Battle in Print: Clash of Civilisations or Cultural Crisis?

Bill Durodié, 29 September 2006

In a recent speech on security to the Foreign Policy Centre in London, British prime minister Tony Blair argued in reference to the ongoing war on terror, that:

This is not a clash between civilisations. It is a clash about civilisation. It is the age-old battle between progress and reaction, between those who embrace and see opportunity in the modern world and those who reject its existence; between optimism and hope on the one hand; and pessimism and fear on the other.

Notably, the ideas and protagonists Tony Blair had in mind in this ‘clash’ are all foreign in their origins or, at least, externally-oriented and focused. He continued: ‘The roots of global terrorism and extremism are indeed deep. They reach right down through decades of alienation, victimhood and political oppression in the Arab and Muslim world’.

In a similar vein, the recently released British government document, ‘Countering International Terrorism: The United Kingdom’s Strategy’, identifies the need for a ‘battle of ideas, challenging the ideological motivations that extremists believe justify the use of violence’. This key strand of the strategy is described in terms indicating it as solely affecting or targeting Muslims and so-called ‘Muslim communities’.

So while most politicians and officials have slowly reconciled themselves to the fact that many of the perpetrators of contemporary terror are Western born and educated, the glib assumption remains that what drives them is a foreign ideology or agenda that only Muslims can understand or address.

But is the problem really a ‘clash about civilisation’ or rather a more profound cultural crisis? To recognise the problem as such would be discomforting for Western leaders and societies. It would require understanding the extent to which many of the ideas that inspire the nihilist terrorism we witness today are largely homegrown and inculcated.

How can I say this? Surely we know that Mohammed Siddique Khan and the three others who took their lives, alongside those of 52 innocent bystanders in London on 7 July 2005, as well as the perpetrators of similar attacks in Madrid, Bali, New York and elsewhere, were driven by a rejection of Western interference in the Muslim world and a distorted religious faith? They may in many instances have been products of the West, but their guiding influences, imply Tony Blair and other commentators, were reactionary ideas and ideologies from the East.

In fact, there is very little evidence for this. The ‘Report of the Official Account of the Bombings in London on 7th July 2005’ makes it clear that the individuals concerned were ‘unexceptional’, and that their purported links to al-Qaeda lack ‘firm evidence’. Likewise, a parallel ‘Report into the London Terrorist Attacks on 7 July 2005’ issued by the Intelligence and Security Committee indicated that the claimed responsibility for the attacks from al-Qaeda’s deputy leader Ayman al-Zawahiri was ‘not supported by any firm evidence’. There is also no evidence that any of those concerned were particularly pious, well-versed in the Koran or clear in their appreciation of Middle Eastern politics, let alone vociferous about their views. Yet they lashed out at the society they were from, but felt they could not influence. In that regard, these nihilist criminals appear to reflect the sentiments of many other disgruntled individuals and groups across Western society today.

Indeed, their ideas and influences appear to have far less to do with imams and mullahs, and far more in common with the views of numerous Western commentators. One need not look far to find all manner of anti-American sentiment, or people who reject the benefits of science, modernity and progress. Such views are all around us.

Increasingly, Western academics and thinkers have come to portray the impact and influence of human actions upon the world in a negative vein. The president of the Royal Society, Professor Martin Rees, called one of his latest books Our Final Century: Will the Human Race Survive the Twenty-First Century?, while John Gray, professor of European thought at the London School of Economics, felt comfortable describing human beings as being little more than a plague upon the planet in his book Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals.

It appears we hardly have a need for foreign enemies. Nor are such ideas limited to those of a few academics. Surely when Michael Moore’s Stupid White Men became the best-selling book on both sides of the Atlantic, a few bright minds in the security world and beyond should have noticed the depth of disillusionment in society and its supposedly adverse consequences? Little wonder that Osama bin Laden appears keen to cite Western commentators so frequently.

Western society today is replete with individuals and institutions that appear determined to criticise and undermine its achievements, reposing these as a risk or threat. This dominant cultural self-loathing and pessimistic outlook forms the backdrop for, and inevitably shapes, contemporary terrorism. Yet the authorities appear determined to identify causes emanating from elsewhere, whilst liberals seek to excuse terrorism on the grounds of the supposed adversities the individuals involved have faced.

Anyone reading former head of the CIA’s bin Laden unit Michael Scheuer’s intriguing Imperial Hubris: Why the West is Losing the War on Terror, might be forgiven for believing that the real enemy is to be found among the risk-averse government bureaucracies of the West. Along with many other experts and analysts across the political spectrum – like former Guardian newspaper editor Peter Preston in the UK – Scheuer presents an almost romantic idealisation of Osama bin Laden. This romanticisation stems from a rejection of the culturally corrupt mores and values these commentators believe are emerging in their own societies.

The ‘clash of civilisations’ thesis, taken from the title of Samuel Huntington’s book by that name, assumed that future conflicts would increasingly pit East against West in a fundamental collision over culturally-specific values. This idea benefited from a renewed degree of interest in the aftermath of the attacks upon America in September 2001. But few have critically inquired into the true ideological origins of those who perpetrate acts of terrorism in the name of Islam.

Rather, a lazy empirical approach has been employed to identify the so-called ‘risk factors’ that may lead individuals to becoming ‘radicalised’. Variously, these include attending a madrasa or listening to the inflammatory rhetoric of a radical mullah. Alternatively – for those of a more liberal disposition – an impoverished background, poor educational performance or impaired socio-economic opportunities are held to be among the drivers. Most agree that a deep sense of perceived injustice in the Middle East is also key.

But this approach assumes a conclusion and then goes in search of the evidence to corroborate it. It is profoundly unscientific. Above all, it ignores the dominant social context such individuals find themselves in – that is, advanced Western societies shaped by a profound sense of malaise.

In truth, we shall never know exactly what motivated the London bombers because they are no longer around to give us their views. But even if they were, there is no reason why we should take them, or their videos released since the attacks, at face value. What we do know is that many such individuals, like Omar Saeed Sheikh who kidnapped and killed Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in Pakistan in 2002, are from well-to-do backgrounds and are well-educated.

The question should then be, what is it that motivates a minority from a variety of backgrounds, including some who are relatively privileged, to act as they do? The answer surely lies closer to home than we currently assume. The key is not to ask what it is that attracts certain youths to fringe Islamist organisations, but rather what it is about our own societies and culture that fails to provide energetic, educated young individuals with an appropriate system of rules and a sense of purpose and collective direction to lead their lives by and realise their ambitions. It is this lack that prompts them to look for such purpose elsewhere, including various arcane belief systems.

Increasingly, it appears that contemporary terrorism is sustained by two elements: the radical nihilists who are prepared to lose their lives and take those of others around them in their misguided determination to leave their mark upon a world that they reject, and the nihilist intellectuals who help shape a public discourse of apocalyptic failure and limits.

If we are to successfully defeat these pathetic and desperate acts then it is high time we appreciated their implications and deeper cultural roots. Roots that lie not in the sands and slums of the Middle East, but squarely in the salons and suburbs of the societies they emanate from – in the West.

Tony Blair and others engaged in the war on terror have been keen to state their determination to defend ‘our values’ and ‘our way of life’. But it is not at all clear what they mean by this. Are our values the dystopian, misanthropic visions of Western intellectuals and politicians? Is our way of life one whereby the very democratic ideals we claim to preserve and promote are circumscribed in the name of security?

In trying to protect our societies from the presumed threat posed by a global terrorist conspiracy bent on acquiring and deploying weapons of mass destruction, it seems that it is increasingly we, lacking any clear direction, who are at war with ourselves and our values.

The supposed ‘clash of civilisations’ is one that will need to be resolved ‘within civilisation’ first and foremost. Sadly, the predominance of negative views within our own societies – best captured by the all-party consensus on impending environmental catastrophes (a consensus ironically presumed by some to offer hope of some unifying agenda for the future) – is one that encourages the very nihilistic tendencies we then decry.


Bill Durodié is senior lecturer in Risk and Corporate Security, Cranfield University, UK Defence Academy

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