The need to ask why
On the day the World Trade Center was destroyed, George Bush declared, “America was targeted for attack because we’re the brightest beacon for freedom and opportunity in the world.” In the wake of the bombings in Madrid, Tony Blair stated that contemporary Islamist extremism is “driven not by a set of negotiable political demands, but by religious fanaticism”.
Bush and Blair here are seeking to address the fundamental question of ‘why’. For both of them, their respective nations are under threat because of their very nature as ‘free’ and ‘civilized’. The enemy is defined by his opposition to these values. It is this assumption that fatally undermines Western policy in the Middle East and strategy in ‘the war on terror’.
After Madrid, a causal link with Spain’s role in the Iraq war was refuted by Blair and Straw, as they pointed out that al-Qaeda had carried out operations prior to both the Iraq war and 9/11. While this is true, no journalist then followed up with the obvious question as to what might have motivated the Islamists to begin a campaign of violence in the first place.
With the culprits identified as driven by an unquenchable hatred of ‘our freedoms’, Bush, could affirm, “No concession will appease their hatred. No accommodation will satisfy their endless demands…There can be no separate peace with the terrorist enemy.” Collateral damage in ‘the war on terror’ seems to include an inability to distinguish between understanding a phenomenon and justifying it.
Members of the US and UK governments do not skip a beat when asked what prompts the terrorists to commit their actions – they hate our freedoms. But a month after 9/11, Bush appeared baffled at the motives of the enemy: “I’m amazed that there’s such a misunderstanding of what our country is about that people would hate us…I just can’t believe it because I know how good we are.”
The intensity of the propaganda of ‘the war on terror’ has been partially necessitated by the fact that al-Qaeda, and Bin Laden in particular, have not been shy in spelling out exactly what does motivate them, and what their actual demands are. In the 1998 declaration of a ‘Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders’ Bin Laden names three grievances. Firstly, and most importantly, “for over seven years the United States has been occupying the lands of Islam” and “dictating to its rulers”. Secondly, Bin Laden cites “the Americans’ continuing aggression against the Iraqi people” (i.e. the sanctions), and finally, the “occupation of Jerusalem and murder of Muslims there”.
This is worth recalling, because after the horrors in Madrid, Casablanca and Istanbul, and the occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq, the reasons for Bin Laden’s hatred for America and her allies can become lost in the emotive nature of terrorism. In direct contradiction to Blair’s claims that the terrorism is “driven not by a set of negotiable political demands”, Bin Laden explains that the violence is justified only “in order to liberate the al-Aqsa Mosque and the holy mosque from their grip, and in order for their armies to move out of all the lands of Islam”.
This inability to seriously engage with terrorists’ motivations works in tandem with the second flaw in the formulation of Western policy in the Middle East. This is the symmetry between the rhetoric and behaviour of the West (particularly the US) and the ‘enemy’- most critically, a shared belief in the redemptive power of violence. To dig a bit deeper into the motivations of terrorists is often to find that their violence is inextricably related to ours, undoubtedly an unpleasant discovery, and for that reason is one that is not pursued.
The American historian Chalmers Johnson named a recent book of his Blowback. In the first chapter he explains what he means: “In a sense, blowback is simply another way of saying that a nation reaps what it sows.” He continues, “our national experience of blowback is seldom imagined in such terms because so much so much of what the managers of American empire have sown has been kept secret.” To apply the rule of reaping what you sow to international relations brings clarity of invaluable worth to the vague rhetoric of ‘civilization’ and ‘defending freedom’.
Anyone who has dared to bring up the issue of symmetry between Bush and Bin Laden has been accused of ‘moral relativism’ or ‘the anti-imperialism of fools’. But it is not a question of whether one would rather live in a Taliban-run society or a liberal democracy. The similarities, and differences, between US neo-conservatism and the Islamists are to be found in their ideological underpinnings, and the strategies they mobilise to advance their own agendas.
The most glaring similarity between the US administration and al-Qaeda is the belief in an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ mentality. It is a struggle where the forces of good battle the forces of evil, and in such a conflict there is no place for waverers or neutrality. Both Bush and Bin Laden have consistently evoked this black and white struggle since 9/11. Speaking shortly after the attacks in New York and Washington, Bin Laden asserted, “these events have divided the whole world into two sides. The side of believers and the side of infidels.” For his part, Bush has spoken often in the same way that he did after Madrid: “There is no neutral ground…in the fight between civilization and terror…between good and evil”.
Another symmetrical characteristic is to describe the ‘other’ in dehumanizing terminology. Bush denounces the “barbaric criminals” who carry out “evil plans”; he calls them “terrorists” and “parasites”. Bin Laden rails against those he sees as “infidels”, “hypocrites”, and “killers”. This lexicon of the ‘other’ is an essential preparation for violence, since by the ‘other’s’ very nature, they cannot be reasoned with and are unable to change: they simply must be destroyed.
A potent weapon in Bush and Bin Laden’s rhetorical arsenal is religion, though here there are subtle differences. Bush’s role as President, albeit of a nation with a highly religious population, precludes him indulging in the kind of explicit religiosity that Bin Laden, a self-styled holy warrior, has made his own. However, Bush is still able to mirror Bin Laden’s claim to have God on his side: “The course of this conflict is not known, yet its outcome is certain. Freedom and fear, justice and cruelty, have always been at war, and we know that God is not neutral between them.”
In his book Holy Terror, Bruce Lincoln produces an analysis of one Bush speech in October 2001 that flags up cross-references and allusions to over half a dozen books in the Bible. The purpose of this subtext is to “provide a thunderous moral condemnation” with the ultimate intention that “America’s adversaries have been redefined as enemies of God, and current events have been constituted as confirmation of Scripture.” In the same speech, Bush concluded his address with “May God continue to bless America”, emphasizing his nation’s claim to divine favour and selection.
Bin Laden’s video and textual missives are littered with overt claims to divine approval for al-Qaeda’s actions: “in compliance with Allah’s order”, “comply with Allah’s order”, and “God suffices us, and He is our supporter”. Like the American President who speaks of his nation’s “unique role”, Bin Laden’s messianic pretensions are well developed: “The winds of faith have come. The winds of change have come”, one infers, at his behest.
The final, and most tragic, symmetry is the belief in violence as a means of ushering in an era of peace and justice. This is a myth not unique to the US administration or the Islamists by any means, but the globalized nature of the world and the intensity of the clash between the two protagonists can sometimes make today’s cyclical violence seem unparalleled. Supporters and apologists of the war on Iraq sadly often fall back on the easy question, as Bush did recently, “Who would prefer that Saddam’s torture chambers still be open?” This sets up the exact same false dichotomy that Bin Laden is so eager to confirm; that violence is the only response to tyranny and injustice.
But if one thing can be said about violence, it is that it is reciprocal. French academic Jacques Ellul, writing in the 1960s, knew that to use so-called “liberating violence” will not make it possible to “establish a society’s values”. In other words, you cannot use B-52s and the Marines to export democracy. To paraphrase Martin Luther King, through violence you may murder a terrorist but you can’t murder terrorism. So now we have come full circle. We cannot ask why the terrorists commit the actions they do, for to do that is to realize that our violence is connected to theirs, before and after, in a deadly embrace of polarization and God-invoking hatred. A meaningful ‘victory’ will be possible only by asking ‘why’, and breaking the pattern of mutually reinforcing symmetry.
Published in Middle East International.