“We Committed Intellectual Suicide After 9/11” Pankraj Mishra

Did Osama Bin Laden’s 9/11 attack set in motion dominoes that is leading to destruction in the Muslim world and self destruction in the West? Worth reading interview on Pankraj Mishra’s book, Age of Anger. f.sheikh 

Historian and intellectual Pankaj Mishra’s latest book Age of Anger: A History of the Present, published earlier this month, presents what Mishra calls “an emotional history” at a time of “worldwide emergency” when rage fills the global political sphere. Mishra locates the core of our chaotic condition in the Nietzchean concept of “ressentiment,” a creative force that animates the rebellion of the poorest and most disenfranchised against the ruling class. It is this very force, Mishra argues, that is animating those most marginalized, its power whetted by the contradiction between the equality promised in prose and exalted in rhetoric but never delivered in reality.

Mishra recently traveled to the United States, during the pause between President Trump’s first travel ban on the citizens of seven Muslim countries, and all refugees, and the striking down of his new one. A few days after we spoke, the President’s new budget pledged to do away with the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the National Endowment for the Arts. The budget for the U.S. State Department is to be slashed while the U.S. Defense budget will be augmented by billions of dollars. It certainly seems that the world is at the brink of even more war, more destruction, more displacement, and more turning away. In our conversation, Mishra and I spoke about the prescience of Age of Anger and his framing of our bleak and divided global moment.

Rafia Zakaria: The very first page of your book describes its stages of production: beginning at Modi, writing through Brexit and published with the election of Donald Trump. When you were at the beginning of this intellectual journey, did you foresee how it would proceed, both in terms of the books and the politics it aspires to explain?

Pankaj Mishra: I wish I could claim that kind of prescience. I knew that things were going very wrong in Europe and that inequality was an issue in the U.S. I did not know Brexit would happen or that Donald Trump would be elected. I just thought that there would be very large number of people who would vote for him, but I hoped that not enough would go as far as actually electing a maniac and a troll to the White House. I wrote my book obviously taking into account the state of dissatisfaction, but I could not predict the political outcome.

RZ: A dominant theme in your book is dislodging the post 9/11 assumption that terrorism as a phenomenon must be pinned on Islam and Muslims. You write: “The experts on Islam who opened for business following 9/11 peddle their wares more feverishly after every terror attack.” Who are these “experts,” and to what extent do you see their cultivation as a threat to those they seek to represent? 

PM: We, and by that I mean “the intelligentsia,” made a catastrophic mistake after 9/11 when we located the roots of terror in Islam, saying that there is something peculiar in their political tradition that explains an eruption of violence. That perspective looked past the mixed history of terrorism, and we now see that regardless of whether it is in Burma or Thailand or India, militancy and terrorism emerge out of a confluence of socio-economic factors. It is a sign of desperation and despair. This idea that it belongs to Islam in particular is a very dangerous idea; it was made mainstream and it was legitimated not just by the far right who are in charge of policy today (and have been engaging in this puerile debate), but also by the liberal intelligentsia.

Francis Fukuyama, for instance, said there is something intrinsic about Islam which is just not compatible with modernity. Then there is Salman Rushdie and even Martin Amis, talking about mass deportation as part of a thought experiment that he offered to a journalist. In sum, all sorts of mainstream figures were advancing this Islamophobic discourse in very holistic and dangerous ways, and in the guise of teaching Islam or understanding Islam or helping the Muslim moderates. This is why we are where we are today.

 

Now we see that when bigotry leads the West, and the leading bigot in the U.S. is President, it becomes impossible to explain it in relation to Islam or Christianity. So we are looking at the dislodging of a whole interpretive paradigm that has proven an utterly useless way of understanding the world. We need an analysis that compares the fundamentalists of today, whether they are Muslim or Christian or Jewish supremacists; their misogyny, their antipathy to multiculturalism, is markedly similar.  It is what links them that needs to be explored, the shared experience of disruptive social change, psychological disorientation, scorn, and humiliation.

I just returned from Myanmar where Buddhist monks have become ethnic cleansers. I would challenge anyone to explain their violence from the content of Buddhism. None can be found; it is socio-economic. A large number of the monks feel their power is being in a globalized capitalist economy, and you have to understand that to explain how Buddhists are becoming terrorists. We committed intellectual suicide soon after 9/11 when we started thinking of Islam as a generator of violence.

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