Route to roots

Route to roots

Lead review

Route to roots

Having been submerged in relentless haranguing about the medieval Islam and its fanatic followers trying to destroy the modern world through their sporadic but deadly acts of terror, the importance of a counter-narrative that not only exposes the hollowness of such Islamophobia, but offers a deeper understanding of the turbulence, cannot be over-emphasised.

Pankaj Mishra, the Indian author who has already made his mark with brilliant works such as From the Ruins of Empire and Temptations of the West, offers a scathing analysis of the so-called ‘War on Terror’ and ‘Clash of Civilisation’ through his riveting new book, Age of Anger:A History of the Present. Rummaging through the blood-soaked history of much of Europe over the last three centuries, he makes a convincing, perhaps even path-breaking, argument that the seeds of today’s jihadi movement were sown by the West, in the West, a long time ago.

If the French Revolution inspired much of the cataclysmic social and political reforms across Europe, and the Industrial Revolution resulted in unprecedented riches to a minority of people, they also unleashed baser instincts of rivalry, jealousy and mutual hatred. It was also a period when individual rights heightened the awareness of social discrimination and exclusion. The author clinically examines the competitive spirit among the French, the Germans, the English and the Italians, which resonated in ‘holy wars’ more than a century before the word ‘jihad’ entered common parlance.

Mishra argues that more than the rise of Islam and religious expansion for a variety of reasons — which remains undisputed — the popular resentment among the deprived sections has its genesis in the early imperialism and looting of much of Asia and Africa, the industrial capitalist economy of Europe that led to world wars, totalitarian regimes and genocides.

He points out that industrialisation in the late 19th and 20th centuries concentrated wealth in the hands of a minority, imposing heavy taxation on the poor and the middle classes, accentuating the anger and resentment against the rich. He notes that, “Starting 1878, small cells of terrorists surfaced all over Europe and America. Over the next quarter of a century, heads of state including presidents of France (Carnot) and the United States (William McKinley), the king of Italy (Umberto I), the empress of Austria (Elisabeth) and the prime minister of Spain (Canovas) were murdered, apart from the killing of scores of people in crowded market places.”

A period of hope followed the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 with the collapse of the Soviet communism, the universal triumph of liberal capitalism and the acceptance of concepts like democracy, globalisation, free markets, and human rights. But it didn’t take too long for people to realise that the political system worked mainly for the benefit of a handful of those in control of levers of power and the corporate interests, while they were being continuously squeezed.

Mishra argues that in many Western countries, the radical Islam had grown in tandem with the native radical right-wing politics against the backdrop of economic decline, social fragmentation and disenchantment with the electoral system, which manifested themselves “in their blogs, YouTubes and social media incarnations that mirror each other.”

He is clear in his hypothesis that the post-9/11 policies of pre-emptive war, massive retaliation, regime change and reforming Islam had “catastrophically failed,” while the dirty war against the West’s own Enlightenment, inadvertently pursued through extrajudicial murder, torture, indefinite detention and massive surveillance had been a “success” in the negative sense.

Analysing the new phenomenon of increase in the number of American and European devotees of ISIS, Mishra quotes extensively from Timothy McVeigh, one of the native terrorists. McVeigh, who murdered 168 Americans in Oklahoma City, during his trial, mocked about the US military killing millions of innocent people, while he was being accused of murdering innocent civilians.

Mishra’s research and scholarship is exemplary, as throughout the book he extensively quotes such intellectual luminaries as Voltaire, Montesquieu, Rousseau, Nietzsche, Tocqueville, Dostoyevsky, Spencer, Bakunin and Mazzini to buttress his arguments about the shape of events and the influential roles they played during the relevant periods.

There are interesting references to the influence of Spencer and Mazzani on the Indian thought process, particularly those of Swami Vivekananda and Mahatma Gandhi. Recounting in some detail as to how Vir Savarkar failed to beat Gandhi’s egalitarian project to take the Hindus and the Muslims together during freedom struggle, the author notes sarcastically that Narendra Modi may be well poised to see Savarkar’s dream come through.

Mishra argues that, at the global level now, the conventional wars between states are dwarfed by those between terrorists and counter-terrorists, insurgents and counter-insurgents, financial and cyber wars, besides other fierce battles for control of migration, human trafficking, drugs trade and urban militias. He sees this as the beginning of “the longest and the strangest of all world wars: one that approximates, in its ubiquity, to a global civil war.”

Mishra has no doubt that with the victory of Donald Trump in the United States, it has become impossible to deny or obscure the great chasm between the elite that seizes modernity’s choicest fruits and those who are denied. He firmly believes that it may “incite a broader and more apocalyptic mood than before,” unless there emerges a transformational leader who rebalances the destinies of the haves and the have-nots in a decisive manner.

Age Of Anger
Pankaj Mishra
2017, pp 405, Rs 699