We are the enemies within
It is not a clash of civilisations but our own cultural self-loathing and pessimistic outlook that motivates young terrorists, many of them born in the West.
In a recent speech on security to the Foreign Policy Centre in London, Tony Blair argued in reference to the War on Terror that “this is not a clash between civilisations. It is a clash about civilisation. It is the age-old battle between progress and reaction, between those who embrace and see opportunity in the modern world and those who reject its existence; between optimism and hope on the one hand and pessimism and fear on the other.”
Notably, the ideas and protagonists that Blair had in mind in this “clash about civilisation” are all foreign in their origins or, at least, externally oriented and focused. He continued: “The roots of global terrorism and extremism are indeed deep. They reach right down through decades of alienation, victimhood and political oppression in the Arab and Muslim world.”
In a similar vein, the recently released British government document Countering International Terrorism: The United Kingdom’s Strategy identifies the need for a “battle of ideas, challenging the ideological motivations that extremists believe justify the use of violence”. This key strand of the strategy is described in terms indicating it as affecting or targeting solely Muslims and so-called Muslim communities.
So although most politicians and officials have slowly reconciled themselves to the fact that many of the perpetrators of contemporary terror are Western-born and educated, the glib assumption remains that what drives them is a foreign ideology or agenda that only Muslims can understand or address.
But is the problem really a clash about civilisation or rather that we face a more profound cultural crisis? To recognise the problem as such would discomfit Western leaders and societies. It would require understanding the extent to which many of the ideas that inspire the nihilist terrorism we witness today are largely home-grown and inculcated.
How can I say this? Surely we know that Mohammed Siddique Khan and the three others who took their own lives, alongside those of 52 innocent bystanders, in London on July 7, 2005, as well as the perpetrators of similar attacks in Madrid, Bali, New York and elsewhere, were driven by a rejection of Western interference in the Muslim world and a distorted religious faith? They may, in many instances, have been products of the West, but their guiding influences, Blair and other commentators imply, were reactionary ideas and ideologies from the East.
In fact, there is very little evidence for this. The Report of the Official Account of the Bombings in London on 7th July 2005 makes it clear that the individuals concerned were “unexceptional” and that their purported links to al-Qaeda lack “firm evidence”. Likewise, a parallel Report into the London Terrorist Attacks on 7 July 2005, issued by the Intelligence and Security Committee, indicates that the claimed responsibility for the attacks from Ayman al-Zawaheri, al-Qaeda’s deputy leader, was “not supported by any firm evidence”.
There is also no evidence that any of those concerned was particularly pious, well versed in the Koran or clear in their appreciation of Middle Eastern politics, let alone vociferous about their views, only that they lashed out at the society they were from but felt they could not influence. In that regard, these nihilist criminals appear to reflect the sentiments of many other disgruntled individuals and groups across Western society today.
Indeed, their ideas and influences appear to have far less to do with imams and mullahs and far more in common with the views of numerous Western commentators. One need not look far to find all manner of anti-American sentiment, or people who reject the benefits of science, modernity and progress. Such views are all around us.
Increasingly, Western academics and thinkers have come to portray the impact and influence of human actions on the world in a negative vein. Sir Martin Rees, the president of the Royal Society, called one of his latest books Our Final Century: Will the Human Race Survive the Twenty-First Century?, while John Gray, professor of European thought at the London School of Economics, felt comfortable describing human beings as little more than a plague upon the planet in his book Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals.
It appears we hardly need foreign enemies. And such ideas are not limited to a few academics. Surely, when Michael Moore’s Stupid White Men became a bestseller on both sides of the Atlantic, a few bright minds in the security world and beyond should have noticed the depth of disillusionment in society and its supposedly adverse consequences? Little wonder that Osama bin Laden appears keen to cite Western commentators so frequently.
Western society today is replete with individuals and institutions that appear determined to criticise and undermine its achievements, reposing these as a risk or a threat. This dominant cultural self-loathing and pessimistic outlook forms the backdrop for, and inevitably shapes, contemporary terrorism. Yet the authorities appear determined to identify causes emanating elsewhere, while liberals seek to excuse terrorism on the grounds of the supposed adversities the individuals involved have faced.
Anyone reading the intriguing Imperial Hubris: Why the West is Losing the War on Terror by Michael Scheuer, former head of the CIA’s bin Laden unit, might be forgiven for believing that the real enemy he railed against is to be found among the risk-averse government bureaucracies of the West. Along with many other experts and analysts across the political spectrum - such as Peter Preston, former editor of The Guardian - Scheuer presented an almost romantic idealisation of bin Laden. This romanticisation stems from a rejection of the culturally corrupt mores and values such commentators believe are emerging in their own societies.
“The clash of civilisations” thesis, taken from the title of political scientist Samuel Huntington’s book of the same name, assumed that future conflicts would increasingly pit East against West in a fundamental clash of values. This idea benefited from a renewed degree of interest in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. But few have critically inquired into the true ideological origins of those who perpetrate acts of terrorism in the name of Islam.
Rather, a lazy empirical approach has been employed to identify the so-called risk factors that may lead individuals to become “radicalised”. Variously these include attending a madrassa or listening to the inflammatory rhetoric of a radical mullah.
Alternatively - for those of a more liberal disposition - an impoverished background, poor educational performance or impaired socioeconomic opportunities are held to be among the drivers. Most agree that a deep sense of perceived injustice in the Middle East is also key.
But this approach assumes a conclusion and then goes in search of the evidence to corroborate it. It is profoundly unscientific. Above all, it ignores the dominant social context such individuals find themselves in - that is, advanced Western societies shaped by a profound sense of malaise.
The trial in London of those accused of plotting terrorist atrocities through the acquisition of a large quantity of ammonium nitrate fertiliser is quite apposite in this regard. The list of their intended targets included “binge drinkers”, “football hooligans” and “slags in nightclubs”. Such ideas appear to reflect those of contemporary policymakers and their exaggerated fears rather than verses from the Koran.
In truth, we shall never know exactly what motivated the London bombers because they are no longer around to give us their views. But even if they were, there is no reason why we should take them, or their videos released since the attacks, at face value. What we do know is that individuals such as Omar Saeed Sheikh, who kidnapped and killed Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in Pakistan in 2002, are from well-to-do backgrounds and well educated.
The question should then be to identify what motivates a minority from a variety of backgrounds, including some who are privileged, to act as they do. The answer surely lies closer to home than we assume.
The key is not what it is that attracts them to fringe Islamist organisations, but rather what it is about our societies and culture that they fail to provide energetic, educated, young individuals with an appropriate system of rules, a sense of purpose and collective direction to lead their lives by and realise their ambitions, that they look for this elsewhere, including in various arcane belief systems.
Increasingly, it appears that contemporary terrorism is sustained by two elements - the radical nihilists who are prepared to lose their lives and to take those of others around them in their misguided determination to leave their mark on a world they reject, and the nihilist intellectuals who help shape a public discourse of apocalyptic failure and rejection.
If we are to defeat these pathetic and desperate acts, it is high time we appreciated their deeper cultural roots, which lie not in the sands and slums of the Middle East but squarely in the salons and suburbs of the societies they emanate from - in the West.
Blair and others engaged in the War on Terror are keen to state their determination to defend “our values” and “our way of life”. But it is not at all clear what they mean by this. Are our values the dystopian, misanthropic visions of Western intellectuals and politicians? Is our way of life one whereby the very democratic ideals we claim to preserve and promote are circumscribed in the name of security?
In trying to protect our societies from the presumed threat posed by a global terrorist conspiracy bent on acquiring and deploying weapons of mass destruction, it seems that increasingly it is we, lacking in any clear direction, who are at war with ourselves and our values.
The supposed clash of civilisations is one that will need to be resolved within civilisation first and foremost. Sadly, the predominance of negative views within our societies - best captured by the all-party consensus on impending environmental catastrophes, a consensus ironically presumed by some to offer hope of some unifying agenda for the future - is one that encourages the very nihilistic tendencies we then decry.
First published by Times Higher Education Supplement, 22 September 2006