Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Another Explanation for the Mumbai Attacks

The attacks in Mumbai were horrible. We are still learning the full details of the events there, from the horror of those trapped in hotels to the moments of heroism. We are also still learning about the causes of the attacks--as much as we can ever know about the causes of mass murder. We have been told about the reputed link to Pakistan, the role of Kashmir, and the suggestion that al-Qaeda used the attacks to draw attention away from their hideouts along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.

In the NYTimes, Suketu Mehta offered his own explanation for the Mumbai attacks in an essay called "What They Hate About Mumbai." Mehta offers an eloquent tribute to "his city" as a "a mass dream of the peoples of South Asia." And yet, there are people who hate the city. For Mehta, the hatred of Mumbai is driven by religious fundamentalism, a fundamentalism that hates Mumbai's materialism and sensuality. The terrorists hate Mumbai because

being South Asian, they would have grown up watching the painted lady that is Mumbai in the movies: a city of flashy cars and flashier women. A pleasure-loving city, a sensual city. Everything that preachers of every religion thunder against.
It is the traditional fundamentalist hatred of pleasure and earthly gain that has led them to single out Mumbai (as well as cities of the Western world) for punishment.

And Mehta has watched this religious fundamentalism grow in his city. As he notes,
In today’s Mumbai, things have changed. Hindu and Muslim demagogues want the mobs to come out again in the streets, and slaughter one another in the name of God. They want India and Pakistan to go to war. They want Indian Muslims to be expelled. They want India to get out of Kashmir. They want mosques torn down. They want temples bombed.
For Mehta, Mumbai has become a front in the war of fundamentalism against Western life. And for him the appropriate response to the attacks is for the West to fight back even harder:
But the best answer to the terrorists is to dream bigger, make even more money, and visit Mumbai more than ever.
The key to winning the war against religious fundamentalism, Mehta says, is to have more fun.

Fosco has sympathy for much of Mehta's analysis. Indeed, religious fundamentalism does seem like a reasonable explanation for the Mumbai attacks (especially as we learn more). And far be it for a self-described "hedonist intellectual" like Fosco to put a limit on pleasure. But, even so, Mehta's analysis and his prescription sound eerily like those offered by George W. Bush after 9/11:
  1. the terrorists hate us because our way of life is just too awesome.
  2. the best way to respond to the attacks is to go shopping.
Instead of recycling these lies/platitudes/idiocies, Fosco would like to suggest a more complex way of thinking about the causes of the hatred directed against Mumbai (and the West).

Part of Fosco's response to the news of the attacks (on Thanksgiving Eve here in the US) was colored by the fact that he was reading Mike Davis's remarkable book Planet of Slums at the time. Planet of Slums examines the hellish underworld of poverty that comes into existence simultaneously (but invisibly, to Western eyes) with the rise of glitzy Third World megacities. One of Davis's case studies is, of course, Mumbai, a city of 19 million people with 10-12 million of those people living in tenements or squatting (in fact, probably 1 million people in Mumbai live on the sidewalks). This is the Mumbai that Mehta does not talk about in his essay, the Mumbai where
  • breathing the air is equivalent to smoking two and a half packs of cigarettes a day.
  • in the Dharavi slum district, the population density is 18,000 people PER ACRE.
  • about half of the population does not have access to a toilet.
This Mumbai is indeed far removed from Bollywood dreams.

Now, I don't want to blame Mehta for glossing over this side of Mumbai; he is not trying to mislead--Mumbai is also the rich and glamorous city that he loves. However, I do want to follow Mike Davis in suggesting that there are consequences to the type of economic inequality that we find in Mumbai (and all over the Third World). When you consider that similar conditions of inequality hold in cities across India (Delhi, Kolkata) as well as in the cities of India's (frequently hostile) neighbors (Karachi, Pakistan; Dhaka, Bangladesh; etc.), you have to start to wonder about the political and religious consequences of extreme inequality. It should be no surprise that terrorism (especially religious terrorism) seems to grow best in the slums of places like Karachi, Kabul, and Baghdad (in fact, the dangerous Sadr City area of Baghdad is the largest slum in that country).

This is not to say that the Mumbai attacks had social inequality as their explicit motive. Nor is it to excuse the attacks in any way. However, it may be time for the rich First World to start asking itself whether the economic abjection of the Third World is breeding resentment, discontent, and ideologies of violence. Maybe instead of bombing the hell out of Pakistan (and other Third World slum societies), the First World should think about creating a livable existence for the global poor. This might be a case of how the right thing to do is also in our best interest...

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