There is a proliferation of literature today on the geopolitical aspects of jihad and Islamic extremism in South Asia. And yet, the discourses on jihad in the region are rarely nuanced or problematised. They have an inherent tendency to explain the phenomenon from a religion-centric perspective infused with grand civilisational definitions and also to see it as a practice of statecraft. In other words, contemporary literature and discourses on jihad treat it as an essentialist problem and often address it by communal shaming and ruthless eradication.
What is missing is a sociological reading of Islamic extremism, one which looks at it in the light of people's (or victims?) daily lived experiences, one that highlights their appalling existential conditions, and one that scans the structural conditions that are shaped by faith, indoctrination, misperception, ignorance, and the general inability to make free choices.
It is the narrow and ‘anti-intellectual' understanding of such social — not primarily geopolitical — problems that render state policies so helpless when confronted with the high levels of social legitimacy and popular acceptability commanded by jihad and the jihadis. That is precisely why the international community is forced to make peace with the Afghan Taliban today, after exhausting every other option, although Taliban was the reason why Afghanistan was attacked in the first place. Dilip Hiro's book Jihad on Two Fronts is an excellent example of such broad-brush treatment of an important subject.
Rich in detail
Written by an experienced journalist whose knowledge of the region is commendable, the book does have its strengths. It is rich in detail and in personalised narratives of the various aspects of jihad in the region. Hiro also attempts to draw a big picture of geopolitical developments in the region viewed from a historical perspective. This surely is a layperson's introduction to the origins of jihad in contemporary South Asia. Moreover, if you have a dislike for complex intellectual formulations, there is no reason to worry, for reading Hiro's narrative is like looking at a picture that is pleasing to the eyes: simple, yet rich in detail.
However, the book suffers from a number of serious weaknesses. In a sense, its strengths are also its weaknesses. The narrative is far too simplistic and suffers from an overdose of details. The book is not well structured and hence lacks a sense of direction. The narrative style shifts from autobiographical to historical to political and to religious, not necessarily in that order. Above all, there is little attempt to neatly tie the multiple aspects of the jihad phenomenon.
Sometimes, one begins to wonder whether Hiro is writing a novel or a serious book on jihad; indeed, he has written both in the past. Witness this sentence: “In the heart of bustling, noisy, sprawling port city of Karachi lies a grand park occupying 185 acres, which is incredibly quiet except for the chirping of sparrows and cawing of cows.”
The big picture Hiro has endeavoured to produce is faulty, I am afraid. He sees a conspiracy theory in every important event of the region and hardly any scope for hope. Some of his arguments are clearly untenable. For example, an entire chapter puts up the argument that Afghanistan is America's second Vietnam, but at the end of it the reader remains not fully convinced that it is indeed the case.
Intellectual enterprises need to be geared towards a set purpose. What is presented is nothing more than a rehash of available material on terrorism, Islamic extremism, jihad etc., some of it from Hiro's own earlier books. There is hardly any attempt to break new conceptual ground or put forth any new empirical argument.
It is claimed that, using the “archival material released by the Kremlin in 2009, as well as the secret and classified cables sent by embassies in Kabul, Islamabad and Delhi, the author challenges the conventional historical narratives of the main layers: Afghanistan, Pakistan, America, India and the Soviet Union”. But the book doesn't do justice to this claim. By bringing in too many variables and covering a vast expanse of spatio-temporal territory, it seems to complicate the picture, and the complication is clearly not positive or useful.
After going through the book that has no refreshing intellectual insight and no significant suggestion to offer on the policy front, an informed reader is inevitably left with the question: And so, what's new about Hiro's narrative?
JIHAD ON TWO FRONTS — South Asia's Unfolding Drama: Dilip Hiro; HarperCollins Publishers, A-53, Sector-57, Noida-201301. Rs. 699.