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In the name of God, the most Compassionate, the most Merciful

In the name of God, the most Compassionate, the most Merciful

M Shahid Alam

"They hate us because we don’t know why they hate us.”
Bill Maher

Instantly, instinctively, and unrelentingly, the American establishment has framed the attacks of 11 September 2001 in the language of a clash of civilisations. Islamic terrorists attacked America because they hate our highest values, our freedoms, our way of life—our civilisation. President Bush wasted no time in defining the language of this discourse in his first speech on 11 September 2001. “Today,” he opened his speech, “our fellow citizens, our way of life, our very freedom came under attack in a series of deliberate and deadly terrorist acts.” This thesis was hammered home again: “America was targeted for attack because we’re the brightest beacon for freedom and opportunity in the world.”

On 20 September 2001, the president returned to this question in his speech to a joint session of Congress. Indeed, it was the centrepiece of his speech. “Americans are asking,” he told us, “who attacked our country?” His answer: the attackers are “a collection of loosely affiliated terrorist organisations known as Al-Qaeda”. Their goal is “remaking the world” and imposing their “radical beliefs on people everywhere”.

Americans are asking, the president informed us, “Why do they hate us?” His answer was clearly stated. “They hate what we see right here in this chamber—a democratically elected government. Their leaders are self-appointed. They hate our freedoms; our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other.” It is not clear anymore if “they” points to Al-Qaeda, the Arabs or all Muslims.

A month after the 11 September attacks, President Bush made the connection more explicit. “How do I respond,” he asked, “when I see that in some Islamic countries there is vitriolic hatred for America?” Of course, the president is “amazed that there’s such misunderstanding of what our country is about that people would hate us. I am … like most Americans, I just can’t believe it because I know how good we are.”

This, then, is the ideology of America’s establishment as it wages its “war against terror”. Muslims attacked America because they hate who we are. They want to destroy us because they hate our freedom, our opportunities, our democratic institutions, our way of life, our Judeo-Christian heritage. It is a hatred that is civilisational. It is rooted in the illiberal, intolerant, misogynist, anti-modernist and anti-scientific culture of Muslims and their religion. This thesis is now spun a thousand times every day by America’s politicians, press and pundits.

This ideology of the clash of civilisations is multi-layered. First, it seeks to explain to Americans and the rest of the world why the United States and the rest of the world must wage this war against terror. Secondly, the clash thesis—long championed by Zionist ideologues inside and outside Israel—is a device for Americanising the war Israel has waged against the Palestinians and Arabs. Thirdly, the war against terror is itself a cover that the United States is using to establish a more muscular control over the world.

This ideology is problematic. First, there is its flimsiness. It uses an inane concoction to deflect the blame for the 11 September attacks from US policies in the Middle East: our craven pandering to Israeli aggression, our vital support for corrupt and dictatorial regimes in the Middle East, and the war and deadly sanctions against Iraq since 1990. It is flimsy because it contradicts our understanding of human nature. As Charles Reese put it, “It is absurd to suppose that a human being sitting around suddenly stands up and says: ‘You know, I hate freedom. I think I’ll go blow myself up.’” Despite the incessant brainwashing, most Americans can see that.

This ideology fails for at least four additional reasons. If it is their hatred of freedoms that motivated Muslims to attack America, why did they wait for some 20 years to begin their assault, if we start the clock with the bombing of American marines in Beirut? The clash thesis raises another question: why America only? Surely, freedoms are not unique to America. The Arabs could have found several easier targets, and nearer their home bases too, in Europe. Third, if the Islamic world so hated freedoms, why did young men from all corners of the Islamic world descend upon Afghanistan to fight the totalitarian Soviets? Fourth, if the attackers are such freedom-haters why can’t they get along with their own anti-democratic regimes, in Saudi Arabia, Syria, Egypt, Algeria and Jordan?

The clash thesis resoundingly fails another crucial test. Will the Islamists who attacked the United States, and who prepare for additional attacks, scrap their terrorist campaign if the United States turns into a fascist state or—try to imagine this—if America’s elites convert to Islam but continue their present policies towards the Islamic world? One might pose a similar question for the Zionists who accuse the Palestinians of anti-Semitism. Would the course of Palestinian resistance be any different if we could replace the colonial-settler Jews with colonial- settler Germans, colonial-settler Chinese or even colonial-settler Pakistanis? The Islamist resistance does not stem from differences of race or religion that divide Muslims from Americans or Jews. It is a response to US-Israeli violence, systematic and longstanding, that seeks to divide, undermine, control and humiliate Islamic societies.

Despite its intense propaganda, the American establishment has failed to dupe most Americans on the clash thesis. In a CBS/ New York Times poll conducted in September 2002, 21 per cent Americans place “a lot of blame” on US policies in the Middle East over the years, while another 54 per cent place “some blame” on these policies. According to a Pew Research Center survey in August 2002, 53 per cent Americans said that the attacks of 11 September were “mostly because” of the “political beliefs” of the terrorists; only 25 per cent believed that the terrorists were motivated by “religious beliefs”. Finally, a Los Angeles Times poll in September 2002 shows that 58 per cent Americans think that the attacks were “a direct result of United States’ policy in the Middle East”.

The clash thesis and the associated war on terrorism carry little or no credibility outside the United States. This was first demonstrated in massive worldwide protests against the planned US invasion of Iraq. Outside of the United States and Israel, the overwhelming majority of world opinion regarded this war as illegal and immoral. Now, more than a year after a failed occupation of Iraq, after the revelations of systematic torture by Americans in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay, after the erosion of liberties inside the United States, after the establishment of an American Gulag whose geographic expanse exceeds anything established by the Soviet Union, American prestige in the world has sunk to the lowest point in its history. In a poll conducted by the European Union in October 2003, 53 per cent of EU citizens marked the United States as the second greatest threat to world peace. Its chief ally, Israel, bagged the first prize.

The bogey of America’s “global” and “unending war” on terrorism will soon face another test. While the United States and its neocolonial allies have incarcerated thousands in gulags spread across the world—without charge and without recourse to law—the “war against terrorism” has produced very few convictions for terrorist crimes against the United States. If Al-Qaeda is indeed a formidable adversary, with a global reach and with sleeper cells in the United States itself, trained in the manufacture and use of weapons of mass destruction, its failure to launch even a single operation against the United States since 11 September 2001, poses a problem for the credibility of the “war against terrorism”.

It is of course all too easy for the United States to take credit for this failure: “Look how good we have been against this formidable foe. Our intelligence failed utterly before 9/11, but we have since fixed all the problems.” Alternatively, they might argue that they are fighting these terrorists in Baghdad and Najaf instead of Boston and New York. But this rhetoric will wear out over time.

If indeed Al-Qaeda fails to launch another attack against American interests, on American soil or elsewhere, Americans too will begin to ask: Did the United States overreact? Worse, they might question if this war was a phony—a cover to curtail liberties, to launch preventive wars, to line the pockets of corporate executives with tens of billions of dollars stolen from American taxpayers. Have so many Americans died in vain, for a phony war? Have Americans died for Israel, to fulfil its strategic objective of Balkanising, pulverising larger Arab states? Once Americans begin to ask these questions, the consequences could be unpredictable for Israel and for the exercise of American power in the world.

It is unlikely, however, that the US-Israeli axis will allow this kind of questioning to ever take place. The strategists in Washington and Tel Aviv understand very well how Newton’s third law of motion operates in the realm of history. If the “war on terrorism” is a phony, it can in time—once preventive wars are extended to Iran, Syria and Pakistan—be made to produce the causes that will make it look more credible, even more compelling. Great powers have never lacked the ability or willingness to produce the wars their elites think are profitable. If the people do not get behind their wars—or, in our case, start falling back after getting in line—that is not a problem. Great democracies know how to manufacture consent. In the present circumstances, when history appears to be balanced on a knife-edge, that trick looks easier than ever.

Let no one underestimate the power of great countries—and we are undoubtedly the greatest the world has ever seen—to convert phony wars into real ones. Although false, the clash thesis can become self-fulfilling.

Published Friday, September 3rd, 2004 - 03:52am GMT
M Shahid Alam is professor of economics at Northeastern University, Massachusetts, USA.

Article courtesy of Al-Ahram Weekly
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