The war on terror is a strange war. Its targets are not always violent nihilists chasing an illusory revolution. They are dispersed and diverse and often people who lead humdrum lives: a teacher of Urdu, a braggart, a book-seller, a lawyer. The only thing common is that the overwhelming majority of them are Muslims. It is a complex war executed by sophisticated drones and unsophisticated informants, and runs the risk of vilifying, persecuting and alienating one of the world’s largest communities. Many believe that is already happening.
Not surprisingly, as Amitava Kumar says in Evidence of Suspicion, the war has led to vast curtailment of ordinary rights for many, including those living in the US. Initially triggered by a fear psychosis and later helped by a lack of understanding of Islam and an overzealous security apparatus, the derailment of rights has led to what appears to be a miscarriage of justice and a rash of wrongful confinements.
In this perceptive report on this curiously tangled war, Kumar, a teacher of English at an American university, chronicles the stories of a few individuals who, he says, are “criminals but also appear to be victims; (and) if this is true, then they are victims of men who, acting in the role of confidential informants, are in every other respect just like them.”
Ripple effect: Kumar’s case studies show how American paranoia has led to a racial witch-hunt of sorts. Jim MacMillan/AP
Kumar talks about Hasan Elahi, a 30-something, US-based artist who found his name on the terrorist watch list and responded with opening every aspect of his life on the website, a Truman Show of sorts, to protect himself. Elahi aptly named it The Orwell Project. “His aim,” says Kumar, “is to overwhelm those who have him under surveillance.” He writes about the American lawyer Lynne Stewart, who was barred from legal practice for providing “material support” to Islamic terrorists. Her crime: reading out to the media a statement by her client, a blind and infirm Egyptian cleric sent to prison for conspiring to bomb the United Nations building, about his opposition to a ceasefire in Egypt.
But the most gripping story in Kumar’s oeuvre has to be that of Hemant Lakhani. An ailing, delusional bragger from Gujarat, Lakhani was indicted for providing material support to terrorists, unlawful brokering and money laundering. He is suspected to have sold a missile to a man who he believed was a terrorist and agreed to broker supplies of 200 more such missiles. No missile was delivered and Lakhani was unable to find a seller.
But the evidence, as Kumar shows, points to wrongdoing at the instance of an undercover government agent: Taped transcripts of Lakhani’s idle chatter and boasting evidently played a part in the indictment. The prosecution painted him as a sophisticated arms dealer, says Kumar, with only an empty missile container to show for evidence. It is the breathtaking story of an entrapment of a naïve and greedy man by a shady informant.
In Kumar’s stories, the shadowy informant is often a doppelganger of the prey he is trying to entrap—a “man of small means, beset with difficulties, projecting himself onto a grand stage…each one a failed man in many ways, with more than a touch of desperation, dreaming of success.” On many occasions, both are immigrants struggling for some meaning and dignity in their confused lives.
Kumar poses some important questions as he straddles reportage, philosophy and protest in this slim, but important book. Has security become a charade, a racial witch-hunt of sorts which ends up catching the wrong people? His portraits are frightening examples of miscarriage of justice by a paranoid state. At the same time, to write off security as a charade is far-fetched. There must have been a lot of good sleuthing done, with or without the aid of dubious informants, to ensure that the US has not had a terror strike in the nine years since 9/11.
The disturbing question that emerges from the book is about the role of the state and people in this war. Artist Martha Rosler says the state and the individual must not be confused. “The state is not a person. The state feels no pleasure, no pain.” It’s an eloquent, but simplistic statement. Post-9/11, many people have connived with the state to vilify Islam, hound innocents and destroy lives. They have participated in the conspiracy of silence as old prejudices have come to the fore. To say that the people were entirely misled by the state is gross simplification. For people, often, are as flawed as the state.
Soutik Biswas is the India editor of the BBC News website. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org