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August 31st 2011 print

Mervyn F. Bendle

9/11 and the Intelligentsia, Ten Years On

It was 8.00 a.m., September 12, 2001, on the Australian east coast, only hours after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. The students in my criminology lecture seemed in shock. Many were sitting silently, staring into the middle distance, while others were huddled together, leaning across desks and talking intensely and urgently. It was impossible to miss the American students, who were mostly very young and not even allowed to drink in their homeland, but game enough to travel across the world to study in our country. Some were weeping, while most were red-eyed, their faces drawn and pale. Other students were bewildered, having missed the cataclysmic late-night events and the morning news, and they now listened incredulously as their friends recounted the dreadful attacks.

As the New York Times observed in its editorial that morning: “It was one of those moments in which history splits, and we define the world as ‘before’ and ‘after’ the attacks of 9/11.”

What was there to say? Somehow, launching into a lecture about functionalist theories of criminal behaviour seemed wildly inappropriate. Here were eighty students who were looking for discussion, empathy, sympathy, and maybe some answers and reassurance. They knew something momentous had happened; that suddenly their lives had been profoundly affected; that the world had changed, and changed obviously for the worse. Terrible violent forces had been unleashed, and sinister forces driven by an intense hatred and rage had been revealed.

And so we talked. Fortunately, most of my studies, research and teaching had been in systems of extremist thought, comparative religion, and criminology. Consequently, I was familiar with the rise of radical Islam and jihadism, as well as with various forms of religious apocalypticism, death cults and the history of terrorism. When we eventually turned to the day’s lecture topic, I felt we had gone some way in beginning to understand how these atrocities had occurred and what they might mean for the future.

Faced with global crises of such magnitude and significance, academics with the relevant knowledge have a responsibility to try to illuminate their nature and significance. Certainly, I will never forget the moment, shortly after 8.00 a.m. on that Wednesday morning a decade ago, when the class finally became quiet and the eyes of eighty students looked up expectantly: Let’s discuss this, help us understand. How had all this happened? Who were these people committing these atrocities? And why do they hate us so?

Consequently, over the decade since 9/11 I have tried to make a contribution, teaching the only comprehensive course in Australia on the history of terrorism, and publishing some fifty articles on terrorism, the crisis of Islam, Islamism, jihadism, the response of the intelligentsia, and related issues. I have also observed the more general academic response to the crisis, which clearly represented a great challenge for academics, especially in the arts, humanities and the social sciences.

It was a chance for academics to demonstrate their capacity for rigorous, objective and fearless research, illuminating one of the most important issues facing the modern world. But it was a challenge that few academics revealed themselves prepared to meet, with far too many trapped in the left-wing postmodern intellectual monoculture that pervades university life. When academic voices were heard in connection with 9/11 it was usually to exploit the tragedy opportunistically to gain funding and to promote ideological or apologetic agendas, dominated by this radical orthodoxy.

According to the radical orthodox perspective, the world must be analysed exclusively in terms of “class, gender and race”, which leaves no room for any consideration of religious dynamics, such as the emergence of Islamism and jihadi terrorism. Consequently, these phenomena were assimilated to a simplistic and uncompromising secular narrative of generalised oppression, allegedly directed by a system of Western patriarchal and racist capitalism, dominated by “American imperialism”, and mobilised against “the Other”, the great mythic realm of victimhood, which, after 9/11, was quickly extended to include 1.5 billion Muslims, who were added to the select set of groups deemed worthy of special favour, advocacy and support.

To facilitate this, the new thought-crime of “Islamophobia” was invented. Accusing interlocutors of this new form of Western depravity makes it possible to silence debate about the activities of Islamists and other Muslim extremists, while also making anyone brave enough to raise their voices vulnerable to the various laws that have been introduced by the Left to suppress free speech.

Another semantic game is the insistence that “terrorism” has no real existence or cannot be adequately defined. This is an error, as the term is no more or less precise than any other concepts that seek to encompass dynamic phenomena, while history and current official usage confirm that terrorism is accurately defined as unlawful actions or threat of actions made by a non-state entity intended to harm, coerce, intimidate or interfere with the government or the public with the intention of advancing a political, religious or ideological cause.

The radical orthodoxy seeks to invalidate the term, as it views its use as an intolerable affront to its favoured groups. It resorts instead to moral relativism and simplistic clichés (“one person’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter” and the like), so that concerns that the West is under terrorist attack can be rejected as attempts to negatively “label” these groups. Alternatively, reference in the definition to “non-state entities” is ignored, and terrorism is defined so broadly that it encompasses military action by sovereign states, making it possible to claim that the actions of Al Qaeda and other jihadi groups are no more immoral than those of American and Australian forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

This self-imposed blindness, silence, confusion and moral culpability meant that many vital issues escaped scholarly attention in the aftermath of 9/11. For example, there was clearly a need to identify and explore the nature of the deep-seated crises within the Muslim world, and to explore the emergence and nature of Islamism and jihadism as responses to these crises. There was also a vital necessity to compare and contrast jihadism with the relevant ideological, organisational and operational aspects of the history of terrorism and violent extremism dating back to the nineteenth century.

I published various articles on these topics in the early years after 9/11 but it became increasingly obvious that another area of concern also demanded attention. This was the role being played by the “adversary culture” of the intelligentsia, with its fierce antipathy towards the West coupled with its sympathetic or tolerant academic response to 9/11, which would largely shape the academic response to terrorism and Islam.

It became clear that there was a desperate need to defend Western society from its internal intellectual enemies, who historically have regularly embraced political extremism, and to explore the reasons for what the French philosopher Julien Benda once called—in the first age of fascism—“the treason of the intellectuals”, which lures academics and intellectuals into supporting and sympathising with political extremism and terrorists. This tendency has gone uncontested since the eclipse of the liberal intellectual tradition and the victory of neo-Marxist ideology and postmodern obscurantism, a catastrophic shift that I described in an article in Quadrant in September 2010 on Peter Coleman’s book The Last Intellectuals.

Indeed, this betrayal by the intelligentsia of liberal democracy is one of the most fundamental features of modernity, and arises from the intelligentsia’s elitist hatred of what it sees as the humdrum, “bourgeois” civilisation of the West, coupled with a messianic sense of mission; an attraction to irrationalist political ideologies; a fascination with power and those who wield it; a desire to remake society in its own terms; an eagerness to implement totalitarian “solutions” to achieve this desire; and an enthusiasm for political extremism, including political violence and terrorist attacks upon its own society.

Consequently, I applied ideas derived from Karl Popper, Isaiah Berlin and Robert Jay Lifton to a comparative study of Western radicalism and Islamist terrorism, arguing that the benign attitude of academics and intellectuals towards jihadi terrorism reflected an elective affinity between the two ideologies, centred on their shared antipathy towards civil society. I presented my case in “Existential Terrorism: Civil Society and its Enemies,” published in the Australian Journal of Politics and History in 2006. This became one of that journal’s most downloaded articles, even though it had been held back from publication for several years after acceptance.

The affinity between Islamism and Western radicalism is based on their shared totalising view of the world, and their shared rejection of the pluralism of liberal democracies. It is expressed most vividly in a shared hostility towards civil society, where ordinary people in Western societies live their lives and pursue their own interests, largely free of political and religious interference. Although one ideology is secular and the other religious, both forms of radicalism demonise this realm of freedom, presenting it as thoroughly politicised and corrupt, and therefore as a legitimate target for terrorism.

This explains why so many apparently non-violent intellectuals and academics readily accept the mass murder of innocent civilians in railway stations, office buildings, nightclubs, and other targets in civil society; and why, for example, the mass murder of people relaxing in a bar in Bali, or waiting for a train in London or Mumbai can be considered a blow against America and the West by Muslim jihadis and Western intellectuals alike. The latter mimic Islamist ideologues in viewing such victims as not innocent, but as guilty and complicit in the actions of the state apparatuses of their societies—culpable proxies of George W. Bush and John Howard—simply by virtue of the fact they are citizens of their societies and pay taxes, as Ayman al-Zawahiri stated explicitly in the Al Qaeda declaration on “Jihad, Martyrdom, and the Killing of Innocents”. Even at their most charitable, Western intellectuals regard such victims as acceptable collateral damage in their morbidly romanticised narrative about the “anti-imperialist struggle”. 

These are not merely theoretical issues, because universities have become contested ground in the form of warfare being waged by the global jihadi movement. As I discussed in a 2008 article on global jihad and the evolution of terrorist-training doctrines, this involves many forms of force—military, political and ideological—and it proceeds in an undeclared or unacknowledged manner, operating through terrorist networks, franchises and leaderless jihad. It is low-intensity, long-term and transnational conflict, and it places a particularly high value on agitation and propaganda, or “agitprop”.

In this type of agitprop struggle the capacity to recruit and mobilise university-trained knowledge workers is paramount, as it has always been in the history of terrorism and political extremism. And the critical factor here is the availability of a viable ideology, such as radical orthodoxy, which carries out a number of essential functions. (1) It is able to achieve intellectual legitimacy and preferably dominance within key university faculties—the arts, humanities and social sciences. (2) It serves to justify the principal elements of Islamism and jihadist terrorist activity. (3) It mobilises and legitimates the growing Islamist cadre in the universities. (4) It de-legitimises all its critics. (5) It denounces and intellectually undermines the host or target culture, and especially its counter-terrorist policies. (6) It attracts the support or at least acquiescence of influential sections of the Western intelligentsia and media.

This strategy has been facilitated in Europe, America, Britain and Australia by the availability of vast amounts of overseas funding—amounting to billions of petro-dollars—mostly from Middle Eastern interests anxious to promote the legitimacy of Wahhabism and other forms of Salafi (fundamentalist) Islam. In Australia alone it was reported in 2008 that the Saudis were establishing a $2.7 billion scholarship fund, and that several universities were eager to compromise their integrity to gain access to such vast funds, matters which I discussed in several articles at the time.

Under such a strategy, Islamist and jihadi groups seek to radicalise and recruit high-value, tertiary-educated personnel, especially doctors, scientists, engineers and other technically trained professionals. A 2007 study of suicide bombers consequently identified a “trans-national neo-ummah” (Muslim community), peopled by frequently multilingual university students “who see the West as evil incarnate … sinful and pernicious”, and as a satanic entity “that legitimizes the use of blind violence against it” (John Zimmerman, “Jihad, Theory and Practice: A Review Essay”, Terrorism and Political Violence, 2007).

Such intelligent, technically trained and deeply disaffected personnel are invaluable in the form of asymmetrical warfare conducted by Al Qaeda and other jihadist groups, as this involves small terrorist cells committed to what jihadi theorists call “the jihad of individual terrorism”, directed at the “far enemy” of the West, and based on savage attacks, usually executed as so-called “martyrdom operations”. Such cells are expected to be largely self-radicalising, self-recruiting and self-training, with support by jihadi instructional and ideological material provided in a decentralised network that makes maximum use of the internet.

So effective is this strategy of decentralised global jihad that the American government has recently declared that homeland attacks by foreign or domestic terrorists are now its top counter-terrorism priority. Britain has also finally recognised the domestic threat and revised its previously dysfunctional “Prevent” strategy to ensure that pro-terrorist ideologies and political extremism in universities and schools and on the internet are now combated. A rampant pro-jihadi sub-culture had flourished under the Labour government, as Melanie Phillips pointed out in her seminal exposé, Londonistan (2006). After some appalling Islamist violence, even the Dutch have seen the profound errors of their previous ultra-tolerant approach and implemented a counter-radicalisation strategy.

Australia is struggling in this area, as the federal government seeks to develop a coherent counter-radicalisation policy that will meet national security requirements while also accommodating the demands made by the radical orthodox academics and intellectuals who seek to control policy formulation in this field.

Consequently, the federal Attorney-General gave a major address in June this year on terrorist activity without mentioning Islam or Muslims. While he conceded that four major terrorist plots have been detected in Australia since 2000 and that thirty-eight people were charged and twenty-three convicted on terrorism charges, he chose to emphasise that “significantly, 37 of the 38 people prosecuted are Australian citizens and 21 of the 38 were born in Australia”. The nation’s chief law officer makes no mention of the fact that all these people were radicalised Muslims, implying instead that they were a product of the Australian population as a whole, and that the problem lies within the social fabric of Australian society and not within an identifiable group of disaffected fanatics manipulated by foreign forces.

Such timid political correctness is deplorable because Australia has only avoided a successful terrorist attack due to the incompetence of the local terrorist cells and not because of any flaw in the basic jihadi strategy. One of these cells aimed to use huge bombs to kill a thousand people, at railway stations, Crown Casino, or football matches, including the 2005 AFL Grand Final. While this attack was thwarted, it is likely that the necessary mix of competency, skills and fanaticism will eventually be achieved by a local jihadi cell, with tragic results. This likelihood increases exponentially if the processes of radicalisation that lead young Muslims into jihadism are not disrupted. 

Any counter-radicalisation policy will ultimately fail, however, if it does not include effective action at the ideological level, confronting and overthrowing the jihadi-friendly radical orthodoxy that reigns in the universities and the intelligentsia. This radical orthodoxy seeks systematically to delegitimise Australia and the West as racist, exploitative, colonialist, militarist and Islamophobic societies, making them appropriate targets for jihadi attacks. It meets all the agitprop requirements listed above, portraying terrorism and jihadism in terms of an all-encompassing far-Left theory of global capitalism that has its roots in the Marxist-Leninist critique of Western imperialism that was renovated and re-launched by the New Left in the 1960s, subsequently inculcating a generation of academics who now control Australia’s universities.

More recently, this radical narrative of Western perfidy was modified to incorporate elements of contemporary postmodernism. According to this, “reality” is a social construction, and consequently the study of terrorism should not concern itself with actual acts of murderous violence in a non-existent “real world”, but should instead adopt a “critical stance” towards every policy devised by the West to protect itself from attack, concerning itself not with real terrorists, but only with the concept of “terrorism”, seen as a signifier in an ideological discourse, and as a mythical entity promoted by the capitalist state as an object of fear designed by the ruling elite to induce powerful negative emotions, encourage moral panics and manipulate political affairs.

In this fashion, radical orthodoxy begins with the premise that the West is the principal source of evil in the world, and insists that the focus of research into terrorism must be internal, concerned with the analysis of political and media discourses in Australia, the “deconstruction” of relevant government policies to reveal their imperialist and militarist agendas, and their implicit Islamophobia and fear of “the Other”, which is alleged in turn to have led to the unjust persecution of innocent Muslims on charges of terrorism.

It follows, according to this radical orthodoxy, that little attention should be directed externally, outside Australia, to the realm of historical, political, social and ideological forces impacting upon Islam and the rest of the world, where global history is actually being determined, and where terrorists get their inspiration, resources and ideological and operational guidance. To carry out such research, or to imply that there may be forces at large in the world—jihadism, for example—that are violently opposed to liberal democracy, is to be guilty of Islamophobia, and “Orientalism”, which is another ideological confection designed to indict the West and stifle debate. 

The role of radical orthodoxy and the largely ideological response of academics to 9/11 must be emphasised because the question of the overall value of the arts, humanities and social sciences has been recently been placed on the agenda of university reform. The British government has withdrawn all teaching subsidies to these disciplines after concluding that they offered little of value to the pupils who studied them or to the society that funded them. This policy shift is an inevitable consequence of the academic “adversary culture” and the “betrayal of the intellectuals” noted above.

In Australia, such options have also appeared on the agenda because of the growing public awareness that these disciplines have become, in the words of the University of Melbourne philosopher John Armstrong, “inward looking … anti-business and … characterized by a left-wing monoculture, all of which contributed to a disconnect with wider society”. And, as Lindsay Tanner has warned, these disciplines risk “a descent into self-perpetuating cliques of obscurantists talking to each other”.

(The role played by this left-wing intellectual monoculture, with its simplistic “class, gender and race” template, and their effects within academia were matters I stressed in a submission and oral evidence to the Senate inquiry into academic freedom in 2008, where I also drew attention to the use of legal threats to stifle academic discussion, especially concerning terrorism and Islamism in Australia, and provided detailed documentation of threats made against me. This material was incorporated in the inquiry’s final report.)

The academic response to 9/11 should be seen as an excellent case study of how the arts, humanities and social sciences in Australia failed to meet their responsibilities in the face of a major challenge. While there is undoubtedly a large number of talented and dedicated people working in various disciplines in these fields, the overall contribution the arts, humanities and social sciences have made to the understanding of Islamism, jihadism and terrorism has been extremely poor; has been dominated by this intellectual monoculture and radical orthodoxy; has let down a generation of students; and has generally been antagonistic and counter-productive to the interests of Australian society.

Fiercely committed to their radical orthodoxy and proudly ignorant of religious history, too many academics simply don’t comprehend that historically Islam has been a powerful, assertive and deeply entrenched ideological force that operates globally on a continental scale. Nor are they aware that Islam entered into a prolonged period of crisis in the twentieth century and was torn by internal and external conflicts, centring on the spiritual legacy of Islam, issues I explored in two articles in 2003. I argued that fundamentalist movements like Islamism were (paradoxically) ideological products of modernity—“sharia plus industrialisation” as one scholar put it; that jihadi terrorism reflected the impact of modernisation on Muslim societies and the desperate attempts by various despotic Muslim regimes to deflect internal disaffection generated among their subject populations by the allure of modernity. Consequently, the insistence of Islamists and jihadis that they were involved in a “holy war” with a Christian West was deluded and self-serving, as it was modernisation and not Christianity that was threatening their religious and cultural traditions.

These articles also pointed out the profound significance for the future of Islam of the recent rise of sectarian Wahhabism and how it was leading a well-funded and brutal war within Islam against Sufism and other traditional variants of Islam across the Muslim world. Again, this means nothing to the proponents of radical orthodoxy, who lack any comprehension or concern about the significance within Islam of its different spiritual traditions or of the role they have played historically in Islamic civilisation. 

Ignorance of such dynamics within Islam and global religions generally enshrouded the highest levels of academia in Australia, crippling academic debate in this area. To a large extent this reflected the abolition in the 1990s of the various religion studies programs that had once been available in Australian universities. This infrastructure would have been an excellent resource to draw upon after 9/11, if it had not been destroyed, leaving Australia as a land of many faiths but little capacity to engage with them intellectually or academically, or analyse how Australia is positioned in a world of dynamic religious phenomena.

(The destruction of religion studies as a discipline in Australia was followed by the commitment of vast resources to academic centres dedicated exclusively to promoting Islam. Very little effort is being made to develop comparable centres for the study of Hinduism, the principal faith of India, which is a major trading partner and source of immigration for Australia. Adequate support for the academic study of Buddhism, Sikhism and other religions with a significant presence in Australia is similarly lacking.)

Consequently, over a decade ago when I was commissioned to assess the religion section of the Australian edition of a major international sociology textbook I was appalled by its obsolete approach and had to insist that it include discussion of the “Clash of Civilisations” thesis developed by Samuel P. Huntington, who argued that the primary source of conflict in the post-Cold War world would arise from the attempts by various civilisations, notably Islam, to assert their cultural and religious identities in the face of what they saw as the deplorable influence of Western ideas and values. This discussion was included for the first edition but the local editors, submitting to political correctness and the left-wing hatred of Huntington, subsequently deleted it—just in time for the 9/11 attacks, which pushed the thesis right back to the forefront of the debates about the global role of religion, and the origins of the Islamist attacks on the West.

Similarly, there was little informed reaction to an article I published in the Australian a week after the 9/11 attacks highlighting the challenges and opportunities the attacks represented for scholars of religion. Nor was there much constructive discussion on the various online sociology and religion studies forums to which I was contributing at the time. Fortunately, a special session on 9/11 was organised by the sociological association for its annual conference in Sydney in December 2001, at which I gave a paper on the 9/11 attacks, which was subsequently published in 2002.

This paper addressed the fundamental error that lies at the core of radical orthodoxy. It began by noting the apparent coincidence that the 9/11 terrorist attacks had occurred exactly a year after the violent anti-globalisation protests against the World Economic Forum staged in Melbourne on September 11, 2000. It emphasised the need to avoid conflating one 9/11 event with the other, therefore misperceiving both events as similar expressions of the one anti-globalisation movement, the key assumption that was to become central to radical orthodoxy. Instead, I insisted that they were quite different phenomena, even though they had converged at that moment around radical critiques of America and the West in general,

I pointed out that there were now two main anti-globalisation tendencies, the secular and the religious. The secular tendency found expression in the anti-globalisation protests that took place in Melbourne, Seattle, Genoa, Barcelona, and in many other cities since. It has its roots in the anti-capitalism movement that goes back to the nineteenth century and was dominated ideologically by Marxism-Leninism, and now by the “black bloc” autonomist form of anarchism that has moved into the vanguard of the movement. It remains the central component of radical orthodoxy and the ideological worldview of the contemporary arts, humanities and social sciences.

The religious tendency comes from an entirely different source, one that was not at all well known in 2001 and continues to be ignored. I pointed out that this was exemplified by Islamism, a modern political ideology based on the radical politicisation of Islam that seeks to mobilise a global jihad, destroy the current world system, and lead a Muslim resurgence to global dominion.

Even though Islamism regards Islam as a comprehensive system ordained by Allah to dominate every aspect of life, there was little academic concern. Even though Islamism denied the validity of all other religions and systems of thought, including all aspects of modernity, especially liberal democracy, secularism, feminism and all non-Islamic systems of law, there was little academic engagement with the issue. Even though Islamism and jihadism struck at the very foundations of the Western freedoms and lifestyle that academics enjoy, the case for a co-ordinated academic response to this challenge has achieved little or no traction, at that time or since.

Academics could only grasp the nature, origins, intentions and influence of Islamism by moving out of their ideological comfort zone, defined as always by class, gender and race, and they were reluctant to do this. Consequently, they refused to come to grips with the significance of a major new totalitarian ideology and the global Islamo-fascist movement it was driving. Instead, Islamism was assimilated to the familiar radical orthodox worldview, with Islamism being seen as just another species of the left-wing critique of capitalism and imperialism with which they were so familiar, and that it was therefore entitled to their sympathy and support. 

Looking back over the past ten years one thing that stands out is how little has been learned in Australia by academics, the intelligentsia, the media and the political forces of the Left about the nature and intentions of Islamism and jihadism. Various case studies can be cited to illustrate this.

A primary example was the rapturous reception of David Hicks at the Sydney Writers’ Festival in May. Hicks was convicted by the US Guantanamo Military Commission under the Military Commissions Act of 2006, on charges of providing material support for terrorism. In Sydney he received a standing ovation from an audience of 900 people at a festival purportedly concerned with ideas and imagination, precisely those aspects of life that have no place in the Islamist universe. Doubtless it will not be long before such festivals are enthusiastically hosting leading members of the Taliban and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Another recent example is the award of the so-called Sydney Peace Prize for 2011 to Noam Chomsky. Chomsky is a far-Left ideologue who has been on the wrong side of every significant political issue for the past fifty years, relentlessly supporting totalitarian states, genocidal regimes, and every species of tyranny that seeks to justify itself by proclaiming its opposition to America and the West. His attempts to downplay and excuse the 9/11 attacks are notorious, as Keith Windschuttle recently discussed in Quadrant (July-August 2011), and it is appalling that the Governor of New South Wales would preside over the award ceremony, revealing the iron grip of radical orthodoxy at the highest academic and political levels in Australia.

Aside from the endless adoration of the Left for Chomsky, nothing better exemplifies the grip of radical orthodoxy than the overwhelming domination in academia and amongst the intelligentsia of Michel Foucault. The influence of Foucault is impossible to overstate, especially in the social sciences, arts and humanities in Australia. For example, one well-known Australian scholarly exponent of Foucault’s ideas is Stephen Garton, currently Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Provost and Professor of History at the University of Sydney, where he was also Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences from 2001 to 2009, and where he was closely associated with the Sydney Peace Prize.

Given this massive influence, it is extremely regrettable that Foucault’s hyper-paranoid postmodernism is uniquely compatible with Islamism, as he himself quickly came to recognise when the Iranian Revolution broke out in 1979.

Throughout his career Foucault portrayed Western society as a deeply politicised system of exploitation and oppression, reaching into every area of life. Moreover, he claimed every citizen of the West was both a product and an agent of this diabolical system. In this fashion, Foucault embraced the view of civil society shared by radical orthodoxy and Islamism, condemning the West as irretrievably corrupt, exploitative and oppressive, and therefore, for extremists, a legitimate terrorist target.

Consequently, Foucault became the leading Western intellectual supporter of the Iranian Revolution. Working as a journalist, he met with the Iranian theocrat Ayatollah Khomeini, travelled to Iran, and wrote some thirteen articles about the revolution, promoting the Ayatollah’s ultra-reactionary theocracy, and presenting the revolution as a positive turning point in world history. In these articles Foucault celebrated the most extreme manifestations of revolutionary Islamist fanaticism, declaring that the revolution signalled the end of Western hegemony, would “set the entire region afire” and forever change the “global strategic equilibrium” (Janet Afary and Kevin B. Anderson (eds.), Foucault and the Iranian Revolution, 2006).

Foucault’s assessment became rapturous, describing the revolution as a mystical manifestation of “an absolutely collective will” that has “erupted into history”, “like God, like the soul”. He endorsed the Islamist claim that democratic political systems are inherently corrupt, and that the Iranian theocracy, with all its brutality, expressed the “collective will” of the Iranian people in a pure and uncorrupted fashion that Western democracy could never match. This is a view of democracy shared by many Australian academics.

Throughout his life Foucault was also fascinated with suicide and sadomasochistic sexuality. In Iran he was attracted to the ideal of revolutionary martyrdom and embraced its “discourse of death”. He was mesmerised by the marching columns of black-clad men, rhythmically flagellating themselves in prolonged rituals of mass penitence, celebrating a “political spirituality” that embraced death and would, he proclaimed with delight, overwhelm a decadent and materialist West.

Preoccupied with nurturing their devotion to Foucault, Chomsky, and the other demigods of the radical orthodox pantheon, Australian academics generally did nothing of value on terrorism, Islamism and jihadism for some five years after the 9/11 attacks. When I pointed this out in two articles in the Australian in September 2006 on the fifth anniversary of 9/11, the result was a torrent of abuse. Typical of this was the reaction of a coterie of postmodernist academics from major universities associated with Anthony Burke, Associate Professor of Politics and International Relations in the University of New South Wales at the Australian Defence Forces Academy, and publisher of borderlands, a radical academic e-journal, which lists the war on terror as its primary area of interest. Given the current debate about the value of the humanities, it is notable that borderlands portrays itself as “a virtual intellectual space for forms of thought and writing in the humanities and social sciences”, and claims to be peer-reviewed and therefore representative of the state of knowledge in these fields.

Considered as a case study, the radical orthodox orientation of this group was exemplified by an article published in 2005 in borderlands by Katrina Lee Koo, a Lecturer in International Relations at the Australian National University. (ANU will host a conference in December 2011 on honour killing, viewed in postmodern terms as “a trans-historical and cross-cultural phenomenon, [and] metonym for Islamic and anti-modern cultures”, and not as a hideous form of murderous barbarity introduced into Western societies by members of the Muslim diaspora.) This article, “Terror Australis: Security, Australia and the ‘War on Terror’ Discourse”, alleged that Australian security policies are based on “a commitment to the practices of violence”, especially against “the Other”, and that the concern with terrorism in America doesn’t arise from the fact that the country is actually under attack by well-resourced terrorists, but is merely a deliberately contrived fear “generated by the media (for ratings) and the government (for political benefits derived from fear generation and domestic political compliance)”.

That issue of borderlands also published a statement by the convicted Italian terrorist ideologue Antonio Negri, the co-author of the notorious neo-Marxist manifesto Empire (2000), in which he tried to rebut an exposé of his activities published by Keith Windschuttle in the Australian in 2005. Negri’s work has been very influential amongst terrorists, radical environmentalists and anti-globalisation militants. His most recent book, Commonwealth (2009), has been described by Brian C. Anderson in the Wall Street Journal as “a dark, evil book [and] a witch’s brew of contemporary radicalism”.

Other articles published by this coterie linked anti-terrorism to racism, genocide and other alleged central characteristics of rapacious “settler societies” like Australia, while in 2006 they published a special “Regimes of Terror Issue” of borderlands to further push the radical orthodox agenda, indicting Australia, America and the West as the culpable parties in the war on terror. There it was claimed that the Australian government operates a “regime of terror” that produces “racialised laws, sovereignties, securities, market economies … and territories”. Moreover, it was claimed that these regimes are inherent in Australian history, and that this coterie “have carefully traced the historical continuities within racial and colonial relations of power with the post 9/11 discourses of security and terror that enable the contemporary formation of regimes of terror” in contemporary Australia.

Given the concern that academics now form “self-perpetuating cliques of obscurantists talking to each other”, it is worthwhile noting the titles of the articles in the “Regimes of Terror Issue” issue of this allegedly peer-reviewed e-journal. These include: “Live and Let Die: Colonial Sovereignties and the Death Worlds of Necrocapitalism”; “Media Necropower: Australian Media Reception and the Somatechnics of Mamdouh Habib”; “Draconian Counter-Terrorism Laws and the Déjà Vu of Indigenous Australians”; “Terror Australis: White Sovereignty and the Violence of Law”; “Sovereignty, Torture and Blood: Tracing Genealogies and Rethinking Politics”; and “Race Terror”. The repeated use of the “Terror Australis” motif is a feature of the radical orthodox view of the country whose privileges they enjoy.

As the influence of such work became clearer and increasingly sinister I published several long articles in Quadrant in 2008 on the rise of radical orthodoxy and the hijacking of terrorism studies, along with an opinion piece in the Australian that summarised this critique. Once again, the response to these articles was typical of academic debate in Australia in these fields: the academics involved made no attempt to defend their positions intellectually but instead resorted to abuse, threats of legal action and physical assault, and concerted attempts to have me sacked. 

Central to this campaign was Anthony Burke, whose work provides another case study of the radical orthodox position on terrorism and international relations generally, and especially the influence of Foucault and postmodernism. Burke’s background appears to be in journalism, creative writing, cultural, media and literary theory, sociology and semiology, before he gained a PhD in international relations in 1999, only two years before the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent war on terror, about which he came to assert that he was an expert. He has received a $150,000 Australian Research Council grant to work on a book to be called “Postmodern Conflict: Global Security and Asymmetric War”, while his published works include Beyond Security, Ethics and Violence: War against the Other (2007), and Fear of Security: Australia’s Invasion Anxiety (2008).

Considered as a case study in radical orthodoxy, we find that Burke’s “conceptual approach” is presented in his Wikipedia entry as a radical grab-bag “hybrid of poststructuralist themes (Derrida, Foucault, Lyotard, Butler and Agamben), post-colonial theory (Said) and post-Kantian critical theory (from Frankfurt School figures such as Horkheimer, Habermas and Fromm, to harder to classify thinkers like Arendt, Levinas, Buber, Heller, Heidegger)”.

In his books we find the argument that Australia’s involvement in the war on terror is not driven by legitimate concerns with national security, but by Australia’s fantasies of sovereignty and self-centred dreams of security, prosperity and freedom, which depend on the enforced insecurity, persecution and death of “the Other”. Australian values and way of life are dismissed as mere ideological abstractions, and Australian foreign policy is condemned because its efforts to protect national security are selfish, and wickedly seek to ensure Australia’s security at the expense of the well-being of other people, such as Muslims and illegal immigrants, who want to come here.

In accord with radical orthodoxy Burke insists that the interests and rights of “the Other” must always have priority over all other considerations. He also denies that sovereign states like Australia have any ultimate legitimacy, or any right to preserve their security, defend themselves from attack, police their borders, or pursue their national interests, when to do so might impinge upon the interests of “the Other”. He also regards the terrorist actions of Al Qaeda as morally equivalent to the military actions of nation-states such as Australia and America, insisting that all such military actions are inherently terrorist in nature, and that therefore Al Qaeda terrorist attacks, like the Bali bombings, are no more immoral than Australia’s military activity in East Timor, Iraq or Afghanistan. 

As such case studies indicate, postmodern practitioners of radical orthodoxy don’t provide objective analyses of terrorism, national security, foreign policy or history. Rather they indulge in a form of pseudo-scholarly polemic—a sort of creative non-fiction purporting to be academic analysis. This uses postmodern theories, random alleged facts and tendentious moral judgments to demonise “the West” and condemn the ordinary people of Western societies, promoting the view that terrorism and jihadism are heroic protests by the Muslim “Other” to the imperialist depredations of the malevolent Western powers.

Another book that serves as a case study of radical orthodoxy was Terror: From Tyrannicide to Terrorism (2008), edited by Brett Bowden and Michael T. Davis. Bowden was a Senior Lecturer at the ADFA, but is now Associate Professor of Politics and International Studies and a member of the Centre for Citizenship and Public Policy at the University of Western Sydney, which also houses the lavishly funded National Centre of Excellence for Islamic Studies. Davis, a Senior Lecturer at the University of Tasmania, distinguished himself by posting a letter online declaring that he was a trained “pugilist”, who was quite capable of physically assaulting me because I dared to criticise his book!

The book certainly deserved criticism, and I provided this in a Quadrant article in September 2008. Although it was ostensibly a history of terrorism written by academic historians, the book was actually promoting an obvious ideological and apologetic agenda, the key elements of which should be summarised because they encapsulate the radical orthodox perspective, which seeks always to blame the West for terrorism. According to this argument: (1) Europe is both the home and principal location of modern terror and terrorism. (2) Britain was central to this tradition of extreme political violence. (3) Contemporary terrorist groups (jihadis, for example) have been falsely labeled as “terrorists” and are merely doing what various European and the British political groups have done throughout their history. (4) Excessive attention is being paid to contemporary non-state terrorist groups (such as Al Qaeda) in comparison to the state terror carried out by totalitarian regimes in Europe. (5) The central issue is not actual terrorist acts by Islamists and jihadis, but the alleged Islamophobia of Westerners, which is identical to racism.

Despite the attacks that my critiques of such works attracted, my assessment of the Australian situation was not refuted, and actually received some support. For example, Carl Ungerer, who is now the Program Director for the National Security Program at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, contributed an article on “Radical Pacifism in Terror Studies” to the Australian (July 9, 2008), condemning the “radical pacifism” that reigned in university departments. He pointed out that this promoted an extreme hostility to sovereign nations like Australia and America, and drew a bogus “moral equivalence between terrorism and counter-terrorism … even blaming open societies for the rise of religious extremists”. Inevitably, he observed, this meant that universities “are consigning themselves to ever greater irrelevance” in the formulation of government policy on terrorism, a view that has since gained considerable currency, as we have noted.

Various overseas commentators made similar complaints. For example, Walid Phares observed in The Confrontation: Winning the War against Future Jihad that Western universities are dominated by a radical orthodoxy “concocted on European and North American campuses by [those] favourable to the Islamist offensive against the West”, and that this “has been one of the most successful platforms preventing the identification of jihadism as an ideology per se and blocking mass mobilisation against it … It has dominated most research in academia, influenced media and politicians, and [even] defense strategists”.

Another overseas scholar, Avishag Gordon, concluded in his article, “Terrorism as an Academic Subject after 9/11” (Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, January-February 2005), that the academic response to 9/11 was an example of the Stockholm Syndrome, whereby: 

the victim who is terrified needs assurance of his protection, something that will build hope in him. This hope leads him to ignore the negative side of the abuser and eventually to adopt the abuser’s worldview and rationalization for the act. The victim … comes to believe he deserves the abuser’s violence. 

Radical orthodoxy is dedicated to imposing upon all Australians this false sense of guilt and the moral inversion it entails, in order to allow domestic extremism to flourish. 

Unfortunately, but predictably, the academic situation has not improved, even a full decade after 9/11, and terrorism studies is still in a deplorable state in Australia. This assessment is supported by a 2010 article, “Beyond Belief: Islamist Strategic Thinking and International Relations Theory”, by David Martin Jones, an Associate Professor at the University of Queensland, and M.L.R. Smith, a Professor at the University of London, and published in Terrorism and Political Violence, the world’s leading journal for the study of terrorism.

Jones and Smith highlight the role of ideology in the radicalisation process. They deplore “the intellectual current that prevails in contemporary British and Australian social science [and that] deconstructs liberal self-understanding, and promotes histrionic empathy with a purportedly misunderstood ‘Other’”. They describe how this “ultimately provides ideological legitimacy” for jihadism. Specifically, they condemn the radicalising effect of postmodernism and neo-Marxist “critical theory” on Islamist groups, “especially in the context of homegrown radicalisation” involving pan-Islamist “Caliphist” groups such as Hizb ut-Tahrir. They emphasise how 

the relativist and critical approaches that have come to dominate the academic social sciences since the 1990s not only reflect a loss of faith in Western values in a way that undermines the prospects for a liberal and pluralist polity, but also … promotes the strategic and ideological agenda of radical Islam.  

A vast amount of government funding is spent promoting this radical orthodoxy.

The appalling state of the field is also made clear in a federal government report, Countering Violent Extremism Literature Review, published this year by the Defence Science and Technology Organisation. This report noted many deficiencies in the post-2000 research in the field of terrorism studies, including a lack of primary source analysis; a limited number of relevant articles focusing on empirical research; a general shortage of experienced researchers; a lack of engagement with terrorists or adequate fieldwork in the area; and limited methodologies and forms of analysis. Significantly, it complains that little academic analysis and critique of terrorism studies has been conducted, and cites one of my Quadrant articles pointing this out.

That such a comprehensive and damning assessment can be made ten years after 9/11 is an appalling indictment of Australian academia, and it has been made despite the tens of millions of dollars that have been poured into academic institutions in the past five years precisely to the promote research which it is now revealed has not been competently carried out—if it has been done at all.

What in fact happened is that universities behaved as they must under the reign of the corporatist and managerialist ideologies that now dominate university and government bureaucracies—that is, they said and promised whatever was necessary to get the funding on offer. They then built new facilities, employed lots of administrative staff, promoted smart operators, employed casual academic day labourers to do the undergraduate teaching, marketed themselves as world leaders, hired all sorts of people on the off-chance that they might have the relevant skills to produce something useful, and generally publicised their success in getting the funding. Whether they actually end up making a useful contribution to understanding the global crisis of Islam or protecting Australians from terrorism is treated as quite incidental to the fundamental raison d’être of such exercises, which is—get the money!

Much of this money went into oxymoronically named “centres of excellence for Islamic studies”, and similar bodies, established around the country to convey the impression that Australian universities possess high-level expertise and concern for the study of Islam and have an academic grip on jihadi terrorism. Aside from government funding, these centres seek petro-dollars, and also target military, security, police and diplomatic personnel, whose organisations can pay the large fees demanded for the consultancy and instructional services offered, and who are happy to get a day off work. Unfortunately, as the various articles and exposés revealed in 2008, they may serve also as front organisations promoting Wahhabi and Salafi sectarianism and propagating anti-Western and anti-democratic views. 

An example of the type of highly contentious contribution these centres might make to public debate has previously gone un-remarked, but has been made relevant again by recent events. These include the outbreak in 2011 of the “Arab Spring” in North Africa and the Middle-East, the July terrorist attacks on Mumbai, a court decision, and recent Islamist activity in Australia.

An article, “Long Climb to the Moral High Ground”, by Dr Halim Rane and Dr Ashutosh Misra, appeared in the Courier Mail in 2008, just after the first Mumbai terrorist massacre. Rane is Deputy Director, Griffith Islamic Research Unit; Lecturer, National Centre of Excellence in Islamic Studies; and Associate Investigator, Centre of Excellence in Policing and Security. Misra is a Research Fellow at the ARC Centre of Excellence in Policing and Security at Griffith. The article begins with the common radical orthodox tactic of absolving Islam for any such attacks, insisting that “most terrorism is motivated by a perceived need to change the existing moral, social, and/or political order”, and not primarily for religious reasons, suggesting that the concern with Islamist and jihadi terrorism is misplaced, and that its aims are “really” political, irrespective of what its leaders have declared innumerable times about their religious motivations.

It then goes on to blame the Mumbai massacre with its massive death toll on India’s democratic system, while liberal democracies like the United States, the United Kingdom, Spain, Israel and Australia were also accused of “fostering extremist tendencies”, and of being responsible for the terrorist attacks made against them. The authors also claimed that “the US and UK imposed genocidal sanctions on Iraq [which] resulted in the deaths of thousands of civilians, mainly children”; and that their military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, carried out hypocritically in the name of the allegedly bogus ideals of “democracy, freedom, and human rights, have subsequently resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians”. This “genocidal” behaviour of liberal democracies is then contrasted to the alleged peacefulness of Islam, which is presented as “a faith whose holy book, the Koran, teaches that taking a single innocent life is like killing the whole of humanity, and saving a single life is akin to saving the whole of humanity”.

Such assertions are anti-democratic, elitist and tendentious. First, they echo the fiercely anti-democratic views of Islamism, which regards democracy as blasphemous because it places human laws above the commandments of Allah, and which wants to place political power in the hands of a theocratic elite; and of terrorism, which disdains democracy as incapable of expressing the “true” interests of the people, which can only be identified by the terrorist elite. Second, they ignore explicit statements extolling violence and warfare made by prominent and authoritative Muslim clerics like the Ayatollah Khomeini, who offers an entirely different interpretation of Islam and its teachings on violence, and explicitly denounces the view of Islam presented by these academics.

According to Khomeini: “Those who know nothing of Islam pretend that Islam counsels against war. Those [who say this] are witless. Islam says: Kill all the unbelievers … put them to the sword and scatter [their armies].” Khomeini emphasises that “there are hundreds of [Koranic] psalms and hadiths [sayings of the prophet] urging Muslims to value war and to fight”. He ridicules those who claim that Islam is a religion of peace: “Does all that mean that Islam is a religion that prevents men from waging war? I spit upon those foolish souls who make such a claim” (Khomeini, “Islam is Not a Religion of Pacifists”, in Andrew Bostom (ed.) The Legacy of Jihad, 2005).

The Al Qaeda leadership has also left no room for doubt about the role of violence. Osama bin Laden specifically declared that “battle, animosity, and hatred [of the infidel] is the foundation of our religion”, and that it is a duty of all Muslims to kill Americans and their allies. “Islam is spread with the sword alone,” he insisted. Ayman al-Zawahiri is equally hard-line, claiming that “the Lord Almighty has commanded us to hate the infidels”, while his declaration on “Jihad, Martyrdom, and the Killing of Innocents”, provides seven Islamic theological justifications for targeting civilians in terrorist attacks, justifying mass murder in every conceivable circumstance (see The Al Qaeda Reader, 2007)

This jihadi ideology of extreme violence has been set out in many publications, including the ten volumes of The Encyclopedia of the Afghan Jihad, and the Al Qaeda Handbook. A similar book was produced in Australia in the aftermath of 9/11, The Provision on the Rules of Jihad—Short Judicial Rulings and Organizational Instructions for Fighters and Mujaheddin against Infidels. The first part of the book focused on religious teachings and rulings about jihad, while the rest discussed the rationale, benefits and methods of assassinations and similar actions, and among the countries on the book’s hit list were Australia and America. (A Sydney man who allegedly compiled the book was convicted of terrorism offences in September 2008. It may be a sign of the changing times and the corrosive influence of radical orthodoxy that the conviction was overturned on appeal in June 2011, while a convenient loophole in the law means that similar material continues to be readily available on CDs, DVDs and the internet.) 

In the face of such evidence it is absurd for academics at these “centres for excellence” to extol the alleged purity and peacefulness of Islam and to attack democracy as morally bankrupt and inherently warlike in comparison. More than enough information on such matters is already in the public sphere to easily refute such claims. That they are nevertheless made in a major newspaper suggests a high degree of confidence in the control over the universities and public debate exercised by radical orthodoxy; that the public is ignorant and can be readily misled; and that nobody would dare contest such outrageous assertions, given the acute constraints of political correctness, backed up by various laws, which now surround and protect Islam from any critical discussion or debate.

Such claims have a renewed significance in the midst of the current “Arab Spring” because, as Bernard Lewis has pointed out in The End of Modern History in the Middle East (2011), the passing of the Cold War era and the emergence of the post-imperialist age means that the nations of the Middle East must, for the first time in some 200 years, accept responsibility for their own affairs, with the people of the region poised to make a critical choice between two contrasting ideologies: liberal democracy, based on some form of the Western model; or some form of Islamist theocracy, akin to that of the Iranian or Taliban regimes. Australian academics, especially those associated with “centres of excellence”, who raise their voices to denounce democracy as a corrupt system can serve only one purpose in such a polarised period.

The ideological significance of this debate was compounded in July when the international pan-Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir held its annual conference in Western Sydney, attended by some 1000 Muslims. The principal objective of this group is the establishment of the Caliphate, encompassing all lands from Spain to the Philippines that have ever been under Muslim rule, and consequently it responded to the “Arab Spring” by making the theme of its conference, the “Uprising in the Muslim World—On the Road to Khilafah”.

Conference participants strongly rejected the tendency in the West to see the recent events as evidence of a desire amongst Arab Muslims for Western-style freedoms. Consequently, “speaker after speaker damned Western powers … for seeking to appropriate the popular uprisings as the shoots of democracy rather than expressions of Islamic rage”, with a Hizb ut-Tahrir spokesman declaring that “calls for democracy … have been misconstrued by some and hijacked by others as calls for liberal democracy, as we know it in the West” (Australian, July 4). Instead, as the Hizb ut-Tahrir website makes clear, the “new Arab Mindset” is based, not on Western concepts of democracy but on the Islamist concepts of the Caliphate, jihad, Islamic politics, ummah, unity, sharia, with a single ruler governing not only the Arabs but the Muslim world as a whole.

Clearly, ten years after 9/11, the ideological struggle goes on. It is a clash of civilisations, but also a clash of wills. Is it sadly true, as W.B. Yeats observed, that “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity”? Do liberal democratic societies have the will and capacity to mobilise intellectual resistance to those forces that seek to destroy them and institute a new dark age of theocratic barbarity across the globe? Or will they succumb to their external and internal enemies, destroyed from within by those who snatch greedily at the benefits bestowed by their privileged position, while betraying the community that succours them? Time will tell. 

Dr Mervyn F. Bendle is Senior Lecturer, History and Communication, at James Cook University.