In the first few years after September 11, 2001, Western statesmen and analysts spent more time thinking and arguing over how serious the literal threat of jihadi terrorism was, and what to do about it, than trying to understand what it was. It did not often occur that the ideological basis of jihadi militancy could be the greatest threat to Western societies, or that a powerful anti-Western ideology was a necessary precursor to the will to perpetrate acts of violence against innocent people.
This perception was perhaps justified at first by the urgency of the terrorist threat, given its sudden explosion from minor nuisance to spectacular debacle. And it was perhaps justified by an assumption, particularly in the United States, that we knew quite well what was behind the violence: This was no ideology deserving of the name, but just crazy, atavistic nihilism perpetrated by a tiny minority and used by a few cynical regimes for purposes of their own, all emanating from a frustrated part of the world that had failed to keep pace with modernity. We knew whom we were fighting: al-Qaeda, similarly constituted groups like Jemaah Islamiyah in Southeast Asia, and the states that supported them. At times Western leaders said so, clearly and simply.
Yet for all the seeming simplicity of the conflict, the fact that Western statesmen have never been able to get a handle on the vocabulary or the rhetoric of the conflict suggests that the matter isn’t so simple after all. One key reason is that, in much of Europe if not yet in America, the real problem is not external but internal—and, if one is even remotely wise, one talks about internal problems differently than one talks about external ones. Moreover, the attraction to jihadi violence is not just about charismatic Muslim entrepreneurs preying on marginalized immigrant communities; it’s also about the many living in the West who feel alienated from Western values and from modernity itself. And their alienation, in turn, is deepened partly because the cultural and political elites of those countries seem uncomfortable articulating the settled virtues of their own civilization. In other words, not only do many Western elites have trouble talking about who the “bad guys” are in this conflict, they have trouble defining and defending the “good guys” as well. Not only do many in the West seem not to understand our adversaries’ ideas; we rather too often seem not to understand, or believe in, our own.
Western leaders have never tired of telling their own citizens and the world at large that the struggle formerly called the War on Terror is principally an “ideological struggle” or a “battle of ideas.” Nearly everyone accepts this assertion at a general level, but the concept has rarely gotten beyond the very general; it has failed at elaboration. For as long as it took to fight and win World War II, the American government, at the least, remained in perpetual disarray over what has been euphemistically called public diplomacy. The reason for this was not just studied inattention to the mechanisms of public diplomacy on the part of high officials, but a genuine ambivalence within their souls. Western leaders appeared to lack the intellectual wherewithal to know what they actually thought. Official speech and proceedings thus acquired a uniquely shallow and rhetorical character.
The troubled history of that now discarded phrase “War on Terror” showcases the West’s confusion. This strangely abstract phrase didn’t just fall out of the sky. It was chosen and maintained for some years deliberately to avoid giving the counterproductive impression that Western policy was somehow generically anti-Islamic. It failed to achieve this, but it is not clear that any alternative label could have succeeded. The motive, however, was pure, and it is of course the same motive that led President Obama to enter office saying that the United States was not at war with Islam, and to go to Ankara and then to Cairo to say it again and again.
It was easy for critics to ridicule the phrase “War on Terror.” Countless analysts pointed out that terrorism is a tactic, not an enemy, and one does not make war on a disembodied tactic. Even supporters had similar reservations. Former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum (R-PA) remarked in 2006 that saying “we are fighting a War on Terror” is “like saying World War II was a war on blitzkrieg.” Occasionally even the architects of the War on Terror admitted they got their lines mixed up. “We actually misnamed the War on Terror”, conceded President Bush in August 2004. Without a hint of irony, he added, “it ought to be the struggle against ideological extremists who do not believe in free societies and who happen to use terror as a weapon to try to shake the conscience of the free world.”
Bush was not the only one who stumbled over his words. His critics could not agree on how to name the enemy either. Recycled allusions to Nazism, totalitarianism and Stalinist Russia, liberally sprinkled with adjectives like “extremist”, “totalitarian” or “fanatical”, served as a substitute for clarity about the ideological character of the threat.1 We were, for example, treated to an intensive but ultimately inconclusive debate as to whether the term “Islamofascist” was an appropriate adjective for the enemy. This was a debate that perhaps best illustrated how little most of its participants actually knew about Islamic history, theology and civilization.
Yet it is official language that bears the most evidence of ideological defensiveness and hesitancy we have witnessed in recent years. The British example is particularly striking. British policymakers have appeared to lack a language to give meaning to contemporary realities. Indeed, they have devoted more energy to lecturing people about what words not to use than to offering a clear explanation of their objectives. In December 2006, the Foreign Office advised government Ministers, Ambassadors and officials to stop using the term “War on Terror” and similar provocative terms, as “they risk angering British Muslims and generating tensions in the wider Islamic world.”2 At about the same time, a report on the issue of homegrown terrorism in the United Kingdom stated, “We strongly urge the government to abandon talk of a ‘War on Terror’.”3 And so in his first public speech in November 2007 as head of MI5, Jonathan Evans pleaded with newspaper editors to avoid words that help the enemy. He insisted that we must “pay close attention to our use of language” and avoid words that encourage the association of terrorism with Islam, since that would undermine the government’s ability to win the hearts and minds of Britain’s Muslim communities.4
Perhaps Evans was addressing the BBC, which appeared to be at a loss to know when the usage of the word “terrorist” or “terrorism” is appropriate. “The value judgements frequently implicit in the use of the words ‘terrorist’ or ‘terrorist groups’ can create inconsistency in their use or, to audiences, raise doubts about our impartiality”, state the BBC’s editorial guidelines. In any event, reports indicating that officials were indeed “rethinking” their approach and “abandoning what they admit has been offensive and inappropriate language” turned out to be true: The term “War on Terror” was suddenly no longer heard from Ministers and the threat was no longer described as a “Muslim problem.” Officials were advised to use “less emotive language” that focused on the criminal character of terrorist plots. If one did not know better, this might well have sounded not like sensitivity but fear—in effect, advice not to go around poking a hornet’s nest in one’s own back yard.
Across the Channel, the European Union has also been obsessed with avoiding words that could give the slightest hint of associating Islam with terrorism. EU guidelines issued back in April 2006 on the difficult question of what to call the enemy counseled officials to avoid the term “Islamic terrorism” in favor of the Orwellian-sounding phrase “terrorists who abusively invoke Islam.” This terminology was a product of the project to construct a “non-emotive lexicon for discussing radicalization.”5
In due course, the Americans also came around to discarding the phrase “War on Terror”, though not entirely for the same reasons. After President Bush conceded the misnaming of the conflict, several serious arguments, including one by a former senior Bush Administration Defense Department official, contended that the term was more trouble than it was worth.6 Many of these arguments took note of the “domestic problems” of America’s European allies and how the official vocabulary of the conflict made it harder for U.S. allies to cooperate with the United States.
Whatever the reasons, Western officials have been continually correcting the language they use to describe the conflict. For a time “War on Terror” gave way to a Pentagon-minted euphemism: the “Long War”, meant to suggest a protracted global insurgency campaign. But with the advent of the Obama Administration, both were junked in favor of “overseas contingency operations”, a phrase that not even the most timid government speechwriter could love. No one would ever use such a phrase as an emotive symbol, and one suspects that is precisely the reason for its having been chosen.
It’s not at all clear that the Administration has given up the war itself, however. The President’s actions have suggested it hasn’t. Nor has the President gone silent on the larger theme of America’s relations with the Muslim world—to the contrary. But the Administration does seem to have downplayed, if not abandoned, the definitional element of the war in an effort to begin a larger civilizational dialogue that is less focused on conflict.
A New Ideological Threat
Whether or not Obama’s strategy of rhetorical transcendence works, it cannot hide Western leaders’ manifest inability to speak clearly or coherently about the enemy. They have exposed the poverty of the intellectual resources with which the battle against terror is being fought. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the confusion lies not just with the occasional word but the entire script, expressing a wider mood of disorientation about the very meaning of the war, and about just what sort of war it is. As one report on the state of British public diplomacy noted, “effective policies for dealing with these new security challenges are quite different from those of the Cold War, and publics require much more active persuasion.”7
This is more than a telling understatement about the scale of ambivalence among Western publics. It is an admission that, for a variety of reasons, this conflict has not encouraged national solidarity as most “good wars” do. The inability of Western elites, particularly in the European Union, to give meaning to their global policies suggests that they are not winning the battle of ideas even with their own publics, let alone those in Muslim-majority societies. This development is most evident in relation to their estrangement from the minority Muslim populations in their own midst.
Surveys repeatedly highlight the feeble influence of secular and liberal values on significant sections of Europe’s Muslim population. Despite the numerous initiatives for “dialogue” and “multiculturalism”, a global survey indicates that Muslims in Britain, arguably the most tolerant country in the European Union, are the most anti-Western in Europe. Back in June 2007, Gordon Brown pledged to wage a cultural war on terrorism similar to the one used against communism during the Cold War. “We must work across society to isolate the extremists from society to protect and advance the British way of life”, argued Brown.8 A month later he told his American hosts that the fight against terrorism was a “struggle for the soul of the 21st century.”9 His sentiments are widely shared throughout the European Union. In the September 13, 2007 Guardian, Timothy Garton Ash observed, “The larger part of this struggle, and the more important in the long term, is the battle for the hearts and minds of young European Muslims—usually men—who are not yet fanatically violent jihadists, but could become so.”
Official anxiety in Europe about the growing threat of homegrown extremism represents a radical departure from the way that terrorism was conceptualized in the past, and it also defines the big difference between U.S. and European cognitive frameworks for understanding the problem. Today, Europeans increasingly understand terrorism as more than just a physical or material threat. It is not simply the capacity of the terrorist to wreak mass destruction; the ideas that legitimate and encourage terrorism are now endowed with the moral and ideological power to influence significant sections of the domestic population. Sir David Omand, the former U.K. Security and Intelligence Coordinator, goes as far as to state that “the most effective weapon of the terrorists at present is their ideology.”10 This means that an increasingly important dimension of the War on Terror comes down to a battle for moral authority.
The fact that Western political and cultural elites feel less than confident about conducting a battle for moral authority is also a new development. Their oft-expressed apprehension about the powerful attraction of radical ideas on sections of their own domestic populations betrays doubt about their own capacity to convince others of the superiority of their own way of life. This is why they appear to be at a loss to explain the “radicalization process.” The 2006 National Intelligence Estimate stated that “the radicalization process is occurring more widely and more anonymously in the Internet age, raising the likelihood of surprise attacks by unknown groups whose members and supporters may be difficult to pinpoint.”11 Blaming communications technology for promoting radicalization dodges the real point. If jihadis have indeed increased their influence and numbers, it is not because they know how to put messages on computers; it is because they have powerful messages to put on computers.
British intelligence analysts are, if anything, even more anxious about the appeal of radicalism than their American counterparts. The former Commissioner of Police for the Metropolis Ian Blair has drawn attention to the fact that young British Muslims are “willing to die for an idea . . . and this is a phenomenon we have not seen en masse since the Spanish Civil War and the battle against fascism.” Idealism seems to be monopolized by the wrong side of this conflict. Of particular concern for Blair is the fact that the appeal of their “coherent narrative of oppressions, war and jihad” seems “very potent”:
One of the truly shocking things . . . is the apparent speed with which young, reasonably affluent, some reasonably well-educated British born people were converted from what appeared to be ordinary lives—in a matter of some weeks, and months, not years—to a position where some were allegedly prepared to commit suicide and murder thousands of people at the same time.12
It is likely that Blair’s shock at the speed of radicalization expresses a recognition of a problem that the British government had failed to mind for a long time. The response to the problem of homegrown terrorism has been confused, to say the least. Until the 7/7 London bombings, the government tended to act as if the problem did not exist. It later directed a series of studies that it chose to completely misinterpret. One such study from 2003 estimated that about 15 percent of Britain’s two million Muslims were “radical”, defined as favoring a sharia legal system, but that a mere half of one percent were potentially violent. This was taken by officialdom to be encouraging news, but a half of one percent of two million is 10,000 potential or extant terrorists in one’s midst. This is not good news by any reasonable measure.
More crucial, the British government has yet to take on board the possibility that, as matters stand, it may lack the intellectual and political resources to project an attractive credible alternative to radical Islam. Insofar as there is a hint of strategy about tackling radicalization, it has a fantasy-like character. Often the official discourse on radicalization takes on the tone of a children’s welfare pamphlet, warning that “vulnerable” and “impressionable” young people may be targeted on Internet sites, campuses and social venues and “groomed” by cynical operators. On November 20, 2007, Richard Norton-Taylor of the Guardian reported that the U.K. Government’s Research, Information and Communication Unit would draw up “counter-narratives” to the anti-Western messages on websites “designed to influence vulnerable and impressionable audiences here.” A year earlier, Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller, a former head of MI5, reiterated the same point, observing that “it is the youth who are being actively targeted, groomed, radicalized and set on a path that frighteningly quickly could end in their involvement in mass murder of their fellow UK citizens.”
This child-protection-type rhetoric also evinces confusion and evasion. The dramatic framing of the threat as “sudden radicalization” depicts extremism as a kind of psychological virus that suddenly afflicts the vulnerable and those suffering psychological deficits. Yet seeing radicalization as a symptom of vulnerability overlooks the fact that frequently its adopters express confidence and self-belief. In fact, those who embrace radicalism are rarely brainwashed by manipulative operatives; far more often they themselves have made a self-conscious and active choice to seek out jihadist websites and online networks.13
What If “They” Are Us?
Europe’s apprehension about its homegrown terrorist threat endows the question “why do they hate us?” with new meaning. Of course, the very asking of it, by President Bush and others, conveys a sense of genuine surprise and bewilderment. But it reveals far more than that.
The question is an expression of frustration and distress about the discovery that not everyone loves us. As such, it resembles the gestures children make when they discover that they are not the center of everyone’s undivided attention; it hints at a sense of disappointment, even betrayal. The implicit premise of this question is that “they” not only ought to like us; they ought to be like us, at least in the sense of reciprocating our sense of toleration and open-heartedness toward all humanity.
No one doubts the naturalness or sincerity of this noble sentiment. But is it not wildly out of place? Since when have such feelings been directed at open enemies? Neither President Roosevelt nor Prime Minister Churchill cared to ask out loud why the Nazis hated us. Nor did Western leaders ever think to direct such a question to the Kremlin during the Cold War. So the unfeigned anxiety revealed by asking this question seems to suggest that our enemies might be uncomfortably close to us—moral beings, religious beings, beings in communities that care about behavior we recognize as ethically charged even when we disagree over particulars. When one applies this possibility to the fear of homegrown terrorism, one can speak even more strongly of an unexpressed concern that “they” might be one of “us”, not just as legal co-nationals but as members of the wider Abrahamic faith community from which some Westerners may have strayed as much as some Muslims.
When President Bush first asked why they hate us on September 20, 2001, his premise was that the enemy came from somewhere far away. The problem and sources of terrorism were external to Western societies. Theories about Muslim rage or the clash of civilizations focused our attention on distant and exotic places such as Afghanistan or Iran. Ironically, many critics of American and European foreign policies, radical and otherwise, also posited an externalist perspective, arguing that Muslim terrorism arises from the supposed oppression of Palestine and Western domination of the Middle East.14
The discovery of homegrown radicalization implicitly calls into question this conventional portrayal of the War on Terror. Not only has the distinction between them and us become blurred; the conflict also increasingly points to tensions within the Western society itself. Some portion of people living in the West find their society’s way of life repulsive. In this group one finds non-Muslims as well as Muslims and, in a time when leftist sectarian groups no longer offer a means to express radical alienation, those who might have become secular extremists forty years ago may be becoming radical Muslims instead today. Clearly, some self-described “Muslim” radicals who have been arrested for terrorist activities in Europe do not fit the image of the religious zealot. According to one report on members of the Mujahedon Network, a Swedish Internet forum, their knowledge of Islam is “virtually non-extent” and their “fascination with jihad seems to be dictated by their rebellious nature rather than a deep ideological conviction.”15 In other words, the dominant influence appears to be estrangement from society rather than the pull of a vibrant and dynamic alternative. This development clearly poses the question, “Who’s next?” The problem posed by the homegrown radical is that he or she could be anybody. In Europe, security analysts concede that it is proving impossible to create a useful profile of a terrorist.
Of course, there have been homegrown terrorists in the past. America has known its Ku Klux Klan, its Weather Underground, its Unabomber, its Timothy McVeigh. But it’s misleading to equate these individuals with today’s homegrown Islamic radicals. They are not a small, isolated fringe group. Avatars of a global revolt against the Western way of life, radical Muslim ideologues can serve as catalysts for the radicalization of young people living in Europe and America. They can expose the problem that these ever-so tolerant and non-judgmental societies have in inspiring loyalty to the community.
Anti-Western rhetoric may flourish only in a relative spiritual and intellectual void, but that is not so fanciful a circumstance as we once thought. It could be that it is not so much the lure of radicalism but the unraveling of meaning that is predominantly responsible for the emergence of homegrown terror threats in the West. Since at least the end of the Cold War, Western political ideals have become exhausted, and their capacity to endow experience with meaning has become significantly diminished. As Zaki Laidi noted, “to define oneself by contrast with communism no longer has any meaning.”16
At the same time, many in the West have become uncomfortable with their own philosophical traditions and intellectual, scientific and moral inheritance. Bin Laden himself has attempted to incorporate into his statements the doubts that Westerners have about their own legacy. In his October 2002 message to the Americans, for example, he taunted:
You are a nation that exploits women like consumer products or advertising tools, calling upon customers to purchase them. You use women to serve passengers, visitors, and strangers to increase your profit margins. You then rant that you support the liberation of women. . . . You have destroyed nature with your industrial waste and gases, more than any other nation in history. Despite this, you refuse to sign the Kyoto agreement so that you can secure the profit of your greedy companies and industries.
The ease with which conventional anti-consumerist, environmentalist themes merge with jihadist rhetoric is testimony to the confluence of internally driven anti-modernism with an externally inspired anti-Western one. And did not al-Qaeda spokesmen predict many years ago that the American-led Western economy would collapse into crisis because society’s moral core had been hollowed out by materialist greed, hedonism, excessive individualism and licentiousness? Radical Muslims see the global economic crisis as their ideological vindication. Some even take credit for it, seeing 9/11 as causally connected to the happy, God-sent debacle of the infidel world. We used to dismiss this rhetoric as the drivel of madmen. This is not so easy to do persuasively anymore.
As any student of war should know, morale is critical. Whose morale is highest today? Al-Qaeda itself may be much diminished by battlefield setbacks, financial problems and a new unpopularity touched off by its own outrageous behavior in Iraq and elsewhere. But it retains enormous soft power among populations in the West and elsewhere who have experienced the disorienting culture-burn of rapid change. Meanwhile, formidable homegrown cultural influences disparage the West’s historical achievements, its belief in progress and its devotion to the principles of the Enlightenment—the very hallmarks of modernity. Others argue that even the police force and intelligence gathering agencies are influenced by a mood of “Western self-loathing” that undermines their judgment.17 Those who find a home on a jihadi website may well represent but a variant of such a response to the crisis of belief afflicting the West.
One reason the War on Terror has failed to consolidate a sense of solidarity against the enemy is precisely because of the crisis of meaning afflicting the West. Uncontained by a robust system of meaning, the threats have far more effectively produced new fears than encouraged new solidarities. Sadly, shared meaning for most people is confined to being afraid of becoming a target rather being inspired to stand up for a way of life.
It is evident, too, that the re-conceptualization of terrorism as an ideological competitor is linked to the apparent decline in the self-belief of the West. Even before 9/11, there was more than a hint of defensiveness about the capacity of Western values to prevail over those of hostile opponents. William S. Lind gave voice to this sentiment, concluding that “protecting Western culture from foreign assault requires domestic revival.” A decade before 9/11, he warned that “the twenty-first century could once again find Islam at the gates of Vienna, as immigrants or terrorists if not armies.”18 Today there is little evidence of domestic revival. Indeed, Western governments, again particularly in Europe, are sensitive about their very limited capacity for inspiring their own publics.
The fact that many Western governments perceive relatively incoherent jihadi opponents (al-Qaeda has clever talking points but no social program whatsoever) as representing a serious ideological challenge to the Western way of life draws attention to their feeble sense of self-confidence. It may be that the wild inflation of the supposed threat of terrorists wielding weapons of mass destruction is a kind of unconscious compensation for the crisis of elite authority on the home front. It may be, too, that the crisis of the West “is internally generated”, as Richard Koch and Chris Smith have argued; it “lies in Western heads.”19 One is reminded of the negative report of the 12 spies sent by Moses to scope out the Promised Land: “We were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and so we were in their sight.”20
The truth is that any enemy can seem formidable if one’s own self-confidence is low enough. But since it is very difficult to admit this, and even harder to figure out what to do about it, it is convenient, if not inevitable, to blame others instead. Since the internally generated critique of the West overlaps on many points with those mounted by jihadi movements, it becomes relatively easy to offload what is close to home onto what is presumed to be far away. This, then, is the real source of confusion, the real reason Western elites have had such trouble naming and talking about the enemy. Maybe what we need is not better rhetoric about the struggle of ideas between Islam and the West, but more scrupulous attention to what constitutes a way of life worth defending.
1This point is developed in the introduction to my Invitation To Terror: The Expanding Empire of the Unknown (Continuum Press, 2007).
2“Christmas Terror strike ‘highly likely’”, Daily Telegraph, December 11, 2006.
3Noted in Andrew Blick, Tufyjal Choudhury and Stuart Weir, The Rules of the Game: Terrorism, Community and Human Rights (Democratic Audit, 2007), p. 11.
4The Times (London), November 5, 2007.
5“‘Islamic terrorism’ is too emotive a phrase, says EU”, Daily Telegraph, April 12, 2006.
6See Dov S. Zakheim, “What’s in a Name?”, The American Interest (May/June 2008).
7Mark Leonard and Andrew Small, with Martin Rose, British Public Diplomacy In The ‘Age of Schisms’ (Foreign Policy Centre, 2005), p. 11.
8Sandra Laville, “Brown pledges a cultural war on terrorism”, Guardian, June 20, 2007.
9“Brown Talks of Terror Struggle”, BBC News Online, August 1, 2007.
10David Omand, “Countering International Terrorism: The Use of Strategy”, Survival (Winter 2005–06).
11See Declassified Key Judgments of the National Intelligence Estimate, “Trends in Global Terrorism: Implications for the United States”, dated April 2006.
12Ian Blair, “Speech for the Urban Age Summit in Berlin”, November 11, 2006.
13This point is confirmed by research into the motivation and character of suicide bombers. See Scott Atran, “The Moral Logic of Suicide Terrorism”, Washington Quarterly (Spring 2006).
14See for example Gary Younge, “We must be honest about our past to be truly hopeful about our future”, Guardian, April 16, 2007. In Britain, the Oxford Research Group regularly published reports condemning the war in Iraq for encouraging global terrorism. See “Iraq policy ‘spawned new terror’”, BBC Politics, April 11, 2007.
15Lorenzo Vidino, “The Danger of Homegrown Terrorism to Scandinavia”, Terrorism Monitor (October 2006).16Laidi, A World Without Meaning: The Crisis of Meaning in International Politics (Routledge, 1998), p. 172.
17See Peter Neumann and Michael Smith, “Missing the Plot? Intelligence and Discourse Failure”, Orbis (Winter 2005).
18Lind, “Defending Western Culture”, Foreign Policy (Fall 1991).
19Koch and Smith, Suicide of the West (Continuum, 2006).