Words matter

Nadia Urbinati Steven Lukes
29 November 2001

Despite the avalanche of words that we have all been reading and hearing since 11 September, all too little attention has been paid to the present importance of using them precisely – and the real dangers of not doing so. We are, for instance, supposedly at “war” but also seeking to bring criminals to “justice”. But is “war” the best way to characterise the hunt for terrorist enemies organised in secret networks of cells “harboured” (as President Bush put it) in many countries (including our own)?

It is true that military action looks as though it has, until now, proved highly effective in defeating their Taliban allies, thereby depriving them of a safe haven in which to organise. But “war”, taken literally, suggests all-out conflict between states to which military action is central where your enemy’s friends are your enemies and all-out victory is the goal. It is far from obvious that the hunt can or should take this form. As Defense Secretary Rumsfeld then argued, it can take many clandestine and non-military forms, where the character of any “victory” (especially against an enemy who does not fear death) is by no means clear. In the absence of a globally legitimate international criminal court, bringing such an enemy to “justice” can only be, at best, ambiguous.

A conflict of meanings

Furthermore, not enough attention has been paid to the different uses of words. Preachers preach, politicians exhort and reassure, pundits pontificate, experts explain and analyse, journalists report and comment – but increasingly, these different vocabularies are pressed into mixed use. In particular, politicians and some journalists resort to religious vocabulary to make sense of the conflict in which we are engaged. Most notoriously, President Bush called it a “crusade” and spoke of “eliminating evil from the world”. A rhetoric of emergency has arisen in which a manichean impulse is given free range, in which ‘our’ (American? Western?) values are seen as threatened by an enemy that is seen as the incarnation of evil and variously identified as “fundamentalist” and “Islamist” as embodied in Al-Qaida and personified by Osama bin Laden.

This impulse is of course by no means novel. It found expression during the “Cold War” (remember the “Evil Empire”?), opposing two worlds, each thought of as representing a compact bloc. Yet this bipolarity was always limited by criticism and resistance; especially as the perceived Soviet threat diminished. Moreover, after McCarthyism and especially after the Vietnam anti-communism was no longer, for the most part, an issue touching sacred things but rather a matter of political exclusion, a case for ostracism rather than excommunication. Communists in Western countries, even the US, were outsiders rather than heretics. The manichean impulse was contained by the fact that the dispute between East and West was, ultimately, political.

A war between absolutes

What is striking about our present enemies is, among many other things, their power to influence our language. They are unlike the terrorists of the past, such as the Red Brigades or the IRA (or even Hezbollah), who speak the language of their victims and use violent means to achieve political ends that are contestable but not obscure. Such terrorists live in the shadows but they make public, in a great profusion of printed matter, their ideas and demands, and their ends. Their dissension with their enemies can be framed within a common, political language.

The new terrorism is completely different because of its religious character. The terrorists thereby impose on us the task of deciphering and understanding their will. This is an enormous power, and it is one of the means, the least apparent but the most insidious, by which they manipulate our fear. For as we try to make rational sense of them and their purposes, we risk doing things that are contrary to our own values and the very rationale for democracy. The terrorists celebrate faithfulness to their “fundamentals” and induce us to betray our own. For we have no access to their understanding of Islam other than through their words and cannot dispute with them on that terrain.

Instead, we respond to them as wholly alien and malevolent, and we start to suspend habeas corpus and jury trial, restrict immigration further, while declaring “them” to be absolutely evil. These are, of course, exactly the responses they hope to induce in us.

The new terrorism therefore has an insidious power, one which derives from the non-political character of its language and objectives and which encourages its victims to use the same language. And in the victims’ traditions there are, of course, ample resources of religious dogmatism from which to draw. We witness here a phenomenon akin to cannibalism, where, in order to annihilate your enemy, you absorb the force within him that you suppose will enable you to defeat him. And the force possessed by this terrorism is that of translating all human and social phenomena into religious language: “just” becomes “Good”, “wrong” becomes “Evil”, “the political adversary” becomes “The Infidel”. It is a short distance to a war between absolutes – an old music but one that is once more within earshot.

Needed: a specific focus

The danger is there but it can be resisted. One step is to focus narrowly on the threat posed by groups of totally dedicated terrorists who speak the extreme language of Wahhabism in which they are, it would seem, fanatical believers. We non-Wahhabists (and above all we non-believers) can only guess at the meaning for them of their beliefs and the implications they draw from them. So we should stop dignifying them with the term “fundamentalist”, a term which propagates the illusion that we have a firm understanding of a certain mind-set common to believers who claim to articulate the fundamentals of their various faiths. We have no such understanding (nor is there any reason to believe that there is such a common mind-set) and we cannot know what bin Laden’s and his followers ‘real’ motives are. As suggested above, therein lies their least apparent and most insidious power.

There are other reasons for seeing our enemy as specific, and dissociating it from other militant Islamic movements. Al-Qaida is global in ways they are not. It adheres to a maverick sect that has acquired an influence throughout the world far beyond its own potential because of its massive financing by Saudi oil money. And whereas the mainstream Islamist movements have all taken on local nationalist agendas and are losing their appeal beyond their borders, the new international Islamic terrorism is a movement that is disconnected from local struggles.

As Olivier Roy has written, it “has shifted from state-sponsored actions or actions against domestic targets toward a de-territorialised, supranational and largely uprooted activism”. Its founder members fled from their countries or were expelled, and its second generation have all broken with their families and backgrounds and become born-again Islamists in the heartlands of the West. Its battlefield is global (stretching from New York and Kashmir to the Philippines) and its links with local nationalist struggles may well be merely strategic. It can be seen as waging the old Third World anti-imperialist struggle in Islamic terms. It would seem that this is the main thrust of the Al Jazeera television station (see What the Muslim World is Watching by Fouad Ajami, New York Times, 18 November, 2001).

If all this is true, it would be a serious mistake for the US and its allies to view its enemy with reference to religious categories, as the vanguard of radical Islam. It would be a particularly serious error to accept the official Israeli version of this idea, according to which Hamas and Al-Qaida are two versions of the same common threat.

Demystifying religion, ennobling politics

On the other hand, as Hazhir Teimourian has argued in openDemocracy and elsewhere, Islam does pose a serious problem for democracy. Teimourian quotes Ahmad Beshara, ex-Secretary General of the Gulf Co-operation Council, saying that “our society has a problem, for terrorist acts are nothing but a violent manifestation of the greater Arab-Islamic culture that is laden with intolerance and embraces violence as a means of change”.

There is no escaping the conclusion that democracy requires the de-theologisation of politics and the de-politicisation of religion. It requires the existence of a public sphere in which claims are made and arguments advanced in language that is accessible to all. The language of faith is, by definition, not so accessible, and therefore it must – in any genuine democracy in a society that is open and plural – be confined to the private sphere.

Democracy therefore requires that religions be stripped of their political power, constraining them to limit their range of influence and to desist from seeking to achieve homogeneity of faith through violence. Religions have not become compatible with democracy by becoming liberal; rather, they have been forced by the state to accept rules of limitation. Politics has limited their dominion.

By contrast, it is the defeat of politics that allows space for religious excesses to pursue their ideals of homogeneity, whether the goal be exclusion (Judaism) or proselytism (Christianity and Islam). This is the drama currently being played out in the Arab world. Terrorism and what is called fundamentalism are the outcomes of this defeat. They are functional to autocratic regimes which the West has unfortunately deemed it opportune to sustain, for diverse reasons, but never for reasons favourable to their populations. They are functional because their very existence justifies the continuation of those autocracies, and therefore they offer no reasons for considering the West as a source of liberty and justice.

So the new terrorism induces at least one certainty: that we must focus on politics and negotiation in order to foster democratisation and a dignified condition of life beyond the borders of the West. That is the most urgent challenge facing us. And so we must vigorously oppose those insistent voices that use the vocabulary of a war between Good and Evil in order to persuade us that we must defend the fortress of the West against the barbarians living outside.

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