Illustration by Oliver Buckingham

On Monday, The Oxford Blue published a piece by Hayden Barnes, one of its senior opinion editors. Reflecting on US foreign Policy, Barnes argues that violent Islamic fundamentalism is ‘a product and not the cause of aggressive US foreign policy’ (his italics). He believes that America provoked the carnage which hurled itself against New York two decades ago. Further, he contends that the Western response to terrorism has been to colonise and oppress. He is wrong. 

Despite his sombre subject, Barnes’ tone is remarkably self-regarding. He employs ‘I’, ‘me’ and the regal ‘one’ a total of 17 times. His prose is scattered with pompous flourishes:

‘I write today…’, ‘Mistake me not…’, ‘What I write…’, ‘Well, then, you may say…’, ‘I mustn’t lose focus here…’, ‘Mind you…’, ‘I can already see…’, ‘ladies and gentleman…’, ‘who do we find?’, ‘Ah yes…’

He believes that long, unusual words denote intelligence, and long sentences even more so (his preferred length seems to be about three lines). So spare a thought for his tutors. 

Prose style is important because it reveals how a writer regards their audience. Is he grateful to them for clicking on his article? Will he seek to reward their curiosity with persuasive, erudite clarity? Or will he simply lecture them, with boorish, impenetrable language? 

This rebuttal is much longer than his piece. So I hope – cherished reader – that your patience isn’t tested. Verbal economy was abandoned for one simple reason: there was a great deal of folly to refute. Nonetheless, I am grateful to Barnes for providing an opportunity to demonstrate why the views he holds are so misguided. 

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Barnes does not believe that the West possesses any moral high ground in its war against Islamist extremism. Consequently, his words reek of moral equivalence. He argues that the clash of democracy and theocratic tyranny is illusory. He maintains that terrorism is the natural by-product of ‘imperialistic, expansionistic, neo-colonial’ American behaviour. This ‘militarised chauvinism’, is itself motivated by ‘assorted commercial interests’. Therefore, suicide mass murder is an act which can be ‘contextualised’, even interpreted as logical.

Through every word, Barnes is supremely confident. In fact, he says that those who disagree with him are peddling ‘nonsense, hooey, trash, fraudulent and obfuscatory claptrap’. This is foolish of him. It reinforces my suspicion that he has not bothered to read any of the opinions which contradict his own.

Barnes’ central point is that American foreign policy created Islamist terrorism. He characterises 9/11 as ‘the ghosts of conquests past’ visiting the US. Which conquests is he referring to? The liberation of Western Europe and the defeat of imperial Japan? The defence of South Korea? The containment of Vietnamese communism? The maintenance of peace in Lebanon? The liberation of Kuwait? The halting of an anti-Muslim genocide in the former Yugoslavia?

The US did not start any of those wars. In every case, it defended itself when attacked, came to the aid of allies, or acted to protect life and international law. Hardly ‘chauvinistic’. Where in this record of intervention is the provocation which led Al Qaeda to slaughter thousands of people in Manhattan and D.C.? Barnes is right to point out that US support for the Afghan Mujahideen in their war against the Soviet Union helped to strengthen the Taliban. But it does not follow that Americans are responsible for the Taliban and Al Qaeda declaring war against them. That was the decision of the terrorists. Ignoring this absolves them of their responsibility.

In fact, absolving those who kill in the name of religion is what Barnes does best. His article includes a bizarre 244 word section in which he manages to simultaneously paint the Assad dynasty as victims, and claim that America is responsible for the invention of suicide bombing (instead of, say, the suicide bombers!). 

But let’s imagine – just for a moment – that America had committed some act which constituted a provocation, a catalyst for terrorism. Barnes must then explain why Islamist violence has not been limited to the United States:

Madrid (11.03.04: 193 dead),

London (07.07.05, 52 dead),

Paris (07.01.15: 12 dead, and 13.11.15: 130 dead),

Brussels (22.03.16: 32 dead),

Nice (14.07.16: 86 dead),

Berlin (19.12.16: 12 dead),

Manchester (22.05.17: 22 dead),

and Reading (20.06.20: 3 dead).

If it is America’s behaviour which angers the terrorists, why have they attacked these cities?

The reality is that the animosity of Islamists is not fuelled by foreign policy at all. They don’t really care about where US troops are deployed. Their hatred is much more primal than that.

They loathe our freedom. And our modernity. They are disgusted by our sexual revolution and our liberated women. They are outraged by our right to freedom of expression. They are appalled by our ethnic and religious diversity. They consider democratic government to be blasphemy.

In fact, The West (a phrase, unlike Barnes, that I am happy to use without scare quotes) – did provoke the terrorists. Not with our militaries, but with our way of life. This is how they can justify the murder of civilians. To them, we are not innocents. We are infidels.

The ideology which teaches Islamists to view non-believers in these visceral terms is rightly called Islamofascism – a word which deftly splices theocracy with tyranny. But Barnes dismisses Islamofascism as an invention of neocons, ‘designed to exculpate what some call ‘the West’’. Astonishingly, he insists that Islamists are not ‘overtly religious’.

Well, cockpit audio recordings tell us that the 9/11 hijackers chanted ‘Allahu Akbar’ (God is the Greatest) in the moments before they committed mass murder. Men like bin Laden and al-Baghdadi (Islamic State) constantly justified violence with their faith. Having renamed the country the ‘Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan’ the Taliban are setting about reshaping it in their fundamentalist image. That means no beard shaving and no music, no secondary school education for women, and stoning for adultery and homosexuality. 

To ignore the religious fanaticism of the terrorists is to fundamentally misunderstand their motives.  

Barnes’ attempt to ‘contextualise’ Islamist violence is futile because he must assume there is a political logic to terrorist behaviour. There isn’t. The mind of the Islamist defies reason. 

9/11 was remarkable in the history of terrorism not only for its scale and ingenuity, but because those who planned it did not seek to advance a specific political agenda. In sharp contrast to the tactics of groups like the Irish Republican Army, Basque Separatists and The Red Army Faction, Al Qaeda did not claim responsibility for over a year.

But 14 months after 9/11, bin Laden’s ‘Letter to America’ did emerge. In it, the Al Qaeda leader confesses, but not before opening his statement with a Quranic extract:

“Permission to fight (against disbelievers) is given to those (believers) who are fought against, because they have been wronged and surely, Allah is Able to give them (believers) victory [22:39]” (bin Laden’s parentheses)

Bin Laden did not require any context to justify 9/11. The Twin Towers were the financial hub of the American infidel. To him, that was ample reason for destroying them.

The same pattern has played out in the aftermath of each of the attacks listed above. Whenever responsibility is claimed, there is never an agenda; only a message of fear and an incitement to further violence. We must stop making Barnes’ mistake of viewing these atrocities as political acts. They are screams of medieval, religious hatred. Without reason, without logic, and motivated by disgust at how we live our lives.

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Barnes’ first mistake was to claim that religious extremism can be traced to American provocation.  His second was to characterise the American (and coalition) response to terrorism as an exercise in ‘expansionist’ colonisation:

‘I side with the dispossessed, the dislocated, the exiled, the colonised, the unjustly invaded.’

Is he serious? Is he insinuating (for he doesn’t have the courage to just come out with it), that it is the United States who has been responsible for the majority of the human suffering in the Middle East? And not Saddam Hussein, the Ayatollah Khomeini, Bashar al-Assad, the Islamic State, and the Taliban?

If that’s the case, then he has ignored his own advice about understanding ‘context’. If he is sincere about acquainting himself with the appalling horrors of Baathist and Taliban rule, then he could do worse than read The Republic of Fear by Kanan Makiya, and Taliban by Ahmad Rashid.

The US invasion of Afghanistan in November 2001, and the overthrow of the Taliban regime, allowed almost two million Afghan refugees to return home. It radically reduced the number of people ‘exiled’ by the Taliban. Over the course of the intervention, Afghan primary school enrolment increased from less than one million to 9.2 million. Women were free to work and attend university. The liberation of Iraq and Afghanistan allowed meaningful elections to take place in both countries. This empowered ordinary citizens, it didn’t ‘dispossess’ them. Are these the acts of a colonising power?

From 2014 to this year’s disgraceful withdrawal, the coalition’s role had been to support the Afghans in their fight for a country free from brutal theocracy. It was not to govern or dictate, but to aid a germinal democracy in its battle for survival. The Taliban were always intent on establishing a caliphate, and bending a population of 40 million to their perverted will. Surely that makes them colonists?

It is worth remembering that the primary vector of violence during the Afghan War was not American on Taliban, or American on Afghan, but Taliban on Afghan. Barnes even quotes the casualty totals which prove this. More than 66,000 Afghan security personnel were killed fighting the Taliban. That’s more than Taliban and US-Coalition fatalities combined (incidentally, this is further evidence that Islamists do not have any specific animus against America. They will happily slaughter anyone who denies their fundamentalist interpretation of Islam, including their countrymen). 

I think it’s unlikely that so many Afghans would have made the ultimate sacrifice in the war if they didn’t believe in defending their homeland from theocracy. Yet Barnes dares to suggest that they did not die for Afghanistan, but for an American imperial project. That’s quite a slur. Does Barnes think that an Afghan army soldier – able to wave his daughters to school each morning – was fighting for his children’s future, or for Bush, Obama, Trump and Biden?

In his quest to prove some moral equivalence between the US and the terrorists, Barnes raises clear-cut examples of American wrongdoing, like the Abu Ghraib prison. No one would deny the excruciating nature of the abuse to which Iraqi detainees were subjected by their US guards. It is a bloody stain which should never leave the conscience of the US military.

What Barnes ignores is that the perpetrators of the abuses at Abu Ghraib were court martialed. The most serious offenders went to jail for years. The US military received the condemnation of an American people rightly repulsed by the conduct of its army.

What punishment, what condemnation, awaits the Taliban commanders who planned and executed the murder of 80 schoolgirls in May of this year? It was a double suicide attack which targeted a school popular with the Hazara minority, an ethnicity the Taliban have long sought to exterminate.

Do you think the men who did this feel any remorse? Of course not. To them, the Hazara are infidels. How about the members of Islamic State-Khorasan Province, who killed 170 Afghan civilians, alongside 13 US service personnel, in their attack on Kabul Airport in August? Do they wonder if 170 civilian deaths was too many? I doubt it.

Barnes claims to care about ‘the sacrifice of the innocent’, but spends so few words condemning the people who have made the murder of innocents their modus operandi. A concrete moral distinction can be drawn between the people whose misdeeds bring recrimination, punishment and soul-searching, and those who have no upper limit on their evil.

He claims that this binary – between a moralistic West and murderous Islamists – simply doesn’t exist:

‘The world just doesn’t court that kind of binarism.’

Most of the time that view is accurate. The world is a very complicated place. But sometimes the foe is so extreme that the tired clichés of good vs. evil come to life.

Hayden, imagine a society in which you could listen to no music, and watch no films. Where your female peers and relatives could not go to secondary school, could not work, and – on pain of beating – could not leave the house without shrouding their entire body. Where all your gay and ethnic minority friends are hung and stoned by the government. 

Hayden, if you took your critique of the US government, and shouted it from the top step of the Lincoln memorial, nothing would be done to you. But since the Taliban takeover, if I took this article, and read it from the market square in Kabul, I would be dead within the hour.

The binary does exist. The West’s conception of morality: of religious pluralism, freedom of expression and tolerance is superior to its totalitarian Islamist counterpart. 

There is an important discussion to be had over the efficacy of long-term intervention (my own view is that small scale deployments can be successful in holding back Islamist insurgents). But Barnes hardly raises that debate.  

His attention is firmly focused on seeking to blame America for the deranged bigotry of genocidal extremists. Remarkably, this is not his most nauseating sentiment. That foul prize can be awarded to his belief that 457 British men and women gave their lives so that Afghanistan could be added to the ‘American Empire’. Those soldiers died in the defence of civilians. Most of them died fighting men who are currently grinding the dreams of those same civilians into dust. Still, Barnes has chosen to cast the British and Americans as the oppressors.

As I wrote this piece, Amnesty International released convincing evidence showing that the Taliban have continued their ethnic pogrom by executing 13 unarmed Hazara, including children. On Friday, the BBC covered a suicide attack on a Mosque in northern Kunduz province of Afghanistan. The bomber killed at least 50 worshippers in the name of the Islamic State. 

The bloodshed goes on after the coalition’s departure. The US and its allies were not the cause of the violence. Now, thanks to Biden’s betrayal of the Afghans, the country is controlled by Islamists. And the killing will continue, because killing is what Islamists do. 

Malala Yousafzai, an alumnus of my college, Lady Margaret Hall, was shot in the head by the same organisation which now controls Afghanistan. By way of explanation for the attempted assasination, the Taliban released a statement. They said that because she had sought an education, she was ‘a symbol of the infidels and obscenity’. Obscenity

These people are evil. It is not ‘chauvinistic’ to bring about their destruction. It is not ‘neo-colonial’ to protect defenceless civilians from their rule. 

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Working out how to finish this article was difficult. But then I wondered what a speech written by Hayden Barnes for a European leader in the aftermath of a terror attack would look like. Imagine this is being given by Theresa May, or François Hollande, in the aftermath of the massacres in Manchester or Paris: 

“Let me address our assailants. While we mourn the terrible loss of innocent life, we understand the context of your anger. We appreciate that you have legitimate grounds for grievance, and in response to this event, we wish to deepen the roots of empathy between you and ourselves. To this end, I am pleased to announce that my government is withdrawing its military from operations in the Middle East. We hope this will serve as a basis for dialogue. 

We must not be so arrogant to assume our morals are superior to your own. Your culture is different, therefore, so are your values. And you have forced us to recognise that our foreign policy goals are not so different from yours. Ultimately, we do also seek to oppress. We are in no position to deny you the right to subjugate your neighbour. Obviously, we wish violence had not been necessary to learn this, but it has been a valuable lesson nonetheless.”

If that sounds OK to you, then ignore everything I’ve said.

Oliver Buckingham

Oliver Buckingham is a writer for The Blue, and has his own blog at https://whirlwindofscrappaper.com/. He is a History and Politics student at Lady Margaret Hall, and writes about politics, foreign affairs...