One L(ove)

November 30, 2008

Some Thoughts on the Mumbai Attacks

Filed under: Uncategorized — galileehitchhiker @ 12:32 am
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Before I start off writing on what I have been thinking about lately, I would like to send my deepest condolences and solidarity with those who have been affected by the terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India. My thoughts are with you.

While we gathered with our family and friends over the Thanksgiving break, I’m sure the attacks in Mumbai gave some of us a great sense of discomfort. The thought of innocent people walking in the streets, doing their jobs, looking forward to seeing their families, vacationing, searching for the meaning of life, just fulfilling other daily callings of life, losing their lives definitely has the power to make one feel incredible sadness. There’s that great feeling of human empathy that softens our hearts when we see images of our fellow humans suffering around the world thanks to the fast-paced and intra-connected world of ours. While watching the news coverage on television and reading articles on the attacks, here are some of the thoughts I have been thinking:

1. Tribal Mentality. What motivated these individuals to commit acts of terror against innocent people? This question has been on the minds of everyone since the attacks first began. Right now, all we can do is speculate since it’s always hard to see when the dust hasn’t settled yet. There are many reasons for modern terrorism. We used to think that it was a tool that was employed by an oppressed group, that those who had nothing used it because they had nothing to lose (in a realm of discomfort). It was a tactic used to frighten those who the terrorists believed stole something from them. The terrorists believed that those who built a world of comfort did so only on their expense. And the only way to shaken that foundation of the “comfortable” is to frighten them, to make them feel “discomfort,” to give them a sense of that they have something to lose. What I have in mind is the terrorist tactics used by the Algerians against the colonial French occupation of their land. Viewing terrorism as an expression of politics of discomfort does not seem fitting any longer in contemporary times. One cannot view the complexity of human violence and the motives behind it through black and white lens. While politics of discomfort might explain some uses of terrorism in some parts of the world, it cannot explain all the motives behind why people employ it for whatever their political ends may be. Certainly, the reasons why terrorist groups employ terrorism may vary from region to region, from cause to cause, from circumstances to circumstances. And even within  a terrorist movement, its members may be motivated to join for various of reasons. Each case varies and one cannot employ one paradigm to explain the complexity of human violence, and human behavior in general for that matter. People might join terrorist organization for various of reasons. The common explanation is always that a person becomes a terrorist because he or she is motivated by a desire to escape oppression, poverty, and lack of opportunities that they feel a particular group (towards whom the acts of terror are targeted) has imposed upon them. However, we have seen in the modern trend that some of the terrorists are well-educated, well-off financially, and a whole life full of opportunities to look forward to. Other explanations include that the person joins a terrorist group because he or she is bored (very scary!), has a sociopathic personality, and with the rise of religiously-motivated terror, may be motivated by religion itself. Even though each person in a terrorist group may have joined for different reasons than a fellow member, there is no doubt the role group dynamics plays within the organization. If it is a tightly knit group, it’ll be easier for the terrorists to have a monolithic view of reality. In other words, failing to see the richness of the world and its complexity, they might bifurcate reality (i.e. see the world in terms of black and white, good and evil, etc.). This distorted sence of reality will facilitate them to carry out attacks against others they view as “things,” “objects,” or “beings inferior to them.” This brings me to my main point: the terrorists were motivated by a sort of tribal mentality. Since it is unclear what motivated the terrorists (although the Indian government believes that “elements” from Pakistan have influenced the terrorists to carry out the attacks), we can speculate by viewing the words of the terrorists themselves. The unknown group Deccan Mujahideen has claimed responsibility for the attacks. Sky News reported that one of the terrorists called Indian TV and justified the attacks by saying: “Are you aware how many people have been killed in Kashmir? Are you aware how your army has killed Muslims? Are you aware how many of them have been killed in Kashmir this week?” Taking this and the possibility of the group being trained by the Pakistani terrorist group Lashkar-e-Taiba (an organization that holds an irredentist view of Kashmir), one can postulate that the terrorist attacks were motivated because of the crisis in Kashmir. Of course the Indian army has been responsible for some great injustices in Kashmir, but does this justify attacking innocent people who happen to be citizens of a country whose policies have either directly or indirectly contributed to some dispute on the international level of which they have no involvement in? Isn’t this type of logic worrisome? The logic of: “If you attack my innocent, then I will attack your innocent.” Isn’t that frightening? That your country’s government may be involved in a campain on the international stage of which you have no involvement or say with and you end up being attacked because of it? This type of logic reminds me of tribal mentality. What I mean by tribal mentality is that there is a sense of belonging to a particular tribe and one is wholly devoted and loyal to this tribe. Any direct harm to a member of a tribe is a direct harm to another. In the old days, we are aware of tribal feuds (actually, they still are very much alive in different parts of the world today), where one person from a tribe does a wrong against another, a war breaks out between them. While one individual member of a particular tribe may have wronged another tribe, all members of the former tribe will be targetted by the members of the latter one. I think this is very much true with fanatics today. National fanatics believe that a wrong done against one’s national group by a foreigner makes the fellow members of that foreigner also susceptible to violent attacks. It’s an all-or-nothing approach. Similarly, religious fanatics believe that any wrong done by a group of a different religion against a few within the former group, makes all the members of the latter religious group susceptible to violent attacks. Than an affront to a member of one’s national group is an affront to one’s nation; and, similarly, that an affront to a member of one’s religious group is an affront to the religion itself.  Therefore, all members of the offending group, in the mind of the fanatic, become targets for the offense that “they have” caused. It makes it easier to see the members of the targeted group as being devoid of humanness, (i.e., that they are nonhuman in nature). So there is this elevation of tribal mentality to the national and religious realms. I think that statement made by the terrorist to the Indian TV fits this description. He believes that an attack on innocent Indians is justified because of the deaths of numerous innocent Kashmiri Muslims in the disputed area of Kashmir. How to counter such a justification and view held by fanatics is a million dollar question.

2. Aesthetics of Terror. Terrorism is a sort of political theater. Besides trying to frighten the opponent in and using it as a mean to achieving political ends, terrorism is used to attract the world’s attention to a group’s political cause. Terrorists use bizarre tactics to make the world its stage by attracting the world’s media, they become participants and also make others of an opposing group fellow participants (although these are unwilling, of course) by either hijacking, taking hostages, etc. They want the world media to focus on them and forcibly make the world their audience. One example would be the Chechen terrorists taking Russian school children as hostages in 2004. This made the world stop and focus on what the Chechens wanted. Similarly in India, the Deccan Mujahideen took over a prestigious hotel which was a pride of both Mumbai and, on the national level, India. They knew that if they took over a well-known building and also foreign hostages, this would attract the world’s attention. And it did. Terrorism then creates its own sense of twisted art: to be as creative as possible in order to attract the world’s attention and disturb its conscious. This art of terror wants to instill in us Edmund Burke’s “the sublime,” where we feel a sense of impending doom when we view an artwork. Only, they take a step further by not making us feel the relief that comes after having a “sublime” feeling (i.e. that we will walk away with our lives), but that they want to make us feel uncomfortable, that this might happen to us, that we have something to lose. Ah, the politics of discomfort pops up again. The question is, since there is an aesthetic of terror, how do we resist it? I am reminded of Walter Benjamin’s influential and brilliant essay called “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”. In the epilogue section, Benjamin claims that there is an aesthetic of fascism. It tries to make war beautiful in order to maintain the traditional property system. He quotes Filippo Tommaso Marinetti as saying:

For twenty-seven years we Futurists have rebelled against the branding of war as antiaesthetic …. Accordingly we state:… War is beautiful because it establishes man’s dominion over the subjugated machinery by means of gas masks, terrifying megaphones, flame throwers, and small tanks. War is beautiful because it initiates the dream — of metalization of the human body. War is beautiful because it enriches a flowering meadow with the fiery orchids of machine guns. War is beautiful because it combines the gunfire, the cannonades, the cease-fire, the scents, and the sFuturism! … remember these principles of an aesthetics of war so that your struggle for a new literature and a new graphic art… may be illumined by them!tench of putrefaction into a symphony. War is beautiful because it creates new architecture, like that of the big tanks, the geometrical formation flights, the smoke spirals from burning villages, and many others …. Poets and artists of Futurism! … remember these principles of an aesthetics of war so that your struggle for a new literature and a new graphic art… may be illumined by them!

Benjamin believed that communism’s goal (Benjamin was a Marxist theorist) was to respond back to this aesthetic of fascism. Today, there has been a development of an aesthetic of terror. Terrorists use the world as its stage, come up with creative ways to shock and capture the world’s attention, use symbolic imageries dear to people (national or religious), poetic explanations, etc., to justify their attacks and attract recruits. Due to the rapid development in technology and globalization, terrorists display videos with religious or national music in the background, link causes to religious or national causes and battles of the past, display their “martyred” comrades in a good light by describing their efforts in a poetical way by using national or religious imageries. Certainly, there has been a drive by terrorists to romanticize their cause by creating an aesthetic of terror. Benjamin believed that the dangerous aesthetic of fascism could be dealt with, is there a possibility that we can also counter and resist the aesthetic of terror?  

3. Humans and Violence. After the attacks, I have been thinking about our species’ propensity for violence. Some believe that humans are inherently violent and others believe that violence has been a phenomena for our species for the past 5000 years. Are we by nature violent or do we only respond with violence in reaction to the circumstances that we are placed in? Or is it a combination of both? To further go along this theme, do modern institutions make us more violent or do they make us “nobler”? Studies show that the incidents of violence is declining among humans. A short yet fascinating essay by the incredible Steven Pinker entitled “A History of Violence” states that modern institutions in fact make us nobler. If violence among humans is on the decline and modern institutions make us peaceful, does it mean that terrorism is a manifestation of those who have been either been purposefully excluded by them or is it a reaction against modern institutions? Once again we arrive at motives. We’re back to square one.

Once again, I would like to send my deepest condolences to those who have been affected by the attacks. A loss of even one innocent life is tragic enough.

Currently listening to: The Replacements – Let It Be

November 22, 2008

Islamic Calligraphy & Abstract Expressionism

Filed under: Uncategorized — galileehitchhiker @ 9:16 pm
Ismail Gulgees Allah painting

Ismail Gulgee's "Allah" painting

After a long and tiring day full of classes, a friend of mine and I usually go down to the undergrad Muslim Students Association (MSA) room, which is a five minutes walking distance away from the law school. Its comfortable mattresses, cushions, chairs, and warmth (also the delicious gumballs!) provide a great sense of stability and calmness after being stuck inside what seems to be a neverending whirlpool. While sitting on the mattress with my back against the wall and talking to Usman (and chewing on six gumballs at a time), I kept observing a couple of beautiful artworks posted on the wall. Both of them were created by someone who went to Hofstra and showed his tremendous skill in classical Islamic calligraphy. I told Usman that I should become an Islamic calligraphist which made him laugh because I have the world’s worst handwriting. I joked to him about becoming the abstract expressionist of the Islamic calligraphy world. I’m afraid, however, that such a move on my part would lead me not to an art gallery, but to a shooting gallery instead.

I’m a huge fan of Islamic calligraphy and have developed a strong interest in it — not in creating of course but purely from an academic standpoint (viz., its development, cultural and societal influences/expression of the art form, the relationship between language and art, evolution of various scripts, etc.). To my pleasant surprise, there has been an Islamic calligraphist who has been impacted by abstract expressionism. The late Ismail Gulgee, a world-renowned Pakistani abstract artist, was influenced by both Islamic calligraphy and American gestural abstraction. I think that the marriage between the two, what seem to be polar opposites, is an interesting one. The union is between an art form which on one hand focuses on form while the other focuses on the inner expression of an existential struggle. The union of the two give such an artwork both the elegance of Islamic calligraphy and the lively, colorful, full-of-life, self-aware, intense emotions of action painting. While it seems like mixing the two art forms would lead to an incompatible/disastrous result, it is in fact a beautiful harmony between the calm and chaotic – an awe-inspiring moment between the rise and crashing of a wave. A conversation between the sacred and the profane; a dialogue between the spiritual and the concrete. A story of life told within and without it. For a brief discussion of Islamic calligraphy’s contact with modern art, check out this essay by the Met.

Currently listening to: The Velvet Underground – Loaded

October 30, 2008

On Ugliness

Filed under: Uncategorized — galileehitchhiker @ 11:04 pm
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There’s an interesting article in the Times today about ugliness and how it impacts society. It has become a hot topic for philosophers, economists, sociologists, other academics, popular culture, and even the law. You can read it here:

Above is a painting by Jean Dubuffet, a French painter, who was known for creating “ugly” art and held an exhibition entitled Plus beaux qu’ils croient (More beautiful than they believe). Although, Dubuffet shocked society with his art, there was some reason to his madness: perhaps, there is no such thing as ugliness or even that ugliness and beauty are virtually the same, indistinguishable.

Currently listening to: Led Zeppelin – Physical Graffiti

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