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America’s New Civilizing Mission

by M. SHAHID ALAM

“Islam has long vanished from the stage of history, and has re-treated into oriental ease and repose.”

G.W.F. Hegel

In a world that is dominated by violence emanating from organs of the state, including incidental and deliberate acts of violence against civilians, the attacks of 9-11 came as a shock. Momentarily, these attacks had reversed the customary roles. A handful of non-state actors, wielding terrorist tactics, had challenged the world’s most powerful state. The death toll from these attacks–for a single day–was grizzly at around 3000.

Terrorist attacks by non-state actors on this scale would have pro-voked alarm under any circumstances, but the identity of the attackers and their target made them pregnant with world-historical consequences. These attacks were cataclysmic because their target was the United States, the only surviving superpower, and they were perpetrated by men from a part of the world–the Middle East–that contains oil, ‘the single greatest strategic prize of history.’

These circumstances about the attacks of 9-11 instantly produced certain predictable theories about why the hijackers had chosen to attack the United States. These theories played upon the identity of the attackers and their target, that is, who we are and who they are. We are a free, prosperous, democratic and overwhelmingly Christian society; and they are evil Muslims from the backward swamps of the Arab world.

The standard explanations of 9-11 constructed on these premises were simple. They had attacked us because they hate our freedoms, our prosperity, our democracy, and our Christian society. This explanation raised another question: what is it about them that motivates their hatred for us? The answer to this question was dredged from a collective memory of historical contests between Islamdom and Christendom–resuscitated in recent years by a new clique of influential Oreintalists led by Bernard Lewis.[1] The American establishment argued that the attackers’ hatred was fuelled by Islam, a religion that oppresses women, denigrates reasoning, stifles freedom of speech, discriminates against other faiths, and preaches eternal warfare against all Infidels.

These stark contrasts between us and them–as it turns out, contrasts essentially between good and evil–were readily accepted by many Americans. It is scarcely surprising that they were. Historically, Islam-dom has nearly always been the principal Other in the Western dialectic of imagination, fear and domination. Over the past few decades, with the growing salience of the Israeli-Arab conflict, the re-entry of Islam into the politics of the Islamicate world, and finally with the collapse of the communist challenge, a growing body of thought in the United States has sought to reclaim, to resurrect, this old Western adversary.

More recently, Samuel Huntington has nested the Western dread of Islam within his broader thesis of the clash of civilizations. He claims that most major conflicts occur across the fault line of civilizations; supposedly, these conflicts are deeply rooted in human nature, in the instinctive urge of one society to fear and, therefore, subjugate the Other. Although, Huntington identifies eight civilizations, which would allow for 56 paired conflicts between civilizations, he is primarily concerned with two: the conflict between the West, on the one hand, and Islamdom and China.

The terrorist attacks of 9-11 were gleefully seized by many in the United States as a fresh irruption of the clash of civilizations–between Islamdom and the West. Their enthusiasm was not dampened by the fact that the attackers were a handful of non-state actors, who most likely represented an extreme fringe of Islamicate society. The only thing that mattered was that the attackers were Muslims and the country targeted, the United States, was the Core Western country. This was irrefutable evidence of an ongoing clash of civilizations between Islamdom and the West.

Once the US establishment had cast the attacks of 9-11 in the frame-work of a clash of civilizations, the United States was ready for a radical engagement with the Islamicate world. On the one hand, the attacks per se offered the casus beli. This was leveraged into a new kind of threat–terrorist attacks with WMDs and this, apparently, demanded a war against terrorism, a cover for the United States to wage pre-emptive and preventive wars, to acquire military control over Middle Eastern oil fields, and to put the world on notice that no challenges to America’s military dominance would be tolerated. The war on terrorism was a war to establish a global American Empire.

At the same time, by setting the attacks of 9-11 within the framework of the clash of civilizations, the United States was also positioning itself for a deeper intervention in the Islamicate world, one that would go beyond regime change. This Neoconservative plan was revealed soon after the invasion of Iraq: it was promoted under the broad rubric of ‘democratizing’ the Middle East, if not the Islamicate world. This is a plan to settle the problem of a recalcitrant Islamdom once and for all. Militarily, this calls for regime changes. Politically, it maps a re-division of the Arab states into smaller, micro-states defined by religion, sectarian identity and ethnicity. Culturally, the Islamicate world would be Americanized. The Evangelists are hoping to achieve more: convert the Muslims to Christianity. It is an ambitious plan, a dream plan, exceeding in breath and scope the French ambitions for the transformation of the Maghreb.

The American response to 9-11–including the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, the planting of military bases all over the Islamicate world, and plans for attacking Iran–provides fuel to the campaign by al-Qaida and its affiliates to energize the Islamicate world to recapture its historical autonomy. The American and Israeli designs on the Islamicate world–so it appears to a growing number of Muslims–are even greater than they were before 9-11, when they preferred to dominate the Islamicate world through surrogates. Their new designs go further: they are now demanding that the Islamicate world–and Islam itself–reform itself on American terms.

It is unsettling when one examines how the world has come to this. If the official accounts of 9-11 are accurate, it would appear that a handful of men, with miniscule resources but using the tools of terrorism, have leveraged themselves into world players. It is difficult to say what 9-11 and America’s response to it will ultimately produce. For now, it has deepened the power of America and Israel over the Islamicate world. The United States now maintains a massive military force inside the Islamicate world, ready to extend its ‘civilizing mission’ to Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia. However, this mission is also in trouble. In Iraq, this is obvious. In Afghanistan, the American victories remain superficial. In both Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States failed to draw upon the military forces of its allies in the Islamicate world to police the ‘liberated’ territories. Perhaps, this is the most visible shift in the temper of the Islamicate world since the first Gulf War, when nearly every major Muslim country sent military contingents to support Americans in their war against Iraq.

Is Osama bin Laden “a master strategist”–as Justin Raimondo claims–who uses terrorist tools to achieve his objectives.[2] Or is he clueless like Saddam Hussein, who blundered into Kuwait, apparently unaware that such a challenge to America’s vital interests would not go unanswered, especially at a time when Soviet power was near collapse? At least for now, bin Laden’s gambit appears to have failed. Although he succeeded in provoking an American invasion of a major Islamicate country, this did not produce the insurrection that he might have hoped would overthrow the tyrannies in the Islamicate world. Instead, the United States is planning to overthrow these tyrannies and replace them with others that will better serve American interests. President Bush has already effected two regime changes–in Afghanistan and Iraq. How many more regimes will go down this way? President Bush has another four years to make his plan work. Shall we wish the President luck?

Or, instead, shall we wish our fellow-Americans better luck?

M. SHAHID ALAM is professor of economics at Northeastern University. He writes this column in his personal capacity and not as a representative of Northeastern University. His political essays are now available in a book, Is There An Islamic Problem (Kuala Lumpur: The Other Press, 2004). © M. SHAHID ALAM

 

References

[1] Michael Hirsh, “Bernard Lewis revisited,” Washington Monthly, November 2004.

[2] Justin Raimondo, “The truth hurts: Osama speaks, but are we listening?” Antiwar.com, November 1, 2004.

 

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M. SHAHID ALAM is professor of economics at Northeastern University. This is an excerpt from his forthcoming book, Israeli Exceptionalism: The Destabilizing Logic of Zionism (Macmillan, November 2009). Contact me at alqalam02760@yahoo.com.

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