Ulysses or the Titanic? Optimism and pessimism in contemporary culture



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The West and terrorPaper given at the 4th Giornate Internazionali del Pensiero Filosofico, on "Ulysses or the Titanic? Optimism and pessimism in contemporary culture"

9 ottobre 2004Palermo, 9 ottobre 2004

My purpose in this paper is not to argue that a war is currently being waged between Islamic groups and the West, which no-one can possibly doubt any longer, but the apparently more modest, but clearly more difficult aim of trying to find out why this war cannot even be mentioned in the West, particularly in Europe. There is something paradoxical about this. If we are convinced that there is a war, it has to be discussed. And if we are convinced that there is no war, we still have to discuss it, if for no other reason than to refute the contrary view. In either case, I feel that the only thing that we should not do is evade the issue. Yet this is precisely what we are doing.

I will proceed as follows. Firstly, I shall talk about the given fact: the war. I shall then recall two typical reactions to this fact - America's and Europe's - and try to get at the underlying reasons for them. Lastly, I will say something about Europe, and the responsibilities that fall to us.

1. Jihad

Islamic terrorism was brought to the notice of world public opinion on 11 September 2001, above all. But it existed before that, and it continued afterwards. Before the there had been the World Trade Centre in 1993, the USS Cole, the American embassies in Dar es Salaam and Nairobi. And afterwards there was Bali, Casablanca, Riyadh, Jakarta, Ankara, Beslan, Pakistan and, above all, Madrid. There have been more than 10 years of terrorism, with an unknown number of massacres and deaths. Ten years of jihad, of holy war, and we have to understand the reasons for it, its targets, and the instruments it is using.

The reasons for this holy war have been explained many times in the course of the past few years, by the terrorists - as we call them - or combatants and martyrs, as they call themselves. They are a mixture of philosophical, religious and political ideas, all based on a sense of frustration felt by the Muslim populations who see the West as degenerate and morally corrupt, a desire for redemption, a return to the Caliphate, and a global view of Islam. In this regard, in a message attributed to Bin Laden and broadcast by Al Jazeera on 4 January 2004 we find the following: "Many of us understand Islam to mean performing some acts of worship, such as prayer and fasting. Despite the great importance of these rituals, the religion of Islam encompasses all the affairs of life, including religious and worldly affairs, such as economic, military and political affairs, as well as the scales by which we weigh the actions of men - rulers, ulema and others - and how to deal with the ruler in line with the rules set by God for him and which the ruler should not violate."

We know that the jihad's targets are America, Israel, the whole of the West, and the moderate Arab and Muslim countries.

In the "World Islamic Front Statement on Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders" of 23 February 1998, the United States is accused of "occupying the lands of Islam in the holiest of places, the Arabian Peninsula, plundering its riches, dictating to its rulers, humiliating its people, terrorising its neighbours, and turning its bases in the Peninsula into a spearhead through which to fight the neighbouring Muslim peoples."

Israel is accused of occupying Jerusalem, and oppressing and murdering the Palestinians:
"If the Americans' aims behind these wars are religious and economic, the aim is also to serve the Jews' petty state and divert attention from its occupation of Jerusalem and murder of Muslims there."

The Muslim countries, particularly the Gulf states, are accused of betrayal. The message broadcast by Al Jazeera, mentioned earlier, states:


"It has become clear that the rulers are not qualified to apply the religion and defend the Muslims... Anyone who examines the policy of those rulers will easily see that they follow their whims and desires and their personal interests and crusader loyalties. Therefore, the flaw does not involve a secondary issue, such as personal corruption that is confined to the palace of the ruler. The flaw is in the very approach. This happened when a malicious belief and destructive principle spread in most walks of life, to the effect that absolute supremacy and obedience were due to the ruler and not to the religion of God."

A document illustrating the Al Qaeda strategy that was published after the Madrid massacre of 11 March 2004, on the subject of the whole West, reads:


"Today, Al Qaeda, by whatever local name it is known, has destroyed the Westerners' sense of security, brought up as they are by their media to believe that the danger of terrorism is now reduced to the minimum, and has shown through the events in Madrid that it is able to strike them using asymmetrical techniques and weapons that the West does not possess... a reversal of the world's equilibria had been predicted. The whole world system created by the West with the Treaty of Westphalia will be reversed, to leave room for the New World Order, headed by a Grand Islamic State. The clash will be extremely harsh, and we have predicted all the phases... it will take years, decades; the American empire will be wiped out and the whole structure of Europe will be fragmented. The Europeans will take note of the need to make peace with the Muslim world. But the subjection of the Romans is not one of our priorities for the moment. It will take a few centuries."

Lastly, the instruments used. An Al Qaeda training manual found in London in 1993 says that: "The confrontation that we are calling for with the apostate regimes does not know Socratic debates, Platonic ideals, nor Aristotelian diplomacy. But it knows the dialogue of bullets, the ideals of assassination, bombing, and destruction, and the diplomacy of the cannon and machine-gun."

It continues:
"Islamic governments have never and will never be established through peaceful solutions and cooperative councils. They are established as they always have been, by pen and gun, by word and bullet, by tongue and teeth." Ten years, then, of holy war, theories, proclamations, attacks and massacres, to harm the West, Israel, the Arab states, before the eyes of the world. This is what they want, say, and do. They want the holy war, they preach the holy war, and they wage the holy war. But what about us? What do we want, what are we saying, and what are we doing?

2. Mars

How is the Western world reacting to these declarations and acts of war?

The most apt and accurate snapshot of the present-day situation has been given by the American scholar, Robert Kagan, who has written:


"When it comes to setting national priorities, determining threats, defining challenges, and fashioning and implementing foreign and defence policies, the United States and Europe have parted ways." In other words, the West is divided. Or, in Kagan's words again, "on major strategic and international questions today, Americans are from Mars and Europeans are from Venus."

I feel that there can be no doubt whatsoever that this is the case, even though as Kagan himself recognises, all generalisations are fraught and liable to break down at the first counter-example and if they are taken on board too hastily. For Venus, two of the counter-examples we have seen recently have been the war in Kosovo, when Europe, with America and without the authorisation of the United Nations, did not think twice about shelling Milosevic's Serbia, and the war in Afghanistan when Europe, with America and this time with the authorisation of the United Nations, bombed the Taliban regime. It is more likely that the distinction between Venus and Mars is a difference not of quality but of degree, with a more prudent and reluctant Venus, who is by no means averse to using force, and the more hasty Mars with a stronger inclination to resort more frequently to the use of force.

It is perhaps more likely that the distinction is one of principle, with Venus using force when she believes it to be the right thing to two, or as the last resort, while Mars uses it when it is in his interests, without paying too much attention to the values justifying it. And it is perhaps even more likely that the distinction between Venus and Mars is an ad hoc one, in the technical sense of being built up around one single example, namely, the intervention in Iraq, which, unlike the others, has actually split America and Europe.

Whatever the status and value of Kagan's theory, it is nevertheless a fact that on the question of Iraq and Islamic terrorism, the West is divided. But even here we naturally have to be careful about generalising, because neither America nor Europe are political monoliths. But the split is beyond dispute. Why is this?

Usually the reasoning used by America-Mars has been identified with the Bush Administration, its failure to play heed to multilateralism, its lack of appreciation of the United Nations, its desire for revenge after 11th September, and its arrogance and ignorance of the subtleties of international relations. Clearly, this explanation over-reflects the domestic political polemics in all the European countries which are divided between the "pacifists" and the "interventionists", the former supporting the American Democrats and the latter the Republicans. Yet one only has to reflect on the reply that the Democratic candidate, John Kerry, gave in the first debate with President Bush to disprove that assessment. For Kerry not only said that "The president always has the right and always has had the right for preemptive strike," adding, "that was a great doctrine throughout the cold war. And it was one of the things we argued about with respect to arms control."

The explanation must therefore be sought elsewhere. And I believe that it can be found in that form of Wilsonism that has been the bedrock underpinning the whole of American policy for decades.

As we all know, the Democratic President, Woodrow Wilson, set out three main ideas at the Paris Peace Conference in 1918 - political freedom, economic freedom and security - which, if achieved, were supposed to keep at bay the risk of any more world wars. This typically idealistic and liberal set of ideas was based upon an underlying, universalistic and anti-relativistic philosophy of original and inviolable human rights which remain unchanged whatever the tradition, culture and religion.

According to this philosophy, all peoples, all individuals, and in all ages and circumstances, have the same expectations and demand the same rights which, after the Second World War, and therefore after the failure of Wilson's ideas, were to be once again claimed and finally enshrined in the United Nations Charter signed at San Francisco.

I would now like to quote from the document entitled The National Security Strategy issued by the US administration on 17 September 2002, the one which is well known for setting out the preemptive war thesis, in which the first part has the following to say: "People everywhere want to be able to speak freely; choose who will govern them; worship as they please; educate their children - male and female; own property; and enjoy the benefits of their labor. These values of freedom are right and true for every person, in every society - and the duty of protecting these values against their enemies is the common calling of freedom-loving people across the globe and across the ages."

Note the expressions used by President Bush: every person, every society, across the globe, and across the ages. These are universalistic expressions, and there is nothing relative about them. Everyone, always, everywhere, have the same rights. When these are recognised and respected, people live in peace. Otherwise war ensues. To avoid wars, when the need arises, prevention is needed, even by making a preemptive strike. This is the Bush doctrine and it is also the "great doctrine" of which Kerry speaks. It is the Wilsonian doctrine. Even though no one seems to know it or wishes to admit it, now that poor Kant has been elevated to the status of a pacifist hero, it is also the Kantian doctrine of "perpetual peace", preemptive war included.

There are, naturally, differences. When Wilson preached Wilsonism, behind him he had a war which the world never wanted to see happen again, and before him lay a future of peace. When Bush (or Kerry) preaches Wilsonism he has behind him a massacre carried out on American soil, and before him a holy war that has been declared on America. This is why we can say that Wilson's is idealistic Wilsonism, while Bush's is realistic Wilsonism. Wilson's is pacifist Wilsonism, while Bush's is interventionist Wilsonism. Or as far as the use of force is concerned, Wilson's is reactive Wilsonism, and Bush's is preemptive Wilsonism. Of course one might debate whether Bush has used Wilsonism in the right way, at the right times, and under the right circumstances. One may also argue about its application. But one cannot cast doubt on the principle. It is always Wilsonism. The same idea of values and inalienable rights, the same idea of fundamental principles, the same universalism, the same anti-relativism, the same moral and religious basis, and the same conception of America's mission.

3. Venus

This, in my opinion, explains America-Mars. But how can we explain Europe-Venus?

It can be explained by a different philosophy, the relativistic philosophy that Europe, far more than America where it has nevertheless also penetrated, has endorsed and is disseminating today. This philosophy is applied indifferently to civilisations, cultures and traditions. According to this philosophy, civilisations, cultures and traditions are equivalent in status, and are not subject to hierarchical principles, cannot be ranked, and do not have a common yardstick by which to all can be evaluated. And this is because there are no such things as universal values or principles applicable to every civilisation.

The consequences of this philosophy are consistent with its approach. And in terms of international relations, there are at least three such consequences.

Firstly, the opposition to, or self-imposed restriction on, "exporting" our principles, values and institutions outside our own home. This is not only a matter of objecting to the form in which they are exported, the action per se is rejected even if it these values were to be exported in the most peaceful manner, such as through the religious channel of dialogue and mission, or the cultural channel of assimilation and integration, or the economic channel of trade and the advancement of prosperity. Exporting democracy is seen as an act of imperialism at all events, an attack on the holistic self-sufficiency and sacred character of other traditions, an act of arrogance that must be stopped. The West has nothing to teach anyone, and claiming a universal value for Europe's achievements is a form of hubris. Samuel Huntington, an author who has been more criticised and ostracised than he has been read, and if he were read would become a hero of the relativists, has written this: "Western belief in the universality of Western culture suffers three problems: it is false; it is immoral; and it is dangerous". Just that: believing that all men without distinction have inalienable rights, and that freedom, democracy, tolerance, mutual respect, equality before the law, fair punishment, education, health, the family, and so on as we can find them listed in the articles of our Constitutions or Bills of Rights, are a good for all, is false, it is immoral to say so, and it is dangerous to act on such ideas.

Secondly, the prohibition on the use of force. If cultures all have the same rights and the same self-justification, and if each one contains the criterion for its own value, then a dogmatic, totalitarian, inward-looking, intolerant and violent culture like Islam as interpreted by the jihadists cannot be challenged, there can be no defence against it. You can only hope and pray. And perhaps not even pray, because your prayer is only valid within your own culture, in your own four walls, exactly as the relativist theologians preached at one time. And so if there is a war of terrorism, we should not respond with a war against terrorism. The very term "war", and above all the concept of war, must be outlawed from the politically correct vocabulary of the West. And does not our Constitution say that "Italy rejects war, etc"? It does says so indeed; but naturally it meant something else at the time. For the people who wrote it in postwar Italy, that important sentence meant the rejection of all wars of aggression or wars to perform summary justice or wars of invasion, or unilateral intervention in international disputes; but for those who read it in the age of pacifism, it means the rejection of force, tout court. At the cost of yielding, of withdrawing, of appealing to the goodwill of those who hold you hostage and slit your throat, of living under blackmail and putting up with threats.

Thirdly, a sense of guilt. While it is consoling for each culture, relativism is strangely self-afflicting, particularly in our own culture. Western man is an eauton timoroumenos. The chain that leads him to beat his breast is long but inexorable. If the jihad exists, there must be a reason for it. And if there is a reason for it, there is an imbalance. And if there is an imbalance, someone must have brought it about deliberately. And if anyone has done it deliberately, that someone must be the West, with its nationalism, imperialism, colonialism, economic occupation, cultural penetration and religious preaching.

And ultimately, if the West is responsible for the jihad then it deserves the jihad. Against the West there is always a "but" which blocks it. Do some Islamic groups resort to terror? That is bad, says Noam Chomsky, but people forget that America is "a leading terrorist State". Do the Palestinians use children as suicide bombers? Dreadful, comments José Saramago, "but Israel still has a lot to learn if it is not capable of understanding the reasons that can make human beings to turn themselves into a bomb". And so on, in relation to every serious problem afflicting the world today.

4. Europe

Relativism clashes with thought. But ultimately politics has to act. We have to establish where, and how.

Ten years of terrorism, an enormous number of attacks and deaths and a insecure future ahead have not been enough for the West, which is still split in its analysis of it, on the ways and means of dealing with it, on the war in Iraq, and the postwar period. And all this is taking place at a time when terrorism is getting stronger, expanding, and using every means available, like taking hostages and barbarously beheading them, anything to weaken the West and defeat the State of Israel, in order to sweep away any Western contamination in the Middle East, and is threatening the Islamic world, following a script which should be absolutely clear to us by now, sadly, but which we take lightly at our risk and peril.

It is true, as the US Congress 7/11 Commission recalled, that there has been a general delay in understanding the extent of the threat of Islamic terrorism. But the US has made efforts to counter it since 1998, while Europe has showed less capability for analysing it, and consequently greater reluctance to deal with it decisively. Not even the 200 deaths in Madrid have affected Europe's determination to go on as if nothing had happened, or changed its dogged intention to unload the whole burden of tackling terrorism onto the United States, often combined with the accusation that it is responsible for this scourge.

What more should Europe be doing? Three things, in my opinion.

First and foremost, realise what is at stake in Iraq. For the terrorists, Iraq is the holy war front. For us in the West, it is the frontier of resistance to the holy war. If we lose in Iraq it will mean we shall be abandoning the country to fundamentalism, handing its people over to a theocratic dictatorship, destabilising a whole strategic area, and aggravating rather than resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In short, it would be a bitter and tragic defeat for us and for the Arab world itself.

Secondly, in compliance with United Nations Resolution 1546, which it advocated and adopted, Europe should convene an ad hoc European Council or take a united stand at an ad hoc International Conference, and there it should make the decision to go united to Iraq, to rebuild it, provide assistance, and ensure its transition to freedom. Thirdly, Europe should quash its resurgent nationalisms, and the pathetic fanciful hegemonic ideas that some countries harbour, its historic caveats, its suspicions about American designs on the Middle East, and cooperate actively in initiatives to encourage the reforms taking place in the Arab Middle East Arab. In order to attract new recruits, terrorism depends on social degradation. Cooperation with the Arab and Muslim states, which like us are exposed to the threat of destabilisation, is therefore essential.



Will old Europe know where its duty lies, and will it have the will to do its duty? There can be no doubt that Europe knows what its duty is, it remains to be seen if it is willing to fulfil it. But if this is not the case, we can be sure that the European Constitutional Treaty to be signed in Rome in a few days' time will not only be complicated, but also ineffective, however grand the signing ceremony may be, and however resounding the speeches and impressive the celebrations. Recently, at the elections, Europe went out in search of its citizens, and failed to find them. If, with regard to fundamental issues of defence and security, where the citizens are seeking out Europe, Europe continues to be absent, the destiny of the Union will be bleak, and ours uncertain.


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