Whose al-Qaida problem?

Sasha Abramsky
3 October 2005

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As summer 2005 began, I flew to London to stay with my parents. A few days after I arrived, four bombs blew up tube trains and a bus in central London on 7 July. It was the second time I had been in a city that was under attack by terrorists. Four years ago, I was living in Brooklyn when al-Qaida slammed passenger jets into the World Trade Center.

Over these four years, I have spent more time than is entirely healthy obsessing over the new realities. Some of my friends and relatives tell me I’ve changed – that my politics aren’t as “leftwing” as they used to be during the anti-nuclear movement in Britain back in the 1980s. In a way, they are right. My core politics haven’t changed, but it seems to me that the world has changed so dramatically – traditional alliances and reference points have become unreliable, the ground rules of the power game have so shifted – I’d be a fool not to incorporate these changes into my analytical framework.

Sasha Abramsky is a senior fellow for democracy at Demos, a New York City think-tank. His work has been published in Mother Jones, Atlantic Monthly, The American Prospect, the Nation and other journals. His book on voting rights in the United States, Conned, will be published by the New Press (2006).

A longer version of this article was first published in The Progressive (October 2005)

Unlike my compatriot Christopher Hitchens, however, whose break with erstwhile comrades on the left over foreign policy has resulted in a wholesale swing rightward, I still hope that my rethinking of some foreign policy questions can be incorporated into a vibrant progressive movement. Indeed, I’d argue that a strong defence of pluralistic, democratic societies needs to be an essential, perhaps a defining, component of any genuinely progressive politics in today’s world.

Yet reading the voices of much of the self-proclaimed “left” in the London papers in the aftermath of the bombings, I was struck by how ossified many of them have become, how analyses crafted at the height of the cold war have lingered as paltry interpretive frameworks for political fissures bearing little if anything in common with that “twilight conflict.” While on the one hand I agreed with their well-reasoned arguments pointing to a certain degree of western culpability for spawning groups like al-Qaida, on the other hand I was saddened by how utterly incapable were those same arguments of generating responses to the fanaticism of our time.

British journalists Robert Fisk, John Pilger, and Tariq Ali, along with British MP George Galloway, and, on the other side of the Atlantic, commentators such as Naomi Klein have all essentially blamed Britain and the United States for bringing the attacks upon themselves. While being careful to denounce the bombers and their agenda, these advocates uttered variations on the same theme: get out of Iraq, bring home the troops from all points east, curtail support for Israel, develop a more sensible, non-oil-based energy policy, and our troubles would dissipate in the wind.

Also on openDemocracy:

Christopher Hitchens, “’Wake Up, Peaceniks!’” (January 2003)

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“(No) one should doubt that these were Blair’s bombs,” Pilger, famous for helping to bring to light the genocidal actions of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, wrote in the New Statesman (11 July 2005) while the bodies of the 7 July victims were still being identified.

“(What) we are confronting here is a specific, direct, centralized attack on London as a result of a ‘war on terror’ that Blair has locked us into,” Robert Fisk wrote immediately after the bombings. He continued: “Just before the U.S. Presidential elections, bin Laden asked: ‘Why do we not attack Sweden?’ Lucky Sweden. No Osama bin Laden there. And no Tony Blair.”

Fisk’s quotation marks around “war on terror” suggested none too subtly that battling terror organisations is mere subterfuge for a more nefarious agenda. And his reference to Sweden misses the point that al-Qaida’s modus operandi involves attacking nodal points of western power rather than peripheral regions.

The problem, Klein argues in a widely-circulated column (the Nation, Guardian, Common Dreams), is that the west is virulently racist and neo-colonial: “What else can we call the belief – so prevalent that we barely notice it – that American and European lives are worth more than the lives of Arabs and Muslims?”

Pilger, Fisk, Ali, Galloway, and Klein grasp the undeniable fact that shortsighted western policies and alliances of convenience over the past century have contributed to today’s mass alienation of young Muslims, to a climate in which millennial groups such as al-Qaida flourish.

These advocates understand – in a way the cartoonish “good versus evil” language in which George W Bush frames world events certainly cannot – the rage the Iraq war in general has stoked among Muslims, and in particular, how searing are the images of humiliation rituals and torture emanating out of Abu Ghraib. They rightly recoil at the news-in-brief references to “collateral damage” when Iraqi civilians are killed compared with the oceans of ink generated whenever a western target is hit by terrorism.

What does Osama bin Laden think of Robert Fisk? Read the November 2004 interview here

What does Robert Fisk think of Osama bin Laden? Read the October 2005 book here

The left’s blindspot

But theirs is also a truncated analysis. They assume that groups like al-Qaida are almost entirely reactive, responding to western policies and actions, rather than being pro-active creatures with a virulent homegrown agenda, one not just of defence but of conquest, destruction of rivals, and, ultimately and at its most megalomaniacal, absolute subjugation.

It misses the central point: that, unlike traditional “third-world” liberation movements looking for a bit of peace and quiet in which to nurture embryonic states, al-Qaida is classically imperialist, looking to subvert established social orders and to replace the cultural and institutional infrastructure of its enemies with a (divinely inspired) hierarchical autocracy of its own, looking to craft the next chapter of human history in its own image.

Simply blaming the never quite defined, yet implicitly all-powerful “west” for the ills of the world doesn’t explain why al-Qaida slaughtered thousands of Americans eighteen months before Saddam was overthrown. Nor does it explain the psychopathic joy this death cult takes in mass killings and in ritualistic, snuff-movie-style beheadings. The term “collateral damage” may be inept, but it at least suggests that the killing of civilians in pursuit of a state’s war aims is unintentional, regrettable; there is nothing unintentional, there is no regret, in the targeting of civilians by al-Qaida’s bombers.

Moreover, many of those who reflexively blame the west do not honestly hold up a mirror to the rest of the world, including the Muslim world, and the racism and sexism and anti-semitism that is rife in many parts of it. If bigotry were indeed the exclusive preserve of the west, their arguments would have greater moral force. But given the fundamentalist prejudices that are so much a part of bin Ladenism, the cry of western racism is a long way from being a case-closer.

We should attend to the way bin Laden and his followers invoke “the west.” They do so alternately to describe any expansive and domineering “first world” economic and political system and, even more ominously, to demarcate a set of ostensibly decadent liberal political, cultural, social, and religious beliefs and practices.

Indeed, what al-Qaida apparently hates most about “the west” are its best points: the pluralism, the rationalism, individual liberty, the emancipation of women, the openness and social dynamism that represent the strongest legacy of the Enlightenment. These values stand in counterpoint to the tyrannical social code idealised by al-Qaida and by related political groupings such as Afghanistan’s Taliban.

In that sense, “the west” denotes less a geographical space than a mindset: a cultural presence or a sphere of anti-absolutist ideas that the Viennese-born philosopher Karl Popper termed the “open society.” In his day, when fascists and Stalinists held vast parts of the globe, the concept of “the west” prevailed over a smaller territory than today. But with the rise of bin Ladenism, the prevalence of this concept again is shrinking.

It is because bin Ladenism is waging war against the liberal ideal that much of the activist left’s response to 11 September 2001 and the London attacks is woefully, catastrophically inadequate. For we, as progressives, need to uphold the values of pluralism, rationalism, scepticism, women’s rights, and individual liberty and oppose ideologies and movements whose foundations rest on theocracy, obscurantism, misogyny, anti-Semitism, and nostalgia for a lost empire.

The demands of an open society

A clear-headed view of al-Qaida and bin Ladenism does not render the left’s opposition to Bush’s war in Iraq or Israel’s oppression of Palestinians any less urgent. A respect for international law, morality, and human rights requires this opposition (a point that, with regard to Iraq at least, Christopher Hitchens seems now to entirely miss). But such a view does put Iraq and Israel where they belong when it comes to bin Ladenism: as convenient recruiting posters for suicidal footsoldiers rather than the source of their ideology.

Take Iraq and Israel out of the equation and some of the young men currently volunteering for martyrdom, for relatively small-scale revenge killings, would undoubtedly think twice. And, yes, it is indeed possible that those particular four men who bombed London wouldn’t have, as individuals, been “radicalised” without Iraq. But the ideology of al-Qaida, and the willingness of significant numbers of other individuals to inflict unendurable casualties intended to shake the foundations of western societies in pursuit of al-Qaida’s all-encompassing vision, would remain. Witness the fact that even after the Spanish electorate voted in a Socialist government following the Madrid bombings of March 2004, extremists continued to plot attacks against the Spanish state. The threats to the open society would, therefore, still have to be confronted.

The head-in-the-sand response (epitomised by Ward Churchill) that argues, in essence, that because America funded bin Laden in the 1980s we should sit back and take whatever his organisation throws at the country, or the world, today, is as flawed as arguments pre-second world war that because Hitler was a product of the Versailles treaty and the devastation wrought on Germany during and after the first world war, Britain and France should suck up the Nazis’ increasingly brazen outrages and simply hope for better times ahead.

Not to put too fine a point on it, it was a dumb argument then, one that thoroughly underestimated the dangers posed by Hitler, and it’s a dumb argument now, providing a cookie-cutter excuse for intellectual and analytical laziness. Once a monster has been created, once its ambitions have been unleashed, the most important question ceases to be, “How and why did this situation develop?” and becomes, “How can we quench these mad fires that threaten to consume all before them?”

That doesn’t mean that questions as to the origins of the current crises shouldn’t be asked, and answers sought. But it does mean those questions alone can’t serve as an end-point of the discussion.

The progressive alternative

If Osama bin Laden is the Trotsky of irredentist Islam, preaching a wacky, bloody notion of a roving, permanent Islamic revolution, how do we progressives respond? How do we propose to preserve political freedoms and pluralism while protecting the fabric of society? How do we safeguard against terror without applying, as do the Patriot Act and similar laws proposed by the Blair government in Britain, a wrecking-ball to constitutional rights and legal protections?

These are questions people on the activist left need to tackle just as urgently as people on the right. For once we opt out of this debate, hoping that retrenchment alone will restore the status quo ante-9/11, neo-conservatives such as Paul Wolfowitz and William Kristol and old-style hawks such as Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld can frame the terms of the discussion as they see fit. To a large degree, this rightward march has redefined America these past four years, to disastrous effect.

There are progressive alternatives on the table. In 2004, for example, the New York Academy of Medicine published a report, Redefining Readiness: Terrorism Planning Through the Eyes of the Public, arguing that encouraging a greater public involvement in pre-emptively preparing for large-scale terrorist attacks would actually prove more effective than simply relying on opaque instructions handed out by secret government agencies in the event of a civic emergency.

Others, like Senator Jon Corzine of New Jersey, have stressed the need to safeguard our chemical and nuclear plants, which Bush has refused to do, lest it cost companies money. And John Kerry dwelled on the importance of rounding up the “loose nukes” in the former Soviet Union, a programme Bush has woefully underfunded.

Also in openDemocracy, a debate over the open society in the United States:

Gara La Marche, “The crisis of democracy in America” (June 2005)

Roger Scruton, “The United States and the open society: a response to Gara La Marche” (July 2005)

Gara La Marche, “America’s closing society: a reply to Roger Scruton” (July 2005)

Such an approach acknowledges the realities of terror and takes Fisk’s quotation marks away from the phrase “war on terror”, yet permits progressives to set some of the terms of the debate, rather than continually playing catch-up with conservatives.

In terms of laws to tackle terrorism, instead of activists denouncing any and all special legal powers granted courts and governments in this fight, how about acknowledging that organised terrorism does pose certain tricky legal questions and, from there, attempt to craft responses that, unlike those proposed by the right, don’t result in the creation of legal black holes for terrorism suspects? How about, for example, recognising that in wartime there might be legitimate grounds for pre-emptively detaining a person for a prescribed and limited period of time on a suspicion of plotting a major attack, while still denouncing the notion that such a person doesn’t have the right to an attorney or to a speedy trial?

Conservatives have made the war on terror all about military power and homeland security operations, while rarely addressing global economic inequalities and social injustices. The left’s challenge is to not produce an exact mirror image of this; that is too easy. We always denounce economic inequalities and social injustices. And we’re right to do so. But today that’s not enough.

A politics beyond fear

The stakes are too high for progressives to underestimate the threats posed by groups such as al-Qaida. For bin Laden’s vision leaves no room for secular self-governance, for a society based around the give-and-take of free speech; it has no tolerance for the uncertainties of a pluralistic political system; it has no respect for the rights of women; it has no self-limiting mechanisms that encourage adherents to step back and listen to the views of dissenters.

It is, simply, a quintessentially totalitarian vision, one in which individuals – whether as suicide bombers who sacrifice themselves to this dystopian dream or the innocent bystanders whose lives are snuffed out by this terrorism – are useful only as pawns.

In power, a left that fails to grapple with the challenges facing the open society risks sapping the will of liberal countries to stand up to totalitarian-think. Such a scenario would, in a very profound sense, embody a betrayal of the central Enlightenment tenets nurtured, in fits and starts, for more than two centuries in one or another citadel of pluralism.

Out of power, a left that ignores the magnitude of these threats risks reducing itself to irrelevance, and, in so doing, ceding power to conservatives who will fight their wars on terror in a deeply destructive, dirty way, who will leap upon the opportunity to clamp down on civil liberties and undermine non military, non security-related government spending, and who will use the fear of terror to reshape societies according to their own illiberal sights.

Neither scenario is pretty. Neither bodes well for the future of the universal values of the open society, values that progressives should hold dear.

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