As the days pass since the terrorist attacks at several locations in Mumbai, and the death toll creeps toward 200, a variety of perspectives has emerged across the Web. Some provide insights into the political and religious significance of the attacks, others offer personal reflections on the city. But all are written with a determination to understand what it all means.
Perhaps a fitting place to begin is with a Bloggingheads video conversation between George Washington University’s Henry Farrell and Indian politics expert Sumit Ganguly. More an interview of Ganguly than a two-way conversation, they lay out the background of the attacks and, analyzing the terrorists as well as the viewpoints of India, Pakistan, and the United States, consider the possible consequences:
As more information about the attackers is learned, more voices point to tensions between Hindus and Muslims, India and Pakistan, the secular and the religious. The Atlantic‘s Robert D. Kaplan provides basic background to the Hindu-Muslim divide in India, but concludes that it is not so much historical conflict as it is “a recreated modern one.” Meanwhile, Steve Coll attempts to “decode” Mumbai in The New Yorker by questioning the role that Pakistan may have played in the attacks.
Columnists in two British papers focus instead on India itself. Maria Misra argues that India, particularly Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, cannot put all the blame on outsiders — as he quickly did following the attacks — but that the country must look inward at its own religious extremism. Dibayesh Anand, writing in the Guardian, wonders if a secular democracy like India is even capable of battling such extremism:
Religious extremists conceptualise violence as a purification of recent collective humiliations and regaining of historical pride. Democracy implies acceptance of different views, but can it deal with movements and actors who refuse to even play the democratic game, such as the Mumbai terrorists? The state has no option but to reject and police them. But vigilance, intelligence, and militant adherence to secular and democratic norms is the only way in which Indian state can ensure that religious extremism remains an exception rather than a norm.
A less prevalent point of deep examination — but as Naomi Seidman contends at Religion Dispatches, the object of our selective sympathies as a Western audience — is the fact that the Chabad House in Mumbai was targeted. Like Seidman, Samuel G. Freedman discusses the issue with a bit of nuance by showing the longstanding connection between Indians and Israelis, and Hindus and Jews, sometimes known by the affectionate term “Hinjews.”
Many of the commentators on the events have been much more critical. As Michael Paulson notes in his Articles of Faith blog, the Mumbai attacks have rekindled a link between Islam and terror. He highlights various perspectives ranging from the Jewish Community Relations Council to a sarcastic Beliefnet blogger, all of which touch on the connection between Islam and terrorism.
But some haven’t been so subtle in their reactions to the reemergence of this connection, or to the denials surrounding the possibility that the terrorists were home-grown. In The New York Times Week in Review, Anand Giridharadas quotes:
“It is extremely important to understand that the criminal activities of a minuscule group, even if it turns out to have home-grown elements, say nothing about Indian Muslims in general, who are an integral part of the country’s social fabric,” Amartya Sen, the Harvard economist and Indian-born Nobel laureate, wrote in an e-mail message. “Even if it turns out that the Mumbai terrorists had a base in Pakistani territory, India has to take full note of the fact that the bulk of Pakistani civil society is an ally, not an enemy, in the battle against Islamist terrorism, for they too suffer greatly from the violence of a determined minority based in their country.”
Tariq Ali echoes this sentiment at Counter Punch:
The Indian Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, has insisted that the terrorists were based outside the country. The Indian media has echoed this line of argument with Pakistan (via the Lashkar-e-Taiba) and al-Qaeda listed as the usual suspects.
But this is a meditated edifice of official India’s political imagination. Its function is to deny that the terrorists could be a homegrown variety, a product of the radicalization of young Indian Muslims who have finally given up on the indigenous political system. To accept this view would imply that the country’s political physicians need to heal themselves.
And, finally, in a piece titled “Guns and bombs in booming India,” Sandip Roy worries about what the connections might mean for profiling:
“It’s War” headlined the Times of India. “India is Under Attack” said The Hindustan Times. And most ominously, The Telegraph wants no more “crazy initiatives aimed at winning over potential terrorists with love, affirmative action and moral equivalence.”
Who is a “potential” terrorist? What is his profile? The unspoken subtext: Which Muslims in India should we treat with fairness, and which should we write off as “potential terrorists?”
But amid all the political, religious, and social commentary lie the personal voices of those who call, or have called, Bombay, Mumbai, or India home. Among those are a journalism professor and a novelist, each with pieces in major newspapers with seemingly contradictory titles: “What They Hate About Mumbai” and “Mumbai: The city I love,” respectively. In the first, Professor Suketu Mehta remembers and laments, and concludes with a plea for visitors:
In the Bombay I grew up in, your religion was a personal eccentricity, like a hairstyle. In my school, you were denominated by which cricketer or Bollywood star you worshiped, not which prophet. 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.[…] If the rest of the world wants to help, it should run toward the explosion. It should fly to Mumbai, and spend money. Where else are you going to be safe? New York? London? Madrid?
So I’m booking flights to Mumbai. I’m going to go get a beer at the Leopold, stroll over to the Taj for samosas at the Sea Lounge, and watch a Bollywood movie at the Metro. Stimulus doesn’t have to be just economic.
Novelist Amit Chaudhuri also recalls childhood in Bombay and describes the drastic changes he has seen. He writes:
Yet, for all its opacities and daily injustices, it is impossible to think of Bombay without a quickening of excitement and pleasure, and not to recall that quickening with awe and confusion at moments such as this one.
Lastly, Laurie L. Patton provides us with an important reminder: Mumbai is not 9/11. Not only did the attacks occur under much different circumstances, but, perhaps more importantly, they happened in much different cities:
Mumbai is about a sprawling and relaxed sense of welcome, both secular and religious: the Haji Ali mosque rises far out into the sea for all stuck in traffic to marvel at; Christian churches and Hindu shrines dot every corner in the northern neighborhood of Bandra; the Jewish synagogue of Magen David has in the past few years been refurbished and painted a cheerful, unmistakably bright blue.[…] The terrorists’ sense of place was remarkable, and held up a dark mirror to the spirit of Mumbai’s openness. In Mumbai, you can hide in the openness and the terrorists’ message was loud and clear: Mumbai’s open welcome was closed.