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October 01st 2014 print

Martin Jones & Michael L.R. Smith

Western Responsibility for ISIS

Acting in the name of multiculturalism and inclusion, it was the West's 'free and open societies' that afforded state funding to advocates of jihadism. How could they have been so misguided? How can they still refuse to recognise their mistake?

muslim demoI. The Nurture of Sacred Violence within Western Multiculturalism

Western governments and their security agencies appear not only shocked by the ultra-violence of the new Islamic State (ISIS), but also surprised that jihadist recruits from Britain, Australia and Europe celebrate the killings they commit. Significantly, British and Australian jihadis promulgate the majority of the English-language posts and internet videos that glorify violent extremism.

They justify their methods on the grounds of their allegiance to a radical, anti-democratic, non-negotiable modern form of Islam committed to world purification and the violent restoration of the caliphate. In 1924, the Turkish modernising autocrat, Ataturk, dissolved the Ottoman caliphate, a lineal descendant of the Ummayad and Abbasid caliphates that dated back to the first centuries of Islam. In Mosul, in June 2014, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the nominal head of the Islamic State, declared its re-establishment and styled himself the new caliph, Ibrahim.

On the eve of the NATO summit in South Wales last month, the US President and UK Prime Minister declared that the way to contain the problem of global jihadism and its aspiration to a cyber-caliphate was to “invest in the building blocks of free and open societies, including creating a new and genuinely inclusive government in Iraq”.[1] Not only does such a response seem naive, it notably fails to address the problem of home-grown radicalism and how the ideology that legitimates and ultimately sanctifies violence emanated less from the Middle East and more from the radical Islamist NGOs that have proliferated across Europe and to a lesser extent Australia since the last decade of the Cold War.

In other words, it was the “free and open societies” of the West that tolerated and afforded state funding to the leading advocates of jihadism. In so doing, they incubated this distinctively illiberal, ideological mutation. European and Australian political elites acted in this curiously self-destructive manner, because, at the end of the Cold War, they came to share a commitment to multiculturalism and diversity as the basis for greater political inclusivity and enhanced global and social justice.

It was, however, in the UK that the political elites, their media and leading academics (together with their Australian offshoots, in a perverse postmodern version of the cultural cringe) most fervently embraced this post-imperial, multicultural commitment, and it was in its capital, Londonistan, that the new political religion found its most congenial home.

Before committing more men and materiel overseas, it would seem “prudent”, to use Tony Abbott’s favourite epithet, to examine the character of this home-grown jihadist phenomenon, and why the media, academe, the political elites and, most disturbingly, the police and security agencies either discount its political appeal or attribute its “root causes” to social deprivation, marginalisation or anything other than the ideology that renders it seductive. How did this costly misunderstanding evolve, and what precisely is the basis of Islamism’s appeal to wealthy, often university-educated, second- and third-generation migrants from Asian or Middle Eastern provenance in Britain and Australia?

Third way multiculturalism and war

In order to understand how jihadism achieved its current status we need first to examine how British, and to a lesser extent Australian, elites prosecuted the war on terror abroad after 2001, whilst allowing elements of Islamism’s command-and-control sanctuary and state handouts in multicultural cities like London, Birmingham, Sydney and Melbourne. Multiculturalism’s classic manifestation as a security doctrine may be located in Tony Blair’s way post-1997, Rudd’s way in Australia after 2007, and latterly, Cameron’s way since 2011.

It required Anglospheric democracies to prosecute the war forcefully against those who resort to jihad (holy war) abroad, actively participating in coalitions of the willing whether in Afghanistan or Iraq, whilst, at the same time, affording some of Islamism’s key ideologists and strategists a high degree of latitude at home. This reflects the fact that, whilst recognising that “today, conflicts rarely stay within national boundaries” and “interdependence defines the new world we live in”, Blairism and its watered-down Ruddite equivalent also wished to “celebrate the diversity in our country” and gain strength “from the cultures and races” in their midst, some of whose adherents drew upon the interdependent and transnational character of conflict to render UK or Australian infrastructure a soft civilian target.[2]

Although, after February 2011, David Cameron sought to distance his government from a policy of “state-led multiculturalism” that, he argued, facilitated radicalisation, official policy nevertheless remained, at best, ambivalent. [3] Meanwhile the European Social Science Research Council (ESCRC), like the Australian Research Council (ARC), continues to disperse large grants to teams of sociologists, educationalists and psychologists to demonstrate that, despite some “concern” over the London bombings of July 2005, the model of successful multiculturalism remains intact.[4]

In the UK and Australia, this quasi-official doctrine of multiculturalism masked an incoherent policy oscillation between prosecution and celebration, complacency and arbitrariness. Thus, while Tony Blair, remained steadfast in his commitment to the war on terror abroad, until 2004 the British Home Office permitted self-styled sheikhs Abu Hamza al-Masri and Omar Bakri Mohamed to recruit for Al Qaeda from their state-subsidised mosque in Finsbury Park, North London, whilst Abu Qatada operated as Al Qaeda’s emir in Europe.

These leading figures in the protoplasmic Al Qaeda network sought the achievement—by jihad, if necessary—of a unified Islamic world. Groups like Omar Bakri Mohammed’s Al Muhajiroun (the migrants) and its breakaway front organisations like the Saviour Sect and Hizb ut-Tahrir (Party of Struggle), which, after 2002, extended its outreach activities to Sydney and Melbourne, dismissed the more moderate voices of diasporic Islam, who dissented from their promotion of a de-territorialised salafist utopia, as “chocolate Muslims”. The proselytising missionary work of groups like Hizb preached to a generation of alienated Muslim youth the inevitable confrontation of their creed with British and latterly Australian democracy’s decadent secularism.

Deracinated second- and third-generation migrants, thus, found solace not in the polymorphous joys of secularism and multiculturalism, but in a re-Islamisation that favoured “supranational [Islamist] organisations instead of ‘national’ Islamic movements”. Hizb ut-Tahrir exemplified this transition to a universalist mode of Islamic identity. As Olivier Roy explains:

this fundamentalist party based in London … was originally set up as a Palestinian Islamic movement in 1953. Officially non-violent, its ideas are nevertheless very radical. It advocates the immediate re-establishment of the caliphate … and the ultimate conversion of the entire world to Islam. Hizb ut-Tahrir is now a genuinely international movement. [5]

Ed Husain, a former member of Hizb, observed that the party “borrowed” its organisational structure and confrontational tactics from “radical socialists”. It functions as an elite vanguard party, recruiting from university campuses, which it finds particularly congenial. As Husain again observes,

At many universities the tactics of confrontation and consolidation of Muslim feeling under the leadership of Hizb activists were being adopted … What dumbfounded us was the fact that the authorities on campuses never stopped us. [6]

Prior to the London bombings of July 2005, the UK government, as with university campuses, did little to discourage Islamist activism or to encourage a sustained criticism of its questionable premises. The same was perhaps even truer of Australia where media and academic elites railed against Australia’s commitment to a US-inspired “violent peace” at the expense of a misunderstood and non-Western “other”.

In other words, a bizarre combination of Blairite and Ruddite political correctness and a complacent indifference to the Islamist call enabled groups like Hizb ut-Tahrir to get a head start in the battle for hearts and minds amongst second- and third-generation British and Australian migrants of a Muslim provenance.

This fatal misunderstanding was early and dramatically illustrated at a little-advertised, but Metropolitan Police-approved, rally of Islamist radicals held in London in Trafalgar Square on August 25, 2002. Clad in a variety of colourful thowbs, the crowd, on first impression, resembled something left over from a hippie counterculture festival of the late 1960s. Instead of love and peace, however, they chanted “Osama, Osama, Osama”. Uncompromising certitude accompanied the flowing robes and beards. Peddling their ideological wares from four green tents marked “Islam”, “Capitalism”, “Democracy”, and “Globalisation”—located just behind the backs of the statues of two heroes of empire, Sir Henry Havelock and Sir Charles Napier, whilst Admiral Nelson turned a blind eye from atop his pedestal—the militant disciples of the Islamic internationale, stylishly accoutred in black headscarves and matching Ray-Bans, projected an image of radical Islamist chic. Their handouts, such as “A Call to Boycott America and Israel”, excoriated the “hyenas and vultures which operate under the guise of the coalition against terrorism”.

This heady mixture of posturing and utopian activism increasingly appealed to a younger generation of Muslim British and Australian youth, recruited to the ranks of Islamic radicalism and its affiliates in growing numbers. Reinforced in the course of the decade after 2005 by the new social media of Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, the blandishments of a postmodernised call, adumbrated with gangsta-rap-style narcissism and amplified by the intoxicating appeal of a sacralised violence, proved irresistible to a younger, educated, but deracinated generation of diasporic Muslims. Why? And, one might ask, why in multicultural cities like London and Sydney?

First, and ironically, because many Muslims in London and Sydney are lured away from community and Islamic tradition by the attractions and opportunities of Western life. The radical championing of the transnational ummah addresses the universalist and apocalyptic yearning of young European Muslims “who cannot identify with any specific place or nation”. And second, because states like Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, China, Russia, Singapore and Malaysia exercise a far greater degree of control over radical Islamist activity than occurs in Europe generally, and London and Sydney in particular. These states can control the press, limit internet access and overcome their concerns—if they have any—about civil liberties violations with consummate ease. Not so in the Anglosphere, where liberal guilt about colonial sins trumped common sense, prior to recent events in the Islamic State.

Political religion, sacred violence and the cult of death

Given post-Cold War secular Western democracy’s failure to take the ideology seriously, it is necessary to identify the manner in which an Islamist ideology, or more precisely, following Eric Voegelin’s classic identification of the phenomenon, a political religion based on Islam, came in the course of the twentieth century’s late modernisation to serve a Gnostic and violent purpose.

Voegelin classically identified the ersatz religious purpose that informed the European totalitarian movements of the 1930s. Like his Weimar contemporaries Hannah Arendt and Leo Strauss, Voegelin contended that the secularisation of the world—the significant achievement of Western modernity—had failed to silence the quest for meaning or the urge to find alternative ways of satisfying this existential human need. What interested Voegelin was the satanic seduction involved in the Nazis’ political appeal, which replaced the transcendent God with a social collective:

They build the corpus mysticum of the collectivity and bind the members to form the oneness of the body … The formation of the myth and its propaganda by means of newspapers and radio, the speeches and celebrations, the assemblies and parades, the planning and the death in battle, make up the inner world forms of the unio mystica.[7]

As one of Voegelin’s disciples, Barry Cooper, observed, “to put it bluntly, it was a question of comprehending the attractiveness of evil”. [8] The seductive appeal of political movements that seek to transform modernity and “immanentise” the revealed truth of the ideology, via the internet rather than newspapers, provides insight into the case of contemporary apocalyptic movements prepared to countenance catastrophic violence to advance their cause. Indeed, it is impossible to understand contemporary terrorism without paying close attention to the deformed spirituality that terrorists experience.

Ironically, their desire to build a state along Islamically-planned rational lines indicates the impact not only of the West but of Western ideological thinking of a totalitarian character upon a generation of Western-trained Islamic thinkers. It was after the Muslim Brotherhood’s Sayyid Qutb defined its essential character in a number of works written between 1955 and his execution by the Nasser regime in Egypt in 1966, that we can refer to Islamism not as a traditional religious form but as an ideology, or more precisely, a political religion.

Like the totalitarian movements of the twentieth century that profoundly influenced this style of Islamist thought, it assumes an activist mysticism and a specialised knowledge or Gnosis “of the method of altering being”. As Voegelin explains, in “the Gnostic attitude” we recognise the “construction of a formula for self and world salvation, as well as the Gnostic’s readiness to come forward as a prophet who will proclaim his knowledge about the salvation of mankind”.[9] Under the influence of Qutb and subsequently Taquiuddin al-Nabhani, the founder of Hizb ut-Tahrir, Islamism became both a system (nizam) and an ideology that critiqued the contradictions in modernity, Islam’s relationship with modernity, and the means of radically transforming it via jihad.

As Nabhani explained, “the Islamist does not flatter the people, is not courteous to the authorities, or care for the people’s customs and traditions … Rather he must adhere to the ideology alone”. Consequently, Nabhani argued for a complete destruction of the existing political order, particularly in Muslim countries, and its replacement by the caliphate or “khilafah system”.[10]

Unlike the pluralist secularism it confronts, then, Islamism offers a non-negotiable, politically religious alternative. Consequently, it rejects Muslims who practise a traditional faith and instead reinforces the Gnostic character of European Islamism. Following Voegelin, we can see the Islamist, like the 1930s Fascist, and unlike the man of faith, drawing a distinction between the experience of mundane reality and the second or transformed reality that the imaginative projection of the political religion intimates. This second reality, as Voegelin explains, “screens the First Reality of common experience”.

From this perspective, violence is both necessary and justifiable to immanentise the apocalyptic dreamer’s truth. As Voegelin explained in The New Science of Politics:

Gnosticism as a counter-existential dream world can perhaps be made intelligible as the extreme expression of an experience which is universally human, that is of horror of existence and a desire to escape from it.

Translated into a political religion in the context of modernity, the Gnostic impulse is inherently Manichean, and violent. Immanentising the transformational end justifies the violent means.

Moreover, the end community to which the ideologist aspires has natural enemies, notably those who accept the world as it is with all its messy secularism and pluralism. From the Islamist’s perspective, then, violence or other “types of actions which in the real world would be considered as morally insane, because of the real effects which they have, will be considered moral in the dream world because they intend an entirely different effect”.[11]

Combining the sociology of Muslim reformism, as it evolved amongst the diaspora in the course of the twentieth century that came to associate, as Ernest Gellner observed, greater piety with upward mobility and a shift from the mimetic folk Islam of the assabiya to standards learned through the printed page,[12] with Voegelin’s understanding of Gnosticism, reveals Islamism as a distinctive but comprehensible ideological formation.

If this account of the evolution and character of European Islamism is correct, it also sheds a disturbing light upon the conduct of Western governments in general and the “third way” vision of New Labour in its UK and Australian manifestations in dealing with this implacable political religion and its cult of death.

SACRED VIOLENCE AND THE IDEA OF POLITICS

Eric Voegelin argued that the ideological fanaticism of the Nazis was not only a moral and political mistake, but also a spiritual perversion. More precisely, so far as the political religions of the twentieth century, Fascism, Stalinism, Maoism and Islamism are concerned, the meaning or substance of religious phenomena moved from a spiritual concern with transcending the mundane world towards the realisation of imaginary fantasies of immanent apocalypse and the fashioning of this-worldly utopias.

At the same time, as Leo Strauss presciently observed, the first half of the troubled twentieth century had also undermined faith in the secular, liberal, democratic Enlightenment project. “The crisis of the West,” he wrote:

consists in the West having become uncertain of its purpose. The West was once certain of its purpose—of a purpose in which all men could be united and hence it had a clear vision of its future … We do no longer have that certainty and that clarity. Some among us even despair of the future, and this despair explains many forms of Western degradation.[13] 

After a brief end-of-history moment in 1989, this crisis of the West has become more acute. A society accustomed to understanding itself in terms of a liberal, universal and progressive purpose cannot lose faith in that purpose without becoming utterly bewildered. This bewilderment and its implications for the liberal democratic or political appreciation of the threat of political violence from non-state actors has only further crystallised this sense of bewilderment.

It is evident that, since the end of the Cold War, the pursuit of political and spiritual purification and an apocalyptic transformation of a corrupt world order is by no means confined to Islamist jihadis. Al Qaeda and now the Islamic State only present the most evident manifestation of this activist style. The challenge it poses is the latest in a line of revolutionary assaults on the political systems of modern liberal democratic states since the late nineteenth century.

Those attracted to this style of thinking and the utopian and apocalyptic solutions they provide to local and global problems pose a complex challenge for political rule and the Western, secular order. At the core of the West’s difficulty is a need to take utopian ideologies seriously, whatever their provenance, whilst reaffirming the idea of politics as a distinct form of activity practised within a territorial unit of rule.

Western governments, their militaries, their media and their eleemosynary institutions have underestimated the role that political religion of an Islamist provenance plays in both recruitment to Islamism and the passage to the violent act, which its dogmatic teaching sacralises. Instead, a progressive commentariat, itself a product of Western self-loathing, discountenances the rhetoric of Islamist purity, re-describing it as a response to social and economic exclusion which, in its more radical academic iterations, legitimates resistance to Western capitalism and global injustice.

Thus one leading “critical” terror analyst asserted in 2008 that “terror has multiple forms and the real terror is economic”, the product of “global capitalism”.[14] When not searching for these opaque “root causes” of terror, the progressive media, transnational NGOs and their academic fellow travellers condemn any attempt to sanction radical Islamism as playing on “the politics of fear”. From this perspective, governments in the UK, Australia and the USA exaggerate the threat to persuade a gullible citizenry to accept an illegitimate extension of state power.

Yet, in what used to be standard introductions to politics written during the Cold War by, inter alia, Bernard Crick, Robert Dahl, Kenneth Minogue, Hannah Arendt and Leo Strauss, the Western European and North American experience of political democracy sustained, with difficulty, what Minogue termed a “common world in which we may talk to each other.”[15] Central to political democracy properly understood, but now largely neglected by academe, the media and the mainstream political parties, therefore, is a limited government that accepts the separation of the public from the private realm.

It is the recognition of such a separation that “distinguishes politics, which we may loosely identify with freedom and democracy, from despotism”. Indeed, Minogue observes, “the Western political tradition rested on the rejection of despotism”.[16] The over-arching public world of the state further maintains a structure of law appropriate to a self-determining association to sustain this civil life. Against this, the despot considers everything in society his private property. The politically religious and the politically correct modern versions of despotism see everything in society, and on the planet for that matter, as material for intervention and regulation.

Postmodern ideological despotism further assumes, as we have seen, the achievement of a post-democratic state of perfection via resistance, regulation and purification. By contrast, politics accepts the human condition for what it is, and this condition is never perfect. As Bernard Crick observed, politics is “not religion, ethics, law, science history, or economics. It neither solves everything nor is present everywhere.” Crucially, as Aristotle first recognised, it is about the acceptance of difference rather than the despotic imposition of unity. [17]

Ultimately, politics can only occur in organised units of rule or states whose members or citizens, recognising a condition of mutual equality, nevertheless accept themselves to be an aggregate of many members and not a single tribe, religion, interest or tradition. Consequently, politics in the West became a plausible response to the problem of governing a complex modern state. Political freedom, rather than an abstract liberation, is a further result of this recognition because political democracy tolerates the articulation of different interests and does not propose an ideal, utopian or transnational solution to the problem of rule.

A particular order sustains the practice of political freedom and political rights. The authority to make a common law through representative institutions and apply it equally to all citizens requires, as Thomas Hobbes first observed, a Leviathan state. Indeed, one of the tasks of political science, as opposed to political religion, is to explain the processes by which political society evolved from tribe and clan “to the power-units whose rise and decline constitute the drama of history”. Along with elucidating this process, “we can also trace”, Voeglin contended, “the attempts to rationalize the shelter-function of the cosmion, the little world of order, by what are commonly called political ideas”.

In other words, political thinking from Aristotle to Hannah Arendt sought to rationalise the territorially bounded shelter that gives meaning to human life against the external forces of “disintegration and chaos, a shelter in the end that is maintained by force”. [18]

Ultimately, the order that enables political activity, commerce and cosmopolitanism to thrive is state-defined. It is not transnational, multilateral, regional or international. Although a sovereign political democracy may participate in such arrangements, it cannot share sovereignty, or have its lawful authority subject to supranational guidance or international or regional courts of law and human rights, without losing its integrity. Accordingly, how a politically democratic state conducts foreign relations will be very different from its internal ordering.

Politics, then, requires the constitutionally limited authority of the state for its practice. Maintaining its borders and the terms of membership is a matter of necessity and prudence rather than abstract justice. As early modern theorists of the state from Machiavelli to Milton acknowledged, the res publica (the public thing) has the right to maintain itself. This right, moreover, may be expressed in terms of both the right of the state’s survival as well as the conditions for preserving and developing civilisation or, in the language of Miltonic republicanism, maintaining liberty and virtue.

Tragically, our political elites, constitutional lawyers, progressive media and academics seem to have forgotten this political fact, with the disastrous consequences we are now observing in the Islamic State.

II. The Western strategic response to Islamic State jihadism

At the start of Ramadan, June 28, 2014, Abu Bakr al-Bagdadi (“Caliph Ibrahim”) announced the resurrection of the Sunni caliphate in the recently formed Islamic State that runs from South Syria through the Sunni provinces of Iraq almost to Baghdad. An unintended consequence of the internal war against the Assad regime in Syria, the Islamic State emerged from the chrysalis of the even more nebulous para-state of Iraq and al-Sham via a merger of Iraqi Islamists with the Syrian Al Nusra jihadist brigades.

The new entity controls key cities (Mosul) and the oil plains stretching from Mosul to the fields of Syria’s Euphrates Oil Company. Indeed, for the first time since the dawn of the so-called war on terror in late 2001, jihadists directly control territory and resources (the oil fields contribute more than $1 million a day to the Islamic State’s coffers). Rather than relying on the tolerance of friendly regimes like the Taliban regime in Afghanistan before 2001, or weak ones, like Yemen or Somalia, to afford them a base, the jihadists now meet the Weberian definition of a state by exercising the monopoly of violence in a territorial unit of rule.

This dramatic and little-understood development has serious implications for the foreign policies and strategic thinking of Western democracies as well as for the Middle East itself. The caliphate, long an Islamist dream since its dissolution by the modernising Ataturk regime in Turkey in 1924, presents itself as a transnational ideological alternative to the secular nation-state. As the Islamic State’s official journal, Dabiq, observes, Sunni (and Shiite) militancy since 2013 has effectively dissolved the post-Ottoman world defined by the secret Anglo-French Sykes–Picot Agreement of 1916.

Moreover, as a consequence of its territorial unity and its promulgation of a political religion with a global reach, the Islamic State draws recruits from the Sunni Muslim world, from Pakistan to Indonesia, as well as from an alienated diaspora of Muslims located in the West. Thus Americans, Britons, French, Dutch, Swedes, German and Australian nationals, as well as Indonesians, Filipinos and Malays, swell the ranks of the Islamist equivalent of the Spanish Civil War international brigades.

This curious mutation of an Islamist dream into a temporal reality undermines the ruling academic and media assumptions that governed post-Cold War Western thinking about the evolving new world order and a liberal democratic end of history. In its Middle Eastern guise, this orthodoxy assumed, inter alia, that the US-orchestrated coalition had, by 2011, decapitated both the core leadership of Al Qaeda as well as Al Qaeda in Iraq and significantly degraded both the threat and organisational structure of transnational Islamism.

Further, it assumed the Arab Spring movements that questioned authoritarian rule in Tunisia, Libya, Iran and Egypt after 2011 had set the Middle East on a path towards greater openness, regular elections and a long-anticipated democratic transformation. Finally, that, following the 2006 Surge of US forces, Iraq had been returned to a degree of post-Saddam stability. The exit of Western forces in 2011 had, so the narrative went, bequeathed Iraq a functioning, if ethno-religiously partisan, democracy comprising an elected government and a Western-trained state security force.

Somewhat problematically for this historicist teleology, recent events across the Middle East portend something far more unpredictable. Along with the developing power politics in Eastern Europe and the South China Sea, this intimates an era of instability, marked by internal and potentially external or inter-state war. In its Middle Eastern manifestation, the Syrian civil war that began in 2012, the slow-motion disintegration of liberated Libya since 2013, the Israeli intervention in Gaza in August 2014, and the fragmentation of Iraq since 2011 announce significant challenges not only to the wider region but also to European and Anglospheric states not directly involved in the crisis.

These threats arise from the migration of displaced peoples, the terror threat posed by returning jihadis trained in the arts of bomb making and decapitation, the problem of energy security and the unpredictable consequences of potential major power conflict.

Everything solid dissolves into air

Significantly, the dissolution of any prospect for enduring stability in the Middle East occurred only after 2011. In other words, it occurred at a time when Western involvement in the region was notable for its absence. Western forces had largely departed Iraq by 2008. Support for anti-Gaddafi forces in Libya, delivered at a distance, by France and the United Kingdom in 2011, only taught the West to be wary of any further Middle Eastern interventions, humanitarian or otherwise. Libya descended into tribal and religious factionalism despite, or perhaps because of the ousting of the Gaddafi regime receiving UN authorisation under the post-2005 Responsibility to Protect mandate.

Subsequently, European national parliaments explicitly rejected intervention in the far more strategically important Syrian civil war. Meanwhile, US foreign policy after 2008 appeared increasingly indifferent to shaping the international order in general and the Middle East in particular. The fracking revolution, which gave the US resource independence and facilitated Obama’s somewhat uncertain pivot to Asia after 2010, permitted the USA to downgrade the Middle East from an existential threat to a perennial nuisance.

The cost in both men and materiel of Western interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan further rendered it unlikely that the USA, let alone British or European governments, would embark again on costly and largely futile state-building exercises. As the US military prepared to leave an uncertainly pacified Afghanistan, the cost to the US taxpayer of this long war in terms of military operations and rebuilding exercises exceeded £350 billion, and had cost the UK taxpayer more than £22 billion.

The West’s post-2008 disengagement from the turbulent politics of the Middle East and the wider Islamic world, together with the popular rejection of any further exercises in rebuilding failing states or engaging in large-scale counter-insurgency operations, affords the opportunity, therefore, to assess one of the long-standing claims of anti-interventionist critics of the post-2003 Iraq stabilisation effort. In the post-9/11 decade a powerful academic and public media commentariat came to assert that the West would induce conditions of greater regional stability, and harmony, and reduce the jihadist threat both at home and abroad, if it desisted from waging wars in “neo-colonial battlefields” (to use Tariq Barkawi’s loaded phrase).

The incoherence of non-intervention

After the Iraq invasion in 2003 this critical lobby influenced the study of terrorism and insurgency at international relations departments from Cornell to Queensland and informed the coverage of public broadcasters like the BBC and Australian Broadcasting Corporation. It also dominated the opinion pages of newspapers and journals as various as the Guardian, New Statesman, New York Times, Washington Post, American Interest, Monthly and Australia’s Fairfax press.

Stripped of its fashionable, if somewhat opaque, constructivist and critical theoretical architecture, the orthodoxy promulgated the view that Western foreign policies and the doctrine of pre-emption had, as if by an invisible hand, created the home-grown and external jihadist threat. Indeed this policy constituted the “root cause” of instability across the Muslim world, as well as the principal factor in alienating European and American Muslims, leading a minority to jihad against the West, its secular democratic “idols” and its ignorant state of jahiliyya.

This academic and media orthodoxy, maintained, in effect, that Western statecraft after the Cold War had deliberately engineered the cause and the effects of the Islamist threat both domestically and from overseas. From this perspective, an Orientalist fear of the Muslim “other”, which pre-dated the Cold War, fuelled an interventionist foreign policy that in the course of the 1990s had the countervailing effect of inspiring jihadist activism.

Moreover, Western state recourse to new anti-terror laws after 2001 responded to no clear and present danger but instead induced a home-grown politics of fear that only further alienated minority communities. Critical analysis further contended that Western interests, as well as those of the Muslim world, would be far better served by empathising with the sources of Muslim alienation and leaving the Middle East to discover its own distinctive, attractively non-Western identity.

However, with the black flag flying over the new Islamic caliphate, as well as in London’s Blackwall tunnel, this conclusion, and the narrative that sustained it, appears increasingly delusional. In fact, the causal link between an Islamophobic West, governed by a politics of fear, and jihadist activism rested on a series of now falsified assumptions. Thus, this critical perspective overlooked the inconvenient fact that violent Islamist activism pre-dated Western intervention in Afghanistan, Iraq or Africa.

Bombings of East Asian embassies in Lebanon in the 1980s, and the attack on the USS Cole in 2000, represented the beginnings of a wider assault on what Ayman al-Zawahiri, the Lenin of Islamist thought, had early identified as “the infidel without”. This first wave of attacks, moreover, was by no means limited to US targets, as attacks on tourist venues in Egypt and Casablanca and against other non-Islamist Muslims occurred with growing frequency from the 1980s. Paradoxically, the rising pre-9/11 incidences of jihadist attacks reflected the belief of Al Qaeda and its affiliates that the West was decadent and weak and lacked moral and political purpose. Contrastingly, after the Iraq invasion, Al Qaeda attacked countries that, whilst European and secular, had played no part in the Coalition of the Willing.

The Western-responsibility thesis also conveniently overlooked examples, notably in post-Cold War Europe, where NATO or international forces intervened to defend Muslim populations in Kuwait, Kosovo and Bosnia. Paradoxically, even if there was any correlation, rather than direct causality, between Western behaviour and Islamist retaliation, it was more often Western inaction that animated the call for a radical and violent reaction.

Accordingly the initial reluctance of European states and the international community to interdict the Bosnian genocide after 1993 fuelled Euro-Islamic resentment and drew recruits to groups like Al Muhajiroun operating from radical mosques in London’s Finsbury Park and Sydney’s Lakemba. In an analogous vein, today’s jihadist online critics of the West’s failure to intervene in Syria assert that Western indifference legitimates the Islamic state’s turn towards a hardline, chiliastic millenarian alternative.

In other words, a cursory examination of the politics of intervention and non-intervention since 1990 fails to demonstrate a simple process of Western cause and jihadist effect. Instead it reveals a condition of great complexity. What does this complexity disclose, not only about Islamist strategic thinking but more importantly about how the West might respond?

Abandoning grand narratives- returning to prudential realism 

First, it should be recognised that the search for “root-causes” is misleading and counter-productive. The problem here is one of stretching concepts and erecting, on little empirical evidence, a monolithic Islamist identity. Such a root-cause approach further attempts to impose a single, ideological answer to the monolithic problem it has erroneously identified. This solution comes in a variety of forms, ranging from pacifist utopianism to internationalist transformational idealism to cynical, conservative pessimism (which is also non-interventionist).

Yet a cursory examination of the intense sectarian and tribal divisions and rivalries affecting very different societies in the Middle East or across the wider and more diffuse “Muslim world” exposes the practical limitations of such rationalist abstract solutions. Indeed, the diversity of Islam in its heartlands and its diaspora illustrates the absurdity of trying to establish a mono-causal explanation that will somehow reveal the hidden interconnection between very different issues and conflicts.

Instead a prudent foreign policy requires the case-by-case analysis of the merits of intervention together with a careful assessment of its practical and moral limitations. To achieve this requires a strategic appreciation of what constitutes the national interest and how it ought to be maintained which is ultimately premised on the state’s right to self-defence.

This is in fact what the classic French sixteenth-century reason-of-state theorists understood by the idea of state raison. In this pragmatic state-determined world, policies based on an abstract idea of an “international community” that promotes supposedly universal norms of conduct cannot achieve coherence, let alone order. Inter-state political diplomacy requires a sophisticated appreciation of history, culture and past precedent, not an abstract commitment to a historicist teleology or an Olympian cosmopolitanism. In the context of the Middle East, a careful reading of post-Ottoman history would counsel against intervention to advance Western ideological preferences.

In other words, a legitimate state based on the political consent of a plural society within a given territory, asserts its interests via a well-considered foreign policy. This may in certain circumstances demand the strategically necessary, but not necessarily morally virtuous, intervention overseas. Minorities who reject such strategic calculations have, in democracies, the right to dissent, but not the right to blow up fellow citizens in the name of a transnational ideocracy. Moreover, if citizens of a democracy commit themselves to an enemy entity, like the Islamic State, by joining the jihad, they necessarily forfeit the rights of political citizenship that assumes consent to government authority as the condition for enjoying those legal rights and the security they afford.

In this context, Western governments, their security agencies, media and their publicly-funded academic analysts of terrorism have instead preferred to accept and promote the view that to take Islamic rhetoric seriously plays on “the politics of fear” and overreacts to a problem associated with an irrelevant minority. Somewhat disturbingly, most government-funded academic research into jihadism largely accepts the view of the translational Islamist think-tank Hizb ut-Tahrir that “ISIS is but the new Al Qaeda used as a bogeyman by western states to justify intervention”.

Such a complaisant perspective fails to address the transnational power of what is essentially a death cult. As early as 2004, in the wake of Madrid bombings, Islamists defined their absolute repudiation of a pluralist secular worldview and their commitment to an apocalyptic alternative with their formula: “You love life, we love death.”

This privileging of death rejects absolutely any secular political commitment to the good life. As the Italian philosopher Umberto Eco explained in Setti Anni di Desideria (1983), in a different totalitarian context, a taste for killing and martyrs represents fascism’s purest form. In its Islamist mutation, as numerous slickly produced videos on the internet demonstrate, it adores and serves death, whether it be as the slayer or the slain.

In fact, the beatification of terrorist violence, or the management of savagery, which Dabiq proclaims, is more telling than its professed religious dimension. Indeed to love death, as jihadism does, is to say that it is beautiful to receive it and to risk it and, even more perversely, that the most beautiful and saintly love is to distribute it. This aspect of jihadism and a version of Islam that sustains it, does not, as some security analysts pronounce, “desensitise” youth to death. Rather, it sacralises it.

Before throwing more money at the problem of domestic “extremism” and creating even more sweeping government powers, the elected representatives of Western secular democracies ought first to consider more effective policies to defend a political way of life and resist, via a campaign of hearts and minds, a home-grown but essentially fascist death cult.

Ultimately, in an anxiety-prone durable disorder where global interconnectedness by no means presages integration, a secular democratic market state minimally requires a shared public morality to sustain the national interest expressed through domestic legislation. This civil association applies equally to all citizens and requires an active foreign policy to secure its interests and values over time, both at home and abroad.

Neither a mentality of studied, transnational indifference, nor a cosmopolitan idealism that, while theoretically open to intervention, sets impossible standards of moral consistency, addresses the complexity of the Western democracies’ besetting current dilemmas. Both attitudes foster an outlook of apathetic passivity, and passivity in the face of threats of an illiberal and apocalyptic character does not constitute a foreign or domestic policy worthy of the name.

David Martin Jones is Associate Professor in the School of Political Science and International Relations at the University of Queensland. Michael L.R. Smith is Professor of Strategic Theory at King’s College, London. Their new book, Sacred Violence: Political Religion in a Secular Age, is published this month by Palgrave Macmillan, London.



[1] David Cameron & Barack Obama, ‘NATO Members must increase their spending on Defence’, The Australian 5 September 2014.

[2] Tony Blair, ‘Work together to a brave new world’, speech to Labour Party Conference, The Times, 3 October 2001.

[3] David Cameron, ‘State Multiculturalism has failed’, http//www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-12371994

[4] Anthony Heath & David Sanders, Ethnic Minority British Electoral Survey (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012)

[5] Olivier Roy, ‘EuroIslam: The jihad within’, The National Interest 7,1, 2003 p.67.

[6] Ed Hussain, The Islamist ( London: Penguin, 2007) p. 133.

[7] Eric Voegelin, ‘Science, Politics and Gnosticism’ in Modernity without Restraint in Henningsen, Manfred ed. The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin (University of Missouri Press: Columbia Mo, 2000) p.133.

[8] Barry Cooper, New Political Religions or an analysis of modern terrorism (University of Missouri Press: Columbia MO, 2004) p.6.

[9] Eric Voegelin, ‘Science, Politics and Gnosticism’, in Modernity without Restraint p.298.

[10] Husain, p.83

[11] Eric Voegelin, ‘The Eclipse of Reality’, in What is History and other late unpublished writings Thomas A. Howeck & Paul Caringella eds. The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin vol. 28 ( Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press,1975) p.112.

[12] Ernest Gellner, Conditions of Liberty: Civil Society and its rivals (London: Hamish Hamilton,1994)p.199

[13] Leo Strauss, The City and Man (Chicago: Rand McNally, 1964) p.11.

[14] Ken Booth, ‘The Human Faces of Terror’, Critical Studies on Terrorism 1, 1 April 2008, p.77

[15] Kenneth R. Minogue, Politics: A very short introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995) p. v.

[16] Minogue, p.4.

[17] Bernard Crick In Defence of Politics (London: Penguin, 1962) p.23.

[18] Barry Cooper, Eric Voegelin and the Foundations of Modern Political Science (University of Missouri Press: Columbia, 1999) p.39.