Events of September 11: Thoughts and Emotions (Part I)

In the Name of Allah, the Most Merciful, the Most Compassionate

The following are some of my thoughts and emotions about what we have experienced in recent months. My aim is to help Muslims articulate their feelings (even through disagreement) and to help non-Muslims understand where some of us are coming from.

“In the confusion of wartime in which we are caught up, relying as we must on one-sided information, standing too close to the great changes that have already taken place or are beginning to, and without a glimmering of the future that is being shaped, we ourselves are at a loss as to the significance of the impressions which press in upon us and as to the value of the judgements which we form.”  Sigmund Freud [1]

“The events of September 11.” “What happened on September 11.” Such is the perceived enormity of that day that we cannot even categorise it; it remains beyond categorisation. The sheer violence of the initial impact, followed by the heart-crushing collapse of the Twin Towers was more than this soul could bear, and I began to turn my face away as the TV editors repeatedly showed the images of death. For that is what they were, images of death, moments when hundreds if not thousands [2] died. I could not look on in awed fascination, as some have described.

Yet, I did feel some selfish concern at that moment. I thought: “I hope some Muslims didn’t do this, otherwise we’re in trouble.” And so at the moment when thousands were dying, I was worrying about me. I am ashamed by my own selfishness and lack of humanity. Perhaps this leads to my next question, for surely the events of September 11 did nothing more than throw up a thousand questions summed up in the words, “What have we become?” Perhaps the saddest point to note in the aftermath is that instead of awakening everyone’s heart to suffering, this event may have sent us further into our trenches from which we fire accusations at each other. It should have been a day when all self-critical souls looked into their own hearts and wondered whether they helped to bring this about. It should have been a day when suffering, by being brought right up to our faces, should have pulled humanity by the hand of humility from its present abyss.

O you who believe, stand up for justice, even if it is against yourselves.(Qur’an, Sura Ma’ida, verse 8)

I felt guilty. I felt responsible, even though I have no connection to Usama bin Laden and the ‘Jihad’ group. The first time I ventured out after the attacks, I remember feeling more paranoid than normal. Looking intensely at others, with the thought that perhaps they were looking at me, holding me to account. I felt like approaching them and shaking them and shouting: “But I don’t agree with what was done! I was not involved!” And then, not for the first time in my life, and probably not for the last either, the way things are going, I realised what Durkheim meant when he said that collective representations are social and coercive.

I have lived through the Rushdie affair, when we were the vanguard of religious fascism. I have lived through the Gulf War, when we were the fifth column. And perhaps most traumatically, I have lived through the war in Bosnia-Hercegovina, when we were passive onlookers to the murder of 200,000. I used to read newspapers, but stopped during the war in Bosnia-Hercegovina. I couldn’t read anymore. Rape after rape. Murder after murder. I still vividly remember walking past the Evening Standard hoardings next to the newsstands at London tube stations before and after the fall of Srebenica. I remember the day before it fell, the adverts announced: “Srebenica About to Fall!” Similarly, on the day itself, “Serb Troops Enter Srebenica!” A few days later: “Thousands of Men and Boys ‘Missing’ in Srebenica!” All the while, the commuters flowed back and forth, striding past the news, too busy, too tired and probably not deeply bothered [3]. Those days were maddening for me. As was the Gulf War, at the beginning of which George Bush proclaimed: ‘Our quarrel is not with the people of Iraq’, which was before a million (half of them children) were killed through US-led sanctions. How I maintained my sanity, I don’t know. In fact I remember on September 10, thinking to myself, that bearing in mind the number of Muslims who have died in the last few decades (several million), the Muslims generally have been very patient. But that was before the towers fell. Perhaps what was so maddening was the absence of argument and voice. I couldn’t speak. If I did, no one listened. I was the wrong colour for a start, and I come from ‘Paki’-land.

There is an underlying religious feeling to this conflict, even if it may ultimately not be about Christianity and Islam. The Twin Towers fell, and religious people believe that God permitted it to happen as He can permit all human actions, good and bad, ours and theirs. The Taliban similarly withdrew from the cities and the Northern Alliance took over. God similarly permitted this to happen. The nervous post-hoc interpretation of both actions as either signifying God’s pleasure or displeasure reminds me of Weber’s analysis of the Protestant ethic, and how success in capitalist activity was the mark of God’s pleasure in this life and success in the Next. It is as if the unfolding events are somehow indicative of who has the Truth, and whom it is that God is ultimately pleased with.

So why are we where we are today? I remember attending a conference in London in 1993 at which Ernest Gellner and François Burgat spoke [4]. Gellner said that the two main events of the twentieth century were the fall of Marxism and the rise of Islam.
No doubt Islam has confounded key sociological thinkers such as Durkheim, Marx, and Weber, who argued that as secularisation and its engine of modernity progress, religion must go into decline. Islam’s answer to that has been “Count us out.” When I asked Giddens in an interview why this was so, his reply was, “Well the theorists were wrong about it, weren’t they?” So religion is here to stay. The question then is, how to deal with it. More specifically, for those whose moral order is based upon liberalism, how to deal with political Islam.

There is no doubt that there has been an awakening within Muslim countries in the last few decades, and Islamic movements have achieved varying degrees of success. The example closest to the point that I wish to make here is that of Algeria. After the FIS walked through the first round of elections with a victory that would make Tony Blair jealous, the army stepped in and cancelled the elections. (Note a liberal paradox: the right of the individual Rushdie must be upheld, but the right of the nation Algeria can be ignored.)

The apology of Western writers stated that Islam was simply anti-liberal, women were being oppressed, hands were being chopped off, and the rest. So even if the people want Islam, they must not be allowed it. And so democracy works to a lesser extent in most of the Muslim world, with the aid of Western intelligence agencies. (Whence the disingenuous claim of Israel being the only democracy in the Middle East. First of all, democracy is not allowed in most of the Muslim world, thanks to the Western governments. Secondly, what is the point of being a democracy if one cannot treat other human beings with respect?)

At the same conference, François Burgat [5] spoke of bilateral radicalisation. This is the idea that the moderates would attempt to work through the political process, be prevented by the respective governments’ imaginative use of law (cf. Turkey and Egypt), so that sections of the movement would become radicalised and move outside the political process. This historically has lead to the formation of the Jihad movement of which Usama bin Laden is a charismatic leader. Calling for the overthrow of corrupt governments, the Jihad movement has grown over the last few years as injustice after injustice has been piled upon the Muslim world. (The second area of activity for the Jihad movement has been in Muslim minority situations such as Kashmir, Palestine, and the Caucasus.) But effectively what has happened is that sections of political Islam have been radicalised towards extra-judicial violence, and the relative rise of the Jihad group has meant, in one sense, that oppression in Muslim lands has been successful.
I am reminded of that game I used to play without much success in Blackpool. A twopenny piece had to be inserted through a slot at the top of a machine and the coin fell down onto or alongside a pile of coins. A machine moved the pile along as the coins hung on one side over a ledge. If my coin could move the pile along, five coins might fall. Maybe (and usually) not. The coins falling from the top of the machine are the numerous injustices heaped upon the Muslim world, and the coins that fall over the edge are the terrorists.

We have all been radicalised over the last decade or so, at least discursively. Who could not have been, after the Gulf War, Bosnia, Chechnya, Kashmir, and now Afghanistan, etc. For how long can we bear the etceteras? [6] But - and this is where most media commentators miss the point - Islam is not a religion of violence. It teaches us to control our anger, to withhold it, to be patient through prayer. Because if Islam were a religion of violence and advocated insurrection, then I and many, many others would have become violent by now. Because the pain has been maddening. Five thousand children in Iraq every month. There have been times when I could not sleep because of this number. The disgust and shame that this number brought upon me has impelled me into great anger. But I have controlled myself, as have the millions of practising, angry Muslim youth over the world. Why? Because my religion has told me to control myself, and what my religion teaches me is sacred, full stop.

The play Iranian Nights written by Tariq Ali and Howard Brenton and performed in the aftermath of the Rushdie affair suggested that the refugee turns to religion because he feels rejected:

Now I live in Notting Hill, with my mum. She is not well. The terror, the fear have broken her. Who can understand the fate of the prisoner and the poor who have fled from hate to a nowhere in the West, a nowhere in the rain? Who can understand our pain? Why does the West think it can do no wrong and expect the refugee to be superhumanly strong, more tolerant, more wise than any human being can be? It’s a miracle that so many of us do have the strength to bear the abuse, bear the blind ignorance of what we are and where we come from. A miracle! That only a few have gone fanatic! That only a few rave about the satanic! Therefore, the more who speak out, the better. The more! The more! The better! About the profound matter of the nature of God and man, speak out as best you can! What finer sound is there than a human being singing against cruelty! Against hate! [7]

It is not a miracle that we have not become terrorists, it is more simple than that. Islam prevents us from doing so.

The argument that has been proposed post-September 11 suggests that Islam is inherently violent, and that this is why these Muslims committed such acts of violence: they were acting on Islamic teachings. There is justification within Islam for these acts - that is the claim being made. If we are to play in an equal field, then does this mean that Christianity can justify the IMF or the sanctions against Iraq? Or Judaism justify Israel’s militarism? Let’s not let the secularists get away with this. Would the religion of the selfish gene justify sanctions against Iraq? The fact of the matter is that if there are one billion Muslims, at least a hundred million take Islam seriously, 1 in 10, and violence is not the norm in Muslim society. The twentieth century’s violence was mainly European, not Islamic. We have not responded to the numerous events of the last decade with acts of violence. In fact our response has always been one of restraint, and, unbelievably, dialogue.

The issue of sleepers is an interesting one. I would suggest that instead of sleepers being conscious, recruited members of a secret network, we could do ourselves a favour by examining the social nature of this phenomenon. I would suggest that a total climate of oppression has led to a situation in which there are millions of sleepers all over the planet. They are not members of al-Qaida. They are ordinary practising Muslims. They become activated once they cannot take it any more and they lose touch with fiqh. The American government is chasing a mirage if it thinks that al-Qaida is as organised as it suggests. This is the real problem for the American government: how to deal with a massive social phenomenon. (To be anti-hegemony is not in itself a bad thing; Foucault felt able to applaud Khomeini for being anti-hegemony.) If I was an anthropologist wandering around Washington at the moment, I would suggest that the bureaucrats of government agencies such as the State Department, the FBI and the CIA have a fetish for organisation. They need to construct the mirage of an organised body so that they can investigate it.

“Are you with the civilised world or with the non-civilised world?” These words of James Rubin, the former US Assistant Secretary of State, still ring clear in my mind. He said these words, echoing Ehud Barak’s, across the discussion floor on the day of the attack. (How strange that Barak happened to be in the BBC offices at the time of the attack, as was reported. What was he doing there: congratulating the BBC for its objective coverage of the Middle East? And how strange, that Colin Powell echoed the same words in interviews following the attack. This was spin too well spun.) So suddenly, civilisation was on the agenda. “Are you civilised or uncivilised?” Why the resurrection of pre-colonial justificatory discourse? [8] What irritated me most about Rubin was that this was the same man who was paid to justify the sanctions against Iraq. This is civilisation. The hijacking of language to cover mass murder. Call me uncivilised.

Well, I can’t let this discussion on civilisation pass without mentioning Lord Douglas Hurd, former Secretary of State for the Home Office and then the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. During the Rushdie affair, he said to Muslims gathered at Birmingham Central Mosque: “You clearly feel as if the most sacred things of your faith have been insulted and wounded. You feel shocked and you feel angry. But to turn such protests towards violence as has been suggested, not, I agree, in this country but elsewhere, or the threat of violence, I must say, is wholly unacceptable. Talks of death, talks of arrows being directed at hearts, such talk is vicious, it’s repugnant to civilised men or women.” [9] It was Douglas Hurd who was influential as one of the politicians who argued that the Bosnian Muslims must be refused the right to arm themselves. That would lead to an escalation in the war, he argued (his term was “a level killing field”). Meanwhile, many died. Imagine my feelings when I read Francis Wheen’s article in the Guardian (November 5 1997) which related how the same Hurd became deputy chairman of the National Westminster Bank. Markets which early in 1996 “concluded a deal with Milosevic to privatise Serbia’s post and telecommunication system and manage the country’s national debt. NatWest’s fee was said to be in the region of $10 million.” Call me uncivilised.

Terrorism. Global political structures use words like ‘terrorism’ so much that their semantic utility tends to decline sharply. The popular usage would mean “the use of violence by madmen to secure anti-democratic ends.” Of course, terrorism is directly and inversely related to democracy, at least rhetorically. Hence the frequent sloganeering about “democracy and freedom” (a friend of mine said recently that he gets worried whenever they start talking abut democracy and freedom, because it means that they are about to bomb a Third World country. He was right). The terrorists are against democracy and freedom. Our right to be free. Superficially, this may ring true. But how about changing ‘free’ to ‘rich’? “These terrorists hate our freedom (wealth)! They don’t want us to be free (rich). We must fight those who are willing to attack us just because we want to be free (rich).” Make any more sense?

Those persons who talk most about human freedom are those who are actually most blindly subject to social determination, inasmuch as they do not, in most cases, suspect the profound degree to which their conduct is determined by their interests. Karl Mannheim [10]

“The horror. The horror.” Colonel Kurtz’s last words. I wonder sometimes about their meaning. Is this the horror of the civilised man grown savage, or the horror of the corrupting influence of power? Or both? As we journey through the labyrinth of political error that has led us where we are, the question to be asked is: is the horror on our side or theirs? The answer, of course, is that the horror is on their side. Have we become savage in the pursuit of civilisation? Has power corrupted us in our pursuit of egalitarianism? The practical answer to this question lies in the machination of modernity. I would suggest that as knowledge and power are two sides of the same coin, according to Foucault, in the same way, violence and distance are also two sides of the same coin in the discussion on terrorism and modernity. The terrorist terrorises us because he bridges this gap in the late modern era, whereas the objective of modernity is to make the equation of violence over distance tend as much towards zero as possible. The violent act committed by the state has to be out of sight, out of mind and out of discourse (hence the present discussions about press access to casualties in Afghanistan, and the resentment against Al-Jazirah). The sanctions against Iraq work so well because the distance between the act of violence and the actor is so great that the thread linking the two is too tenuous for the frail democratic sense. The “terrorist” act decreases this distance almost to zero. Suffering, of course, does not look to the name of the sender. But for some strange reason, we are today living in times when the “terrorist” form of violence exacts more horror. The drama of the moment holds our attention.

Here the word “terrorism” requires some comment. It is a word that, like its twin “fundamentalist,” doesn’t really mean much. Ask someone what they mean when they use the word and present different scenarios to question their definition and you’ll get the picture. “Terrorism” according to the lay definition means “the use of violence by madmen to secure anti-democratic ends.” I use the term “madmen” specifically. The suggestion according to this essentially right-wing definition is that “terrorists” are those people who are responsible for their actions because they have decided through rationalisation to commit acts of violence. The simultaneous description of them as “madmen” confounds their ambivalent reception, for “madness” limits the agency of the individual (as in the case of the assassination of King Faisal of Saudi Arabia) and renders them free of law. Perversely, madness can be a route to freedom. A more left-wing definition of “terrorism” would be “politics by desperate means” - the desperate under total political and military oppression resort to acts of individual and extreme violence. It is an attempt to take violence back into the court of the initiator state. Blair has entered this debate (and hence tacitly admitted the problem of defining terrorism) by offering the following definition in his answer to a question about the war in Afghanistan at Prime Minister’s Question Time (November 7): “Terrorism maximises loss of civilian life, we minimise loss of civilian life.” Netanyahu had offered the same definition on BBC2’s Newsnight a week earlier (October 31).

The use of the word “terrorism” by subaltern agents is a valiant attempt to re-focus concern towards universal suffering, but the word has meaning only in reference to the powerful. There’s a word that we don’t hear much of. Power. Why? An open discussion on the nature of the relationship of terrorism to power would of course lead to the subaltern victory. Hence, the absence of discussion. For “terrorism” is the violence of the powerless, while “militarism” is the violence of the powerful. And since anything that can establish a relation to the nation state can automatically assume authority, the “militarism” approach reflects the order of things, while “terrorism” reflects disorder. The Oxford English Dictionary defines “terrorism” as “the use of violence and intimidation for political purposes.” Interestingly, this definition does not introduce the question of level of violence.

Recent reports suggest that the American intelligence agencies are re-considering the employment of torture as a tool to extract information. Simultaneously, the newly introduced human rights act in Britain is being set aside so that suspects can be imprisoned forever without trial. Well, this at least confirms to Muslims (for whom this act is primarily intended) what they have always thought, that they are insufficiently human to be warranted human rights. Both are examples of extremes of policies that are practised in the Middle East on a regular basis. It seems that the policies have come home. Is this reverse globalisation or the boomerang effect?

Ichheiser [11] has written about the difference between ideology in principle and ideology in practice in American culture. Ideology in principle is democracy. Ideology in practice is nationalism. [12] These past few months have thrown up this distinction to a remarkably clear degree. The talk has been of democracy, but the symbolism has been that of nationalism. The American flag out-selling the Afghani flag. And it is this distinction between rhetoric and practice that allowed the bombing to begin and continue. “You killed American citizens, we must kill you.” This base nationalist feeling is perhaps the most dangerous idea roaming the planet and it is this same feeling that punctures any attempt to achieve humanitarian sensitivity. Ultimately, history and geography decide who can be a human being in practice. In rhetoric, we are all human beings, as human rights discourse usurps the old-fashioned democracy slogans; but in practice, human beings are unequal. There are currency rates for human lives. And I think recent events have shaken these markets. So exactly how many Afghans are equal to one American?

“Not one American or British soldier has been killed so far,” crow the hawks. If the Americans had sent their soldiers into battle, it might have been a different story. Instead, they used the Northern Alliance to fight the Taliban, Afghan against Afghan, because Americans are worth more. We do value certain lives more than others, and this is because of the way that we interpret individualism. The ideology of human rights being derivative of Kantian rationalism assumes individuals are mutually replaceable, all equal in front of the UN. But in reality, human psychology does not work like this. We may say that all humans are equal, but in reality, humans are different, and it is culture that determines the ascription of value. Culture strikes through human rights discourse. That is why the deaths of New Yorkers mean more so much more to viewers than the deaths of Afghani villagers or Iraqi children (those alert to media imagery will have noticed that after the angry, shouting crowd of Muslim youth and the wailing, pleading hijabi, has come a third image, that of children training for warfare, the implicit question following from Israeli spin being “What kind of people train children to kill?”, thus implicitly justifying the murder of Muslim children). But New York is the home to global culture. “Friends” and “Sex and the City” both have a New York-style backdrop to their narratives of life. Superman, Spiderman, and Batman were all New Yorkers. We share, or aspire to, that culture. We can relate to them because they invade our TV screens regularly. We live and make sense of our lives through their stories. And now we feel their suffering, because we can relate to them. More, certainly, than we can relate to a third-worlder. It is this social psychological reality that punctures the ascending balloon of human rights discourse. Culture brings people together, and forces people apart. (Kant is important as an ancestor because he has been described as the founder of the modern concept of race). [13]

Compare what the Catholics in Northern Ireland, the Palestinians, the Kashmiris and the Chechens have received and one begins to realise that there are decreasing levels of justice in this world. I suggest that “justice” (minus the infinite) needs to be heard of a bit more. This word doesn’t really match well with human rights discourse, mainly because human rights discourse is so frequently useful in serving hegemonic powers. Human rights activists say that you can have economic or political justice only if you agree with our way of doing things, that is to say, you can’t have your cake, even if you want to eat it. [14] An attempt to universalise human rights discourse is essentially an attempt to globalise the Enlightenment project, especially in the notion that there are only rights for individuals; and this is highly problematic.

For those who wish to discuss the real nature of things, a knowledge of economics is necessary. Oil money, the WTO, the IMF, the numerous trade agreements, rapid liberalisation of Third World markets at the expense of local business: who is the thief? One doesn’t have to be a Marxist to recognise that economic globalisation is proceeding in an unbalanced manner. The ideology, in practice, means that the South Carolina farmer is rich because the African or the Indian farmer is poor. For those who remain unconvinced, I direct them to the writings of Susan George and Vandana Shiva. [15] The US approach to globalisation has simultaneously included the retreat from the Kyoto protocol (on the cutting of greenhouse gas emissions), the retreat from the anti-biological warfare treaty, the retreat from the anti-racism conference and the retreat from the anti-ballistic weapons treaty. So the US is interested in economic globalisation, but not, it seems, in other forms. John Locke wrote: “In the beginning, all the world was America” [16] (referring, ironically, to the then relative insignificance of the accumulation of wealth), today perhaps it would be: “The whole world is becoming America,” and tomorrow: “America is the world.” This does not mean that the US is unified on these matters. It is just that in Washington, big business decides. It is the study of the interaction between democracy and economics that I wish to encourage here; but what should we call it? How about demonomics?

You may accuse me here of being anti-American. I would be disappointed. Much of what I wish to say about America is already an intrinsic part of American discourse, whether it be in relation to anti-globalisation, democracy, war, or Muslims. Sayyid points out in his book: “There is a convergence between ‘internal’ critics of the West and the Islamist critique of Western hegemony.” [17] This is an internal dispute whose ramifications are played out amongst innocents living in other parts of the world. This leads on to two interconnected points. First of all, the idea of the US being isolationist. So what exactly does the CIA do? How can true democrats tolerate the existence of an organisation whose central purpose is interference in the affairs of other countries? How many CIA agents are currently aiding the numerous Muslim governments against their own populations (e.g. in Turkey, Egypt, Pakistan, Indonesia)? Why do no political observers and analysts talk about the influence of the intelligence services? It is, of course, politically impolite to ask such questions, but I only do so in the interest of the political rights of other countries.

The second issue is the nature of politics in the US and the UK. One of the more depressing sights over the last few weeks has been the closing of political ranks. Perhaps there are no greater political issues in our times. However the three main British political parties have virtually fallen over each other in agreement post-September 11. The same is true for America. Only last year, the world witnessed an intense polarisation in the political sphere as Democrats and Republicans bickered about the Florida recount. But today they are united in the “war against terror.” Giddens’ notion of political debate in the late modern era as being beyond left and right proved true for much of the last parliament. [18] Tony Blair’s Labour Party managed to walk over and occupy the centre ground. The Tories, in their perplexity, shifted to the right. The debates on key issues such as public services became a real bore. Arguing over fine details and intricate numbers, both Blair and Hague defied the common man in PMQ after PMQ to understand what exactly it was that they were disagreeing about.

But recent years have witnessed the emergence of a new political space, one outside the normal consensus. This is represented by the anti-globalisation movement. It takes seriously the effects of one political nation upon the rest of the world, and it calls on citizens of one particular country to audit their effect, primarily economic, on other human beings, which means that it takes the language of human rights seriously, and it disregards the nationalist agenda in one clean sweep. One cannot help but think, while listening to the political rhetoric coming out of Washington and London, that we are hearing the last cries of nationalism before we approach the post-nationalist era. I think this political space has arrived and needs to be articulated and expanded. The Blair government is attempting to carve out a new political space for itself and in doing so it wishes to afford morality, an ideology in principle. But there are at least two obstacles. Firstly, the ethical foreign policy was one attempt at this, but once Robin Cook discovered the price of human rights, little more was heard of the phrase. Secondly, the government has released information on policy shifts in regard to nuclear processing, Railtrack, tuition fees, and asylum vouchers in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, highlighting the interaction between policy and manipulation. The government, it seems, does not have the necessary moral courage, though it has a huge democratic mandate. If within the modern democratic framework a strong government cannot afford morality, then who can?

A noticeable characteristic on the part of Jim Liberal is the refusal to engage with detail, especially in relation to international issues. A friend of mine was once talking to a non-Muslim friend of his who was slightly upset with Muslims. After my friend managed to give his side of the story, the non-Muslim’s response was “We should blow the whole world up and start again.” The refusal to deal with detail as in the case of much Middle Eastern politics may be a source of much humour for people like me, but ultimately, it remains as a tragic wall that bars political progress. “Both sides are at fault.” “Two wrongs don’t make a right.” As if all wrongs are equivalent.

This myopic interpretation is common in international debate. But closer examination reveals that such platitudes are irrelevant at least. For example, let us take two forms of violence and murder. The attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and the sanctions against Iraq. Both required planning and execution. An attention to detail is necessary. But here the similarities end. One act of violence ended in a moment. The other has lasted for ten years. One act of violence has the backing of a government which is democratically elected. The other has the backing of a small network. And this is where the strange nature of social attribution reveals itself. Governments representing nations (i.e. the majority) are not accountable according to the press, but Muslims and Islam are accountable for the actions of a small religious minority (even though the media is doing much to counterbalance this effect). So responsibility is differentially distributed. Strange, but true. In fact, the Archbishop of Canterbury, representing the majority of British Christians, supported the bombing of Afghanistan, whereas violence has only ever been advocated by minority Muslim spokesmen. Perhaps stereotyping is only against the weak, that is, it lies in the hands of the powerful and the majoritarian, the hegemonic? Of course, one could be cynical, and read political actors through the reverse of their professed statements. So Tony Blair appeals to the middle classes although he is the leader of the Labour party. Similarly, John Major celebrated his Brixton beginnings, though he was Conservative Prime Minister. So what does this say about Tony Blair’s religion and the current government? (Note how Blair began by using the anti-drugs argument as a pretext for war in Afghanistan, later permitting his Home Secretary to decriminalise cannabis).

The argument regarding the Holocaust as a supreme evil because it employed the machinations of modernity towards suffering is, I believe, a strong one; although I do have a problem with the implicit valorisation of rationality, as if it could, if left alone, never lead to evil. The sanctions against Iraq have killed at least 1 million - that’s a sixth of the Holocaust - and I think that as such the sanctions qualify to join the Evil Hall of Fame. The machinations of modernity have been used here as well, including the proper functioning of democracy. How many times have the sanctions been raised in the Commons, and how many times have MPs ignored them while eyeing Front Bench positions? Democracy can walk shoulder to shoulder with mass murder if the thinking masses and the chattering classes are drunk on the wine of banality.

There is a problem with commenting on recent events, and it is to do with the interaction between media studies and international relations. The Glasgow University Media Group has conducted some research on the reporting of war, but to my knowledge (and I would love to know of instances that prove otherwise) there has been no major piece of work on the relation between information dissemination and time after a major event. One opportunity is provided by the recent publication of a book on the conflict in Bosnia by Brendan Simms, a Cambridge historian, examining the nature of political decision making that permitted so much mayhem. [19] One could compare the content and style of discourse within this book with the newspaper coverage at the time, and see what differences, if any, emerge. Similarly one could compare a recent article detailing US political decision-making in relation to Rwanda in the Atlantic Monthly (September 2001) entitled “Bystanders to Genocide” by Power (a professor at Harvard University) with US newspaper coverage of the genocide at the time.

We all know that the first casualty of war is truth. However what I am wishing to suggest here is that the type of discourse changes dramatically as one moves further and further away from the source event, as truth begins to appear without disguise. Secret files are released, ex-ministers are more open, shocked bureaucrats leak sensitive information, international friendships fall apart. And the truth begins to appear. The huge wave of news information post-September 11 is enough to drown one under detail after detail. However, for those who are interested in the real nature of things, the best thing to do is stand back, treat media speculation for what it is, and buy a few books on the history of politics in the Middle East and American foreign policy.

I remember having a discussion with one of my teachers about the nature of reality in our times. He was working on the social psychology of globalisation and implicit to his work is the principle that the picture of the Earth from the moon is enough to convince people that the Earth is round. (Like millions of others, I have received the e-mail which tries to convince me that NASA faked it, but let’s leave that issue aside - I am not a flat-earther). I remember discussing the efficacy of imagery as proof. I was suggesting that as computer imaging develops, it will become more difficult to distinguish between true images and false images. The Gulf War made this issue real and perhaps this is what Baudrillard meant by his essay “The Gulf War did not take place” [20]: he was satirising the postmodern contempt for suffering. Of course, the events of September 11 have turned this issue on its head. Many people will have seen the films that can be related symbolically to the planes crashing into the Twin Towers. “The Towering Inferno” has a burning building about to collapse. “Independence Day” has scenes in which buildings representing American nationalism are blown up. “The Siege” has a secret enemy cell plotting to kill innocent civilians in New York. “Executive Decision” has Muslim terrorists (sic) hijacking a plane.

On September 11, all the story lines merged into one in a single dramatic moment. “It was just like a movie!” This was heard often in the aftermath of the attacks. The reality wasn’t, it was worse, much worse, because not only did the hijackers manage to combine the worst aspects of each film narrative, they also managed to kill thousands. That doesn’t happen in the movies. And now films are being shelved because the weak distinction between fact and fiction isn’t standing up under so much scrutiny. There is something of the self-fulfilling prophecy about this. For years, Muslims had complained of negative representation. There were no major terrorist acts. Now, of course, some people will say, “You see, we were right!” But they are wrong. Allport [21] has written of the self-fulfilling nature of representation (though it may be mediated by ambivalence) and it seems that this repeated representation of Muslims as terrorists has become a reality. The distinction between representation and reality has been further blurred by references to Bin Laden’s similarity to Blofeld - the arch-enemy of James Bond - in the Sunday Times (October 7). Even a Downing Street source said after the Northern Alliance went into Kabul: “Things are going to be a bit messy. This was never going to unfold like a Steven Spielberg movie” (Independent on Sunday, November 18).

One obvious winner in the past months has been the media. No doubt much will be written in the years to come about the media and September 11. There are many areas for analysis: the overlap between fact and fiction, the effects of the repetitive display of images of extreme violence, the symbolism of the attack, the representation of otherness, the challenge of language, and the totalisation of discourse. Of these, it is the latter that most interests me. This was probably the first time since the globalisation of the media post-internet and satellite TV that discourse was total. Meaning that there was no space for difference. Poor Pakistan! The whole world was staring at Pakistan with accusative eyes on the Thursday after the Tuesday. “Either you are with us or against us!” And who could disagree in the face of such total carnage, the destruction of two buildings that championed America like no other? Or was it the number of lives that were lost that constituted the real disaster? I can’t help feeling that the destruction of the two buildings means more to some than the three thousand lives. How could there be disagreement after such total mayhem? And total mayhem means total discourse. We could only think through the words and the images that we were seeing.

The media, which usually struggles to capture major audiences, suddenly found itself serving captive audiences. There was no other topic of conversation (whence the British government’s timed press releases). The language devoured us all. Muslims were objectified as a global Other at that moment, through the image of Usama bin Laden. Muslims generally have no problem opposing the hegemony, in fact we quite enjoy it, but at that time, the horror did not escape us. We felt also. But the bombings on Afghanistan (which were presumably ordered to meet public opinion before the month ran out) changed the moral landscape again and the total language no longer exerted its hold over us. I think that Western governments lost the one opportunity they had to make serious headway towards conflict resolution.

The acceptance of Islam can only come about after Western agencies cease to caricaturise Islam and the sharia. (See Euben’s “Enemy in the Mirror” [22] for a grown-up discussion on comparative political theory, in which she examines the similarities between Islamist political discourse and the writings of Arendt, Bell, Bellah, and Taylor.) Cultural theorists would say that I am being too optimistic. The increase in stereotyping and caricaturing is related to the increasing threat of a certain sort of ‘political Islam.’ That is, as this Islam advances on the public scene, stereotypes will be constructed in order to make it seem threatening, different, alter to our ego. The Taliban were used precisely for this reason. Story after story hit the papers emphasising their complete otherness to the idyllic, Surrey middle-class lifestyle. How representative were the Taliban of the world’s one billion Muslims? Or the numerous expressions of political Islam? And how representative were the media stories about the Taliban of the Taliban themselves? I’ll return to this later. I remember a series on BBC2 last year called “Behind the Lines” in which Sean Langan, a journalist, visited Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, and Palestine, interviewing a series of Others. The argument being put forward was that here is a line which divides us from a fascistic Them (in almost every programme Langan spoke about how he could not say what he wanted, or about how he was being followed, Orwellian style), and hence we have two blocs. The democratic, secular West and the fascist Islamic East. Of course, had he visited Turkey, Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria and the like, the argument of freedom (political) and Islam would have been turned on its head. The line is not so clear anymore. The convenient story not so believable. He did, as it happens, visit Egypt, but according to inside sources the BBC pulled the programme for “technical reasons.” I am no great defender of political Islam, the Islamist cake will most probably be a modernist cake in postmodernist times [23] (with an Islamic cherry on top), but surely other nations have rights to representative government? The Western media’s support for what in many cases are appallingly tyrannical regimes belies their commitment to freedom.

But this is not the end of it. The above position is justified by suggesting that Muslims are actually against freedom, and especially the freedom of women. This is another area requiring grown-up discussion. Feminists who rage against Muslim treatment of women monopolise the banner of freedom (so that the girl who wears hijab is oppressed but the girl who wears a miniskirt is free) while concurrently failing to recognise the involvement of women in the Muslim resurgence. Instead, desperate lists are produced and fake scenarios rehearsed detailing oppression after oppression. The arguments that such feminists propose assume an individualism that is crude and deeply rooted in Protestant culture valuing the public role and work ethic of the self-sufficient male. And all must converge on this model. The grown-up discussion on individualism versus communitarianism and gender relations allows for a bit more flexibility. Crude individualisms advanced as enlightenment positive truths are not the answer. Two questions to be asked here are: is it necessary for one discourse which is culturally specific to one society and historical experience to be universalised? The feminists would surely reply by pointing out that this is exactly what religion assumes. So feminism (a crude version) is now a religion? Secondly: can feminists be racists as well? Well, the feminist community has been there before and the answer is yes. Feminism does inform the present debate and it seems that it legitimates the bombing, such that, “Because the Taliban oppress their women, we can bomb them.” Is it any wonder that the papers took issue with Question Time immediately after September 11 by printing a large picture of the sister in hijab who spoke assertively against American foreign policy? What could they not tolerate: her opinion or her challenge to their stereotype of Muslim women?

And blessed are they who in the main This faith, even now, do entertain.                                                      Wordsworth, ‘Ode to Duty’

A fairer representation of an assertive Islam is a huge problem, and I am not sure that enough in the West have a sufficient sense of fair play for this to happen. So perhaps there is another way. Let us recognise that we do accept the sharia when money (or oil) is involved, as in the case of Saudi Arabia, and so it is possible when it suits our interests. Perhaps, I am simplifying the matter. An ideological analysis would suggest that the two master signifiers in the Muslim world are Israel and oil. The value of any country and its applicant leader depends on their answers to these two questions. So a Muslim leader can be good if he accepts the Oslo peace process, even if he is bad for his own population. A Muslim leader can similarly be good if he is co-operative towards our oil needs, even if he is corrupt. The Muslim masses know this, and they know that they are on the receiving end of both policies. The caricaturing of Islamic law is merely one of several ideological strategies aimed at maintaining the position of the master signifiers. The right of any Muslim country to self-determination is easily brushed aside. Recent events show that attempts to maintain this hegemony have lead to increasing radicalisation and therefore more violence. I would suggest that an accommodation with political Islam in fact serves the long-term interests of Western stability. Otherwise, radicalisation and the cycle of violence will continue.

Cycle of violence. Now there’s an interesting phrase, used repeatedly by the US State Department over the last year in regard to the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians. “We urge both sides to show restraint.” “We call on both sides to cease this cycle of violence.” No right, no wrong. No strong, no weak. Only a “cycle of violence.” There has been a cycle of violence in the Middle East for the past three decades. The US and other Western governments built up Saddam Hussein and his army in order to fight Iran in the 1980s, and then spent the 1990s bombing them down again. They simultaneously trained Usama bin Laden and friends, [24] and are now bombing them. Who will we train now in order to bomb them in 2012? The American foreign policywonks are probably repeating the Hardy line to each other: “That’s another fine mess you got me into!” Which way to turn? So much danger around. If I was scared of nature, I would use the analogy of dropping someone into the middle of the Amazon forest and asking them to make their way to the sea.

“Give me your hand!” “I can’t!”“If we live, we live together, if we die, we die together!”“I’m scared.”“Scared of what?”“Of you.”“You don’t know me.”“I know about you.”“Give me your hand!”

It has been open season against Islam. Writers who normally struggle to put a few hundred words together and labour to find an issue of sufficient importance, have been presented with an opportunity to provide their analysis of a world event. Except that most of them don’t have a clue. Especially in relation to the issue that supposedly lies at the heart of this crisis: Islam and the West. Assumptions, stereotypes, even ignorance become acceptable replacements for informed opinion. For example, Peter Beaumont in the Observer (October 14) writes of bin Laden sharing Khomeini’s conception of Islamic revolution (e.g. the vilayet-e faqih), when most people who know a thing or two about both the Iranian revolution and the Jihad movement know that they don’t agree at all. Salafism and Shi’ism have different notions of authority. But the trajectory of radicalism is too good a narrative to ignore, as Khomeini passes the baton relay-style to bin Laden. (Interestingly Rashid Rida becomes a co-radical in the same article!) Similarly, Salman Rushdie, that great expert on Islam [25], wrote in the Guardian (October 6) like a Tory proselyte, erupting with right-wing discourse all the way through his article. Not that I am a leftie. But correct me if I am wrong; wasn’t Rushdie a leftie in a previous decade? Note, then, the shift to the right-wing talk of “Let’s smoke ‘em out!” It seems that the terrorists are not the only desperate people. Well, one interesting point to note from Rushdie’s essay is his list that proves that “fundamentalists” (sic) are tyrants. Leaving aside the confusing terminology (since it is the norm), he suggests in this list that Muslims are against accountable government. He is obviously ignorant of the Islamist claims of non-accountability against the Saudi and the Egyptian regimes. In fact, accountability is one of the most recurrent arguments of Islamists. (Other members of the list included beardlessness and sex. I can reassure Mr Rushdie that we are innocent on both accounts. On the first, women don’t have to wear beards, and on the second, the Prophet encouraged sex as a charitable act.) One should take note of how Rushdie’s writing supports the hegemonic rationale for numerous corrupt Muslim governments. Thirdly, Henry Porter in the Observer (October 14) argues the Eurocentric view (great timing!) that Islam needs to experience a reformation. If he knew more about Islam then he would know that the closest thing that Islam has had to a reformation has led to the problems that he is trying to explain. But he doesn’t.

The Observer and the Guardian would no doubt be upset. Why don’t I criticise the real ignoramuses of other papers [26] for their jingoistic, half-baked diatribes? Exactly. I think I can get a conversation with the Observer and the Guardian, and their coverage on the whole has to be commended as brave and important. The secularists, much to my non-surprise, have managed to use these events to play their favourite game, “Who can bash religion the most?” Of course, Dawkins, a professor of the Public Understanding of Science (irony of ironies) at Oxford, always wins hands down. Religion, Mr Dawkins, is keeping the peace at the moment. The day we all follow his selfish gene hypothesis, much in the style of American foreign policy, will be the day that this world lurches much closer towards anarchy. But Mr Dawkins has not been alone. There have been numerous Muslim-bashers out roaming the pages, and I play a game with myself while reading their pieces. Two questions are to be asked of each: “How many Muslim friends have they got?” and “How many books on Islam have they read?” Of course, two ducks makes them expertly qualified. It is more amusing on TV, watching them mispronounce names, get their history wrong, their facts wrong, and stumble over the geography, but hey, here come the experts. If it wasn’t so serious, but it is serious. Two and a half cheers for Fred Halliday (no Islamophile) for at least being an expert.

Thinking about the recent Islam week on BBC2, I remember the extent to which Islam and being Muslim oversignifies all other categories. Islam is a total discourse. [27] All actions have to be related back to God, and hence the futile attempt to philosophically (as opposed to politically, which is less of a problem) marry Islam with freedom, since ultimately all actions have to become subservient to God, if not now, then on the Day of Judgement. The human imperative is to reconcile free will with the Will of God. So for a Muslim, Islam is totalising, and if you ask me of the phenomenology of it, in a liberating sort of way. Yet, what is strange about the non-Muslim observation of Muslims is the extent to which Islam is so significant as the key source of categorisation. “Do you do that because of your religion?” How often are we asked this? How often are we explained away because of some crude caricature of our faith? And how little are we actually heard? As national conversation on the television or in the newspapers seeks access into the phenomenology of so much that represents the alternative, there remains still an absence: “What are Muslims like?”

Muslims may wonder what non-Muslims think about them. Zadie Smith’s “White Teeth” provides an answer, albeit fictional. Joyce, a woolly middle-class do-gooder, decides to take in Millat, an angry, confused, young Muslim, for tutoring. She comes to the conclusion through the aid of her doctor friend Marjorie, that Millat suffers from Attention Deficit Disorder: ADD. Joyce and Irie, a friend of Millat’s, discuss how best to deal with Millat:

“Because if Marjorie’s right, and it is ADD, he really needs to get to a doctor and some methylphenidate. It’s a very debilitative condition”.“Joyce, he hasn’t got a disorder, he’s just a Muslim. There are one billion of them. They can’t all have ADD.” Joyce took a little gasp of air. “I think you’re being very cruel. That’s exactly the kind of comment that isn’t helpful.” [28]

I don’t think that British or western people are ignorant of Islam. It is not that they don’t know, it is mostly that what they know is factually incorrect or unrepresentative. [29] They know, for example, about the fatwa, the book burning in Bradford, hands being chopped off, the stoning of adulterers and forced marriages. (They also know about the Alhambra, the Taj Mahal, zakat, and hajj, but the scales are tipped heavily on one side.) There is enough mistrust of Islam for accusations to stick without checking as Islam occupies the space of feared, threatening, mistrusted Other. Said’s book Covering Islam [30] provides some of the reasons for why this is the case. These examples occupy the fore of Western imagination as it interacts with Muslims, such that as soon as a Muslim opens his mouth, the retort comes back “But what about the fatwa?” Trapped is he who doesn’t have his answers already prepared. What is the point of dialogue beyond such retorts? Excusing, explaining, apologising: “But you don’t understand …”

Voltaire and Montesquieu differed in their understandings of the Ottoman Empire. For Montesquieu, the Ottoman Empire represented a phantasmic, despotic Other whereas Voltaire was more cautious.

There is plainly no question here of splitting Voltaire and Montesquieu. On the level of evidence, Voltaire is right, and without doubt the analysis of the Asiatic regimes developed by Montesquieu - be it the Ottoman, Persian, Mogul or Chinese empires - rests on partial information and partial interpretation. Correct though these criticisms may be, however, it seems to us none-the-less that they in no way detract from the force of the concept of despotism as elaborated and deployed by Montesquieu.Alain Grosrichard[31]

There was a force to the false narrative which, it seems, is being replicated today. We live in a society in which visual culture dominates oral culture. Ichheiser has said: “Looking at each other is the most primary form of conversation.” [32] Our eyes have taken over from our ears. The distance that separates us can be maintained by looking but not by hearing. Much of what we find out about others is through reading. It’s so much easier than listening to someone, especially someone we might know. People don’t talk to each other, they find out about each other through newspapers and books, and so misinformation is crucial towards maintaining separation. I remember sitting across from a lady on a train in London. She was reading White Teeth. She might have been reading about Millat Iqbal, the young lad who gets wrapped up in a fundamentalist group called KEVIN (were they too illiterate to realise?), and through Smith’s novel, maybe she could have begun to understand why young Muslims become radicalised, like the young Muslim sitting opposite her? I doubt it. If modern cultures allowed for more open conversation, then maybe people would talk to each other on trains, even across differences. Who knows, we might even begin to understand each other a bit more.

Is there a fear of the Muslim voice? I remember watching Question Time after the attacks. I noticed the trepidation before a Muslim spoke. “What will they say this time?” “Will they be reasonable?” The silence before the storm. Except that usually there wasn’t a storm. He/she would generally sound quite reasonable. But I remember the fear, I felt it myself, “I hope they don’t say anything stupid.” There is a fear of the Muslim voice, perhaps we are scared to hear criticism, perhaps we are afraid of their anger, perhaps they don’t make sense. One point, though, to note about Usama bin Laden is that that old dictum has been proved true: “If you say something often enough, people will learn how to pronounce it.”

The release of the movie, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, last year was met with public acclaim. The critics were pleased that a non-English language film had done so well. A film that was at ease in another culture was celebrated as marking the beginnings of Western openness (even though it was essentially replicating postmodern, i.e. Western, narratives of gender). But just as the huge wooden doors of tolerance were being pushed open, along came the Taliban. The Taliban, of course, don’t employ spin doctors. But this doesn’t mean that media personnel don’t make money from them. The Taliban have the unfortunate accolade of being the indirect employers of reverse-spin doctors. These are those who spin the message away from the desired result, and there’s plenty of them. Their spinning has justified Western prejudices against other-worlders, and huge gates of tolerance have been shut again for another few years. The repetitive showing of images of violence and the easy stereotyping of “bearded fanatics” and “oppressed Muslim women” has reassured liberals that they are in fact right. This is not the only moral Other. One section of the liberal-left adopted the Taliban as their supreme moral Other. Another section has opted for the US as their supreme moral Other. Superficially, these two groups may seem similar except that their intended targets are poles apart. But I think further analysis will find that though both groups aim to occupy the same political space, their analyses are in fact diametrically opposed in terms of basic concepts, the most crucial being power.

The presence of Muslims in Britain has been raised again as questions are asked about our loyalty to the Queen. I look at this issue from a slightly different perspective. Imagine, in an ideal liberal world, there would be no Muslims in Britain. Instead, they would all live far away in distant countries which we could visit if we wanted to. We would not have to hear their constant complaining about rights, local and international, we would only have to endure their company at global conferences which only last for a few days. Things would be so much easier. I disagree. The most important contribution that the Muslim community makes to this country at present is not cultural (meaning the restaurants - why is it that multicultural events are always about pakoras and bhangra?) but political, though it should be spiritual. Our strong-mindedness may be irritating, but it serves to hold up the political parties, lobbies, and commentators to their claims. We constantly remind politicians of the universal applicability of their pious hopes. We refuse to let easy answers slip away, we inform the debate with knowledge and experience, we place Britain (as a country that is still struggling with these debates) at the centre of the world discussion on Islam, indeed we improve the quality of the debate. This is without extensive participation in the media: look at the number of writers in the press who have written about Islam and Muslims and check to see how many of them are actually Muslim. Is this why Edward Said chose to begin his influential “Orientalism” with Karl Marx’s: “They cannot represent themselves; they must be represented”? [33]

What about those British Muslims that are fighting with the Taliban? Déjà vu? The same questions were asked during the Gulf War when some British Muslims were interrogated about their loyalties. I would agree with the mainstream, “If you’re going to go, then don’t come back.” The stories, true or false, raise the spectre of the enemy within and it is a powerful narrative to argue against. In fact, there isn’t much anyone can do, once the label has been fixed. If I deny, then I am told that I am lying, and to accept is to become a traitor. Maybe this is about a drowning nationalism holding on to the nearest scapegoat? As it drowns, it points to the treacherous Muslims: “Can you not see why you need me?” I am using here Sayyid’s argument from his book A Fundamental Fear. He suggests that the decentring of Europe permits Islamism to emerge. Taken from the vantage-point of the dominant discourse, Islam can be seen as justification for various discourses that are past their sell-by date. I would suggest that we have witnessed several discourses utilising recent events as opportunities to prop themselves up, even though they are either suffering severe wounds or critical, internal fractures. These include (all in a very general but absolutely necessary way): liberalism, feminism, materialism, and nationalism. Since the voice of Islam is either unheard or unintelligible, these discourses are able to prolong their shelf-life for perhaps a few more years by holding up a lazy caricature and then shooting it down.

Madness. Civilisation. These words are used to frame our moral discourse because we don’t at present have an understanding of the word “wrong.” The hijackers were mad. What kind of madness was it? Schizophrenia? I think not. When we say mad, we actually mean that we don’t know what to say, we don’t understand, we cannot categorise them. [34] So they must be mad. To guess at their mind set, I don’t think that they were mad. I think that they had become in true twentieth-century fashion numb to suffering. They could see their own death and the death of thousands of others ahead of them, but they had become numb to suffering, perhaps numb to moral discourse. They had heard Western political leaders sidestep the murder of tens/hundreds/thousands of Muslims one too many times and they had moved from the stage of intense pain to numbness. This is the point at which Islamic law steps in, and holds us back, for I too am numb to suffering. If Muslims are to be critical of themselves, and indeed now they need to be so, they should ask about what has happened to Islamic law that it could abandon its traditional self so completely as to permit some acts which are so obviously forbidden. I leave this question to those who are more knowledgeable on this than I, but I urge the average Muslim like myself to think about their relationship with the law, because the law is a blessing, it protects us even from our own selves. We are living in times when laws and rules, rights and wrongs, don’t mean much. One million people use cannabis every week against the law in Britain and the argument for legalisation is “Well, so many people break the law, let’s change it.” Muslims have to be careful that they don’t join in. The law is sacred in Islam, as the expression of a divinely-guided consensus. As soon as this is challenged and doors are opened for furious men to re-read the scriptures themselves and ignore the scholars, then we will begin to arrive at destinations that we did not intend.


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