Mumbai: the nihilism that dare not speak its name

The terrible assaults on the Indian city of growth and ambition suggest that contemporary terrorism is not as alien as we think.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

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As the awful assaults on Mumbai seem to be coming to an end, with at least 130 people dead, the two questions everyone is asking is ‘who did this?’ and ‘why?’ We seem unable to work out who the culprits are (whether they are linked to al-Qaeda, Pakistan, or nobody in particular) and what they hoped to achieve with their coordinated attacks on Indian, American, British and Israeli citizens.

One Indian observer, expressing a broader sense of intellectual frustration, says it is probably pointless to investigate the ‘etiology’ of the attacks – that is, their root cause and the conditions in which they incubated – and simply accept that the attackers were ‘faceless, spawned by that global industry called international terrorism’. ‘India’s 9/11’ is discussed as something akin to a natural disaster, which came from nowhere and could hit any modern city at any time: ‘The mayhem in Mumbai is… the price we pay for living in open, democratic, liberal societies. What happened in Mumbai yesterday could happen tomorrow in Moscow, London or Tokyo.’ (1)

On one level, these existential debates about ‘who’, ‘why’ and ‘where next’ reflect the increasingly amorphous nature of terrorism itself, where groups tend not to give prior warnings of their attacks or claim political responsibility for them afterwards. Yet they also reveal something about us, about Western and mainstream societies more broadly. Our inability to name or even properly to describe the terrorist threat, our seeming abandonment of ‘etiology’, reflects a lack of intellectual clarity in the ruling capitals – a profound confusion not only about who ‘they’ are, but also about who ‘we’ are, and what it is about our societies that is worth defending from this hurricane-style ‘mayhem’ that ‘does not respect national boundaries’ (2).

Perhaps one reason why Western political and media circles find it difficult to describe ‘those people’ who carried out such horrendous attacks is because they are not as alien as we might hope. It is not easy to paint them as utterly foreign bodies that have invaded society. Indeed, the London Evening Standard today reports that some of the gunmen were British (3).

Even if that turns out not to be true, it seems pretty clear that the attackers – like the Bali, Madrid and 9/11 groups before them – were influenced in some way by the same sense of disillusionment with progress and modernity that is rampant in contemporary society. The violence in Mumbai, targeted at exclusive hotels, restaurants, a crowded train station, suggests yet again that contemporary terrorism is a howl of adolescent rage, a diffuse anger that lashes out against symbols of modernity rather than a traditional political campaign.

From the destruction of the Twin Towers to the explosions on the Madrid and London train systems, from the killing of scores of chilled-out holidaymakers in Bali to, now, the shooting of people who were eating fancy food or staying in five-star hotels, these acts look more and more like tantrums against change, growth, movement, and anything that has the whiff of the new about it. That might go some way to explaining why, in India over the past decade, Mumbai has become an increasingly important target for terrorists, even more so than the traditional political centre of Delhi. In 1993, 257 were killed in bombings in Mumbai. In March 2003, 11 were killed in a train bombing, and in August 2003, 52 were killed by two car bombs in the heart of Mumbai’s financial district. In July 2006, 187 people were killed by bombs planted in the first-class carriages of trains, those more likely to be carrying white-collar workers, the people at the forefront of Mumbai’s technological and financial revolutions (4).

It seems to me that the attackers of Mumbai over the past 10 years, whoever they are, and whether they adopt the name of ‘Kashmiri Liberation’ or ‘Deccan Mujahideen’, have instinctively hated Mumbai for its growth (as symbolised by its frequently attacked financial centre); for its transformation into a teeming, fast-moving city of millions (as symbolised by its overcrowded rail system, ruthlessly attacked again and again); and for what one Indian commentator describes as its position as ‘the most cosmopolitan city of India’ (as symbolised by its non-Indian communities and its thriving tourist industry, both of which have been attacked in recent years) (5).

These are not political targets, with the attacks intended to weaken ‘the enemy’ in order to make political or territorial gains. They are what we might call ‘progress targets’: formless, unspoken, kneejerk attacks against the symbols of growth and technology, against wealth, against hedonism. Indeed, even that element of the Mumbai attacks that seemed more traditionally political – the assault on a police station – was reportedly intended to hamper police efforts to intervene in the major part of the operation: the killing of diners, hotel patrons and train travellers (6). The transformation of Mumbai into a target in recent years symbolises a fundamental shift from political terrorism towards nihilistic outbursts. Mukul Devichand, writing in the Guardian today, argues that what the terrorists really hate is this attempt to ‘remake [Mumbai] as a global hub to rival Shanghai, New York or London’ (7).

It is this anti-modern nature of the terror in Mumbai that makes most Western observers feel uncomfortable – for it suggests that these individuals are influenced more by general global trends than by a narrow-minded, strictly Islamist outlook. Across the West, too, development and progress are viewed as problematic, even threatening and dangerous. In fact, there has been a palpable discomfort in recent years with the rise of ‘Third World cities’ like Mumbai. In some Western circles, Mumbai has become a byword for the problems of modernity. Its alleged overpopulation; its growing equality gap; its big skyscrapers that tower over slums; its rickety railway system; its ‘unchecked greed’ (as one newspaper refers to it today)… all of these are cited as evidence that Mumbai is a ‘problem city’. As one writer put it a few years ago: ‘Pollution, hazardous industrial wastes, rampant diseases and overcrowding have made Mumbai a dangerous city to live in.’ (8)

It is striking that at a time when Mumbai has become a symbol of everything that is rotten about modernity, so it has become an increasingly important target for reactionary terrorists who also probably want to turn the clock back to simpler times. It is telling that at a time when wealth has been relabelled ‘greed’, and when financial centres are seen as the cause of every problem on Earth, so Mumbai is attacked, in the words of one Indian author who has met members of the ‘Muslim underworld’, ‘because of its wealth’ (9). It is revealing that when international travel is described as destructive, and especially harmful to ‘traditional ways of life’ in the Third World, so the most traditionalist elements in some of those societies (India, Indonesia) launch attacks on holidaymakers, hotels, restaurants, nightclubs.

No one has said it out loud in relation to Mumbai yet, but it’s worth remembering that when 202 mostly young, Western tourists were blown up in Bali in 2002, one influential British writer said in the New Statesman that it was not really surprising since youthful tourism in Bali ‘smells of moral casuistry, of self-indulgence, even of that much debated commodity, decadence… Given that there’s good reason to regard tourists as the shock troops of development and post-colonialism, it’s not really surprising, however awful the consequences, that they find themselves targeted by anti-Western militants.’ (10) How many people must secretly be thinking this about Mumbai, too? After all, it was only wealthy people and their Indian servants who were shot down or blown up. Who cares about these representatives of Western decadence, greed, globetrotting?

All of this goes some way to explaining the existential, non-etiological response to Mumbai: because what we have here is really the nihilism that dare not speak its name. The attackers disguise their teenage disgust with shiny Mumbai under grand names such as ‘Mujahideen’, while Western observers feel outraged by the attacks, yes, but also fundamentally estranged from the attackers’ targets: wealth, development, modernity itself. There is, I would venture, a shared, unspoken, unnamed nihilism here. It is far more convenient to label it a ‘mayhem’ that springs from nowhere, and spreads everywhere, than to interrogate its origins and influences. Those of us who believe in growth and progress – and who see in Mumbai a messy but brilliant desire to create a city that is a match for New York or Tokyo – should expose this contemporary unspoken nihilism, and form a firmer attachment to those things that it assaults.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his website here. His satire on the green movement – Can I Recycle My Granny and 39 Other Eco-Dilemmas – is published by Hodder & Stoughton in October. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

(1) Mumbai is my kind of city, Guardian, 27 November 2008

(2) Mumbai is my kind of city, Guardian, 27 November 2008

(3) Mumbai gunmen ‘were British’, Evening Standard, 28 November 2008

(4) Mumbai train attacks, BBC News, 30 September 2006

(5) Where east meets west, Guardian, 27 November 2008

(6) Mumbai is my kind of city, Guardian, 27 November 2008

(7) Where east meets west, Guardian, 27 November 2008

(8) Live volcano: pollution, hazardous industrial wastes, rampant diseases and overcrowding have made Mumbai a dangerous city to live in, New Internationalist, May 1997

(9) The terrorists attacked my city because of its wealth, Guardian, 28 November 2008

(10) Against the western invaders, New Statesman, 9 December 2002

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Topics Politics


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