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Not Getting the 'R' Word

Lela Gilbert

It was New Years Eve 2008, and my son Dylan and I gathered with close friends for our annual holiday festivities. In past years we’d celebrated in Rome, Sydney and Vienna. Now in the waning days of 2007, we found ourselves in Mumbai, India and thanks to our hosts’ generosity, our gala was to be held at the city’s beautiful Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. We checked into our exquisitely appointed rooms a couple of days before the party. After having spent the last week and a half in Bangalore, Delhi, Agra and elsewhere, we were particularly impressed with the old world elegance of Mumbai. We took photographs of the impressive boulevards, colorful gardens and regal buildings. But the Taj Hotel was especially lovely, overlooking the harbor, its fairy-tale architecture serving as a beloved landmark both to tourists and the local population. We, too, fell in love with it.

On December 31, after drinks and snapshots, we settled down to dinner. Two friends, with whom I’ve written other books – Paul Marshall and Roberta Green Ahmanson – and I were discussing our most recent offering, the soon-to-be-released Blind Spot: When Journalists Don’t Get Religion. We had worked as editors and contributors for this Oxford publication, which focused on the fact that some journalists, especially those who are not religiously observant themselves, frequently overlook, misunderstand or under-report the importance of religion to current events.

Of course it never crossed our minds that in less than a year, we would be seeing the very setting of our conversation and celebration destroyed by Islamist terrorists. Or that the reporting of Mumbai’s siege would so aptly illustrate the thesis of our book.

Late last Wednesday night in my Jerusalem apartment, I was checking the headlines. All at once I found myself frantically trying to make sense of a growing number of news bulletins, video clips, live feeds and photographs coming in from Mumbai. It seemed that a murderous assault on the city had been launched, and one of the two five-star hotels attacked was our beautiful Taj Mahal Palace. Of course the grisly scenes of people gunned down in cold blood were the real tragedy. But for me, it was also jarring to see places inside the hotel where I had walked, shared a drink with friends, laughed with my son and welcomed in the New Year now smeared with blood and littered broken bodies. It was impossible to stop watching, and sleep was out of the question.

I was vaguely aware that the perpetrators were being identified mostly as “militants,” their presumed motives as “economic,” their targets as “Western” and their description – more than once – as “so young, dressed in casual clothes…”

Even though it was clearly a terrorist attack, most of reports avoided the words “Muslim” and “Islamic.” It was, in fact, a while before the noun terrorism was employed.

On some Web sites there was occasional speculation about possible al-Qaida connections. Yet even in that context, any religious aspects of the attacks remained unmentioned.

Then reports began to emerge that Mumbai’s Chabad House had been attacked by “militants,” with Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg, his wife Rivka and others held hostage. Mombai’s population is nearly 13,000,000. Its dwindling Jewish population is estimated to be around 4,000. But along with two world-famous hotels, the city’s splendid and historic Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus train station, the Cama Hospital for women and children and a local police station, was it just bad luck that the humble little Lubavitcher center was also targeted?

Eventually reporters acknowledged that this wasn’t simply an incident of continuing Pakistani vs. Indian hostilities – although those hostilities are very real. After the Chabad House invasion, after a group calling itself the “Deccan Mujahideen” took credit for the battering of Mumbai, the Muslim theme began to be repeated more frequently. A smattering of commentators and bloggers even recalled Osama bin Laden’s inflammatory statements, especially since 9/11, and his repeated calls for international jihad.

Of those statements Paul Marshall writes in Blind Spot, “These religious themes have continued. On April 23, 2006, while castigating the United Nations, bin Laden denounced ‘pagan Buddhists,’ presumably the Chinese. He claimed that the ‘world’s crusaders alongside pagan Buddhists hold the five permanent seats’ in the UN Security Council. Bin Laden also stressed India’s role and referred to a ‘Crusader-Zionist-Hindu war against the Muslims…’”

Mumbai’s Hindu population certainly bore the brunt of the attacks. Thanks, no doubt, to Bin Laden’s rhetoric, Hindus were clearly targeted. And whether the Mumbai attacks were the specific handiwork of al-Qaida or not, the global religious war took on new proportions last week. Time magazine on-line quoted French terrorism specialist Roland Jacquard: “This didn’t involve suicide bombers and booby-trapped cars that we commonly see in Islamist terror attacks – ones which usually end with the explosion-deaths of the kamikazes carrying them out. This is essentially a small army sent into the heart of society with orders to kill and keep killing as long as possible.” For three days, the city was under siege, and more than a few described Mumbai not just as a site of selective terrorist attacks but as a war zone.

Tragically, it was the murders of Rabbi Gabriel and Rivka Holzberg and their fellow-hostages that made the nature of the conflict clear to the world.

That beautiful, hospitable couple were not killed for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. They weren’t caught in the crossfire between Muslims and “Western targets.” They weren’t players in any Pakistani-Indian conflict. The Holzbergs were not murdered for anything other than being Jews. Their son is an orphan because his parents were Jews. The Holzbergs were casualties in a religious war that has cost millions of lives in Sudan, and thousands in Nigeria, Bali, Indonesia, Madrid, New York, London and, of course, here in Israel.

Clarity about the Mumbai atrocities will not be available overnight, and there will be much to learn from the tragic details. But one thing is certain. Whatever we choose to call it, this global conflict – which is rooted in centuries-old religious Islamist ideology – is far from over.

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