It is more than a month since the short, macabre dance of death in New York and Washington changed the world. We are now in the midst of a war, but many are uncomfortable and ask who is America fighting? Some are confused, and insistently ask why were they made targets of the September 11 attacks? They also wonder why is America disliked? And in this case, so hated that a few young men were willing to defy the basic human instinct for survival and die for what they believed to be a worthwhile cause.
I shall attempt to answer these questions from a non-American perspective. I live in India, a country that has eagerly practiced the same American liberal, democratic ideals for a half century. But most Americans are unaware that we in India have been victims of Taliban trained terrorism for more than a decade that has taken hundreds of innocent lives. It is tragic irony that faceless terrorists in Kashmir had set September 11—-the same dreadful day--as the deadline for what women could wear. Tailors in the valley had been busy making burqas for weeks. But an innocent 15-year-old girl, whose tailor failed to meet the deadline, found acid sprayed on her face as she was rushing home from school. She lost an eye and her pretty face was disfigured for life.
Two years ago Osama bin Laden announced from his hideout in the mountains deserts of Afghanistan, "India and America are my biggest enemies and all mujahideen groups in Pakistan should come together to target them." Since then I have wondered why he singled out India and America as his targets.
It is tempting to believe that India and America are the prime targets of Osama and the Taliban because they are open, pluralistic, and liberal societies. They are the two largest democracies in the world. They have to constantly deal with diverse minorities and they present a constant challenge to fundamentalists, who are more comfortable in monolithic states with one religion, one language, and one mind. (Indeed, both Hindu and Muslim fundamentalists have this problem in India.) Yet, I believe, it is simplistic to blame democracy and the open society alone for the September 11 suicide attacks on America. If it were only a war against freedom, as President Bush says, then the Statue of Liberty would have been the first target.
Indians have welcomed Bush's global war on terrorism partly because it has strengthened our own government's hand to fight terrorists here. Maulana Masood Azhar is India's Osama bin Laden. He is the mastermind of Jaish-e-Mohammad, a Pakistan based terrorist group that claimed responsibility for the suicide bombing in Srinagar which killed 38 people three weeks after the attacks in America. Indians were relieved when America announced the freezing of this group's bank accounts because of its links with Osama. Azhar believes in jehad like Osama, and India needs to go after him with the same vigor that America is going after Osama.
Until America declared a war on terrorism, the rapidly growing Indian middle class had been resigned to live with terrorism. It regards all forms of religious extremism with disdain—as something divisive and irrational that comes in the way of its “rational” preoccupation with a rising standard of living, upward mobility, and the peaceful pursuit of electronic appliances. The world has not realized how much India has changed since the 1991 reforms. Its economy has grown 6.4 percent a year for a decade (and 7.5 percent for three years in a row), making it one of the ten fastest growing economies in the world. More recently, population growth has begun to slow, and in 1998 it was down to 1.7 percent compared to an historic 2.2 percent growth rate. Literacy has climbed to 65 percent compared to 52 percent a decade ago, with women and the backward states registering the biggest gains. More than 120 million Indians have pulled themselves out of poverty in the past decade as the poverty ratio has declined to 26 percent. And the nation may have finally found its competitive advantage in its booming software and IT services. At this rate half of India (that is, the west and the south) should turn middle class by 2025, and India will see its share of world product rise from 6 to 13 percent, making it the third largest economy in the world.
This is the future that terrorism threatens and this is why the Indian middle class supports America's war. However, many Indians are offended by the America's historical indifference to non-American lives. America has historically propped up dictators in Latin America and backed tyrants in Africa and Asia, and this has led to the death of millions around the world. I wonder if this disregard for non-American lives explains why America is so disliked around the world.
Then there is the usual anti-Americanism, just as fashionable in our influential left wing and academic circles as it is in Europe and Latin America. These are the same people who are against economic globalization, technology, free capital flows and foreign influences. They charge that America is arrogant, hypocritical and is exporting an unhealthy consumerist way of life. However, this sort of anti-Americanism does not resonate with the common person, who loves the incredible achievements of America's scientists, artists, athletes, filmmakers, and only last month was moved by the courage of New York's firemen and rescue workers.
About 12 percent of India's population is Islamic, and they are more ambivalent about America's war. Our Muslims are more ready to argue the Palestinian case, and believe that America could have done more to restrain Israel. They are upset that half a million Iraqi children have died as a result of American economic sanctions. They are consumed by the irony that Taliban and Osama bin Laden are America's creation from the cold war. We have a few Islamic fundamentalists as well, but the truth is that the average Indian Muslim is moderate but confused about what is happening. Hence, we have not seen Indian Muslims protesting against this war.
Amidst the confusion, uncertainty and fear--after all, Afghanistan is almost our neighbor--ordinary Indians understand that in the end this is a war against fanaticism and terror, and for civilized tolerance. They realize that in all wars some innocent people will be killed. But they also know from unhappy experience that almost every victim of terrorism is an innocent person. Thus, this is not an American war. It is also our war. But President Bush has to be sensitive as he prosecutes it. He needs to convince the world that non-American lives are just as precious as American ones. Otherwise, for all the good that America will achieve, the world will continue to dislike America.