Friday, 17 April 2009

Piracy is not Jihad, explaining it is not excusing it

Johan Hari puts his finger on the real story behind the hijackings and subsequent spectacular rescue of American sailors off the Horn of Africa (1).

And like all truth tellers, he gets excoriated for it. After all, we can’t allow that there might be reasons why people act in ways that we don’t like, because that suggests our behaviour might be, in someways, unreasonable. That there might be a link between what we do, and what happens to us.

Let’s be clear about one thing first of all – explanation is not exculpation. Somali pirates are criminals trying to extort ransom through theft and violence. The hijackers who destroyed the twin towers on the 11th of Spetember, 2001, were evil, murderous terrorists.

But the point is that these people didn’t do it just for the Hell of it. The Somali pirates, at least initially, didn’t even do it for the money. And they certainly didn’t do it because they are part of some global jihad. They did it for the same reason that anyone in their position would have done it – to stay alive.

They live in a failed state, where career options are limited to being a victim or a victimizer. By, on the one hand, stealing their fish stocks, and on the other, poisoning what was left by dumping toxic waste into the water off the Horn, the first world robbed the dirt poor coastal Somalis of the former choice- they couldn’t subsist on what they could catch, because we stole it, or poisoned it. So they had to become victimizers. Which, in Somalia, means either joining a warlord’s retinue, or preying on the spectacularly rich pickings of the world’s key shipping routes.

Just like their 17th century European forebears, the current crop of Somali pirates are responding to economic necessity. They resorted to piracy because they weren't able to make their living - even by Somali standards - by traditional fishing, because all the fish were being taken by foreign fleets, or poisoned by dumping, again by foreigners. Then they dscovered there was a Hell of a lot of money to be made through piracy - a lot of attendant risk, of course, but given the choice was between starvation, joining some warlord's army or turning pirate, no worse than that involved in any of the alternatives. Given the profitability of preying on first world shipping, it might be rather difficult to persuade them that it isn't a good idea, now that the practice is established.

Again, this is not excusing their action.

It is an attempt to explain why it happened, because a gaggle of Somali fishermen wake up one morning and decide they’d had enough harvesting the ocean’s bounty, and would rather risk their lives storming ships and invoking the wrath of the world’s navies. Fundamentally, it's about economics. The pirate kings get to live like monarchs, the actual foot soldiers get a living, and the security of being part of an armed force in a Hellish sort of place where there aren't many alternatives.

This pattern is repeated all across the Muslim world from Somalia, to Palestine, Kasmir, Afghanistan, the Uighir territories contained within the PRC. In all these places, people are responding to circumstances. Because, generally, they are desperate, or facing violence, their responses shock us in the west. We refuse to admit our own culpability, or the indifference that has lead to these situations. We don’t care. We’ve let the chickens flap about, and now they are coming home to roost.

And we can’t accept that, so we accept the suggestion that this is all part of some fantastical global Jihad – the Uighir separatists in China, the Cechyens, the Palestinains, the Somalis, the Jangaweed in Darfur. Because admitting that these disparate struggles might not be part of some global war against anything non-Islamic forces us to face up to something pretty intolerable – that the worlds a hideous mess, and our greed and indifference and venality and cruelty are what has allowed it to become this way. We could have created a world which was, if not perfect, at least a lot more tolerable for a much greater number of people, and where people weren’t reduced to piracy and terrorism because no one really give a fuck about them until they do.

While we ignore these conflicts, Al Queada do not. They colonise them and exploit them. Hence the murderers who blew themselves to pieces on the London underground mouthed some banalities about doing it for Palestine, Kasmir and the like. Future terrorists who target the west will be Chechyen, Uighir - because we're blithely ignoring their sufferring and oppression, and Al Queada are far more capable and willing to exploit it than we are at dealing with it.
1 - 'You Are Being Lied to About Pirates,' by Johann Hari, posted on The Huffington Post, 13th of Apri, 2009. (

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