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Wednesday, May 24, 2017

The Al Jazeera documentary, From Caribbean to Caliphate, on Trinidad’s seemingly outsize per capita contribution to ISIS’s ranks wouldn’t have been news to anyone here with eyes, ears, and average intelligence. Strangely though, apart from a little flailing about last week by the Attorney General, the furore seems to have subsided. The reason, I’d guess, is that the fundamental facts of the documentary can’t really be denied.

The truth is that militant Islam finds a fertile field here. Its first phase started in the 1980s and culminated in 1990. Many Trinidadians obsessed with “the national image abroad” seem unaware this was the first salvo in fundamentalist Islam’s inevitable confrontation with the West. Twenty-seven years later thugs dressed like Muslims in Trinidad freely admit on camera to planning terrorist attacks and other assorted crimes.

Knowing much of this in advance, Juliana Ruhfus and Dom Rotheroe probably did come here with a script already conceived. But they found plenty evidence to support it. The AG said Ruhfus interviewed him at length, but none of it appeared in the documentary. No surprise there, as glibness and prolixity are poor substitutes for substance and facts when you’re talking to someone smart and well-informed.

Former minister Gary Griffith was given some time, but used it to suggest young men and women would join ISIS for a US$1,000 a month salary, which is laughable. It didn’t counter the main idea driving the story: Shane Crawford and Fareed Mustapha, Trinidad’s first ISIS fighters, as a metonym for a sick nation where a “rich mix of violence, marginalisation and disillusion (sic)” cause young people to see solace in a glorious, meaningful death for Islam.

This nihilism which affects such a large part of the population is barely acknowledged, but it can’t be dismissed. It’s evident to even an outsider. Its genesis is in the huge underclass whose numbers and composition official intelligence (the CSO, government agencies) seems clueless about. The mood of the underclass is evident from an article in an ISIS magazine, where Crawford is quoted as encouraging believers to make Trinidadian streets “run with blood.”

This appears to be a desire for revenge more than religious fervour. But revenge for what? Of course: “oppression.” The ISIS recruits, ostensibly Afro and Indo, didn’t leave Trinidad in response to the recent economic downturn. They left (circa 2013) when money was plentiful. But none of this bounty accrued to them, hence their retreat into Islam. Their understanding of their plight is articulated by Yasin Abu Bakr: they were, he said, “the same old slave population no one ever did anything for. They just sit in the ghetto and do nothing, and then the drugs come in.”

Following Bakr’s explicit statement, the documentary implicitly endorses black oppression as a reason for the spread of militant Islam, beginning with the Jamaat from the 1980s. The pervasiveness of this belief is evident not only from the interview subjects—Abu Bakr, his son, the gentleman known as “Krysis,” Ashmead Mohammed, Umar Abdullah—but also the visual language of the documentary, in many images of shacks, slums, squalor and aggressive young black men.

And here (outside of corrupt, malignant State institutions and decades of unchecked illegal immigration creating a massive hidden underclass) is a major reason for this rage which has expressed itself in Islam: a pseudo-history of oppression, whose main interconnected themes are Carnivalism, slavery and persistent ethnic inequity working against Africans.

Indo-Muslims have left for ISIS as well, but the oppressor these days in the minds of many Trinidadians is not the white world, but the local Indian. It’s a narrative relentlessly repeated on talk radio, in newspaper columns, in academia. In last week’s Express, Selwyn Cudjoe began to beat the drum again, saying Indians were brought here to stymie the economic progress of Africans.

I think the visiting journalists understood this interlinking. The documentary’s opening shot is of Carnival, which recurs as a leitmotif, and the video ends with it. But it’s not seen as its apologists intend. It is seen as decadence and pathological escapism which enables injustice and inequity, once revellers could be jammin’ still.

But paradoxically it is in the Carnival that the theme of black oppression finds its most consistent expression and widest platform. From the calypsonians’ constant refrain of black oppression to the re-enactment of Canboulay, to the obscenely funny determination to brand it simultaneously as “national” and African”—this assemblage of ideas shapes the society’s mindset almost involuntarily.

Here you have to ask why, in a society with two public universities, a community college, free education for the last decade and more, has this moronic and toxic complex of ideas gone unchecked and unchallenged? How has it gained such currency? It’s not complicated. Many academics know exactly why Carnival was instituted as the national festival: to promote the Afro ethnic position over the Indian opposition, and they’re good with that.

But academics also collude by inaction. The present underclass did not come from slavery. Many of them (or their parents) came here from the other islands in the 60s, 70s and 80s to replace emigrating Trinidadians. Why has academia steadfastly refused to investigate this? Where’s the geography of the squatter settlements? The knowledge void left by this inactivity has allowed the mythology of oppression to flourish, with the consequences we live today. And it’s a welcome accident that the phenomenon, of poisonous ethnic mythology passing as history creating massive problems, would flare up a week before Arrival Day.

• To be continued


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