When someone challenges the radical orthodoxy that dominates the intellectual monoculture of our universities, the true colours of our intelligentsia come out. In a serious departure from traditional conventions of academic debate and freedom of speech, some of the intellectuals cited in my article “Hijacking Terrorism Studies” (Quadrant, September 2008) immediately wrote to my vice-chancellor and my head of school demanding that I be charged with serious academic misconduct for daring to criticise them. Some also repeatedly threatened me with legal action. One even wrote a letter pointing out that he was a trained “pugilist”!
This demonstrates the extent to which universities have become contested ground in the war on terror. In Europe, the USA, the UK and Australia, Islamist groups openly recruit university students, and a recent study of suicide bombers has identified a “transnational neo-umma”, or Muslim community, peopled by frequently multi-lingual university students “who see the West as evil incarnate … sinful and pernicious … a mythical unity that legitimizes the use of blind violence against it” (John Zimmerman, “Jihad, Theory and Practice”, Terrorism and Political Violence, 19(2), 2007, p 285). Other studies explore the over-representation of doctors and other scientific and technical professionals in Islamist extremist organisations, and the efforts of the latter to radicalise and recruit such university-educated personnel (Stephen Schwartz, “Scientific Training and Radical Islam”, Middle East Quarterly, Spring 2008, pp 3–11).
Meanwhile, the updated, postmodernist version of the old neo-Marxist orthodoxy discussed in my September article dominates amongst academics. And, as Walid Phares observes in his recent study The Confrontation: Winning the War against Future Jihad (2008, p 30), this radical orthodoxy
“concocted on European and North American campuses by [leftists] and Marxists favourable to the Islamist offensive against the West … has been one of the most successful platforms preventing the identification of Jihadism as an ideology per se and blocking mass mobilization against it … It has dominated most research in academia, influenced media and politicians, and [even] defense strategists.”
It is a measure of the complacency of the Western intelligentsia that it continues to conceive of terrorism and jihadism in terms of a far-Left ideology from the Cold War period, modified to incorporate postmodernism, and now institutionalised as “critical terror studies” with its very own journal, Critical Studies on Terrorism.
Methodologically, theoretically and ideologically, critical terrorism studies is heavily indebted to postmodernism, deconstruction and discourse theory, where “reality” is regarded as a social construction. Consequently, its practitioners see “terrorism” not primarily as an act of murderous violence in the real world, but merely as a signifier in a discourse, “a myth and an object of fear”, “a negative ideograph of Western identity”, used to “induce powerful emotions”, “encourage moral panics”, and even to decide elections in the USA and Australia (Marie Breen Smith, et al, “Critical Terrorism Studies—An Introduction”, Critical Studies on Terrorism, 1(1), April 2008, pp 1–2).
The deluded nature of this approach was highlighted by a series of terrorism-related events that actually occurred in the real world in the weeks after my article appeared. Firstly, there was the conviction of key members of the Abdul Nacer Benbrika terror cell in Victoria, whose plans for mass murder included using huge bombs in “an attack that would kill 1000 people”, at railway stations, Crown Casino and football matches, including the 2005 AFL Grand Final (Norrie Ross, “Terror plot to kill 1000, court told”, Herald-Sun, February 13, 2008).
And then a Sydney man, Belal Saadallah Khazaal, thirty-eight, was convicted of terrorism offences over his publication of a manual, The Provision on the Rules of Jihad: Short Judicial Rulings and Organizational Instructions for Fighters and Mujaheddin against Infidels. The first half of his book “concentrated on religious teachings and rulings about jihad, while the rest of the book canvassed reasons, benefits and methods of assassinations. Among the countries on the hit list were Australia and the US” (Natalie O’Brien, “Belal Saadallah Khazaal convicted for ‘terror manual’”, Australian, September 11, 2008).
A short time later, the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad was devastated by a massive terrorist truck bomb. Gruesome images showed emergency workers struggling around a huge crater and through the ruined building, helping maimed survivors, soaked in blood, dazed, confused and in pain. People on the upper floors, trapped by flames, were forced to leap to their deaths. At least sixty people died and more than 200 were injured. Significantly, four professional people, including a doctor and a lawyer, were subsequently charged in connection with the crime.
Aside from its delusional approach to the reality of jihadism and terrorism, this radical orthodoxy also has security implications, as these threats increasingly involve fourth-generation warfare. This is characterised by a blurring of distinctions between war and politics; peace and conflict; and military and civilians, so that wars can proceed in an undeclared or unacknowledged manner. Conflict is low-intensity, long-term and transnational, and involves many forms of force—military, political, economic and informational—operating globally through terrorist networks and franchises, cyber-warfare and leaderless jihad. More specifically, it involves direct attacks on the enemy’s culture and is increasingly dominated by ideological battles, propaganda and media manipulation.
In this type of struggle the systematic recruitment and mobilisation of university-trained knowledge workers is becoming paramount, and therefore a critical factor is the availability of a viable ideology that: (1) justifies ideologically the principal elements of Islamism and jihadist terrorist activity; (2) denounces and intellectually undermines the target culture; (3) appeals to the growing Islamist cadre in the universities; and (4) attracts the support or at least acquiescence of critical sections of the Western intelligentsia.
The radical orthodoxy accommodates these requirements by simplistically (and illogically) claiming that contemporary terrorism is both a construction of the power elites of the West used to justify Islamophobia, and a legitimate reaction by oppressed groups to depredations of the West. Most importantly, it rejects or ignores the many other, actually credible, explanations for the emergence of Islamist terrorism and jihadism, including demographic pressures; identity crises amongst alienated Muslim youth; the power of shame and honour in Arab culture; sexual repression and gender conflict; the growing self-consciousness of the ummah as a global Muslim community; anti-Semitism, paranoia and the power of conspiracy theories; an inevitable clash of civilisations; the long tradition of jihad in Islam; and the struggle between liberalism and totalitarianism that has shaped modern history, first in Europe and now throughout the world.
Instead, Islamist terrorism and jihadism are presented as having little or nothing to do with Islam (which is regarded as off-limits to evaluation and certainly to criticism), and everything to do with alleged global injustice. Terrorism is presented as a response to the global domination of the economic and military power of the West, so that, in the words of an influential Australian academic, al Qaeda “conceived the strategic objectives of their campaign in terms of bringing justice and security to Palestinians, Muslim communities, the people of Iraq, and other victims of US and Israeli power” (Anthony Burke “The end of terrorism studies”, Critical Studies on Terrorism, 1(1), April 2008, p 40).
Moreover, this insistence that al Qaeda is about “justice” prevails despite the explicit commitments to jihad found in the statements of Osama bin Laden and other Islamist leaders. For example, in bin Laden’s declaration against “Jews and Christians” he asserts that it is a duty of all Muslims to kill Americans and their allies, and that the Islamist doctrine of offensive jihad requires Muslims to wage war against non-Muslims until they either convert to Islam or accept the subordinate status of dhimmis—non-Muslims living under sharia law. And bin Laden is quite uncompromising: “Islam is spread with the sword alone”, and “gives infidels but three options: Islam, jizya [the poll tax], or the sword”. Waging jihad “is our only option for glory”, “battle, animosity, and hatred—directed from the Muslim to the infidel—is the foundation of our religion” (Raymond Ibrahim (ed.), The Al Qaeda Reader, 2007, pp 33–47).
Bin Laden’s mentor in Afghanistan, Abdullah Azzam, who was a trained Islamic theologian, similarly declared that “Jihad in God’s name means killing the infidels in the name of God” (quoted in Peter Bergen, The Osama bin Laden I Knew, 2006, p 35). How this is to be done is set out in the ten volumes of the Encyclopedia of the Afghan Jihad and the Al Qaeda Handbook.
And, of course, there is the al Qaeda statement released in April 2002 providing seven theological justifications for targeting civilians in terrorist attacks. As experts have observed, “the sheer breadth of these conditions leaves ample theological justification for killing civilians in almost any imaginable situation” (Quinton Wiktorowicz and John Kaltner, “Killing in the Name of Islam: Al-Qaeda’s Justification for September 11”, Middle East Policy, X(2), Summer 2003, p 90).
Despite such statements, proponents of the radical orthodoxy represent al Qaeda and its offshoots as legitimate combatants and not as terrorist organisations; as vanguard movements in the fight for “justice” against the USA and Israel, and not as fanatical, theocratic death cults, explicitly committed to a jihad of domination or extermination against all non-Muslims.
This radical orthodoxy reflects a Manichean view of the world that has prevailed in the West for some forty years, according to which the West is inherently evil and only the non-West is good—a great, amorphous, but intrinsically benign “Other” condemned to suffering by Western wickedness. According to this view in its most extreme but common form, the West deserves to be destroyed and has no moral right to fight back or protect itself. Moreover, anyone who defends it or questions the right of terrorists and jihadis to kill Westerners is condemned as beyond the pale and even complicit in the alleged evil of their society.
This type of kneejerk reaction was on display in the response to my earlier article. Fortuitously, the attention generated by these critics’ reaction also forced them to try to defend their positions, while disclosing to public scrutiny their intellectual and political commitments.
The best example of this was the response of Associate Professor Anthony Burke of the University of New South Wales at the Australian Defence Force Academy, who is a leading proponent of critical terrorism studies. In an extended article in the Australian (October 8, 2008), Burke was given the opportunity—as “the face of critical terrorism studies”—to describe and defend his position, and duly confirmed the main observations that I had made in my critique.
Indeed, the piece reiterated Burke’s view made in an earlier article that there is no difference between the terrorism of al Qaeda and the military action of nation-states engaged in warfare under international law. For Burke, all such actions are “inherently terrorist in nature”, and indeed, all “mainstream strategic doctrines [of states like the USA, Israel and Australia] are terrorist” (“The end of terrorism studies”, Critical Studies on Terrorism, 1(1), April 2008, p 41; his emphasis). As the Australian article by Bernard Lane concluded: “Like others in critical terrorism studies [Burke] adopts a broad definition of terror that would put nation-states in the dock along with the more familiar bomb-makers of Islamism.”
Significantly, the Australian article also drew attention to Burke’s fascination with the two main ideological sources of Islamism in the twentieth century, Sayyid Qutb and Abu al-Ala Mawdudi, and this is an excellent example of the ease with which such Islamist ideology can find a level of acceptance at the highest levels of academia.
Burke claimed these ideologues offer “a sharp critique (and perverse mirror) of Western rationalism and modernism”, implying that their work is comparable to the Western philosophical tradition, rather than to Mein Kampf, which they more closely resemble. While he can’t avoid recognising their fascistic qualities and repressiveness, Burke nevertheless calls for terrorism studies to engage with the work of these Islamist ideologues as “scholarship from the Middle East and Islamic world”. According to him, Western scholars must “take in, engage and contest [these] highly developed forms of thinking that … provide [terrorism] with legitimizing foundations and a world view of some profundity”. For Burke, these ideologues traverse “deep philosophical contours”, and propound “a philosophy that offers a profound challenge to Western forms of liberalism, government and thought”. Indeed, he believes “Qutb’s critique of the West is sometimes well observed and converges with elements of critical theory” (“The end of terrorism studies”, Critical Studies on Terrorism, 1(1) 2008, pp 44–45; all emphases added).
In order to get a sense of the extent to which Western intellectuals are prepared to accommodate Islamist and jihadi ideologies within the radical orthodoxy, let us briefly review the “profound” Islamist “scholarship” of Sayyid Qutb that Burke treats so respectfully. (He even goes out of his way to emphasise that he has no wish to “stereotype Islamism, which [he alleges] is a diverse body of thought that includes more moderate and pluralist streams” (p 44)—an assertion that will be news to many, and may leave them wondering just who Burke is afraid of offending.)
Sayyid Qutb (1906–66) was an Egyptian intellectual, author and Islamist ideologue, whose extensive influence on contemporary terrorists is widely recognised. He is most famous for his theoretical efforts to redefine the role of Islamic fundamentalism in terms of militant social and political change. His books Social Justice in Islam and Signposts (also known as Milestones) have been very important for Islamism, and his Qur’anic commentary In the Shade of the Qur’an has greatly influenced Islamist interpretations of key Islamic concepts, including jihad, jahiliyyah and ummah. A pivotal event in his life was the extended period in 1948–50 that he spent in America studying school curricula on behalf of the Egyptian Ministry of Education, for which he worked as a teacher and inspector.
This visit intensified his loathing of America and the West, and when he returned to Egypt he joined the radical Islamist Muslim Brotherhood just as it entered into mortal combat with the new nationalist government of Gamal Abdel Nasser, which had Qutb imprisoned and tortured. While in prison (mostly in hospital due to his frail health), Qutb spent his time writing, and arguing for an Islamist revolutionary vanguard based on the Leninist model that would overthrow the government, seize power, establish an Islamic state, and then Islamise Egyptian society from above. Soon after he was released in 1965 he published Signposts, and he was quickly re-arrested, tried, sentenced to death, and executed for conspiracy against the government.
Fortuitously, an expert on Islamist terrorism, John C. Zimmerman, has provided an extensive assessment of “Sayyid Qutb’s Influence on the 11 September Attacks” (Terrorism and Political Violence, 16(2), 2004, pp 222–52), from which the following representative quotations from Qutb’s works are taken.
As Zimmerman shows, even before his visit to America, Qutb was convinced that the West “is the materialistic civilization which has no heart and no moral conscience … How I hate and disdain those Westerners! All of them, without exception.” He lamented that humanity “is being tricked by [America’s] lustre, noise and sexual enjoyment in which the soul suffocates and the conscience dies down, while instincts and senses become intoxicated, quarrelsome and excited by the red lights”.
While Qutb conceded that America has achieved temporary economic and technical superiority, it still remained “abysmally primitive in the world of the senses, feelings and behavior”. “The American is very primitive in his sexual life, and in his marital and familial relationships”, while the American female is “well acquainted with her body’s seductive capacity [and] American sexual relations have always conformed to the laws of the jungle”.
Qutb condemned the West for allowing women to work in some professions, and insisted that “we must not ignore the detestable and unsavory significance of this preference”. It means that women are placed “on the slave block in an atmosphere dense with opium [for] the exploitation of the sexual feelings of customers”. Every Western man who supports the advancement of women “knows how she achieves her success [and] even if she herself does not sacrifice anything—an impossible supposition—he knows that hungry passions and treacherous eyes flicker about her body”.
For Qutb, Americans are also “primitive in their artistic tastes [and] jazz music is … the music of the savage bushmen created to satisfy their primitive desires, and their desire for noise on the one hand, and the abundance of animal noises on the other”.
Predictably, while Qutb denounced America as immoral, he nevertheless endorsed polygamy in his own society as “a valid and time-honored social institution”. He also endorsed the flogging of people for premarital sex, the stoning of adulterers, and amputations for thieves. He warned such sinners—“who wallow in luxury and immorality”—that they can expect to feel “the whip falling on their soft and flabby skin and the stones clipping their tender and delicate bodies”. Anticipating criticism of this barbarism, he dismissed those Westerners who speak “in high sounding terms about civilized laws and describe the punishments of Islam as harsh and barbaric [because] it is they who are the barbarians and are reverting to the primitive life of beasts”.
For Qutb, America and the West are characterized by “material prosperity, sensual enjoyment and sexual satiation [that lead to a] morass of nervous and psychological disease, sexual perversion, constant anxiety, illness and lunacy, frequent crime and the lack of any human dignity in life”. Eventually, in 1962 he pronounced his final judgment on America and the West: they were “an overwhelming danger to humanity [and therefore he concluded] should we not issue a sentence of death? Is this not the verdict most appropriate to the nature of the crime?”
Politically, Qutb adopted the Soviet view that America was waging the Cold War in order to expand its economic markets, reduce domestic unemployment, buy off and bribe the American working class, and thereby head off any revolutionary movement. As Zimmerman observes: “Qutb was able to graft Islamic theocracy onto far-left anti-capitalist and liberation ideology rhetoric”. Indeed:
“Qutb’s anti-Western and anti-capitalist rhetoric are ready made for former Marxists and leftists who seek to transfer their ideological allegiance from the idea of a People’s Republic to an Islamic Republic or to reconcile communism with Islam.” [p 233]
Qutb concluded that “Western civilization has served its purpose and become bankrupt”, and that capitalism would be overthrown “without great difficulty”. However, while communism provided “the intellectual man [with] a brilliant dream of equality and natural justice”, it would prove unfulfilling and humanity would turn to Islam.
Finally, Qutb was particularly anti-Semitic. He accused Jews, for example, of monopolising the pharmaceutical market, “while the sick suffer pain or are left to die so that the monopolists can get their exorbitant profits”; and claimed that usury is “the basis of the economic system of the Jews”. For Qutb, Jews are characterised by “wickedness and double dealing”, are behind “atheistic materialism … the doctrine of animalistic sexuality … the destruction of the family”, and communism and capitalism. Consequently, “Allah brought Hitler to rule over them” (sic!).
This then is the “deep”, “profound”, “highly developed”, “well observed” “scholarship” that Burke recommends, albeit with predictable reservations that its violent, fascistic and totalitarian tendencies mirror allegedly repressive aspects of the Western nation-state (for example, Burke equates “Qutb’s fundamentalism” with “its preening liberal other, US exceptionalism” (p 46)).
How did it get to this? How is it that within only a few years of the hideous attacks of 9/11, Bali, Madrid, London, and so many other places, we are seeing murderous, hate-filled, anti-Semitic, sexist, totalitarian, Islamist ideologues cited as “scholars”, who produce work that “converges with … critical theory”, that we are enjoined to engage with, as if their diatribes and pseudo-theological ramblings are comparable to the highest achievements of Western rationalism and modernism?
The explanation lies in the way that a neo-Comintern view of the West as the principal source of all evil in the world became the radical orthodoxy within the New Left in the sixties and still prevails today. Externally, this began with the Soviet-backed Tricontinental Conference, held in Cuba in 1966 and attended by 513 delegates from eighty-three Third World militant organisations. It was staged on a scale not seen “since the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917”, and was committed to “a global revolutionary strategy to counter the global strategy of American imperialism” (Claire Sterling, The Terror Network, 1981, p 14).
It led to the establishment of the Organization for Solidarity with the People of Africa, Asia and Latin America, founded in Havana in January 1966, which had the explicit role of furthering decolonisation, promoting anti-imperialist campaigns, and supporting insurgency movements in the Third World. It played a key role in creating the framework for the wave of international terrorism that began in the sixties, as Eric Hobsbawm observes in The Age of Extremes (1994, p 445–46):
“A clandestine world of conspiracy emerged in which direct-action groups of nationalist and social revolutionary ideology, sometimes both, were linked in an international network that consisted of various [terrorist] ‘Red Armies’, Palestinian, Basque insurrectionaries, the IRA and the rest, overlapping with other illegal networks [and] protected and where necessary assisted by Arab or eastern states.”
Internally, the revolutionary movement in the West had reached an impasse in its search for a viable Revolutionary Subject, given the politically moderate nature of the working classes in advanced industrial societies. Historically, the Revolutionary Subject was the political agent designated in each era by the radical Left to lead the overthrow of society and inaugurate utopia. Since the French Revolution this agent has been variously identified with the people; the nation; the industrial proletariat; the peasantry; the lumpenproletariat; and the intelligentsia. More recently it has been the national liberation movements of the Third World, together with students, workers, artists, writers, blacks, women, gays, prisoners and environmentalists in various coalitions. And now we are seeing Islamists and jihadis assume this revolutionary mantle.
The otherwise inexplicable embrace by the Left of an extremely reactionary theocratic absolutism as the latest incarnation of the Revolutionary Subject reflects its earlier frustration with the Western working class. Despairing of any internal agent of revolution, the Left turned to the external agents of revolutionary change endorsed at the Tricontinental Conference. Conse-quently, it embraced various violent campaigns of decolonisation and anti-imperialism, romanticised Third World revolutionary movements and figures; and it even claimed that their theories of revolutionary guerrilla warfare, insurgency and terrorism could be successfully pursued in advanced industrial societies.
This epochal ideological shift involved the adoption of a model of imperialism that presented the global economy in terms of the “exploitation” of the Third World by the central capitalist powers of the West, whose very survival allegedly depended on the “plundering” of non-Western societies, which were then represented as the victims of all sorts of massacres and genocides. This approach was dominated by an ideological amalgam of ideas derived from Marxism-Leninism, and Third World sources, especially Mao Zedong, Ho Chi Minh, Frantz Fanon, Che Guevara, Regis Debray, Andre Gunder Frank and others.
In this fashion, the “external proletariat” located in the Third World became the new Revolutionary Subject, while the enemy became “Western imperialism”. Moreover, its principal designated agent of oppression was Western civilisation, including its working classes, which were now seen as complicit in this exploitation. Western societies were viewed as inherently corrupt and therefore legitimate targets for radical and extremist political action, including terrorism.
In America, this view was forcefully propounded by the Weathermen terrorist group when it split from the Students for a Democratic Society in 1969. In its manifesto, whose principal authors were William Ayers and Bernadine Dohrn (the subsequent political mentors of Barack Obama), the Weathermen declared:
“it is the oppressed peoples of the world who have created the wealth of this empire and it is to them that it belongs … We are in the heartland of a world-wide monster … The US empire, as a world-wide system, channels wealth, based on the labor and resources of the rest of the world, into the United States … The goal is the destruction of US imperialism and the achievement of a classless world: world communism.” [Bill Ayers, Bernadine Dohrn, et al, “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows”, in I. Wallerstein and P. Starr (eds.) The University Crisis Reader, Vol.2: Confrontation and Counterattack, 1971, p 258–61]
An example of the mentality of this group can be gained from the utterances of Ayers, who described the Weathermen message in 1970 as follows: “Kill all rich people. Break up their cars and apartments. Bring the revolution home, kill your parents, that’s where it’s really at.” After the Charles Manson-led Tate–LaBianca murders in 1969, Dohrn similarly enthused: “Dig it. First they killed those pigs, then they ate dinner in the same room with them, then they shoved a fork into a victim’s stomach! Wild!” (quoted in Jerome R. Corsi, The Obama Nation, 2008, p 87).
Another feature of the Weathermen and similar ultra-radical groups (including the Charles Manson group) was the primacy they conceded to the Black Power movement, which they believed could abolish the whole imperialist system and seize state power. Black Power groups like the Black Panthers accepted this revolutionary mandate and looked to anti-colonialist theorists like Frantz Fanon, adopting his argument in The Wretched of the Earth (1960) that revolutionary violence in and of itself has a positively transformative effect on the oppressed people of colour. As Jonathon R. White points out in Terrorism (1998, p 53):
“Fanon indicted colonial powers and called on all the colonized to practice terrorism … Although Fanon’s theory developed from an African experience, his revolutionary rhetoric made him an overnight success among the world’s leftists … When international revolutionaries read Fanon, they saw one enemy: the West.”
Such views were readily adopted by the Western intelligentsia, as demonstrated by Jean-Paul Sartre’s extended diatribe that introduces The Wretched of the Earth (1961 edition). This endorsed Fanon’s arguments about the cleansing power of violence by black against white, and provided militant political activism and terrorism with a philosophical justification by one of the most influential intellectuals of the twentieth century.
In addition to this conviction that global liberation will be led by the Third World and its subservient allies in the West, the New Left also developed an intense hatred of Western society in itself. Central to this was the sociologist C. Wright Mills, who gave the New Left its name and popularised critiques of America in terms of massive, totalised, all-encompassing and overbearing entities like the “Power Elite”, “Establishment”, “System”, “Machine” and the “Military-Industrial Complex”. Mills called upon university-based revolutionaries to focus on psycho-sociological issues of alienation, anomie, conformism, materialism and authoritarianism that Mills believed characterised the totality of life in Western societies. Mills located the sources of oppression in the very nature and fabric of life in Western society as such, and it was this “System” that had to be destroyed.
Another key figure was Herbert Marcuse, who provided a similar critique clothed in impenetrable neo-Marxist jargon, and added the innovative idea that the very freedom that people enjoyed in Western societies was a form of “repressive tolerance”, and was in fact “unfreedom”. In An Essay on Liberation (1969, p 80) he deplored the “threatening homogeneity” of the “System” and called upon people to “resist and deny the massive exploitative power of corporate capitalism even in its most comfortable and liberal realizations”.
This totalising and paranoid anti-Western radical ideology was later augmented by European theorists like Louis Althusser, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida and Gilles Deleuze, along with the Palestinian-American Edward Said, who also promoted a view of the West as irredeemably racist in its attitudes towards Muslims and “Orientals”, thus entrenching a self-pitying sense of victimhood amongst Islamist intellectuals that became increasingly intense over the years and had a devastating affect on study and debate in the area.
As academics estranged from the reality of working life, such intellectuals focused their efforts on a radical critique of Western culture, which they saw increasingly in terms of language, discourse, text, representations, signifiers, binary oppositions and “the Other”. As Arthur Marwick notes in his magisterial history, The Sixties (1998, p 19), these ideologues brought “an obsession with language, conceived, along with knowledge, as an instrument of bourgeois oppression”, that remains a defining characteristic of the Left intelligentsia down to the present time, particularly within the radical orthodoxy.
The failure of the student rebellions in Paris and elsewhere in 1968 and subsequent years left the New Left frustrated and even enraged at its political impotence. As Mark Mazower remarks in Dark Continent (1999, p 323), these events “created a fragmented and bitterly dogmatic Leftist fringe, tempted by violence and unable and unwilling to comprehend the scale of capitalism’s triumph”. More than ever, the left came to see Western society as a seamless, all powerful “System” of total oppression where “the masses” lived in a state of “false consciousness” and “unfreedom”, sustained by imperialist exploitation that plundered the rest of the world.
Such notions led inexorably to the conclusion that acts of extremism, including terrorism directed at civilian targets in Western societies, was a necessary and legitimate political strategy, given that the enemy was revealed to be the totality of that society as such—including all classes and all people—and not just its military, political and corporate agencies, as previous radical analyses had allowed. As Leszek Kolakowski summarised this nihilism in The Main Currents of Marxism (Vol. 3: The Breakdown, 1981, p 489):
“The existing order deserves destruction in all its aspects without exception: the revolution must be worldwide, total, absolute, unlimited, all-embracing [and] universal, and all partial reforms [are] a conspiracy of the establishment … Capitalist society [is] an indivisible whole and [can] only be transformed as such.”
In summary, the Left came to conceive of Western society as a seamless system of malevolent power that totally encompassed Western society and was built on the oppression and exploitation of marginalised groups and the Third World—or “the Other” as they came to be called under the influence of post-colonialist theory. Consequently, Western society lost all moral authority amongst the intelligentsia and came to be seen as a legitimate target for the wave of international terrorism that followed through the 1970s, typified by the Weathermen in America, the Red Army Faction in Germany, and the Red Brigades in Italy.
The latter group operated under the notable ideological leadership of Antonio Negri. As Alexander Stille points out in “Apocalypse Soon” (New York Review of Books, 49(17), 2002), Negri was “the most notorious of what the Italians call i cattivi maestri, the bad professors who poisoned the minds of a generation, sending tens of thousands of young people to the barricades to destroy themselves for a Communist revolution that could never happen”. In the late 1970s, Negri lived in a world of fantasised violence:
“I live the life of the sniper, the deviant, the criminal … every time I put on my ski mask … Every action of destruction and sabotage seems to me a manifestation of class solidarity. Nor does the … risk bother me: rather it fills me with the feverish excitement as one waiting for his lover. Nor does the pain of my adversary affect me.”
Negri presided over a reign of indiscriminate terror, murder and violence that resulted in his arrest, imprisonment, escape and exile in France, where he taught at universities with Derrida, Foucault and Deleuze, who were delighted to have him amongst them.
He later went on to co-author Empire (2000), a turgid tome that instantly became the bible of the contemporary anti-globalisation movement, “the most popular source of political enlightenment on American campuses today”, and a central text in the radical orthodoxy in its current phase of development (Tony Judt, “Dreams of Empire”, New York Review of Books, 51(17), 2004).
This phase also involved the rise to intellectual hegemony of the hyper-paranoid theories of Foucault and his acolytes. Like other key intellectuals on the Left, Foucault saw the West as a deeply politicised realm of oppression. He identified and described in excruciating detail a vast range of integrated systems that he alleged dominate the lives of everyone living within Western society. These include psychiatry, asylums, medicine, prisons, schools, universities, systems of surveillance and disciplinary power, technologies of the self, the entire tradition of sexuality in the West, language, and the modern subject itself.
Foucault’s analyses provided a vocabulary that has shaped the thought of the contemporary intelligentsia and spawned a range of radical movements that continue relentlessly to denounce Western society. Wherever he looked, he saw only multifaceted systems of subjugation, with people in the West engaged in perpetual warfare within systems of control and domination that penetrated every aspect of their lives. Moreover, he saw every person in Western society as both a product and an agent of these ubiquitous systems of exploitation and oppression, living in a Hobbesian nightmare world of “all against all”. In this fashion, Foucault both reinforced and intensified the radical orthodox conception of Western society as irretrievably corrupt, exploitative and oppressive, and, for extremists, a legitimate terrorist target.
The extremism of Foucault’s own rejection of Western society eventually became apocalyptic in 1978–79 when he became the leading Western intellectual supporter of the Iranian Revolution. Hired as a special correspondent for an Italian newspaper, he made two trips to Iran, met with Ayatollah Khomeini in France, and wrote some thirteen articles about the revolution, promoting the Ayatollah’s cause and presenting the revolution as a turning point in world history.
These articles (available in Foucault and the Iranian Revolution by Janet Afary and Kevin B. Anderson, 2006), show how he embraced the most extreme manifestations of the revolution, and resisted pleas from his friends and leading Iranian and French intellectuals to renounce the Khomeini regime once it launched its reign of terror against all opposition in Iran. Indeed, it appears that the experience resonated deeply with Foucault’s singular fascination with power, systems of domination, and violence.
Foucault embraced the idea that the revolution signalled the end of the hegemony of Western power and would forever change the “global strategic equilibrium”. One of his reasons for going to Iran was to be present at the birth of an Islamist movement that was “a gigantic powder keg”, that would “set the entire region afire”, and prove “much stronger than [revolutions] with a Marxist, Leninist, or Maoist character” (p 241). These were prophetic observations.
In fact, Foucault became so excited that his analysis moved into the realm of the rapturous, describing the revolution as an expression of “an absolutely collective will” that has “erupted into history”, “like God, like the soul” (p 253). He was convinced that the revolution was an act by the Iranian people, united in a mystical fashion, “to renew their entire existence by going back to a spiritual experience” found in Shi’ite Islam (p 255). Foucault explicitly rejected the Marxist view that religion is an ideology, seeing the “political spirituality” of the Iranian Revolution as an expression of something far deeper than mere politics.
Foucault also endorsed the proposition (also held by his contemporary followers), that democratic political systems are inherently corrupt, and claimed that the Iranian Revolution transcended such corruption, tapping into the “collective will” of the Iranian people in a way that the inevitable compromises of democracy could never match. Indeed, this “collective will” operated in a manner that stood as a model for revolutionary change in the future.
Throughout his life Foucault was fascinated with “limit experiences”, including suicide, criminality and sadomasochistic sexuality. In Iran he was immediately attracted to the central role that the ideal of revolutionary martyrdom played in Khomeini’s version of Shi’ite Islam. Foucault’s articles show how he embraced this “discourse of death”. He was mesmerised by the marching columns of black-clad men, rhythmically flagellating themselves in prolonged rituals of mass penitence, and saw in their bloody self-abnegation the “political spirituality” that embraced death and would overwhelm a decadent and materialist West. This ideology of martyrdom later mutated into the rationale for contemporary suicide bombing that we presently hear all the time.
Thirty years later, Foucault remains an important intellectual influence in Iran, utilised by both proponents and opponents of the regime. Islamist academics regard him as a leading postmodernist whose work supports their denunciations of Western-style modernity, in a manner consistent with the radical orthodoxy and critical terrorism studies. Meanwhile, critics of the Iranian regime also draw on Foucault, as they waste away in prison, desperately trying to use his ideas about “panopticon” systems of surveillance to analyse the theocratic state that he so enthusiastically welcomed and that now so brutally oppresses them.
The elective affinity between political extremism of the Left and Islamism was also demonstrated by the conversion to Islam of other radicals from the sixties, including the former leading ideologue of the French Communist Party, Roger Garaudy, who also became a leading anti-Semite and Holocaust denier. The ultra-radical international terrorist “Carlos the Jackal” (Ilich Ramirez Sanchez) also converted and published a book calling upon all leftist revolutionary forces to align themselves with Osama bin Laden to work for the destruction of America through a relentless campaign of terrorism. (Significantly, Sanchez has apparently been in correspondence with Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez, who described him as a “distinguished compatriot” and a “good friend”.) Other leftists in Italy and France see themselves sharing common goals with Islamism, as of course do many intellectuals in the USA, the UK and Australia.
In Australia, it seems that some practitioners of the radical orthodoxy could easily descend into the depths of Foucaultian delirium, as the e-journal Borderlands (of which Anthony Burke is publisher) demonstrates. It offers an ongoing critique of the war on terror and Australia’s role in it with articles by various academics on topics such as “Regimes of Terror: Contesting the War on Terror”; “Media Necropower: Australian Media Reception and the Somatechnics of Mamdouh Habib”; “Terror Australis: Security, Australia and the ‘War on Terror’ Discourse”; and “Live and Let Die: Colonial Sovereignties and the Death Worlds of Necrocapital-ism”. Although they live in an affluent liberal democracy and are employed in leading universities, the authors of these pieces apparently see contemporary Western society as a “necropolis”, an imperialistic city of death, a ludicrous but very Foucaultian idea.
Similarly, Burke announces the centrality of Foucault to his own approach in his article discussed earlier, declaring that “this analysis is a hybrid of the positions Foucault developed throughout works such as The Order of Things (1970), The Archaeology of Knowledge (1972), Discipline and Punish (1977), and The History of Sexuality Vol. 1 (1979)” (p 48, n 1). Burke also dismisses the mainstream terrorist studies conducted by “think tanks, policy institutes, intelligence agencies, militaries”, as mere exercises in what Foucault called “power-knowledge”, and asserts that
“ever since the early works of Michel Foucault, we have known that no knowledge is neutral, however scientific its appearance … Instead, we all too often find knowledge [produced in such institutions] serving power [for example, the governments of the USA or Australia] as it conceals its political function within claims to objectivity and expertise.” [p 37]
According to this view, studies of terrorism undertaken in think tanks are merely exercises in “power-knowledge” that conceal their support for imperialism and misrepresent terrorist groups and jihadis through bogus claims of objectivity that only critical terrorism studies practitioners are clever enough to expose. Possibly it was this type of attitude that prompted the director of the National Security Project at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, Carl Ungerer, to denounce “radical pacifism” in critical terrorism studies and lament that universities, dominated as they are by the radical orthodoxy, “are consigning themselves to ever greater irrelevance” in the formulation of government policy on terrorism (“Radical pacifism in terror studies”, Australian, July 9, 2008).
Overall, the radical orthodoxy remains a major component of the intellectual monoculture of our universities, passively crowding out and actively denouncing alternative, more realistic and constructive perspectives on terrorism and jihadism. It must be contested, not only because it is delusional and nihilistic in its most extreme forms, but because the world is becoming an increasingly dangerous and hate-filled place and liberal democracies have many challenges to meet if they are to survive.
These are exemplified by estimates that globally there may be some 150 million Islamists, and if even only a tiny proportion of these turn to terrorism then the West and the world in general have a massive problem that will persist throughout this century (Daniel Pipes, “Size of Islamist menace”, Australian, October 9, 2008).
Meanwhile, a leading American bio-terrorism expert, John Clerici, has warned that Australia is vulnerable to bio-terrorist attacks because of our proximity to Asia, and that it is “hard for many people to imagine the devastation that terrorists could unleash through the deliberate spread of small-pox or anthrax or similar deadly agents”, or by exploding a “dirty bomb”, widely dispersing radioactive material (Cameron Stewart, “Nation at risk from ‘dirty bomb’”, Australian, October 27, 2008).
Unsurprisingly, in its latest global assessment, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute concludes that “a certain form of terrorism—catastrophic terrorism of global reach [involving weapons of mass destruction]—has established its claim to be treated as a serious strategic concern” and that “the struggle against global terrorism will endure for many years to come” (Rod Lyon and Christine Leah, Global Jigsaw, 2008, pp 17–18).
In such a scenario, a domineering radical orthodoxy and its offshoots like critical terrorism studies are unnecessary ideological burdens that should be in the trash along with the other totalitarian-friendly ideologies of the twentieth century.
Dr Mervyn F. Bendle is Senior Lecturer in History & Communications at James Cook University.