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Open Letter to George Bush

Commentary, 7 December 2004
Americas
Published in the RUSI Newsbrief, November 2004.

Published in the RUSI Newsbrief, November 2004.

Dear President,

Congratulations. You have now, definitively, secured your mandate at home. It is time to do so abroad.

We define ourselves negatively. When you described your political enemies Iraq, Iran and North Korea as an “axis of evil”, you made a pitch for America’s embodiment of “good”. In the process, you replaced politics – Machiavelli’s “politics which have no relation to morals” – with ideology, if not outright religion. If that first instance of intellectual mission-creep was picked up, carefully analysed and then torn apart by political scientists and media the world over, it nevertheless enlarged the scope of discussion to include these new terms of engagement. And as the US went to war, and the oppositional rhetoric strengthened, those terms have become common fare.

Enough abstracts. Nature abhors a vacuum, and the problem with words (even empty ones, like “evil”) is that they end up meaning something. And this essentialisation of the enemy not only influences our ways of thinking about him, but influences his own too. “Al-Qaeda”, the object of our War on Terror, is the case in point.

‘Al-Qaeda’, as we have come to imagine it, has never existed. Although deep in the Afghan hills, bin Laden and his partners were able to create a structure that attracted new recruits and forged links among preexisting Islamic militant groups, that they never built anything like a coherent network of terrorists in the way we conceive of them. Al-Qaeda, bin Laden’s ‘base’ (for that it was the word means in Arabic), was just one of numerous other training camps for Soviet-fighting Mujahedeen in the region. Al-Qaeda was both an entity – a physical training camp – and an idea. If, with the war in Afghanistan in the aftermath of 9/11, the entity has now disappeared, the rhetorical and conceptual reaction to 9/11 amongst policy-makers in the Bush administration gave the idea wings large enough to encompass the Islamic world. Al-Qaeda is dead, but – to use the Observer Correspondent Jason Burke’s neologism – al-Qaedaism is its far more powerful ghost.

I believe in the power of words, and I believe your rhetoric has contributed to the rise of al-Qaedaism. This is a plea for that rhetoric to change: cast evil out, let’s call these people simple, brutal, global criminals.

Violent political Islamism has roots spread the world over. It is fed by local conflicts and localised causes (it should come as no surprise that within the Muslim world, those countries that produce the most adepts to the Islamist creed are either those, like Saudi Arabia, who foster it at state-level, or those, like Algeria, where secular political tyranny has taken the highest toll). What the West came to identify as ‘al-Qaeda’ has no unifying ideology. What the West faced at the turn of the 21st century was the phenomenon (widespread, but very thinly so, and extremely disparate) of extremist, extra-statal political Islam. Those disparate groups could never have cohered under a single, umbrella doctrine or movement. As we can see from Iraq, they are incapable of uniting even in the face of a clear local struggle. Those disparate groups which together might have been termed a phenomenon, could only ever have unified under a ‘brand’ name. And it’s a brand the styling of which is Western-made.

A week after the World Trade Center attacks, you stood up in Congress and called the enemy ‘freedom-haters’, you said that “the hijackers were the instruments of evil, and behind them was a cult of evil”. On live TV, you told the American people that “evil is real and it must be opposed”. you took an isolated act of (gross) violence, and made of it a battle between the Divine and the Damned.

Historically, Islamists have fought for many things. They fought to force Soviet troops out of Afghanistan, and US troops out of Saudi Arabia. They fought to bring Islamist governments to Egypt and Algeria. The Islamist terrorist attacks against Western targets that began hitting headlines in the 70s were perpetrated by local actors with restricted local aims. If that seemed to change in the 90s, particularly with the first bombing of the WTC in 1993 by followers of the New York-based Egyptian cleric Sheikh Omar, it suggested to many Middle East analysts that political Islamism had failed: having failed in real, domestic political terms it had sought refuge in the world of the virtual, fighting an apocalyptic battle versus notions or symbols of an enemy it could not and did not define. There were many who felt 9/11 was final proof of the demise of real political Islam.

This was an enemy with the potential, nevertheless, to cause colossal damage in human and political terms, and one we needed to destroy, but it was not one whose ideas and ideals we needed to take seriously. Your rhetoric achieved three things. At home, it terrified, unnecessarily, a large portion of the US population by draping an isolated act of violence in Doomsday, End-of-World colours. But it was abroad that the effects were strongest.

Hailing al-Qaeda as the anti-thesis of all that is American was ‘negotiating with terrorists’. Osama bin Laden became a household name. You made him into an emblem – not of meaningless violence, not of terrorism, not of criminality defined in the broadest global terms – but of everything America did not stand for. By setting this loosely-knit gang of fanatics up as our opposites, and by painting them in the colours of a creed, you gave them an ideology (the broadest that there is) under which countless others could shelter. You made them the symbol of anti-Americanism, offered them a language they themselves had  been unable to spell out and through which countless others could express themselves. And in the process you painted us into a corner which forced an ideological vision of the conflict upon us.

By forcing bi-polarity in geopolitical terms, you tried to force the Muslim world to choose. The Arab world – hateful of US politics in Palestine, angry with US support of many of their autocratic rulers, and piqued with a more generalized sense of jealousy and humiliation – was told that if they couldn’t fully and absolutely endorse the American project, they had to prepare to fight it. And ideologising bin Laden told them where they could go to do that. Most have tried to ignore the choice in the terms set out before them, but some have not.

This must stop now. There is still time to backtrack. When you told the world they had the choice between being “with” America or “against” it, most took the phrase as rhetoric, fighting words. If we continue along the course currently set out, one which hoists our analysis of geopolitics onto an ideological platform, we will bring about the bi-polar, Manichean world that you have imagined. Most of us do not want to have to choose sides, and nowhere wants so less than old Europe – bastion (pace France) of multiculturalism, and proof of its tremendous benefits – from where I write.

Of course, if faced with a global adversary of tremendous might threatening the very core of Western values and culture, Europe will fight for the West, and will fight with America. But in the process, Europe – with its colossal Muslim populations, and its enormous cultural and ethnic diversity – will lose its soul, it will lose that which makes it European (with all the contradictions that word implies and which we must love if we are to be European.) And, thank Allah, thank God, we are not yet there.

The ideological Right tells me I’m behind the times, that the world is now split between the West and the Rest, and split civilizationally. And implicit in the terms of this argument is the notion that we are approaching the Final Battle – an idea cherished by the ultra-religious Christian Right as much as it is by such left-wing converts to neo-conservatism as Christopher Hitchens. There’s an old Jewish curse which says “May you live through interesting times,” and we forget it at our peril. Everyone wants to live through Armageddon, everyone wants to be there for the final call, but unfortunately we are simply not yet there.

Dear President, who are your enemies today? I note three: nuclear proliferators, Iraqi insurgents, and global Islamist terrorists. None of these, correctly analysed, represents our true antithesis – an entity that stands for a totally ‘other’ set of values, thinking and culture to our own. All function and fight us for reasons we should understand all too well – not because they are good reasons – but because the terms of their fight with us are Western terms.

There is clearly nothing ‘other’-worldly about nuclear proliferating states. A sixty year Cold War taught them the benefits of WMD, and their designs are defensive – to ensure sovereignty. And 60 years of Cold War should also tell us that nuclear proliferating states are far less worrisome than failing states with nuclear weapons – friendly Russia and Pakistan more than the evil Iran-North Korea axis. Iraqi insurgents, for the most part, are – again – locals fighting local battles for localized reasons. There’s nothing counter-cultural about insurgency, as the Americans and the British (who have done it amongst themselves) should know. Which leaves the threat from global Islamist terrorism.


It is counter-intuitive, but political Islamism today can only be seen within the context of Western globalization and is only correctly analysed as the product of the same. Al-Qaeda-type objectives are near-identical (form-wise) to those of other, Western anti-establishment movements: they propose an alternative, based on a global not local vision, and it’s an alternative to what is seen as US military imperialism, not Judaeo-Christian cultural values. Politics, in other words, rather than religion. The rhetoric of extremist Islamist groups fits much more easily into the trope of North-South antipathy than it does in the very long tradition of Christian-Muslim conflict.

Most extremist activists and operatives are Westernised (often educated in the West, and invariably from middle class, West-looking backgrounds). ‘Martyrdom’ operations have the shallowest tradition in Sunni Islam. Let us remember that today’s Islamists learnt of suicide bombings from their arch-secular, nationalist brothers in Gaza and the West Bank fighting a very 20th century, modernist independence battle against Israel. Islamic extremism (phenomenologically) resembles Western forms of religion far more than it does traditional Islam. Its focus is on the individual rather than on the community. The fundamentalist strain of Islam, just as the neo-liberal form, has shifted the emphasis away from religion (communitarian, normative, social) towards personal religiosity – in much the same way as fundamentalist and liberal Christianity has developed in the West. I think one can argue – as many French scholars in the field – that the extremist Islam we see today could only come about under the influence of Judaeo-Christian individualism. In religious terms, the emergence of al-Qaeda represents a global trend.

So enough culture clashes, enough of the ‘us and them’ talk, enough of Huntington reformulated for the 21st Century, and back to Fukuyama’s ‘End of History’ argument. For the West has already won – Islam, even radical Islam, has changed to fit the Western model. We share a world, they share our discourse. And if they fight from within, they should not be called ‘evil’ – we grace them with more depth that they ever deserved. They should be called criminal – a word that rings truest in the Muslim world where the word ‘Freedom’ as we have it in the West, is best translated as ‘Justice’.

The final paradox of radical Islamism is that, unbeknownst to itself and against all its avowed principles, fights the West via Western tools. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s perfectly-timed internet broadcasts are a case in point. But the terms of the intellectual engagement with this struggle will determine the terms of its physical engagement. If we continue to conceive of the fight against Islamism in essentialist, ideological terms, we corner our enemies and ourselves into fighting it on those grounds. If, however, we allow ourselves to see terrorism as criminal rather than ideological, if we can see how a violent form of unhinged politics is instrumentalising religion and not the other way around, we will find ourselves facing an enemy we can understand.

In concrete terms, what can be done with the threat of global Islamist terror? It seems certain that no firm commitment to resolving the Palestinian-Israeli crisis (as leftists love to argue) would ever pull Zawahiri and bin Laden back to the fold. Nor would ending the US’ long-standing commitment to supporting the autocratic regimes across North Africa and the Middle East. However, there’s some chance that – in the highly-strung emotional landscape of the Middle East today – such actions would go a long way towards deterring others from taking up Jihad. That, clearly, is not enough. Step two must involve focussing all our energies towards the greatest global threat which is that of loose, unaccounted nuclear material in the hands of failed or failing states (Russia and Pakistan rather than Iran and North Korea.) The most pressing eventuality we must guard against is the threat of a WMD attack from a non-state actor. But the third, and in my view, most fundamental change required from your new administration is that it should shatter the ‘us and them’ myth that pervades the rhetoric of the last three years. When it comes to terror, you share a world with the Middle East (as Riyadhis and Iraqis know all too well), just as you share a world with Europe (as the Spanish know to their misery.) Unilateralism and the representation of America as the ultimate global Good – a direct correlative of presenting its enemies as ‘Evil’ – ensures that battle lines must be drawn up. Bin Laden is not important enough – unless we make him so – to polarise the world. Al-Qaedaism is the rogue child of a rogue ideological strain. But let us not call it evil, let us call it criminal. Let us go back to politics, to the rule of international law, return to our trust in reason - a reason the globalised world shares, and can be brought on board to combat. If we fight on ideology, and in Godly terms, we are far more likely to pitch towards the Last Battle so many people seem to anticipate, and even to desire.

By Turi Munthe

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