sectors of the pettybourgeois intelligentsia and middle strata open to an evolving neo-postcolonial critique.

Approaching Imperial Neoliberalism

Imperial neoliberalism, the rationale of actual political and economic globalization, reveals itself most lucidly in the “Project for New American Century,” the manifesto of advisers closest to President George W. Bush. The designers of this new aggressive U.S. foreign policy premised on an unprecedent military buildup were participants in the invasions of Panama and Grenada, counter-insurgency wars in Central and South America (particularly Colombia, Peru), the Cold War showdown with the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, and the arming of Iraq to counter radical Islamists in Iran and elsewhere. Basically, the project centers on a doctrine of unilateral pre-emptive war against any nation or power seeking to rival the U.S. rather than containment and multilateral internationalism of terrorist groups. The goal is total war, endless war, premised on accelerated militarization of society and “moral clarity.” What the last phrase means may be grasped by quoting portions of the manifesto: “American foreign and defense policy is adrift…As the 20 th century draws to a close, the United States stands as the world’s pre-eminent power….Does the United States have the resolve to shape a new century favorable to American principles and interests?” This domination of the planet is based on ”unquestioned U.S. military preeminence” beefed up with new generation of nuclear weapons and sufficient combat forces deployed to a wider network of foreward operating bases to fight and win multiple wars, including forces for “constabulary duties” with American rather than UN leadership. Are we facing here an aberrant act committed in a moment of absent-mindedness?

In a blueprint entitled “Rebuilding America’s Defenses: Strategy, Forces and Resources for a New Century” released last September 2000, this neconservative group outlined its grand plan for world hegemony: “The United States is the world’s only superpower, combining preeminent military power, global technological leadership, and the world’s largest economy. America’s grand strategy should aim to preserve and extend this advantageous position as far into the future as possible. Yet no moment in international politics can be frozen in time; even a global pax Americana will not preserve itself….The presence of American forces in critical regions around the world is the visible expression of the extent of America’s status as a superpower…” The report urges the control of the Persian Gulf region by the U.S., proceeding through the conquest of Iraq, followed by Syria and eventually Iran. For this plan to be “saleable” to the public, a catastrophic and catalyzing event “like a new Pearl Harbor” was needed; this was promptly supplied by September 11, 2001. While the ostensible excuse for the invasion of Iraq included Hussein’s tyranny, putative weapons of mass destruction, and terrorism, it was in effect the desire of the US ruling elite for a permanent role and base in this strategically important region of the world, rich in resources but also geographically situated in a way that would provided springboards for intervention into Europe, Russia, China and the Indian subcontinent.

In President George W. Bush’s 2002 State of the Union address, the doctrine of “preemptive war” as the lynchpin in the endless war against terrorism, against rogue states that form the axis of evil (Iraq, Iran and North Korea), was announced. The right to act preemptively, using nuclear strikes and other “operational capabilities,” was no longer being exercised to punish the perpetrators of the crime of September 11 by the savage onslaught on Afghanistan where Al-Qaeda and Osama bin laden had strongholds, but it was a measure necessary” to defend our liberty and to defend our lives.” The fantasmatic danger of terrorism scattered around the world now justifies this militarization of foreign policy and the willingness to intervene and engage even in “lots of small, dirty fights in remote and dangerous places” in the process of “draining the swamp” of civil society (to quote Defense Secretary Rumsfeld; Mahajan 2002, 97; Shank 2003). In addition to the “shock and awe” war against Iraq, endless and borderless war against anyone perceived or declared as “terrorist,” that is, anti-American, seems overreaching and out of proportion to the catastrophe of September 11 (Ullman and Wade 1996). The aim of fighting and winning multiple, simultaneous major theater wars seems a postmodernist avant-garde invention. But the reality of events appear to confirm the intent: Afghanistan was subjugated at the expense of some 20,000 lives, Iraq at more than triple the number and still counting.

What strikes most people as sinister is the plan of a secret army or “super-intelligence support activity” labelled as the “Proactive Pre-emptive Operations Group, or P2OG. It will combine the CIA and military covert action, information warfare, and deception to provoke terrorist attacks that would then require U.S.“counterattack” against countries harboring the terrorists. But this is humdrum routine for the “civilizing mission” since the conquistadors landed in the “New World” and the European traders-missionaries began the merchandising of the bodies of African slaves.

In retrospect, one can discern an uncanny similarity with the events before the war against Iraq in 1991, which inaugurated the era of “total war.” The depressed economic situation and the scandals of corporate criminality cannot be remedied by further dismantling of the welfare state, so the public must be diverted. Noam Chomsky’s analysis of that situation sounds prescient and historically grounded in a well-defined pattern of political sequences that condense half-a-century of postcolonial interventions:

Two classic devices are to inspire fear of terrible enemies and worship of our grand leaders, who rescue us just in the nick of time. The enemies may be domestic (criminal Blacks, uppity women, subversives undermining the tradition, etc.), but foreign demons have natural advantages.... As the standard pretext [Communists] vanished, the domestic population has been frightened—with some success—by images of Qaddafi’s hordes of international terrorists, Sandinistas marching on Texas, Grenada interdicting sea lanes and threatening the homeland itself, Hispanic narco-traffickers directed by the arch-maniac Noriega, after he underwent the usual conversion from favored friend to Attila the Hun after committing the one unforgivable crime, the crime of disobedience…. The scenario requires Awe as well as Fear...(1992, 408)

The terrorizing sublime

Awe as well as fear—this “structure of feeling,” which postcolonial critics have so far ignored, frames the situation of the war against terrorism carried to the imperial margins, this time in the Philippines. I would now like to call the attention of the reader to the Philippines, a former colony of the United States (now arguably a genuine U.S. neocolony) and the continuing l’affaire Abu Sayyaf and its use as a pretext for the invasion by over a thousand U.S. troops of this second front of the war against terrorism, after Afghanistan.

Since the seventies at the time of the Marcos dictatorship, the severely impoverished Muslims in the southern Philippines called “Moros” (who were never actually subjugated by the Spaniards, Americans or Japanese throughout their history) have mounted a fierce struggle for autonomy and dignity, for some measure of self-determination. While the Moro National Liberation Front has compromised with the government, another more formidable group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, has continued its struggle. But its fighters are now branded “terrorists” and their legitimate cause criminalized. It is expected that the MILF will be classified as a “foreign terrorist organization”—foreign, of course, to Americans, but not to Filipinos. When President Arroyo allowed the U.S. Special Forces to participate in the pursuit of the Abu Sayyaf, a bandit-group that is really a creation of both the CIA and the Philippine Armed Forces, did she not violate the Philippine Constitution? Indifference to this question is a symptom of the larger problem of either ignorance of the plight of the Moro people, or complicity with the ruling class in the oppression and exploitation of at least 7.5 million citizens who happen to subscribe to another faith.

Thousands, perhaps over a hundred thousand now, have died since the flare-up of Christian-Muslim hostilities in the sixties, climaxing in the years after 1972 with the battle of Jolo, Sulu. The city was actually burned by government forces, producing 2,000 corpses and 60,000 refugees in one night. A ceasefire was reached after the Tripoli Agreement of 1976, but it was often honored in the breach. The split of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front led Hashim Salamat from Misuari’s more secular Moro National Liberation Front introduced a sectarian but also conciliatory element in the scene, precipitating the formation of the Abu Sayyaf along the lines of the government-sponsored and CIA-funded Bangsa Moro Liberation Organization (BMLO) in 1976.

The Abu Sayyaf has been represented in the U.S. mass media as an awesome and fearful force, mysterious yet intelligible. It is now public knowledge that the Abu Sayyaf, like the MILF, was set up by the Philippine government to split the Moro struggle for self-determination and pressure the MNLF into capitulation. But since 1995 the Abu Sayyaf has turned into a Frankenstein’s monster devoted to hostage-taking for ransom and terrorizing civilian communities. In the midst of U.S. intervention last year, an International Peace Commission went to Basilan on March 23-27, 2002, and produced what I think is the most comprehensive and detailed report on conditions in the region. The conclusion of their report, entitled Basilan: The Next Afghanistan?, is unequivocal: the Abu Sayyaf is a symptom of the disastrous failure of the state in ensuring not only peace and security but honest and effficient government—both provincial governance and military-police agencies—in a milieu where the proverbial forces of civil society (business, church, media) have been complicit. Enmeshed in corruption that involves local officials, military officers, and central government, the region where the Abu Sayyaf thrives has witnessed the reign of absolute terror over civilians. Nowhere in the entire Philippines is the violation of human rights and the brutalization of civilian suspects so flagrant and ubiquitous as in Basilan where this group operates. In this context, the deployment of U.S. troops in Mindanao, compliments of the Arroyo administration, has only worsened the situation, demonized and mystified the Abu Sayyaf as an Al Qaeda accomplice, and promoted hostility among various ethnic groups.

Engaging the neocolonial return

Given this context, let us examine how metropolitan wisdom has employed “postcolonial” resources to represent this whole conjuncture to the academic public. One example is Charles O. Frake’s article “Abu Sayyaf: Displays of Violence and the Proliferation of Contested Identities among Philippine Muslims” in a 1998 issue of American Anthropologist. While Frake is quite erudite in referencing the history of the Muslims from the Spanish times to the present, he never examines seriously, except in a tokenizing gestural mode, the political and economic context of land dispossession and economic marginalization of the Muslim majority. Instead, typical of postcolonial discourse, he focuses on the Abu Sayyaf as an attempt to solve “the logical gap in the identity matrix of Philippine Muslim insurgency.” Since the Moro movement has been fragmented by ethnic antagonisms among Tausugs, Maguindanaos, Maranaos, Yakans, and so on, the Abu Sayyaf, according to Frake, is “militantly Islamicist.” And because its leadership draws from the displaced and unaffiliated youth, as well as the traditional outlaw areas, the group represents “a new layer in the strata of kinds of identity laid down in the long history of conflict in the Muslim Philippines” (1998, 48). In short, the Abu Sayyaf (according to Frake’s postmodernist optic) is a symptom of the problem of “identity proliferation,” since the fault-lines of identity construction are often revealed in explosions of political violence. Empire, class and nation have all been expunged from the functionalist, cooptative frame of analysis.

Frake is an example of a knowledge-producer intent on unwitting mystification. The result of applying Geertz’ “thick description,” that is, the focus on how participants interpret everyday happenings, instead of clarifying the nexus of causality and accountability, muddles it. Frake wants to answer the question: “How can such nice people [meaning the anonymous members of the Abu Sayyaf], at times, do such horrible things?” But his premise—that the central motivation of individuals in society is to be recognized as somebody, to establish an identity—is completely detached from historical specificities, even from the basic determinants of any cultural complex or location. Despite the empirical citations and putative data, Frake’s attempt to deploy postmodern ethonography on the Abu Sayyaf phenomenon results only in a simplistic reduction: that in situations of struggle, people fail to unite because they continually interpret what’s going on around them, thus multiplying “contested identities.” I am afraid such “thick descriptions” are really opaque ruses obscuring instead of illuminating the plight of the Moro people. Vincent Crapanzano’s critique of Geertz may be quoted here: the method of “thick description” “offers no understanding of the native from the native’s point of view, specifiable evidence for his attributions of intention, his assertion of subjectivity, his declarations of experience” (quoted in San Juan 2002, 234).

Recalling Said’s critique of Orientalist scholarship cited earlier, I cannot imagine any intellectual who, endeavoring to grasp the roots of a long-enduring, complex “Moro problem,” will preemptively assert or claim a detached or disinterested stance. A few postmodernist scholars openly announce their point-of-view, their subject-positions—if only to wash their hands, of course, of any complicity with US colonialism or imperialism. Professions of neutrality have been replaced with gestures of liberal guilt manifest in philanthropic compassion. Unfortunately, these gestures only prolong the orientalizing supremacy of Western knowledge-production and its hegemonic influence. Of course it is now commonplace to note that all disciplinary research performed in state institutions, all pedagogical agencies (in Karl Mannheim’s phrase, the “everyday constituent assembly of the mind”), are sites of ideological class struggle and none can be hermetically insulated from the pressures of material local and global interests. There is no vacuum or neutral space in the planetary conflict of classes and groups for hegemony.

Perseverance in commitment

In my recent work (San Juan 2002; 2004), I called attention to recent developments in Cultural Studies as a disciplinary practice in North America and Europe that have subverted the early promise of the field as a radical transformative force. In every attempt to do any inquiry into cultural practices and discourses, one is always carrying out a political and ethical project, whether one is conscious of it or not. There are many reasons for this, the main one being the inescapable political-economic constitution of any discursive field of inquiry, as Pierre Bourdieu has convincingly demonstrated. And in the famous theoretical couplet that Foucault has popularized, knowledge/power, the production of knowledge is always already implicated in the ongoing struggles across class, nation, gender, locality, ethnicity, and so on, which envelopes and surrounds the intellectual, the would-be knower, learner, investigator, scholar, and so on.

This is the moment when I would like to close with some reflections, and questions, on why problems of culture and knowledge are of decisive political importance for the postcolonial critic. Although we always conceive of ourselves as citizen-subjects with rights, it is also the case that we are all caught up in a network of obligations whose entirety is not within our conscious grasp. What is our relation to Others—the excluded, marginalized, and prostituted who affirm our existence and identity--in our society? In a sense we (Filipinos, Americans) are responsible for the plight of the Moros—yes, including the existence of the Abu Sayyaf--insofar as we claim to live in a community of singular persons who alternatively occupy the positions of speakers and listeners, I’s and you’s, and who have obligations to one another, and reciprocal accountabilities. We should also keep in mind the new historical milieu characterized by what Alain Badiou calls “the disjunctive synthesis of two nihilisms,” capitalist nihilism and the anonymous fascist nihilism manifested in the 9/11 attack (Badiou 2003, 160). This ethical challenge sums up, to my mind, the riposte that postcolonial agency must pose to neoliberal imperialism (instanced by Frake’s discourse, among others) if it is to sustain its tradition of critique, that uncompromising questioning of absolutisms and sacralizing mystifications that Edward Said initiated at the beginning of his exemplary intellectual adventure.

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