Stuck in Noam-man's land - the Left and terrorism

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald,

29 December,2001

On the morning after September 11, I bought a coffee before I boarded the train to Central. The man who sold it to me said: "The Arabs will pay for this." This cry for vengeance against a whole civilisation has been expressed in the past three months by a revival of crude hostility against Arabs and Muslims within Australia.

In central Asia we have watched the bombing of civilians, the mass exodus of refugees and a sky-high tech war resulting in blood and bodies 10,000 metres below. In Britain, the US and Australia civil liberties are being reduced as social conservatism undergoes a resurgence.

For some of the liberal-Left all this seems to fall into a familiar pattern and has therefore provoked a familiar response: the "war on terrorism" should be opposed just as the Vietnam War was, and millions of people should be mobilised to oppose US foreign policy.

But there are significant differences from previous situations and the liberal-Left is in danger of mechanically applying political formulas crafted in a different period rather than responses based on a concrete examination of current circumstances.

Where's the evidence?

In the initial weeks after September 11 many people asked "where's the evidence?" of Osama bin Laden's guilt. On face value, it was a fair question. But it was also naive. The evidence is obviously based on intelligence sources, which were still being used to pursue him.

Other questions are more sensible, such as: is the American Government genuinely concerned about the attack? Yes. Would it truly like to know who is responsible? Yes. So when its intelligence agencies say everything points to bin Laden's group, can we dismiss this lightly with a "political" argument?

Having been so publicly accused, bin Laden has not denied responsibility; indeed, he has praised the attack. When it became clear that the US would bomb his Taliban protectors, he still did not deny responsibility. Instead, he issued threats of more attacks.

But some people's reason for asking "where's the evidence?" reflected a cast of mind that is reluctant to confront the consequences if bin Laden is clearly guilty. This reflex is part of the Left's deep post-Berlin Wall malaise.

Perhaps the best place to begin unravelling this riddle is with bin Laden himself. In 1996 he spoke to an Australian group of Islamic fundamentalists, the Islamic Youth group (see

The interview outlines bin Laden's fight against the Communist party in Yemen and the Russians in Afghanistan. It makes clear these arose not from political nationalism or a desire for liberation but from a religious faith because communism is secular and atheistic.

Bin Laden also damns the "apostate" Saudi regime, not because it is feudal or undemocratic but because it is not feudal enough. He wants stricter religious law applied. He wants women repressed. He is anti-Semitic (ie, he hates Jews) rather than anti-Zionist. His stance is not anti-imperialist. It is religious zealotry.

When asked for his response to the charge of terrorism, bin Laden replied that "terrorising the American occupiers is a religious and logical obligation". He then goes on to accuse the US of terrorism, citing the blockade of Iraq, massacres in Lebanon, attacks on Muslims in Bosnia and even the Hiroshima/Nagasaki attacks of 1945.

Whose responsibility?

When the Left tries to respond to September 11, it often falls into a kind of popular "social science theorising". In trying to explain the roots of events in history, the Left (or parts of it represented by people like John Pilger and Noam Chomsky) almost appears to absolve the perpetrators of their


Pilger, for example, describes a litany of US and British crimes and then refers to Islamic fundamentalist groups in this way: "Their distant voices of rage are now heard; the daily horrors in faraway brutalised places have at last come home." (

His implication is clear: the US and Britain are completely responsible for the rise of Muslim fundamentalism and are now getting their reward. The idea that the US "caused" Muslim fundamentalism is reductionist and wrong, apart from lessening the moral responsibility of bin Laden's group for its own actions.

Lots of people in the Arab and Muslim world are critical of the US, many "rage" quite justifiably. Only a few become extreme religious fundamentalists. Fundamentalism existed long before the US began to play a role in world affairs.

Generous US support for Israel has indeed played into the hands of religious fundamentalists who do not seek a political settlement but rather the total destruction of the US. But to acknowledge that the US has "played into the hands" of these groups is not the same as saying that the US bears responsibility for the creation of these groups. This simplification is tantamount to blaming the victims of September 11.

As the left-wing commentator Christopher Hitchens observed in The Nation ( those who argue that September 11 would not have occurred "if only the US had not been so blindly pro-Israel" can become "self-appointed interpreters for the killers".

This line of thinking implies that bin Laden is some kind of anti-imperialist, like Ho Chi Minh, Nelson Mandela or Gerry Adams.

But September 11 was not a "demand" for anything nor a stage of any recognisable political struggle. The Taliban and bin Laden have not been struggling for a Palestinian state - rather, they are opportunists who use this cause and who want to destroy Israel and kill every last Jew. September

11 was a piece of "propaganda of the deed" directed at the hearts and minds of the Muslim world, apart from anything else.

One reason that fundamentalism receives support is that the openings for democratic protest in many Arab and Muslim countries are very limited. But that is largely the fault of the undemocratic local regimes, not the US.

Fundamentalism is not an automatic consequence of US power and to imply it is, as Pilger does, is not only wrong but will lead the Left deeper into a blind alley.

Hypocrisy and the US

The other powerful argument articulated by some on the Left is that the US is hypocritical on terrorism. Chomsky argues that the US has supported or still supports repressive regimes in the Middle East, Latin America and elsewhere (; That is certainly true. But he then goes further and describes the US as "a leading terrorist state". Pilger reaches a similar conclusion.

The logic of this thinking is that if the real terrorist is the US, Islamic fundamentalists are of minor importance and have a justifiable and understandable "rage" at the "real terrorist". The effect of such a line of argument is to trivialise the September 11 attacks and to nullify the moral ground on which any US action could be based, including through the UN.

Yes, the US has condoned terror by others, and its agencies have carried out terrorist actions. But Chomsky and Pilger's arguments imply that it has zero moral right to protect its citizens against further attack, the reductio ad absurdum of their position.

A similar logic was invoked during the Gulf War. The argument went: the US has invaded many countries, therefore it could not legitimately

intervene against Iraq after its invasion of Kuwait. But that logic is flawed. If invading another country is wrong, then the starting point for an analysis is that Saddam Hussein's action was wrong and opposition to this action was fundamental to developing an attitude to the Gulf War.

This logic reached its most absurd over Kosovo. Having watched the massacres in Sarajevo and Bosnia, and wishing someone would "do something", the purist Left was appalled when someone "did something" (US and British air strikes) about Kosovo.

Yet the consequences have not been all bad. Milosevic and many of his barbaric lieutenants are now on trial, a more democratic government is in power in Belgrade, some kind of order has returned to former Yugoslavia. It's a long way from any kind of peace and communal respect, but frankly I prefer it to the alternative: the triumph of Serbia and its ethnic cleansing of Kosovo.

The Chomsky-Pilger argument implies that everything awful in the world is a reflex or creation of "the West", otherwise known as the US. No

wonder fundamentalist ways of thinking are not as abhorrent to them as they are to many others on the Left.

In a recent edition of Arena magazine (, Professor Tom Nairn, from the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, argued that after September 11 we must clearly distinguish between the nationalisms of the Middle East, which are almost intractable but ultimately amenable to a solution, and the fundamentalism of al-Qaeda.

Nairn argues that such fundamentalist groups fear the universalising and positive trends of globalisation - expressed concretely through the spread of access to information and, in the longer term, the force of notions of citizenship, the rule of law, women's rights, religious tolerance and government authority being vested in democratic votes.

Far from being "chickens coming home to roost" and a revenge for globalisation, September 11 was a calculated attack on these positive aspects (and on liberties won in the West by the labour and democratic social movements).

In turn, the attacks have unleashed some deeper philosophical issues concerning cultural pluralism. The most pernicious is the "clash of civilisations" thesis by the American historian Samuel Huntingdon, which treats each "culture" as a monolith that shares nothing with any other. It is based on a them-and-us perspective, which has been the basis of racial and religious wars.

A related phenomenon is a woolly-headed left-wing relativism which attacks the imposition of "Western values" and refuses to judge violent non-Western fundamentalism.


In spite of Chomsky and Pilger's arguments, and the relatively speedy rout of the Taliban, the war in Afghanistan is the wrong way to go about stopping bin Laden. But what is the alternative? What does the Left say to the ordinary people of New York? Presumably it consists of more than urging them to contemplate the justifiable anger of many victims of US policies in the Middle East, Latin America and so on.

There was and is an alternative. It means genuinely globalising the pursuit and punishment of al-Qaeda, including the creation of a special tribunal for crimes against humanity. Since al-Qaeda crimes have occurred in several countries, any such trial should not be in the US.

But to have a trial, you must have an accused in the dock. This entails the global equivalent of police raiding the hide-out of the criminal. The police may do this with or without a warrant and people may get hurt during the raid. But a violent confrontation is sometimes unavoidable in apprehending


It doesn't necessarily mean war on the scale of the current events, but violence would be involved. That doesn't, however, make the apprehending of criminals the moral equivalent of the criminal and his or her actions.

Declaring war is another, less justifiable road which fits a pattern of unilateral self-interest which the US exhibited before September 11, symbolised by isolationism over greenhouse emissions and its threat to break the ABM treaty.

The movement against exploitative corporate globalisation has been paralysed since September 11 by commentators who have cynically equated its

protest against capitalism with bin Laden's terrorism (the perverse logic being that both groups are linked by their hatred of America).

But the former is based on a notion of humanitarianism, that the several billion human beings on the planet deserve respect. The latter is based on possession of an ultimate truth in which only the faithful deserve respect.

David McKnight is a senior lecturer in the faculty of humanities at UTS. He is a long-time writer and activist on the Left in Australia.