Posted inGlobal Affairs, Opinion

Catching the Boomerang: A Response

On the 4th October, Hayden Barnes, Senior Opinions Editor at The Blue, wrote an article about American foreign policy. Less than a week later, Oliver Buckingham, Columnist at The Blue, wrote a rebuttal to the piece. Here is Barnes’s response.

Illustration by Tilly Binucci.


A note on grammatical convention, to start with: long, delicate words do not denote intelligence as much as they do a long and delicate subject. Besides, tutorial essays are written with as much similarity with student articles as a hippopotamus has with playing golf. 

But that digression, I think, is irrelevant to my point, a fact which I hope most of you will agree with. An orotund style, a favouring of specific words which are appropriate to the point, has no bearing on my argument – an argument, I endeavour to show, which has been largely mischaracterised. I do not intend to speak a lecture, but forgive me for endowing a serious subject with honest, if ‘impenetrable’, severity. 

My rebuttal comes in two major parts: (1) a defence of my opposition to elements of US foreign policy, and (2) a defence of my attempt to explain terrorism. These, you will see, are heavily interlinked.

There are many instances of misrepresentation in Buckingham’s article, however ill-intended, such as the insistence that I interpreted suicide bombing as logical. Not the case, as you may well know. I contextualised the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, a historical process (albeit an alarming one), not the act itself; and the reason for doing so is simple. When I say these things, the historical precedents, the underlying motivations according to terrorism experts, I mean to understand, not to excuse. A lofty goal, of course, but why else would I set pen to paper? 

Furthermore, it was not that I presented any opinion which opposed me as ‘hooey, trash, fraudulent and obfuscatory claptrap’. No: that comment was relegated to a specific position, one which denounced the view that Islam, as a religion, had a general moral deficiency in its teachings. Islam has its teachings at which I raise an eyebrow (I am an atheist, after all), but it is the idea that only Islam has this problem that I take issue with. Christianity, a hallmark of Buckingham’s beloved ‘West’, has its personally repulsive doctrines. Politically active Islamic fundamentalism, my article argued, is not largely a facet of cultural or religious differences between societies. Rather it is an extension of a relationship between societies. 

What relationship was this? Well, as my article cited, Robert Pape argues plainly that suicide bombing is political, not cultural. Buckingham writes, ‘They [the Islamists] loathe our freedom. And our modernity.’ Whose freedom? America’s? The West’s? What freedom did America uphold when it installed Pinochet, or when its Secretary of State had Admiral Guzzetti accelerate human rights violations in Argentina, or when it overthrew the democratically elected Iranian PM Mohammed Mosaddegh in order to bolster the rule of the authoritarian Shah in Iran, paving the way for Khomenei, whom Buckingham rightly cites as a tyrant? 

Another area of misrepresentation now. Buckingham claims that I ‘insist that Islamists are not  “overtly religious”’, where, if he’d look a few words back, he’d see that this is clearly not what I said. I said that the actions Islamists took were not overtly religious in motivation: they were political. And here I am bolstered once again by the expertise of Robert Pape. Sure, the actions were committed by Islamists (the clue is in the name) and therefore were coloured with religious superficialities – ‘Allahu Akbar!’ and such – but that does not betray a motivation. To argue otherwise is to promote a kind of inevitability thesis, as Huntington does, whereby Islam was always going to incite violence without cause because it’s who ‘they’ are. 

And as for the ‘liberated women’ comment, I would recommend that Buckingham reads up on the history and theory of women’s liberation within Islam. Leila Ahmed wrote an outstanding book, Women and Gender in Islam, in which she discusses such controversial topics as the discourse of the veil and the role of women within Islamic society. I’ll quote her, an expert: ‘Islam accords women a status unsurpassed in other cultures and religion, and that unquestionably in its own day it improved the condition of women.’ The oppressive facets of life under the Taliban have secular analogues too: the banning of the veil by the French government, under the pretences of promoting women’s freedom, has been seen by many scholars (see Ahmed, above) as a paternalistic move to ‘Westernise’ Muslim women. In fact, Muslim women, as Azizza al-Hibri contends, are aware of patriarchal systems of control and are capable of confronting them from within their own moral and intellectual framework.

Next, a point on ‘the West’ as a concept. The West is an academic epithet designating not just a geographical but a cultural federation – usually designated as the United States and Europe  –  which is why I treat it with caution. Is South America part of ‘the West’, despite being in the West? No. Is Australia, despite being in the East? Yes. The point I made was that these were not just descriptive categories: these were moral categories. It is my ambition to explain such categorisation and its effects.  

To be clear, as well, I don’t ‘ignore the religious fanaticism of the terrorists’. In fact, I remember writing the very words: ‘I’m not denying the part of radicalism in the 9/11 atrocities.’ Again, I must repeat the motif of this riposte. When I explain, I do not excuse. 

Buckingham wants to talk about jihad, about Islamofascism. The first jihad – note, the first – was started by Brzezinski, national security advisor to President Carter, who confirmed that the US aided Islamico-tribalist uprising. That jihad started on July 3rd, 1979 – six months before the Soviet invasion. So let’s not pretend the US conducted a great war of liberation in 2001. 

And the phrase ‘Islamofascism’? Have some historical literacy! Fascism is a specific ideology, most often invoked in order to crush a threat from the Left. In fact, fascism was accompanied, aided as a matter of fact in its inauguration, by the economic system promoted by Buckingham’s treasured ‘West’: capitalism. Richard Child, the American ambassador to Italy, for God’s sake, was a promoter of fascism!

I truly understand Buckingham’s position, and there are parts of it with which I agree, namely those parts which highlight how collectively traumatic and epoch-making 9/11 actually was.  But Buckingham actually does something in his article more heretical to the US Government than anything I wrote: he agrees with bin Laden. Both agree that anti-American terrorism in the Middle East is a cultural phenomenon inspired by Islamic warmongering tenets. Bin Laden was a ruthless fanatic, an egotistical psychopath who, I presume, genuinely believed the bile he frothed. But the whole project of my article was to poke beneath the surface and ask how the creation of a madman can next be avoided; simply condemning him is not enough, although not condemning him is something worse entirely. 

Actually, the 9/11 terrorist attacks had supporters in large parts of the world and not just in the Islamic parts: the people of Greece, ancestral nation of what Buckingham may call Western civilisation, held that the attacks were actually justified, compared to the condemnation offered by the Lebanese newspaper An-Nahar! Greece’s public opinion on whether the attacks were totally unjustified was even lower than Iran’s (25% as opposed to 51%). So Buckingham’s cultural thesis is misleading at best, as it does not consider a global, holistic angle.

On Afghanistan now. The Taliban regime was, and continues to be, appalling, literally. I never argued otherwise. But simply invoking the terror of the preceding regime does not legitimate the next. That is a fallacy. Ayatollah Khomeini as a participant in misery I never doubted (in fact I affirmed it), but all I said was that America’s intervening measures in the Middle East, specifically Kissinger’s machinations, eventually lead to the creation of the human bomb. And I don’t think it was Western intervention that eventually got rid of Khomeini: he simply died, died biologically. 

I have never denied that living in America would be better than living under the Taliban. I’m not actually sure why Buckingham raises this objection. Of course it would, especially for someone of my ethnicity and gender. The mistake Buckingham makes here is assuming that my aim is to draw a moral equivalence between the US and the Taliban. All I do is elucidate the historical patterns and try to rationalise why we are where we are. Granted, it is difficult to detach oneself from such an emotionally charged discourse in the pursuit of rational interpretation, but I think it’s important to try. 

My whole argument is not moral but historical. And the point still stands. For all the good you, as a global superpower, have done while you were there, if in the second you leave everything collapses, you may not have spent as much time constructing a political infrastructure as you thought. It is childish to arrogate to me the position of moral equivalency. I can support Afghan freedom fighters while condemning the introduction of American bomber jets and drone strikes massacring civilians. Freedom does not entail becoming a United States protectorate, and it’s high time we learn that.  

I don’t want to impart some unfair reading of Buckingham’s article, so I’ll be generous. Astonished by the primitivism of the Taliban forces – the homophobia, the misogyny, the suicide bombings – Buckingham recalls the right to humanitarian intervention. A simple enough argument. Good vs evil, light vs dark. There is, however, a huge problem surrounding this idea: the creation of an ‘us’ vs ‘them’ binary – an awfully reductive notion. 

So then. The right to humanitarian intervention states that one nation can invade another in order to put an end to human rights violations. But who enforces this right? Those with the power to invade; that is, those with military and economic power. Nothing, thereby, is stopping the powerful from invading other countries, under the blanket of ‘achieving stability’, and exploiting them of their natural resources. See US activities in Yugoslavia and Syria, to name a couple. It is also crucial to note that the US has seldom ever been held accountable for its own human rights violations, like the waterboarding of Gaddafi’s opponents.

I do not intend to say that all wars fought by the United States are wrong, and it would be disingenuous to assume so. I support the global coalition against Adolf Hitler in World War Two, for example. But I also question the basis on which humanitarian intervention was made, in this particular circumstance. I hope it isn’t too presumptuous of me to attribute that level of common sense to my readers, but these days who knows? 

When, therefore, Buckingham writes on the fact that my ‘attention is firmly focused on seeking to blame America for the deranged bigotry of genocidal extremists’, that is simply not true. My attention is focused on trying to explain, not excuse, current activities and seek to offer a reason why we are where we are. The point is simple, and vital: condemning one does not exculpate the other. This should be obvious. You don’t have to take sides in every war; that position is simplistic. If Buckingham does not believe me on this, I only ask him one question. Do you oppose the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and therefore side yourself with the Mujahideen? I, for one, oppose both.


Above all else, my point still stands. The binary universalism is ideologically unstable: only reality can remedy. And reality denies the creation of heroes and villains. Yes, Oliver, what the Taliban have done is a disgrace to our species and we should collectively be ashamed of it; but that doesn’t mean that the US is suddenly off the hook. 

I’ll leave you with the words of an academic, an analyst of modern jihadi terrorism, and not some imagined speech I dream Buckingham will someday make: 

To understand America’s new war on terror, we must understand the roles of the United States in nurturing the same Islamic military networks that are now global enemy number one. Political Islam has deep roots … but it also has important, more recent origins that directly implicate U.S. policy.