Thursday 19 April 2007

'War on terror' ?

Hilary Benn, the International Development Secretary, has said that the UK government will no longer use the term 'war on terror' 'because it encourages insurgent groups' by providing them with a sense of shared identity. Norm takes issue:

The only shared identity you 'give' terrorists by identifying them as that is one they already have: of being willing to use the same murderous methods to achieve their ends and (generally) having some sort of ideological back-up for doing that. The phrase 'war on terror' doesn't create these common features; they're already there. One could, I suppose, decline to emphasize them, but then one needs a reason for this beyond the false one that there are no such common features.

I agree. However, Michael Marten over at Ekklesia is critical of Benn's statement for very different reasons. While he agrees that terrorism needs to be tackled not only by 'hard power' but also by 'soft power', he argues that 'values and ideas are key to the debate, but not, perhaps, in the way that Benn and the UK government intend.'

Marten's next paragraph deserves a thorough taking-apart, or fisking as I understand it's called here in the blogosphere:

The suggestion behind the minister’s statement is that ‘our’ values and ideas (presumably such laudable aims as justice, good governance, democracy, and so on) are being sent into the fray against ‘their’ (undefined, but undoubtedly nefarious) values and ideas. There is no possibility of perhaps acknowledging that ‘their’ values and ideas have any context, let alone perhaps justification. This sounds remarkably similar to the discredited notion of a ‘clash of civilisations’ that played such a significant part in creating the original ‘war on terror’.

I can't make up my mind whether the scare quotes around 'our' and the use of 'presumably' mean that Marten does or does not think that 'justice, good governance, democracy, and so on' are 'laudable aims'. I suspect these rhetorical devices are intended precisely to create this kind of non-committal distancing. Ditto with 'their...undoubtedly nefarious values'. Does he agree that justice and democracy are good things, and that the values of Al Qaida et al are not, and if so why can't he just come out and say so?

Continuing in the same circumlocutory manner, Marten sort-of-suggests that we should 'acknowledge that "their" values and ideas have (a) context' and perhaps even a 'justification'. This is where we get into pretty murky territory. Let's be clear: the 'values and ideas' of reactionary Islamist groups that employ mass murder as a routine tactic are a toxic mixture of authoritarianism, anti-feminism, antisemitism, homophobia and religious intolerance. Of course these ideas have a 'context', just like any set of ideas. Nazism had a 'context', in the humiliation of Germany after the First World War and the Depression of the Thirties; the racism of the BNP has a 'context' in the alienation of white working-class youth in some urban areas. But it doesn't follow that acknowledging these contexts means entering into any kind of dialogue with the reactionary ideas they throw up. And it certainly can never provide any kind of 'justification' for those ideas, or for their enactment in the form of political violence and terror. But once again, Marten's deliberately tentative phrase - 'let alone perhaps justification' - makes it impossible to pin him down: is he saying that contextual factors could possibly 'justify' terrorist acts like 9/11 or 7/7, or is he just playing around with the idea?

Whatever you think of the 'clash of civilisations' thesis, Marten is surely wrong to blame it, even in part, for creating the 'war on terror'. That's like blaming anti-fascists, rather than the Nazis, for starting World War Two, as if invading Poland, or flying passenger planes into buildings full of innocent people, did not justify a response.

Marten goes on, in a fashion that has become drearily familiar, to enumerate western misdeeds, such as the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and withdrawal of support from the Hamas-led Palestinian government, as offering 'further incentive for disaffected Islamist groups to wreak "revenge"’ attacks on western targets.' It's difficult to know where to begin with this sentence. Firstly, the invasion of Afghanistan was a response to terrorist attack, and whatever you think of the invasion of Iraq it was aimed at removing a secular dictator who had (among his other crimes) oppressed and massacred Muslims. You can argue the strategic merits of withholding support from Hamas, but here was a reactionary political party that openly supported and encouraged suicide terrorism against civilians. Secondly, does it really need to be reiterated that Al Qaida and other Islamist groups were engaged in terrorist acts long before the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and against non-western targets too - in Malaysia and the Indian subcontinent, for example. It's not the west they hate, it's democracy, secularism and pluralism, wherever these are to be found. Thirdly, as writers such as Paul Berman and more recently Daniel Postel have argued, to characterise the actions of Islamist terrorists simply as a 'response' to western 'provocation' is to deny any kind of agency to such groups, and to deny that they have any deliberate ideology or strategy of their own (rather like arguing that Nazism was merely a 'response' to humiliation by the European powers at Versailles). This ascription of passivity could be interpreted as a kind of unconscious racism ('we' have ideas and motives, 'they' simply 'respond to provocation') and a form of inverted imperialism that views everything through the lens of 'our' (western) actions.

Marten ends his article with some laudable sentiments about Christians needing to reach out to moderate Muslims, etc. But I was disappointed to find such a tired reiteration of 'blame the west' cliches on this usually eminently sensible progressive-christian website.

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