As is now well known, bombs and gunfire rained down on multiple sites in the Indian city of Mumbai in a coordinated terror attack that began on November 26, 2008. The attacks reportedly killed nearly 200 people and injured over 300 more. The ten men who held off the highly trained Indian army commandos for three full days were all young Muslims. According to Indian and American intelligence, the men were recruited by militants in Pakistan and had received training in a number of camps. The sophisticated weaponry and navigation tools that they possessed makes it clear that this attack was organized and coordinated, quite different from the many crude bombings India has faced in recent years—not all of which have been by Muslim groups. Problematically, much of the writing about this event has sought for one single cause or narrative within which we can understand this attack. Instead, I suggest we look at various overlapping threads, which have come to form the pattern that we might characterize as “terrorism.” I present these threads to show how we might track the movement of affective forces, the coming together of contingent events, and the manner in which the forms of the modern state intersect and incorporate various regions of traditions in the making of political subjectivities.

Jihad and Fitna: The anguish of a divided community

While the dichotomy of “moderate” Muslims and “extremists” is prevalent in many media representations, this binary hides more than it reveals. For one thing, to group the modern forms of violence perpetrated by militant Muslim groups, both internal to Muslim groups and directed against non-Muslims, in the single category of “fundamentalism” simply does not work. While fundamentalism is frequently said to involve a literalist understanding of scripture and an emphasis on juristic conception of religious commands, modern forms of jihad (or holy war) are perpetrated by groups that, while accepting the overall authority of the Quran, wish to reorient the traditional Quranic verses on jihad. The form of jihad has varied historically, and traditionally Muslims make a distinction between the greater jihad—that is, a war an individual wages within himself or herself for self-improvement—and the lesser jihad, a war waged against the enemies of Islam. Historically, the latter form of jihad was only permitted to be waged by a Muslim king—individuals did not have the right to take up jihad against non-Muslims. What is more, non-Muslims under a Muslim ruler (if they accepted the legitimacy of the ruler) had the right to be protected as non-Muslim minorities—a provision that is present, for instance, in the constitution of Pakistan. In the history of South Asia there are many instances in which a king, even when urged by certain sections of the Muslim clergy, refused to wage jihad against a Hindu ruler with whom a treaty had been signed. The modern jihadists ignore these classical traditions and instead trace their genealogical connections to twentieth century reinterpretations by the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, who tried to reorient the classical tradition to make jihad into an individual obligation.

Whether post-independence India is to be characterized as dar-ul-harb (land of infidels) has been debated. Although there is some controversy surrounding this issue, I have examined many fatawas from seminaries that declare India to be dar-ul-aman—a country of order, which, though not ruled by Muslim rulers, is a land where Muslims are free to follow their religion. These fatawas were of-course, delivered in response to specific questions posed by individuals, seeking guidance about whether Muslims were obligated to migrate from India to Muslim lands, or whether Indian Muslims were obliged to follow strict shariat rules regarding investment of money or earning interest on investments. I bring these fatawas up because many media discussions have obscured the fact that discussions of India’s place in the theological reasoning of the Muslim ulama (learned clergy) have historically generated not one but many different answers. We should at least acknowledge that there is no single Muslim opinion, and that not only are Muslim opinions on this and many similar issues complex, but there have also been many attempts by reform seminaries in post-independence India to think of Muslim contributions to the development of India. Even a cursory glance at the official website of the seminary Dar-ul-uloom in Deoband, India, which has been characterized by many as the seat of fundamentalist revival, shows that the mission statements on its history are in four languages—English, Hindi, Arabic and Urdu—each of which assumes a slightly different audience. The text in Hindi, for example, places emphasis on Islamic education in the context of Indian culture, while the text in Urdu discusses the efforts of the seminary to preserve Islam in the face of fears that it will decline in a non-Islamic state. Hence, even texts from the same seminary might emphasize different aspects of the imperatives of shaping Muslim identity in the contemporary world of nation-states.

Jihad has received much attention in the context of a supposedly global terrorism, while the other term with which conflict is associated—fitna—has been overlooked. Fitna refers to internal division among Muslims. One of its meanings recalls the first fight for succession, after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, which tore the Muslim community apart. During ethnographic fieldwork among urban Muslims in Delhi, I would often hear sorrow at the state of the Muslims, recalling the first fitna and the various ways in which Muslims were failing Islam. One often hears the secular media and the Hindu right bemoan the fact that Muslims do not protest the actions of the terrorists, yet not only have fatawas been issued declaring the actions of terrorists to be in violation of various Islamic moral injunctions to which the militant groups pay no heed, but also Muslims in both India and Pakistan are terrified of the escalating tensions. The outrage many Muslims feel as a result of the perpetrated violence can be gauged by the refusal of Jama Masjid Trust in Mumbai to allow the nine slain gunmen to be buried in a Muslim graveyard. Some will read only political gesturing in these actions, while others will accuse Indian Muslims of shaping their Islam to the demands of the Indian polity rather than to the principles of Islam. Such accusations ignore the strong imperative faced by many sections of Indian Muslims (and not only moderate or secular Muslims) to interpret Islam according to principles that contest the interpretation of certain passages in the Quran or the hadiths (sayings or actions) of the Prophet literally. Such conflicts of interpretation are of course not new, but participate in a long history of hermeneutic and legal contests.

It would not be wise, or correct, to say that there is no support from Indian Muslims for the violence perpetrated by groups who speak on behalf of Muslim suffering. Muslims in India have legitimate grievances about discrimination—communal riots such as those that occurred in Gujarat and the human rights violations in Kashmir are causes for great concern among Muslims and others. Neither do I wish to say that there are no legitimate Hindu grievances in the neighboring countries of Pakistan or Bangladesh. What I do want to say, however, is that it has becoming increasingly common for Indian Muslims to be in complete disagreement with certain actions being taken in their name. A political community in which individuals have not agreed to be represented is inconceivable; when an individual cannot agree with what is being done in his or her name, the question of action is as acute in politics as in religion. Thus, the responses of ordinary Muslims to militant actions can take various forms—ranging from feelings of helplessness to those of outrage, as expressed in the decision of the Jama Masjid Committee to refuse burial to the militants, even though many think this is in violation of the Muslim obligation to give burial to unclaimed Muslim bodies within three days of death.

The difficulty of reality

The question remains: how should we even begin to conceptualize such a configuration of forces? First, it is important to acknowledge that it is not easy to find the terms with which to characterize the kind of violence perpetrated in Mumbai. We have no way of knowing the extent of the involvement of the Pakistani army or spy agencies in training and financing such operations against India or against Muslim groups such as Shiis (Shia) or Ahmadis in Pakistan. However, the clearly high level of training these militants received makes it possible that these gunmen were in fact commandos, in the mold of those trained by modern armies to kill ruthlessly. So are these acts now a new form of warfare? If so, is this jihad or something different, that relies less on actual damage to life and property and more on the effects that it hopes to generate? These effects could have been communal riots, more suspicion between Muslims and Hindus, further weakening of the recently elected government in Pakistan, and, ultimately, a war between India and Pakistan. The success or failure of this violence should then be gauged in terms of its containment.

Finally, there is the uncertainty that marks any suppositions of who the perpetrators were, what they represented, and how such a spectacular operation was possible. If one reads the Pakistani press, the comments are skeptical of any claim of Pakistani involvement made by India. Some wonder if this is an Indian plot to defame Pakistan, while others try to read every little sign on the bodies of the perpetrators to say that they were not Muslim. It is easy to dismiss all of this commentary as denial, but it seems to me that it is indicative of the helplessness many feel when their actions cannot control those who have come to speak on their behalf. After all, in the most recent elections in 2008 Pakistanis decisively rejected the alliance of Islamic Parties (MMA), which could only win three seats in the National Assembly and even lost in its stronghold in the North West Frontier Area. Yet the civilian government that was elected is not strong enough to deal with the army or the spy agency (which is not surprising, given the long history of army coups). The Indian government has been shown to be unprepared as well, but its failure is not only the failure of the security mechanism. The fact is that the vast underground shadow economy, controlled by Mafia figures, has been allowed to grow in Mumbai and elsewhere to such an extent that the police force has become completely ineffectual because many of its members are part of that underworld economy. Any long-term solution would have to restore the integrity of this and other institutions so that they once again become responsible to the populace. This will need stronger action than even dealing with militants, because a very large number of poor people derive everyday sustenance from participation in the underground economy as well.

Civil action as response to violence

While there has rightly been a lot of concern about failed and weak states, there has to be some appreciation of how civil action succeeded in thwarting the effects that the brutal violence had surely hoped to provoke. People in Mumbai have responded to this set of issues with strong civic action. Similarly, during the movement to restore democracy in Pakistan, new groups of lawyers and students came out in the streets to demand free and fair elections. Over the past eight years I have seen and documented concerted efforts in Muslim neighborhoods in Delhi to engage in discussions about what it means to be Muslim in India. I think that there are shifts in subjectivities that happen over small, sometimes imperceptible, everyday events, which eventually inform political action. The most mature response from India would be to neutralize the terrorist threat by refusing to produce the effects it wishes. The public actions of Muslims in denouncing the violence in India are not simply reactive. Similarly, there are sensible calls to rule out the option of war by various groups in India and Pakistan. It must be understood that even when powerful state actors, such as the army, or global actors, such as the transnational underworld, are involved in sponsoring or producing acts of terrorism, they do not represent the larger polity. Ordinary people in both nations are trying every day to form their relation to political events through their actions in small local communities. Perhaps some of these actions will support the cause of violence, but many others will try to find different solutions.

Behind the division of nation-states in South Asia, there is the long history of empire in this region that connects networks that have moved from Sri Lanka to Afghanistan, and there are the many fluid boundaries that still mark memories of connections and disconnections. Placed in a longer history, the relationships between different social groups carry traces of earlier conflicts and solidarities. This is why a rush to turn Mumbai into India’s own 9/11 is too hasty. Impatience with the messiness of these categories might be much more disastrous than tolerance of uncertainties. A resolution to attend to the necessary everyday reforms, rather than waiting for “wake up” calls, faces enormous obstacles, but just as civil society asserted itself by refusing to respond to the violence in Mumbai with hate and panic, so too it might succeed in supporting the saner elements of Indian and Pakistani politics.