The West’s Moral Panic Behind The Threat Of
By Scott Burchill
June 24, 2015 "Information
Clearing House" - "The
contrive moral panics to
consolidate domestic political support. An alleged “existential”
foreign threat is particularly useful. It encourages the population
to rally behind the leader, accept restrictions on their civil
liberties and support higher levels of funding for the military and
The veracity of the
threat is almost irrelevant. What matters is that the public buys
Overblown, American political scientist
John Mueller exposed how politicians and the terrorism industry
grossly exaggerated the threat of terrorism after 9/11.
Australia’s reaction to revelations that its
citizens were fighting for Islamic State (IS) in Syria and Iraq
follows precisely the same pattern of intellectual and state
fear-mongering. It’s almost a perfect case study of a contemporary
After an unprovoked intercession in a vicious
sectarian conflict in Mesopotamia, former army chief turned academic
said Australia was in for a “long war” against “political Islam”
that would last for “100 years”. He worried that the public was
ill-prepared to pay the necessary price in “blood and treasure”. It
would be a fight requiring pre-emptive and reactive action, both on
home soil and foreign lands.
Not to be outdone in hyperbole, Attorney-General
declared IS to be an “existential threat to us”. Prime Minister
said the dangers were “unprecedented”. Foreign Minister Julie
claimed these particular Islamists were:
… the most significant threat to the global
rules-based order to emerge in the past 70 years – and included
in my considerations is the rise of communism and the Cold War.
This was an
extraordinary suggestion. But Bishop’s speech was apparently
insufficient to mobilise public fear about the scale of the threat
the nation suddenly faced. It wasn’t long before she invoked the
spectre of IS terrorists with weapons of mass destruction –
chemical weapons and
dirty uranium bombs – again, as in 2003, without producing any
evidence for such claims.
Omitted too from Bishop’s account were the
contributions of Saudi, Kuwaiti and Qatari elites to their Sunni
co-religionists, presumably because they are now posing as the
West’s allies in this latest Babylonian struggle. Turkey’s
porous border, across which oil, arms and militants freely flow
into IS-held territory, also fails to gain a mention.
Instead, it is the democratic uprisings in North
Africa and the Persian Gulf in 2010 and 2011 that produced fertile
conditions for IS’s rise. According to Bishop:
The Arab Spring for all its potential as an
example of grass roots democracy movements rising up against
authoritarian regimes, in fact left behind chaos and instability
– creating a breeding ground for terrorist cells. One of the
most brutal was al-Qaeda in Iraq under the ruthless leadership
of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who was among the first to use
beheadings as a tool of terror.
Bishop did not explain the mystery of who
al-Zarqawi was actually fighting in Iraq, presumably because the
illegal invasion and occupation by Western military forces remains
taboo. It cannot be easy delivering a major speech on the war
against IS without mentioning
what was happening in the country between 2003 and 2011. Or how
so many former members of Saddam Hussein’s army ended up fighting
However dubious her historical narrative, Bishop’s
invocation of the Arab Spring is nevertheless a perspicacious lens
through which to examine the relationship between the West and
radical Islam. It reveals a very different history to the one framed
by official orthodoxy. It tells us a good deal more about the main
currents of contemporary US foreign policy than the moral panic that
The Arab Spring, Islamists and the West
In the Arab Spring’s immediate aftermath,
conservatives and statists expressed concern about the Islamist
Muslim Brotherhood’s rise in post-Mubarak Egypt – as if the 1979
Iranian revolution was about to be reprised. To their great relief,
the military coup and counter-revolution led by General
Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, strongly
backed by the US, soon restored the previous status quo.
Orthodox narratives in the West argued that the
“war on terror” was another chapter in the US’s long-standing
opposition to Islamic fundamentalism. Although the US always
encourages the spread of democracy, regrettably it must sometimes
support dictatorships in the Middle East because they maintain
regional stability, support the West’s counter-terrorism strategy,
and the alternatives – Islamists such as those in Iran, southern
Lebanon and Gaza – are always much worse for Western interests.
According to this counter-terrorism message, the
rapid overthrow of democracy in Egypt and the restoration of
military rule was necessary to thwart and reverse the rise of
Islamists to power in the most significant state within the Arab
world. Unsurprisingly, the West’s most recent
intervention in Iraq’s sectarian conflict is also presented as a
continuation of this struggle against religious extremists and
If governments are to maintain public support for
their military ventures, war narratives must be kept simple and
consistent. The underlying message since 2001 must not change: the
West is always the innocent victim of terrorism, never its
Two questions arise from the response of leading
Western states to the Arab Spring in North Africa and the Middle
East. The answers tell a very different story about the West’s
attitude to Islamic fundamentalism since the 1950s.
What precisely was being “stabilised” in countries
such as Egypt? If nothing else, the Arab Spring demonstrated not
only the limitations of realist theory with its uncritical faith in
power and stability, but also the morality of supporting dictators
who repress and impoverish their populations.
Naïvely, the West thought that deals struck with
corrupt and brutal local elites, who ignored the legitimate
aspirations of their peoples, would hold indefinitely. Despite
billions spent on intelligence gathering and military bribes, the
stunning events that broke out across the region in 2010, and
intensified the following year, took them completely by surprise.
Significantly, none of the rebellions against
pro-Western tyrants were inspired by the West. They were fiercely
opposed by the US and the government of what professes to be the
only democracy in the Middle East – Israel. These were endogenous
The US’s remaining regional clients, in Bahrain,
Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, watched these developments in horror. They
soon realised that when domestic pressure for reform becomes
politically organised, the US will abandon them to an ominous and
uncertain fate. Unsurprisingly, they responded with a mixture of
bribery and repression, without any meaningful expressions of
concern from their Western backers.
Why must Arabs vote only for political groups that
are acceptable to the West? Engendering a panic by portraying the
Muslim Brotherhood as yet another bogeyman for the West reeked of
neo-colonialism – a never-ending attempt to shape the political
destiny of others. For conservatives it’s a difficult habit to
As in the case of Gaza when
Hamas was elected to power in 2006, it appears that democracy in
North Africa, the Persian Gulf and the Levant is only a good thing
if the right people come to power.
Those Egyptians in Tahrir Square who risked their
lives for a democratic future in 2011 will not quickly forget that,
in the critical hours of their struggle, the US maintained its
support for Mubarak until popular protests rendered that policy
untenable. This follows a pattern established with Marcos, Suharto,
Chun, Duvalier and other former clients of the US.
Egyptians understood that the US, despite its
lofty rhetoric, was more interested in Egypt’s peace treaty with
Israel and keeping the Suez Canal open than it was in supporting a
In this particular case, the US’s posture
completed a full circle. From dogged support for the Mubarak
dictatorship to sudden champion of the democratic tide, it soon
returned to its traditional stance – backing military rule and the
reversal of democratic gains painfully, if only temporarily, won by
the Egyptian people. There is no better illustration of the US’s
flexible attitude to democracy than its policy towards Egypt between
2011 and 2013.
US maintained its support for Hosni Mubarak in Egypt until popular
protests rendered that policy untenable.
The US and Islamists
A third question is more important to answer if we
are to fully explain the West’s policy response to these events, and
those that preceded them. Is the anti-fundamentalist narrative,
which the US consistently espouses as the foundation of its approach
to the Muslim world, grounded in historical truth? Has it always had
a problem with Islamists?
Since the 1950s, the US has paved the way for the
rise of Islamic fundamentalism by using its most extreme reactionary
elements to attack secular nationalism across the Muslim world, from
Egypt to Afghanistan. This is not because it prefers political
theocrats, but because it dislikes independent, nationalist
governments even more.
So, why do outsiders – those in the West –
consistently pave the way for Islamic extremists?
Islamic fundamentalists represent the greatest
danger to those modernising secular governments in the Islamic world
that want to pursue an independent course of economic development.
The US has rarely hesitated
to back militants with money and arms, regardless of local
popular opinion or the
extreme positions of the recipients of US arms and money.
Using the “Saudi model” to counter nationalism,
communism and various secular left-
wing and progressive currents in the region, the US’s policies
frequently led to Islamic fundamentalists prospering as the most
powerful and well-organised political movements left in each
Given the mutually beneficial oil deals struck
between the Saudis and the West, religious zealots were not thought
to pose an obvious threat to Western interests. They often appeared
to be amenable to co-optation.
Here are just eight examples where US opposition
to secular nationalism and support for militant Islamists has been
opposition to President Gamal Abdel-Nasser in
Egypt in the 1950s;
overthrow of Prime Minister Mohammed
Mossadegh in Iran in 1953;
opposition to Prime Minister Abdul-Karim
Qassem in Iraq in 1963;
support for General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq in
Pakistan through the 1980s;
overthrow of President Saddam Hussein in Iraq
overthrow of General Muammar Gaddafi in Libya
in 2011; and
attempts to overthrow President Bashar
al-Assad in Syria since 2011.
In almost every country where the US now claims to
confront radical anti-Western Islamists, it either supported groups
just like them to overthrow secular nationalists or inadvertently
cleared the way for their rise by undermining or overthrowing
secular governments. Riding the Islamist horse may have seemed the
best way to prosecute the Cold War in the Middle East and Central
Asia. But to suggest the implications of this strategy were not
fully thought through fails to capture the scale of the catastrophes
that have ensued.
As many analysts have noted, the
rise of IS, and its predecessor organisation al-Qaeda in Iraq,
was a direct result of the US’s
destruction of Iraq’s sectarian balance and secular government
after the invasion in 2003, consolidated by the subsequent
occupation of the country.
Although Western leaders keen to escalate in Iraq
again would prefer the connection and history was forgotten, there
is no escaping that the US, UK, Australia and others played midwife
at IS’s birth and a range of other militant groups now traumatising
Iraq and Syria. They do it again and again, most recently
in Libya – which was supposed to be a showcase of humanitarian
Given the US’s long-standing political and
financial support for fundamentalists across the Muslim world, how
seriously should we take its post-9/11 confrontation with radical
Islam? Its complex relationship with the extreme Islamists running
Saudi Arabia is a good starting point for analysis. However, that
bilateral relationship cannot explain a pattern of behaviour that
extends across the Arab world, Persia, Central Asia and the
One explanation for these events argues that the
US has been the victim of
“blowback”: the unintended consequences of earlier policies, a
CIA thesis popularised by the late Chalmers Johnson. Between 1950
and 1990, anti-Communism trumped all other considerations, so the
consequences of supporting religious zealots was not understood
until it was too late. The US is guilty of naïveté and short-term
thinking, of having to make a number of invidious choices, but
This argument, shared by many realists who
emphasise power and stability above all other considerations, almost
forms a consensus on the left. But it is ultimately unconvincing –
it fails to account for the underlying motivation behind US foreign
policy over the last six decades.
This blowback argument absolves and conceals the
US’s responsibility for Islamic fundamentalism’s rise. It allows the
US to present itself as a victim – of its own best intentions – but
a victim nonetheless.
In truth, the US knew exactly what the Wahhabis,
Muslim Brotherhood, Mujahideen and Taliban were like, and the
consequences of supporting them. It didn’t care or, more likely, it
didn’t mind. They were an effective antidote to the appeal of
secular nationalists and communists, so they were used.
The US also likes that Islamists tend to be state
capitalists, opposing – in principle – class-based politics. Islam
is a pro-capitalist religion and the perfect foil to secular
The US’s real enemy since the 1950s has been
called “radical”, or more accurately, independent nationalism –
especially economic nationalism. Mostly, this was secular (see
Nasser in Egypt), though in the case of Iran after 1979 (for
example), it was religious. This is the most important and
consistent current running through US foreign policy since the end
of the second world war.
The same approach fashioned US policy towards
communists in Vietnam, the Allende regime in Chile, Castro in Cuba,
the Sandinistas in Nicaragua and Saddam in Iraq – among others.
Friends and enemies of the US during the Cold War were
not determined by the strategic threat they posed (which, with
the exception of the USSR, was mostly negligible), but by the extent
to which they
complemented the US’s global economic needs, including trade and
resource access, opportunities for foreign investment and the
capacity to repatriate profits.
States that exhibited nationalist priorities and
refused to play by the US’s rules, such as those in the Soviet bloc,
were a danger to the health of the US economy and therefore
considered enemies. They posed a threat to an open world economy
and, just as importantly, represented an example of an alternative
model of economic development which was antithetical to the US’s.
Inevitably, they became victims of the US’s promiscuous
Once China opened itself up to capitalist
enterprise in the 1980s it was removed from the enemies list despite
remaining politically communist. The same happened to Vietnam after
businessmen from Europe arrived. Presumably the same will now be
true for Cuba.
rise of IS was a direct result of the West’s destruction of Iraq’s
sectarian balance. EPA
To complement and control
The crucial factor in explaining Western policy
towards the Arab and Muslim worlds, therefore, is not whether
nationalism in these countries was secular or religious, but that it
was independent. The propaganda cover – “communism”, “democracy” or
“terrorism” – simply reflected the most utilitarian discourse of the
day. Whichever approach lent itself most effectively to domestic
opinion management would be used, though fear has been a consistent
The US is not primarily concerned about ideologies
or religious convictions per se. Fundamentally, it is concerned
about control and disobedience. Independence amongst the vassals has
always been its biggest worry.
A similar fear has shaped Israel’s
policy towards the Palestinians and the region. When the most
important nationalist force in the Palestinian territories was the
secular Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), Israel supported
Hamas as a countervailing political movement. Israel was not
concerned by Hamas’ Islamist ideology.
When Hamas emerged as a significant political
in Gaza, Israel reverted to backing the more pliable and
compromised PLO. Again, the discourse of “terrorism” and “Islamic
fundamentalism” – whether it is directed at Hamas, Iran or Hezbollah
– is little more than a pretext to sell policies which derive from
other concerns. What counts is who can and cannot be
The US is currently backing the world’s most
extreme Islamist state, Saudi Arabia, and its equally undemocratic
Gulf allies, in a vicious war against Houthis in Yemen. Predictably
this is another civilian catastrophe, though undoubtedly a blessing
for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which is based there.
In what some consider a proxy struggle between
Saudi Arabia and Iran, the US is unconcerned by Saudi sponsorship of
Sunni militancy. That was the case previously, whether the money was
spent in Pakistan, Afghanistan or Iraq. State terrorism, whether it
is delivered by US-made drones targeted by the CIA or US-supplied
fighter bombers flown by Saudi pilots, is one and the same crime.
This particular approach to global politics has
always extended well beyond the Middle East. Hypocrisy and double
standards tend to prevail everywhere.
Turkey is allowed to invade and illegally
occupy northern Cyprus since 1974 without sanctions imposed by
the West. It remains an important member of NATO and a close partner
of the US in its wars against Iraq. Outside of Greece and the Greek
Cypriot community, its invasion and occupation is largely forgotten
and rarely raised.
Similarly, Israel is only able to illegally
colonise the West Bank and Golan Heights, and blockade Gaza, with
the US’s explicit political and financial support. The US is so
deeply implicated in Palestine’s misery that it is more accurate to
refer to the joint Israel-US occupation of the territories.
However, when Russia invaded and
annexed Crimea with a much more
compelling strategic rationale than Turkey could muster with
Cyprus, it was immediately subject to harsh economic sanctions and
other penalties. Putin is
demonised for his irredentism and said to be set on a
course for war with the West. There is little, if any, mention
of NATO’s eastward expansion or the economic lure being set for
Ukraine by the European Union.
The lesson is clear. Play by the rules and, like
Turkey and Israel, you will be allowed to maintain your illegal
occupation of other peoples’ land. But you defy the West at your
peril. It is always about obedience.
Israel is only able to illegally colonise the West Bank and blockade
Gaza with the US’s explicit political and financial support. EPA/Mohamed
Among the media commentary ascribing contemporary
terrorism to some deformation of Islam by an extremist minority, the
most important question is assiduously ignored: what responsibility
does the Western world bear for creating the conditions that have
resulted in the recent attacks in Ottawa, Sydney and Paris?
After all, we are responsible for the predictable
consequences of our actions, a responsibility that extends to the
policy choices of our governments to the extent that we live in an
accountable democratic state. We are
not responsible for the actions of others over whom we have
limited – if any – influence.
For our political leaders the answer to this
question is easy: none.
Echoing John Howard after the 9/11 attacks, when
Abbott announced last September that Australia was committing
military forces against IS in Iraq, he claimed:
… these terrorists and would-be terrorists are
not targeting us for what we have done or for what we might do,
they are targeting us for who we are, they are targeting us for
our freedom, our tolerance, for our compassion, for our decency.
Abbott’s rationale repeats the presupposition at
the basis of Western approaches: we are always the
innocent victims of terrorism, never its perpetrator. We have
nothing to explain, change, or apologise for.
This view, popularised by leaders after 9/11 and
almost every subsequent terrorist attack, is not shared by those in
Western governments charged with examining this very issue.
In 2004, Donald Rumsfeld directed the Defence
Science Board Task Force to review the impact of the Bush
Administration’s policies, specifically the effects that its wars in
Afghanistan and Iraq were having on terrorism and the radicalisation
of Muslims. The
report’s conclusions were damning. The “underlying sources of
threats to America’s national security” were “negative attitudes”
towards the US in the Muslim world and “the conditions that create
These conditions included “American direct
intervention in the Muslim world” through its “one-sided support in
favour of Israel”, support for tyrannies in Egypt and Saudi Arabia
and, primarily, “the American occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan”.
These occupations were seen to:
… be motivated by ulterior motives, and
deliberately controlled in order to best serve American national
interests at the expense of truly Muslim self-determination.
Strikingly, the Department of Defence report came
to precisely the opposite conclusion from Howard, Abbott and before
them George W. Bush, specifically that:
Muslims do not ‘hate our freedom’, but rather,
they hate our policies.
Six years later, a similar view was expressed at
inquiry into the Iraq war held in the UK. When Baroness
Manningham-Buller, Director-General of the Security Service (MI5)
from 2002 to 2007, was asked how significant the Iraq war was in
radicalising British Muslims, she replied that in her view it was
Our involvement in Iraq radicalised, for want
of a better word, a whole generation of young people … who saw
our involvement in Iraq, on top of our involvement in
Afghanistan, as being an attack on Islam.
… saw the West’s activities in Afghanistan and
Iraq as threatening their fellow religionists and the Muslim
world [which in turn] increased the threat [to British
By positioning ourselves on a moral summit from
which we can look down upon those who do not reach our giddy
standards, a sense of superiority may help focus our attention on
confronting violent fanatics and other miscreants. However, as the
evidence from our defence and security establishment notes, just
Western state terrorism remains a non-subject at home, that does
these actions go unnoticed abroad.
While responsibility for acts of politically
motivated violence rest squarely with those who commit them, it
takes a wilfully ignorant and dangerously naïve view of global
politics to believe that Islamists have no grievances worthy of
This does not mean that we can easily put an end
to anti-Western terrorism. That is far too ambitious given the
revolt against the West dates from the period of European
colonialism. Nor does it mean that the West is always to blame for
each and every act of violence.
However, our crimes and the grievances they
produce should be addressed to undermine the appeal that violent
jihad holds for young, alienated Muslim men across the world. We may
not be able to dissuade the deeply indoctrinated, but we would be
foolish not to target the undecided who might be swayed either way.
Simultaneously, we can restore some of our own
moral and political credibility, which has been severely tarnished
in recent years.
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