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9/11 and the dysfunctional “aughts”

By Richard Landes


In the years before 2000, as the director of the ephemeral Center for Millennial Studies, I scanned the global horizon for signs of apocalyptic activity, that is, for movements of people who believed that now was the time of a total global transformation. As I did so, I became aware of such currents of belief among Muslims, some specifically linked to the year 2000, all predominantly expressing the most dangerous of all apocalyptic beliefs – active cataclysmic that is the belief that this transition from evil to good demands massive destruction, and that we true believers are the agents of that destruction, warriors of God, Mujahidin. Death cults, cults of martyrdom and mass murder…destroying the world to save it.

Nor were these beliefs magical, like the far better known Christian, but largely passive-cataclysmic, Rapture scenarios where one must await God’s intervention. They had practical means and goals. In the same year 1989, that Bin Laden drove the Russians from Afghanistan, Khoumeini issued a global fatwah against Rushdie, and the West trembled. Iran and Afghanistan, however, like so many utopias born of such death cults, proved terrifyingly dystopic – acid in the faces of unveiled women. But these bitter new heavens on earth also showed remarkable staying power… and spreading power. So when Bin Laden struck with such spectacular force on 9/11, he took his Jihad, already declared in 1998 against America (the “Second ‘Ad”), to the next level. He put deeds to words.

We, in the West, were taken totally by surprise. Who are these people? Why haven’t we heard about them before? (NB: the blogosphere, which first “took off” in the early “aughts” is largely the product of a vast number of people turning to cyberspace for information that their mainstream news media had conspicuously failed to deliver.)

What was the logic of such a monstrously cruel attack that targeted civilians? A warning shot to pay attention and address grievances? Or the opening shot in a battle for world domination? Was this primarily an act of retribution for wrongs suffered, i.e., somewhat rational? Or global revenge at global humiliation, i.e., a bottomless pit of grievance?

Some of us said, “What can they possibly believe to make them hate so?” Others, “What did we do to make them hate us so?” And while both are legitimate questions, over the last decade, the “aughts” (‘00s), we have split into two camps, each of which will not allow the other question’s consideration.

A Frenchwoman said to me in 2003, “after 9/11, there are two kinds of people: those who understand that we are at war, and those in denial.” Some pointed to a culture of genocidal incitement in the ideology of this religious enemy. They identified the totalistic reasoning, and warned that what these Mujahidin said in their own language was radically different from how “moderate” Muslims portrayed them to the West.

Others dismissed and downplayed these issues, pointing to rational and moderate trends among Muslims, and insisted that the vast majority are peaceful and moderate who can be reached by dialogue, and that rounding up the tiny percentage who are terrorists can be, and should be, a matter of criminal proceedings. They showed more concern for the tendency of fascist war-mongering movements to appear in Western culture than deal with far more advanced such trends in Muslim political culture; they favored a moral relativism that permits one to spread the blame. Some showed a near-messianic will to self-criticize: “Aren’t we guilty of terrorism when we let people starve to death?” opined Derrida. Others delighted in moral inversion: Chomsky “reminded” us that the USA is the world’s worst terrorist. After all, those alleged civilians were really little Eichmanns, cogs in the wheel of a genocide of “people of color.”

At one extreme, then, we find racists and xenophobes who want to get rid of all Muslims; at the other, oikophobes, who don’t even believe there’s a Muslim-inspired terror, but that 9/11 – the whole threat – was invented by fascist Western politicians looking to establish their dictatorships. “My side right or wrong,” vs. “Their side right or wrong.” Both end up supporting fascism – ours, or theirs.

By and large, we tend to label these two directions of political thinking “right and left.” Using this distinction, however, reflects primarily the “policy” postures involved rather than serious political thought. Since the “left” adopts a discourse and posture of accommodation, it seems like the party of peace and understanding; anyone pointing out the evidence for implacable enmity, and the counter-indicated effects of pursuing peace with such a foe, seems like the party of war.

Now if it were merely a matter of different emphases, this could be a productive tension. Indeed, I’m convinced that there are a host of rightfully troubled thinkers who, despite strong liberal and progressive impulses, nonetheless acknowledge the evidence and want to talk about it. There is a hugely creative and productive conversation still waiting to take place, one that would include people from all faiths and ethnicities, of people genuinely committed to societies committed to the freedom and dignity of all their people. One that was not afraid of its own shadow.

But during the aughts that conversation has not place: on the contrary, the “left” has asserted a strong grip on the public sphere, exiling those who begin to pay attention to the problems with Islam rather than focus on the sins of the West, muffling both their voice, and the Muslim voices to which they point. I remember Fox News interviewing me on 9/11. When I identified this as part of an apocalyptic global Jihad, the interviewer informed me that that was impossible because – here quoting President Bush, “Islam is a religion of Peace.” They never played the interview and didn’t come to interview me again.

Those who doubt the wisdom of pursuing messianic demands for self-criticism and openness on the West at this time, who suggest we exercise our free speech and lay some of the moral onus here at the feet of Muslim spokesmen, who themselves so loudly denounce our racism and prejudice, but tolerate so much among their own – such people have rapidly found themselves labeled “right wing” and exiled from the “mainstream.” “If I speak of Muslim anti-Semitism,” confessed one French colleague to me in 2005, “it’s the last invitation to speak at a conference that I’ll get.”

As a result of this animosity, the adversarial “right-left” axis has reached dysfunctional proportions. The “left” views the right as at best mean-spirited, increasingly as malevolent; the “right” views the left as traitors and fools, as useful infidels. And these two camps now so bitterly speak about each other, that the presidential campaign of 2012 looks like a nightmare of inappropriate candidates. And in the meantime, our disarray fills the sails of our apocalyptic enemy. As one of my friends said to me recently, “I thought that Mayan 2012 stuff was ridiculous. Now I see how global disaster really could happen by then.”

And among the elements that played into making this situation far worse, one of the cruelest winds blew from Europe and from the “progressive left.” It’s worth remembering that the week before 9/11, the UN had assembled at Durban all the major “human rights” NGOs, representing the “best of the left,” to fight racism world-wide, an assembly that turned into of demopath’s delight, an orgy of hatred aimed at two Western democracies, by a voting bloc with members who still engage in slavery. When the “Magnificent 19” struck, they had every reason to believe that they would be cheered on by a Western elite, a global tribe, called “left wing”, inebriated with anti-Americanism.

And they were, to some extent, right. Although the initial European response to 9/11 was sympathy for the US – the next day, Le Monde wrote “Nous sommes tous des américains” – it did not take long for anti-Americanism to emerge. Ten days later, Jean Baudrillard wrote a masterpiece of what Nietzsche would call ressentiment in a Le Monde: “It’s natural to want to strike at such a suffocating hegemon as the USA…They did it, we wanted it.” According to Nidra Poller, within weeks of the event, le tout Paris resounded with this kind of Schadenfreude. “America had it coming.” When Michael Moore’s sophomoric Fahrenheit 9/11 came to Europe, crowds stood and cheered.

No good deed goes unpunished by the envious. The French find it easier to forgive the Germans for conquering them, than the Americans for saving them, twice. When David Marash resigned as editor in chief of Al Jazeera English because it was so anti-American, he commented that it was the British, not the Arabs, who were the worst – and by that he meant the products of a media elite that clusters around a BBC-Guardian nexus.

The anti-American left, like courtiers in a 21st century production of the emperor’s new clothes, embraced Jihadis who struggled so mightily against American hegemony. The “peace” rallies of 2003 against Bush’s war in Iraq brought the pacifist left and the Mujahidin together in common cause. One Pakistani participant in Islamabad wore a headband with Kill Jews; Berkeley radicals would not be outclassed in their demonizing. And yet, too few were disturbed by the oxymoron of an anti-Semitic peace rally. They failed to note that in apocalyptic politics, my enemy’s enemy is my enemy.

When Bin Laden’s men took out the twin towers, they, in a typical act of cognitive egocentrism, thought they would bring down the arrogant and empty tyrant of the US. What they did accomplish, however unintentionally, was to fend their foe – us – into two self-recriminating and dysfunctional halves. These halves, who so inaccurately identify themselves as “right” and “left,” seem to despise each other more than they do an enemy who passionately hates both of them – us! – a foe that hates all we collectively believe in about those messy and productive societies that treasure tolerance and dignity and freedom.

Demotic polities that protect everyone’s rights and request everyone’s disciplined participation, are rare historical accomplishments. They’re based on the difficult civil meme: “whoever is right, my side or not.” They need high levels of ability among their citizens for self-criticism, compromise, positive-sum behavior, and mutual trust and respect. Eli Sagan, one of the more astute observers of these issues notes: “Democracy is a miracle, considering human psychological disabilities.” However imperfect our democracies, they are as valuable as they are vulnerable.

Among the many memes widely circulating in Western circles, one of the most absurdly noxious is “Who are we to judge?” All the great progressive victories of demotic polities – equality before the law, freedom of religion and dissent, respect for those disadvantaged by “might makes right,” women, workers, weak – arises from harsh value judgments on the authoritarianism that exploits them: patriarchy, exploitation, cruelty. Not judging too quickly – admirable; not judging at all – folly. We end up ferociously judging ourselves, and giving others, whose values and motives are far more base, a free pass. In doing so we illustrate Pascale’s warning, “the more we want to be angels, the more we become beasts.”

So when, in order to seem peaceful, we abandon non-westerners to brutal political cultures in the name of some quasi-religious commitment to cultural relativism, we betray everything we claim we support. Such attitudes seem particularly inadvisable when facing an apocalyptic foe dedicated to the destruction of all our progressive values.

If the only people who fight Islamic triumphalism are really on the right, their solutions will obviously favor harsh responses. Liberals and progressives would, presumably, struggle harder to come up with more creative and less violent forms of effective resistance. So it constitutes a catastrophic loss of creative energy to have a “left” that believes that somehow, if only we were nicer to Muslims, they’d be nicer to us, one that views as an alarming embarrassment anyone who points out the Islamic contribution to the problem, as a saboteur of this effort at placation, an “enemy of peace.” It also represents a colossal betrayal of genuine Muslims moderates who really do want to live in a vibrant civil society that respects everyone; where Muslims respect infidels, and infidels respect Islam.

If the aughts were a debacle of culture wars in the West and a period of growing radicalization in Islamic circles, let the teens be a period when finally, we turn around this self-destructive behavior. The well-being of billions of people on this planet depend on our commitment to Western progressive values.

Richard Landes is Associate Professor of History and directed the Center for Millennial Studies at Boston University. He is the author of the blog The Augean Stables and his most recent book is Heaven on Earth: The Varieties of the Millennial Experience.

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