Can Rational Analysis Break a Taboo?
Posted Sep 6, 2002

Of the two evident factors that can explain the terrorist destruction of the World Trade Center and a wing of the Pentagon, one has been distorted and misleadingly simplified; the other has been studiously avoided and then increasingly denied. The first factor is Islamic fundamentalism, the second, unconditional U.S. support for the policies of the state of Israel.

I happened to be in Beirut in mid-May, when the Israeli retaliatory raids began to escalate. My host called me at midnight, after I had gone to bed, to come and see what was happening. I saw on the TV screen, as did millions in the Middle East, pictures of the continuing fire caused by the bombing. I saw the rubble of destroyed buildings and the human suffering that went with them. The next day, it was evident that these pictures had evoked not only deep revulsion among Lebanese, but also the fear of another Israeli invasion of Lebanon. With very good reason, nobody believed the United States would do anything to stop the Israelis if they decided to invade. When I returned to the United States, none of the horror and tragedy experienced in the Middle East had registered with my fellow Americans, who had the luxury of ignoring it in the false security of their different world.
From a Middle Eastern perspective (I would not presume to offer an exhaustive or “global” enumeration of the pertinent factors in this complex issue), next to the U.S.-Israel connection, among the causes of violent opposition to the United States comes U.S. action in Iraq since the Gulf War; and U.S. support for a number of repressive Arab regimes. Judging from the background of the terrorists, we may assume that opposition to Israel or solidarity with Iraq were of foremost importance to the hijackers from Lebanon and Egypt; to the rest (the great majority of the terrorists), opposition to the Saudi regime. Be that as it may, these motives were blended together by bin Laden’s extremist political Islam. But the constantly repeated, simplistic explanation of the terrorists’ motive as crazy, fanatical hatred of freedom and democracy obviates the need for any further explanation and therefore obscures all of the above. Can the social sciences offer a more rational ordering of the causally relevant factors through a nuanced assessment of the religious motivation of terrorism in the context of the facts and trends in Islamic fundamentalism, on the one hand, and the Middle Eastern political situation on the other?

The immediate shock of the events of September 11 resulted in serious disorientation, and an urgent demand to make sense of what had happened; this was met by a series of teach-ins in my university as in others. Beyond the universities and schools, the media and organized groups watching them engaged in the enterprise of constructing reality in a great crisis, and framing a discourse around September 11 that would henceforth constitute the objective facts of terrorism. The contest for control of reality and the constitution of objectivity through the forging and appropriation of the emerging dominant discourse was highly uneven. Well-organized Jewish groups and the Israeli lobby were drawn into the business of defining reality and shaping public discourse, as we shall see presently. The minimally organized Arab and Muslim Americans, by contrast, found themselves totally on the defensive, against guilt by association and the general moral outrage of American society. The media did perform credibly and responsibly in publicizing and protesting acts of racism and hate crimes against Arab and Muslim Americans. This performance was made easy, as it drew on the dominant American ethos of pluralism and the rule of law. The same, however, cannot be said about more difficult issues in public debate on policy options. These raise some uncomfortable questions about accountability and the deeds of the government and those of close allies. In the face of psychologically uncomfortable questions, demonology tends to displace rational analysis, and the danger increases as we move from one distraction to the next with the onset of military action.

The growth of Islamic fundamentalism, and especially the rise within it of the ‘political Islam’ that fuels terrorism is undoubtedly relevant, yet does not, by itself, provide an adequate explanation for the disaster of September 11, and does not obviate the need for understanding other mediating causes of the tragedy. The complex internal factors determining the growth and decline of Islamic fundamentalism in different countries are largely unaffected by U.S. actions. It can be shown that urbanization and a variety of other social and political processes, such as the spread of literacy, higher education, and the media in the last half-century have resulted not only in the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, and within it political Islam based on the cloning of the pre-1989 Marxist, anti-imperialist revolutionary ideology, but also in a general increase in the vitality of religion in the Muslim world. (Arjomand 1995) Internal processes can also account for the decline of Islamic fundamentalism and political Islam, as in Iran, where there have been highly visible demonstrations of sympathy over the last few weeks. In any event, the impetus of Islamic fundamentalism need not be against the United States and can take various other directions. One need only think of the U.S. alliance with Saudi Arabia, the first Islamic fundamentalist state of the twentieth century. To go from fundamentalism to terrorist attacks, we must look for additional causes, such as hatred animated by the use of American weapons against Palestinian civilians, continued U.S. bombing of Iraq, and U.S. support for compliant Arab regimes who maintain the oil supply.
Reflecting on Iraq does not run against any deep-rooted taboos, though it does raise some uncomfortable questions. At the end of the Gulf War in 1991, former President George Bush countermanded General Norman Schwartzkopf’s expected march on Baghdad to finish Saddam Hussein off fair and square. Many Iraqis who had risen against Saddam in anticipation of the American capture of Baghdad were let down and were slaughtered by his remaining armored forces. The population of Iraq has since suffered a decade of siege conditions and bombing by U.S. aircraft, with occasional advertisements of “covert” CIA operations to overthrow Saddam. There has been no historical judgment or public debate on the decision by former President Bush of the kind that is necessary for a healthy democracy. Nor did we, in the false security of our supposedly invulnerable world, show any concern that the suffering of the Iraqi civilian population might tarnish our image as a haven of freedom and democracy. As we now hear of renewed plans to “punish Saddam” in our war against terrorism (the Wolfowitz plan, New York Times, 9/20/01,10/12/01), we should not forget Bush’s fateful decision in 1991, nor remain indifferent to the suffering of Iraqi civilians.

Level-headed thinking about the US-Israeli connection is much more difficult, as it runs counter to a long-standing taboo against criticizing the Israeli government, and what is more, the taboo is understandably reinforced in adversity. Mentioning Israel is pointing a finger to an ally the way the terrorists would have wanted, and we would be cowards to let them have that satisfaction as well as the horrendous destruction of American lives and property. The basic lay of the American political landscape gives a tremendous advantage to organized, pro-Israel groups to frame the post-crisis public discourse. The reinforcement of the taboo can be short-sightedly exploited in the interest of the Israeli government. On the day that Prime Minister Sharon cancelled peace talks with the Palestinians, for instance, an article by Serge Schmemann, “Israel as Flashpoint, not Cause” (New York Times, Sunday, 9/23/2001) had the words “The Target” above the headlines, and an enigmatic picture of shadows of men engaged in the politically innocuous act of praying on the Western Wall of Jerusalem. It quoted our former Ambassador to Israel, Martin Indyk as stating that “Israel will not pay the price in its blood for such a coalition [that includes Arab and Islamic states]. There is real concern that Israel’s enemy will be the U.S.’s friend.” (Mr. Indyk does not appear to measure Israeli and American blood on the same scale.) In other words, business as usual for the pro-Israel stalwarts as if nothing had happened. Or perhaps even better than usual. Boosted by the likes of Schmemann and Indyk some two weeks later (10/4/2001), just before ordering the attack on two Palestinian neighborhoods with American-made tanks and Apache helicopters, Prime Minister Sharon warned the Americans not to “appease Arabs” as the Western democracies had appeased Hitler on the eve of World War II. The New York Times cycle of op-editorial restoration of consensus was completed with Dennis Ross’s reassurance (10/12/01) that, bin Laden’s clear and unequivocal words notwithstanding, “Bin Laden’s Terrorism Isn’t About the Palestinians.” With its irrelevance to September 11 so securely established, the shaping of public discourse on behalf of the hidden Israel can move from the defensive to the offensive. To tackle Islam as the sole remaining cause of terrorism, the New York Times leads the way once more. In the Arts & Ideas Section, recently refashioned to help us think through the national crisis the right way, a polemical book by Martin Kramer, an Israeli political scientist described as an expert “who teaches in the United States and Israel,” just published by a Washington “group that has close ties with Israel” (11/3/2001, pp. A13 & A15), occasioned the appearance of the lead article (“Many Experts on Islam are Pointing Fingers at One Another”), providing advance publicity for the accusation against the academic specialists on Islam for failing to warn the American public.

This refabricated consensus can easily mislead us into the trap of an American crusade against the Muslims. Bin Laden could not wish for greater help with his apocalyptic war than the assistance given by Sharon and his allies in the press. Nothing would make bin Laden happier, or give the terrorists greater satisfaction, beyond the grave, than an open-ended war against the Arabs or Muslims with no clear goal, but involving the bombing of civilian targets, that would precipitate a revolution in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf and pit the United States against Islam.
It is well-known that the PLO is a secular organization, as is its affiliate, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which claimed responsibility for the assassination of the Israeli Tourism Minister, Rehavam Zeevi, on October 17, 2001. It is also well known that some of the PLO’s leading figures in its radical wing are Christian rather than Muslim Arabs. With the advent of Islamic fundamentalism a quarter of a century ago, the recruiting base for terrorism in opposition to US-backed Israel, expanded from the ethnic Arabs in the Middle East to the entire Muslim population of the globe. This larger Muslim population, amidst which Islamic fundamentalist movements of varying strength have grown in the last two decades, includes Afghanistan, where bin Laden and the Taliban began their political venture against the Soviet Union in the 1980s with substantial support from the U.S. policy organs, including the CIA. If we read this bare sketch of historical progression forward, the increasing vitality of religion in the Muslim world can explain why the militants justify their political goals in terms of Islam, and it explains that in doing so, they induce total commitment and willingness to die for the cause. Nevertheless, Islamic fundamentalism does not in itself set those goals as terrorism against the U.S. The problem is that, with the broadening of the recruitment base for terrorism and its attempt to appropriate Islam, it is tempting to see not just Islamic fundamentalism or political Islam, but Islam itself as its explanation. Such a backward reading of history would obfuscate the multiply mediated causation of the terrorist attacks, and easily engender a grave misconception. Such a misconception – the blunt or subtle deduction of terrorism from allegedly essential characteristics of Islam – is politically very dangerous, as it includes allegations of a ‘clash of civilizations’ by academic pundits (for example Lamin Sanneh’s Op-Ed in the same 9/23/2001 issue of the New York Times) which amounts to the advocacy of war against over a billion Muslim people, many of whom are loyal citizens of the United States, including some who perished in the World Trade Center.

This is not to deny the bearing of the idea of the clash of civilizations on the present crisis, but to caution against its uncritical use (just as with Islamic fundamentalism). Huntington’s thesis has been quite popular among the Islamic fundamentalists, as its opposite, Iranian President Khatami’s idea of “dialogue of civilizations” has been among the reformists (see my editorial introduction to International Sociology, 2001). A few days after the September 11 attacks, a Turkish daily sympathetic to Islamic fundamentalists quoted a professor as saying “We have not as yet witnessed a full clash of civilizations in the concrete, though the events of Sept. 11 constitute the beginnings of such a concretization.” (Zaman, 9/18/01) Huntington himself, however, has been much more cautious. In an interview with the New York Times (10/20/01, pp. A13,15), he implicitly acknowledged many criticisms of his thesis, maintaining that Islam’s borders are bloody because there are so many of them and with every other civilization, that it is not Islam but demography (a large number of males in the 16-30 age bracket) that accounts for militancy and terrorism, that there are as many intra- as inter-civilizational conflicts (he claimed to have made the point with reference to Islam), and that it is bin Laden who wants a clash of civilizations (and not Huntington). Above all, he denies the presumption that civilizations are unified blocks, which had been taken as a basic premise for their inevitable clash, and highlights the lack of cohesion as the main problem with contemporary Islam. In truth, bin Laden’s terrorism has as many roots in the modern political tradition of revolutionary terrorism, begun with the Jacobins during the French revolution and developed by Russian revolutionary groups in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as it does in the Islamic tradition. Like the fascist movements in inter-War Europe, political Islam represents “the Jacobin dimension of modernity” (Eisenstadt 1999) in the contemporary Muslim world. It is thus a phenomenon of the global interpenetration of civilizations. Huntington, however, is more relevant than he thinks. In addition to his famous geological metaphor of “fault lines” between distinct and impenetrable civilizations, he also offers the idea of “cleft countries” such as the United States, which replicate these hypothesized lines within them. (Huntington 1996: 209) It would be more accurate to speak of one cleft global civilization in which both dialogue and clash among different elements of civilizational complexes is inevitable. From the perspective of this new global civilization and its discontents, the September 11 tragedy shows alarming new possibilities for revolutionary violence as an expression of such discontents.

Viewing recent Israeli-Palestinian developments from the Muslim world, the inability of the American superpower to stop the expansion of Jewish settlements in Palestinian territory even during the period of peace accords and negotiations is incomprehensible. Such incomprehension doubtless facilitated the spread of the conspiracy rumor, widely current in the Arab Middle East, that it was not bin Laden but the Jews who destroyed the World Trade Center. On the other hand, what is impossible to miss is the conspicuous use of U.S. weapons, especially of F-16 and smart bombs, since May 2001. Those who see U.S. weapons used to destroy Palestinian civilian targets on their television screens throughout the Middle East are more likely to hate the destructive power of the United States than to consider it a champion of freedom and democracy. What is relevant to the appeal of terrorism is the sociologically determinable impact of these images, and not the moralistic question of whether bin Laden really cares about the Palestinians as he claims to. It is true that the mind set of the Islamic fundamentalists is formed over a long period, and this particular terrorist operation must have been planned by bin Laden some time ago. But the intensity of commitment to the goals of the movement at the moment of decisive suicidal action may be influenced by more immediate events. Who is to say that if the F-16s had not been so visible in the destruction of Palestinian targets a short while ago, some of the plotters in this highly improbable and risky project would not have wavered and caused its failure, as happened in the attempt to destroy the WTC in 1993? The point, anyway, is to reduce the likelihood of another attack, and removing the cause that fuels suicide bombings is not irrelevant.
Turning to policy considerations with our false sense of security gone, we can no longer maintain our indifference toward the events in the distant Middle East and should insist on the greater accountability of our government and its allies. After World War I, German sociologist Max Weber argued that modern politics required its own “ethic of responsibility,” which can be said to consist of taking into account the costs and consequences of political actions. The present crisis highlights the enormous practical difficulty of such an ethic of responsibility based on a cost-benefit analysis of the kind the rational choice theorists take for granted. Given the openness of our society, the vulnerability of our skyscrapers and densely populated cities to biological and other forms of terrorism, it would be irresponsible to ignore the colossal cost of identification with the expansionist policies of the state of Israel both in lives and resources of the American people. Yet any such cost-benefit analysis seems crass and morally repellent to the majority of Americans.

The national consensus on bringing to justice Osama bin Laden and the other perpetrators of these heinous acts has an unshakable rational and emotional basis.  Rational debate on our policy options, such as striving for a fairly equitable peace in the Middle East against the recipes for intractable military engagement, however, requires breaking the long-standing taboo against mentioning the cost of our identification with Israel and criticizing its policies when appropriate. Any help we can draw from the social sciences to this end through a critical examination of the shaping of public discourse should be most welcome.

The author is Professor of Sociology, State University of New York at Stony Brook, Editor of International Sociology, and President of the Association for the Study of Persianate Societies.


Arjomand, S.A. 1995 “Unity and Diversity in Islamic Fundamentalism,” in M. Marty and R.S. Appleby, eds., Fundamentalisms Comprehended, the University of Chicago Press, pp. 179-98.

Eisenstadt, S.N. 1999, Fundamentalism, Sectarianism, and Revolution. The Jacobin dimension of Modernity, Cambridge University Press.

Huntington, S.P. 1996, Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, New York: Simon & Schuster.

“Rethinking Civilizational Analysis,” Special Issue of International Sociology, 16.3 (September 2001)
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