Being afraid. Being very afraid… and yet, not.

In which, after weeks of desultory efforts to get my head around the origins, dynamics, status and potential consequences of ISIS (as connected to our war on terror, the Syrian civil war, and various other difficult vectors), I realize that I’m doing exactly the thing that I thought I had sounded a bell against in The Ever After of Ashwin Rao. Here’s a early-morning-waking-in-terror piece I wrote last month, but never published:

Be afraid! Be very afraid!

It’s 4 in the morning on May 26, the day India’s new Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, will be sworn in, and while the dogs go on with their doggy life, I awake in a cold sweat. Months ago, the Economist—no hotbed of radical lefties—had Modi on its cover, in an article that demanded he be called to account for the bloody 2002 riots in the state of Gujarat, which occurred under his watch as Chief Minister there. Here’s their summary of the problem:
Mr Modi’s performance as chief minister of Gujarat shows that he is set on economic development and can make it happen. Mr Gandhi’s coalition is tainted by corruption. By comparison Mr Modi is clean. So there is much to admire. Despite that, this newspaper cannot bring itself to back Mr Modi for India’s highest office.
The reason begins with a Hindu rampage against Muslims in Gujarat in 2002, in which at least 1,000 people were slaughtered. The orgy of murder and rape in Ahmedabad and the surrounding towns and villages was revenge for the killing of 59 Hindu pilgrims on a train by Muslims.
Mr Modi had helped organise a march on the holy site at Ayodhya in 1990 which, two years later, led to the deaths of 2,000 in Hindu-Muslim clashes. A lifelong member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a Hindu nationalist group in whose cause he has vowed lifelong celibacy, he made speeches early in his career that shamelessly whipped up Hindus against Muslims. In 2002 Mr Modi was chief minister and he was accused of allowing or even abetting the pogrom.
Mr Modi’s defenders, and there are many, especially among the business elite, point to two things. First, repeated investigations—including by the admirably independent Supreme Court—have found nothing to charge their man with. And second, they say, Mr Modi has changed. He has worked tirelessly to attract investment and to boost business for the benefit of Hindus and Muslims alike. Think, they say, of the huge gains to poor Muslims across India of a well-run economy.
On both counts, that is too generous. One reason why the inquiries into the riots were inconclusive is that a great deal of evidence was lost or wilfully destroyed. And if the facts in 2002 are murky, so are Mr Modi’s views now. He could put the pogroms behind him by explaining what happened and apologising. Yet he refuses to answer questions about them. In a rare comment last year he said he regretted Muslims’ suffering as he would that of a puppy run over by a car. Amid the uproar, he said he meant only that Hindus care about all life. Muslims—and chauvinist Hindus—heard a different message. (

In my most recent novel, an Indo-Canadian man whose family was killed in the 1985 bombing of an Air India jet turns bitter at neglect by the Canadian government for its part in failing to prevent or properly investigate the bombing. The man is my invention; the all-too-real bombing one of many counter-strikes in a war between extremist Sikhs in India and the then-ruling Congress party, though this incident was planned and carried out in Canada, where bungling and ignorance facilitated it. When my character returns to India to grieve, he is approached by Hindu nationalists like those who long formed Modi’s base. They convince him to turn over his salary to their causes.
I wish this were an outlandish scenario, but it’s not. Many people will agree that radicals are made, not born, but it’s in acknowledging our part in the mechanism of production that Westerners fall short. We ignore or allow ourselves to be befuddled by the complications of civil conflicts elsewhere, particularly because it is so hard to figure out what our own governments’ or citizens’ culpability or responsibility might be. (Jon Stewart’s take on the Indian election results was all about this. At least ‘Modi’ is easy to say, unlike most of our names.)
Here’s what’s giving me the sweats: it’s a fantastic time in the free world to be anti-Muslim. Modi has received warm congratulations from leaders around the world. Encomia for the leader of an economic powerhouse; paeans to a pluralistic nation uniting in the exercise of their democratic right. And he knows he can count on a similar outpouring of readily available anti-Muslim rhetoric when the next suicide bombing happens. I fear the places he might go with that support. Where is the leader who will seize this moment to make Modi say something meaningful about 2002? To make him promise: never again.
India elected a Prime Minister in 1998 who shared Modi’s Hindu chauvinist roots: Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who distanced himself from his extremist in order to reach office, and then, right after 9/11, went head-to-head with Pakistan in a terrifying nuclear standoff.
I was in India that summer, 2002, just a few months after those riots that Modi failed to prevent. A great season for Muslim-hating around the world. A time when American moderates were afraid to voice their views, when it was easier, as it always is, to take a simple line against terrorists rather than trying to acknowledge, let alone parse, the ways our actions and attitudes contribute to the growth of extremism far, far away. I haven’t been back since, for reasons unrelated to the violence or the standoff, but will go, this December, and will be looking for what has changed.

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