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Letters against the war

by Matteo Tomasina

Letter against the war (2002), India Research Press, $36. ISBN – 8188353000: DOWNLOAD FOR FREE

imagesAfter the tragic event of 9/11 in New York the reaction of people in Western countries was strongly emotional, characterized by fear, anxiety, sense of insecurity, but also anger for what happened and solidarity towards the victims. The director of the Italian newspaper Il Corriere della Sera, Ferruccio de Bortoli, ended his first editorial after the bloodshed with the sentence “We are all Americans”. Some days later (26/11), a long article appeared on the same newspaper, signed this time by the popular and worldwide known journalist and writer Oriana Fallaci. The Rage and the Pride – this was the title – contained a strong invective against the Islamic world, describing its values and religion as “inferior” to the western ones and not compatible with freedom and democracy. In her opinion, Islamic extremism is leading to a new form of totalitarianism. Finally, the Western countries were described as weak in front of the Islamic menace, and the policies of openness and tolerance were sharply criticized.

It did not take long for the answers to come. The scholar Umberto Eco and the writer Dacia Maraini reacted to Fallaci’s article, supporting the values of pluralism and multiculturalism in society, and criticizing her view of the Islam as simplistic, and her position as totalitarian itself. On the other side, the political scientist Giovanni Sartori, professor at Columbia University, supported Fallaci’s analysis on some points.

But  the strongest answer to Oriana Fallaci came from an other famous journalist, Tiziano Terziani, with the article The Sultan and St. Francis of 4th October 2011.

Letters against the war is the book written in 2002 by Tiziano Terzani in order to develop and clarify the ideas expressed in the debate with Oriana Fallaci. Few months after the terrorist attack of 9/11 in New York, the main concern of the author is about the reaction to the terrorist attack in both the Western World (Europe and the U.S.A) and the Islamic World (the wide space extending from North Africa to Indonesia). Referring to his personal experience as reporter in different Asian countries and a strong ethical commitment to pacifism and non-violence, the author’s aim is to indicate a “new path” to the human kind in order to avoid a never-ending spiral of violence and hatred due to a “clash of civilizations”.

The book combines different features: each of the eight chapter is written in the form of a letter, addressed to a general audience – with the only exception of the third letter, explicitly addressed to Terzani’s colleague Oriana Fallaci. Despite of the plain, conversational and confidential language typical of the epistolary medium, Letters against the war contains many references to philosophical authors and historical situations, and can be considered as a manifesto of pacifism and tolerance.

The book can be divided in three parts. The first one consists of three letters, all sent by Italy. It contains a general analysis of the global situation after the 9/11, and a critical opinion about the policy of the Western countries, especially the USA, in the Middle East. It contains also some considerations about the media and journalistic ethics, and the necessary conditions for mutual understanding and tolerance.

Terzani spent most of his life as a reporter in Asia

Terzani spent most of his life as a reporter in Asia

In Terzani’s view, Islamic extremism is a response to the “westernization” and a struggle for  identity. He makes a comparison to other similar cases, such as the Boxer Rebellion in the Imperial China. He claims that the decision of the USA to employ the military force in Lebanon, Libya, Iran and Iraq since the ‘80s has increasingly exacerbated the feeling of revanche in the Islamic world. The axiom underling this position is very clear: “hatred generates hatred”. On this base, he criticizes the decision of the Bush administration to invade the Afghanistan as response to the new terroristic attack: it can not remove the real causes of the menace. “The problem of terrorism will be not solved by killing terrorists, but by eliminating the causes that make people become such”, he claims. Criticizing the western media, Terzani observes that mainstream press and television are one-sided, because they are mainly focused on what concerns the people of the first world: “the world of others is not represented”.  For all his career as a reporter in Asian countries, he himself has tried to represent the “view of the other”. In Europe and U.S.A, the terrorist attack has been presented as a strike against freedom of democracy, when in his opinion it can more likely be reduced to a reaction to the USA foreign policy. Consider global phenomena also from the point of view of the people of the Third Worl means to understand that violence and terrorism can appear in different forms, and “we must accept that for others the terrorist may be the businessman who arrives in a poor Third World country, not with a bomb in his briefcase but with the plans for a chemical factory”. Terzani refers to the day before the terrorist attack to the Twin Towers as “the last day of our former life”. In his view, what happened on the 9/11 in New York can already be considered a radical turning point for our lives and for the recent history of human kind: the beginning of a new season of warfare, savagery, but also “restricted freedom and intolerance”. But this pessimist view is soon balanced by what can be considered as an “opportunity”: the tragedy of the terrorist attack can be the occasion to reflect about the reasons of the violent reaction of the Islamic extremism against the western world without rage and prejudice, and to consider wisely the possibility of a non-violent counteraction.

In the central part, the book contains a short journalistic reportage conducted by the author in Pakistan and Afghanistan. According to his personal background as a reporter, Terzani decides to provide first-person impressions about the situation in the countries and the possible consequences of the foreseen American military intervention after the New York terrorist attack. What he reports from the cities of Quetta, Peshawar and Kabul is the increasing radicalization of the anti-western positions and the religious fanaticism. He can not avoid to link this with the beginning of the US military operation against the Talibans and the material destruction it caused. It also gives him the opportunity to confute some of the information provided by the western press about violations committed by the Talibans towards the civil population.

Tiziano Terzani at the end of his life (flyhigh)
Tiziano Terzani (flyhigh)

The last part of the book is the more involved with the topic of pacifism and non-violence. Terzani’s pacifism directly refers to the individual. He quotes to the Unesco Charter, saying that “since wars begin in the mind of men, it is in the mind of men the defences of peace must be constructed”. Referring also to Indian XIX century philosophy and works of Mahatma Gandhi, he claims that a spiritual progress of the man is thinkable, like his material progress. Human nature is not fixed and immutable, and it is possible for the man to “make break with his past and make a qualitative leap in his evolution … [be] less attached to the material realm, more committed to his relationship with his neighbours and less rapacious with the rest of the universe”. Also the traditional meaning of the word jihad can be rediscovered, like an inner holy wars against egoistic passions. Even the vision of the pluralism and tolerance is linked to general, universalistic considerations. Western policy and Islamic fanaticism shares the same background: the attempt to reduce all the world to a unique system of values. They are both totalitarian and intolerant in their attempts of radical spiritualization or radical commodification of lives. The real alternative to ideology is a logic of coexistence instead of competition, the refusal of the concept of “superior civilization” and the view of harmony and order as “balance of opposites”, in order to allow a pacific coexistence of the differents.

What Terzani claims is a strong moral commitment of every individual, through every kind of choice, from political participation to economical investment, in order to promote peace and refuse violence.

Terzani’s pacifism as promoted in Letters against the Wars can be considered both moral and pragmatic. The refusal of the war is a refusal of violence in general, not just for moral reasons but also because “violence generates more violence”. Cost of wars are superior to the results achieved. This view can be criticized – for instance when the use of violence in measure can allow to avoid a greater violence. The appeal to a change in “human nature” allows also us to consider Terzani’s book as an example of Utopian pacifism.

Apart from the topic of pacifism, the most valuable part of the book can be considered the one concerned with the ethics of journalism: the intention to show “the view of the others” is not just claimed, but realized in the central part of the book. The short reportage in the war-zones contributes to demystify some of the “official truths” proclaimed during the conflict, like the real attitude of the Afghan population towards the Taliban regime.

Despite its limits, Letters against the Wars represents both an outstanding reportage and an inspiring example of civic engagement.


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