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Reflections on the World Trade Center and Pentagon Bombings

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Remember those who died

Needed: A New Age of Enlightenment


by Charlie Stross
September 13, 2001

It is now almost 48 hours since two airliners ploughed into the World Trade Center, another dived onto the Pentagon, and a fourth came down near Pittsburgh.

You'd think that every possible angle would already have been covered by people writing about the events of September 11th. So why am I writing this, and why now?

Because in all the media coverage I've seen so far, nobody has been asking the right, the important, questions. Like: why did this happen, what circumstances got us into a de facto state of undeclared war with the Islamic world, and what can we realistically do to prevent those circumstances from ever recurring.

In this essay I'm going to talk about three things:

* How we drifted into this situation over a period of fifty or more years
* What will happen if we don't deal with the root causes of the mess
* What we can do to fix things (apart from fighting a war)

How did we get into this mess?

Some of you in the US are going to wonder why I, in the UK, am bothering with this. I'm 3000 miles away from New York, in a country that wasn't directly affected; nevertheless the event is too overwhelming to bear. People around here have been walking around in shock, all around the world. This isn't simply an act of terrorism directed against the USA; it affects everyone, world-wide. This event is going to be one of the defining political moments of the 21st century whether for good or for ill. (And there seems precious little scope for good in it right now.)

To understand why it happened we have to go back to the 19th century, or even earlier. And if we fail to understand its roots, we run the risk of failing to prevent similar events from happening in future.

Let's get one thing straight, up front: these atrocities did not happen just because a group of twenty fanatics decided to get on board some airliners, hijack them, and ram some of the most significant buildings in the United States. Nor will going after their shadowy leaders stop this from happening again. Even a massed thermonuclear strike on the Islamic world, followed by a campaign of genocide directed against a quarter of the world's population, won't stop this from happening again. This is a complex situation; simplistic answers, even drastic ones, simply won't work.

So what can we do? First, we need to understand where the roots of the conflict are. Secondly, we need to be clear on where our own goals lie. Then, and only then, can we work out how to permanently end the conflict.

And I am convinced that it can be ended, for good, if our political leaders have the guts to take the necessary measures.

A long and bloody history

Personally, I blame Richard the First, by grace of God King of England and Wales.

Maybe I'm being a little unfair here; Richard Coeur de Lion wasn't a very bright fellow, and the Pope deserves a fairly large share of the blame, as do all the other kings, princes, nobles and rag-tag of Christendom who, in ten-ninety-something, decided to liberate the Holy Land. Except the word they used wasn't "liberate" and freedom wasn't on their agenda.
The Crusades were a long, bloody, and unpardonably evil phase in European history. They were also largely irrelevant, a sideshow: except insofar as they gave rise to two abiding legacies. Firstly, they fatally weakened the Eastern Roman Empire, and contributed directly to the fall of Constantinople. (This had good results as well as ill; the diaspora of classical scholarship to western Europe, for example, contributed directly to the West's recovery from the barbarism of the dark ages.) But secondly, the Crusades left a legacy of hate in the Islamic world. Stripped of the mythology of chivalry, the Crusades were perceived as barbarian armies attacking the heartland of Islamic civilization every generation or so for a period of centuries.
This isn't to say that the forces of Islam were innocent, either: both great religions had, in those days, long-standing traditions of waging evangelically-inspired holy wars on their perceived enemies. Nor were the Crusades the only point of contact; the conquest and re-conquest of Spain supplies ample evidence of this.
The point I'd like to make here is that the Islamic cultures of the middle east have a traditional fear of the western Crusaders that is as deeply rooted as the west's fear of Jihad.

How Lawrence of Arabia screwed up

Let's fast forward to World War One. The weakened Ottoman Empire (Turkey uber alles) made the mistake of allying itself with the Central Powers, Germany, the Hapsburg Empire, Italy. In one of the more spectacular campaigns of a war noted for its bloody stalemate, the British expeditionary forces set the Middle East ablaze and marched from Egypt north through Palestine, all the way to the gates of Damascus in what today is Syria.
In the process of fighting a world war, the British made a number of promises that today we have cause to regret. We'll skip the Balfour Declaration, which gave formal backing for a Jewish homeland in the territories of trans-Jordanian Palestine. What really matters is that the British incited the Arab tribes and nations of the region to rebel against their Ottoman rulers. In the aftermath of the world war, everything went up for grabs. Colonel Lawrence's fanatical Arab allies from the House of Saud were given Arabia to rule; the civilized and enlightened former rulers of Arabia, the Hashemite monarchy, were unceremonially dumped in the fly-blown wastes of Palestine east of the river Jordan. Other rebel groups were shored up in palaces around the middle east; the kingdoms of Egypt, Persia, Lebanon, and Iraq were all established as British imperial puppet states.
(As an aside: we often forget that when, in the 1980's, Saddam Hussein was sending his bombers to drop nerve gas on the marsh Arabs of Iraq, he was merely implementing a policy proposed, as a means of policing that very area, by Winston Churchill in 1919.)
In 1945, after a second world war, Britain was essentially bankrupt. The United States government, as a matter of global policy, leaned on Britain to get rid of the empire; and the British post-war government was in no position to refuse. The empire had, in any case, outlived its usefulness; it was to be replaced by a Commonwealth, which would maintain the general trade structure of the empire (with colonies grateful for their independence sending their raw materials to the motherland, in return for finished goods and engineering products that Britain could sell without competition from other developed nations outside the institution). One corollary of the decolonisation was that Israel, or Palestine, or both, would gain independence. And this had implications outside its borders.
The Israeli War of Independence ran from 1947-48 and was a pivotal moment in the history of the Middle East. To the Arab world it was a rerun of the eleventh century; a Western crusader state had again appeared in their midst, hostile to their traditions and religion, claiming ownership of their holy places. It was an affront to monarchies who had blithely assumed that the new state could be divided up and added to their territories, in the same way that Poland was split between Prussia, Russia and the Hapsburg empire at the close of the eighteenth century. It was an insult to Islam, too, that their holy places would be under the thumb of a foreign invader.
More importantly, the war catalysed the downfall of the puppet monarchies. One after another, the kingdoms of Iraq and Egypt and Lebanon and Syria fell. Only the Hashemite monarchy in Jordan, itself the survivor of seven centuries of court intrigue, survived. Iran embraced a very shaky constitutional monarchy, with a democratically elected government; it was not to last. The US State Department, sensing a weakness in the wall around their communist enemies in Russia, backed a coup in Iran in 1953 that put Reza Pahlavi on the peacock throne as a monarch-turned-dictator.
The dominant revolutionary ideology in the Muslim world in those days was ba'athism, pan-Arab socialism. Ba'athism was modernizing, secularizing, but also centralizing and totalitarian by instinct. It grew in different directions in different countries. In Syria and Egypt it played with socialism; in Iraq it remained weak until an internal coup in the 1970's bought Saddam's faction to power, at which point Iraqi Ba'athism acquired ideological overtones distinctly reminiscent of Hitler's Nazi party, with the concept of the "new Arab man" dropped neatly into place in the position Hitler reserved for his Aryan Germans.
To sum up, we see a distinct political progression: decolonization by the Ottoman empire, recolonization by the British. Puppet monarchies installed. Withdrawal of British support. Arrival of a "crusader state" in the region. Many monarchies fall to the first challenge. Rise of progressive nationalist ideologies, mostly socialist. Rise of US influence in the area, focussed obsessively on shoring up opposition to communism. Wars with Israel, fought over access to water. Western focus shifts towards securing the oil supply. Ba'athism and the rise of fundamentalism.
The Ba'athist movement was screwed before it even got started; socialism was a sure ticket onto the CIA's shit-list, as was any attempt to exert unilateral control over their own oil reserves or strategic assets such as the Suez canal. Israel could be used by the west as a proxy, like a knight on a chess board populated only by pawns, to pin them down.
Arab unification, a cause championed by every Ba'athist movement, foundered on the rocks of every Ba'athist leader's desire to be leader of the entire Arab world. (Forget about Mu'ammar Gadhafi. Gadhafi is the court jester of the Middle East, his ideology a mixture of progressive Islamic mysticism and second-hand anarcho-syndicalism. He's very much a child of the sixties, leader of a nation with a population smaller than Belgium and far less significant were it not for the oil reserves under his territory.)
Of course, some Middle Eastern kingdoms survived. The Gulf emirates, Kuwait and the House of Saud are the main examples; phenomenally rich, so rich that they can buy security no matter what the price. But, surrounded by a sea of poor neighbours, their political aspirations blocked by external forces, their Ba'ath leadership corrupt and totalitarian, they live in fear.
The failure of Ba'athism, the only genuine Arab political ideology, left an ideological vacuum. One-party states are loath to accept rival politics; thus, the only outlet for rage, disaffection, and desire for change lay in the direction of religion. Which leads to a crucial insight: the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and its linkage to resentment against the West is rooted in the moral bankruptcy of political processes in the Middle East.
This bankruptcy is only partially self-inflicted; for example, by overthrowing a democracy in Iran in 1953, the CIA struck a devastating blow against their own long-term interests. But the Ba'ath parties did their best to help prevent any genuinely progressive or democratic movements starting in the Middle East, and the West either stood aside or looked elsewhere because the Ba'ath were, if nothing else, tough on communism.

The mess we're in

This leads us to contemplate our current mess. Over three generations, the West has attempted to manipulate the politics of the Middle East in support of two goals; anti-communism, and cheap oil. The former was accomplished by shoring up repressive regimes that cracked down on communism, unfortunately these same regimes cracked down on democratic institutions, too. The latter was accomplished by using Israel as a catspaw to prevent any regional power from gaining too much control over the oil reserves. Israel cannot survive if the Arab states unite under common leadership; therefore Israel has a vested interest in preventing this situation from arising.
In the midst of the political paralysis of the Ba'ath republics and the post-colonial monarchies, radical Islam offers the natives of the region their only hope for a creed that calls to their interests. It is unfortunately a creed that sees the presence of Israel and the Western machinations as signs that a crusade against Islam is in progress.
That Islam has intermittently functioned as a beacon of enlightenment, and for many centuries was the most progressive and socially liberal religious realm in the world, tends to be forgotten by the West today. So, too, does the emphasis on certain features obscure the fact that progress can take place under Islam.
Iran, twenty years out of the terror of Khomenei's revolution, has acquired democratic institutions far more liberal and enlightened than those of any Ba'ath state; indeed, depending on the outcome of the current constitutional power struggle in Tehran, Iran may become the true birthing ground for democracy in the Islamic world. But right now, most people in the Islamic world feel disempowered and unrepresented, their leaders corrupt tyrants who rule with the gun and the bullwhip at the pleasure of their Western masters. They're poor, for the most part poorer than the poor who live in the collapsed wreckage of the Soviet Union. And this is the perfect situation to breed suicide bombers.

How do you want to live tomorrow?

I have a dream. I want to see a world where the people of the Middle East are not poverty- stricken dwellers in concrete rubble and mud huts. I want to see a world where they have democratically accountable governments, a world where all their children go to school and then to university, where there are two cars in every garage and a chicken in every pot. I want to see a Middle East where angry young adults with a political point to make think in terms of writing to their elected representatives, rather than strapping on bombs and committing suicide because that's the only way to make their voice heard.
People who have freedom and wealth do not make good suicide bombers. Go ask the Japanese about it if you don't believe me and want a first-hand opinion. In fact, let's dwell on Japan. Japan is the perfect model for what I want to see happening to the Middle East. Japan's government was taken over by militaristic fanatics. They started a near-holy war. They got slapped down brutally hard, after they themselves committed appalling atrocities in many other countries.
But today ... Japan isn't perfect, but Japan is rich, comfortable, largely non-militaristic, overwhelmingly embarrassed about the past. Japan is a poster-child for what I'd like the Middle East to become, after the war that now looks to be inevitable. I want to see a world where the people of the Middle East don't see themselves as victims of a savage occupation by forces of a hostile evangelical religion bent on stripping them of their natural resources and keeping them divided.
And most importantly, I want to see a world where we do not lose our most precious liberties in the name of security and vigilance against a threat that should never have been allowed to materialise in the first place. You can be sure of one thing: if the threat of Islamic terrorism isn't defeated, we will lose our liberties in the name of security. I assert that the terrorism emerges from frustration with the total corruption of the political processes of the Middle East. Therefore, to end the threat of terrorism we need to fix the political mess, reconstruct the economies of the countries in the region, and provide the circumstances in which an Islamic equivalent of the west's eighteenth century Enlightenment can flourish. Can we get there from here? I think we can, but I am not confident that our leaders have the will to do so.

An unpalatable prescription

Anyone who thinks that a simple revenge raid will solve anything is so utterly misguided it's almost pointless trying to engage with them. As I've outlined above, the roots of this mess go back too far for any simple nostrum to cure them. Revenge may make people feel better for a few hours ... but in the long years ahead, it will only make the darkness deeper. The myth of the Crusader states must be broken, once and for all; the Islamic world needs convincing proof that the West is not bent on breaking them to baptism by force. As long as even some of them believe that this is a holy war, it will be a holy war.
But at the same time, they need convincing proof that the West is not soft. The West is not going to bend its neck before revolutionary fundamentalist Islam. But, from people who take Islam for granted with the same fervour that Americans take to church, this is going to be a hard-won concession. There's a very fine dividing line between a firm response and brutality, and the West already has the reputation of being a bully in the region. If all that military intervention achieves is to shore up that perception, then that use of force is counter-productive.
Most importantly, and as a first step that we can take right now, we need to understand our own core values and goals, and stop funding organisations and individuals who don't share our goals. Osama bin Laden got his training and much of his money in the 1980's from the CIA. Saddam Hussein bought arms from the West at a discount to prosecute his war with the demon du jour, Khomenei. The Shah, a brutal, blood soaked tyrant, bought F-14's for his air force and Challenger tanks for his army. For how much longer are our institutions, the British Foreign Office, the US State Department, and others, going to dine with these devils?
The events of September 11th are almost inevitably going to lead to a shooting war. It's too late to avoid that, now. But it's time to start thinking right now about what we're going to do after the war is won. After the war ... we need to ensure that the Islamic world is not further disempowered.
Disempowerment works at an individual level; remember, the Islamic world, like the West, consists of hundreds of millions of thinking, feeling, human beings. As in the West, a small but significant minority is inclined to address problems with violence. Unlike the West, the lack of effective political outlets has served to radicalize many who would otherwise be content to deal with democratic institutions. Give them other outlets, effective and accountable political mechanisms, and many of those who currently are driven to violence will find more constructive, peaceful outlets.
But curing disempowerment, and the violence it brings, is only part of the solution. To achieve a real permanent settlement, we must do nothing short of laying the foundations for an historic change in the Islamic world, a change comparable to the Age of Enlightenment that swept the Christian world in the eighteenth century.
The Enlightenment was the pivotal moment in the ascent of the West. It is the philosophical period from which our current cultural values derive; the religious and philosophical foundations of liberty, human rights, the legitimization of democracy, and republicanism, all have their roots in this astonishing and remarkable period.
Before the Enlightenment, the West was dominated by monarchies, deriving their theory of rights from the divine right of kings. There was no other legitimate power source other than the Church; the alternative to tyranny was theocracy.
Since the Enlightenment, life in the West has not been a bed of roses, but there has always been an alternative to tyranny. Christian fundamentalism (or rather, totalitarian fundamentalism) is still a besetting problem, but it is not the only option. If we can create the preconditions for a free, liberal, wealthy, democratic Middle East, and if we can somehow break the cycle of hatred and holy war, we may be able to build an environment in which more enlightened, liberal politics can grow.
If that happens, the risk of a repeat of September 11th happening will be vastly reduced. But if we fail to fix the root causes of the struggle, the inability of the Moslem world to make its voice heard by non-violent means, and the inability of people living in that sphere to engage in what we consider to be normal political discourse, this incident will come back to haunt us. And we stand to lose our own Enlightenment values. Nothing undermines civil liberties as brutally as paranoia; if we fail to treat the root causes of terrorism, we will lose our rights an inch at a time, in the name of collective security.
This shouldn't be seen as a war against terrorism; rather, it's an opportunity to extend to the rest of the world the lessons the West learned in the eighteenth century.