On the Islamic side, the movement now known as al Qaida is traced to the vision of one scholar, Syed Qutb, whose followers amalgamated his political vision with that of Islamic fundamentalism, and which became the Muslim Brotherhood. For these groups, the main enemy is the global encroachment of decadent western values into the Muslim world, aided and abetted by corrupt governments.
In the US, we had the vision of one scholar Leo Strauss, whose followers formed a secular political movement with global ambitions that allied itself with Christian religious fundamentalists as a means of achieving its political goals, thus bringing to life the neoconservative movement.
This narrative of the parallel lives of two scholars who lived at the same time (Qutb from 1906-1966 and Strauss from 1899-1973) and whose disciples have brought about this major conflict makes for compelling drama, and the documentary was absorbing. But the price it may have paid is that of oversimplification. While the idea of these two opposing strands has a dramatic point-counterpoint appeal, there is some evidence that the clash we are seeing is not simply an ideological one that pits neoconservative purists against Islamic purists.
It is clear that there are more pragmatic reasons that come into play, for example, in the US attack on Iraq, although we are not able to precisely say which, if any, were the dominant reasons. In addition to the neoconservative ideological view advocated by the documentary that it is America’s destiny to bring democracy, by force if necessary, to the other countries of the world starting with Iraq, the following is a list of the many other reasons that have been speculated about: the control of Iraqi oil; the need to establish a strategic and long-term military base in the Middle East since Saudi Arabia was asking the US to leave its soil; Iraq as the first step in a successive series of invasions of other countries such as Iran and Syria so that eventually the US would control the entire region; to act in Israel’s interests and disarm an enemy of Israel; to project US power and show the world that the US had the power to invade any nation it wanted to, thus cowing any other nation’s ambitions to challenge the US in any way; to prevent Saddam Hussein from switching to the euro as a reserve currency for oil purchases, thus threatening US financial markets; an opportunity to test the new generation of weaponry in the US arsenal; to finish what was seen as unfinished business from the first Gulf war in 1991; to avenge the alleged attempt by Iraq on George H. W. Bush’s life; to enable George W. Bush to show his father that he was tougher than he was; because George W. Bush, despite his efforts to avoid actual military service himself, was enamored of the idea of being Commander in Chief and dearly wanted to be a ‘war president.’
The ‘weapons of mass destruction’ rationale is conspicuously missing from the above list. It was, I believe, always a fiction, promulgated as part of the politics of fear but never taken seriously even by those in the administration who advocated it. It is quite amazing that three years after the invasion of Iraq, we still don’t know the precise reasons for that fateful decision.
On the other side, al Qaida also had more practical stated reasons for what it did, that are not limited to a mere distaste for encroaching western decadent values. They were opposed to Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians and America’s complicity and support for those policies, they wanted US bases out of the middle east, they opposed the corrupt governments that were ruling many middle east countries and were being supported militarily and economically by the US, and they deplored the cruelty of US-led UN sanctions against Iraq. In other words, they were more opposed to what the US does than for what it is. It may also be that al Qaida is not quite as weak as the documentary portrays them to be.
But despite these shortcomings, the basic message of the documentary rings true: the threat to the US from terrorism has been vastly and deliberately overstated and is being used to ram through policies that would otherwise be rejected. As the documentary says:
“In an age when all the grand ideas have lost credibility, fear of a phantom enemy is all the politicians have left to maintain their power.”
A Guardian article titled The making of the terror myth says:
Adam Roberts, professor of international relations at Oxford, says that governments often believe struggles with terrorists “to be of absolute cosmic significance”, and that therefore “anything goes” when it comes to winning. The historian Linda Colley adds: “States and their rulers expect to monopolise violence, and that is why they react so virulently to terrorism.”
Whatever the causes for inflating the threat of terror, it is clear that we are the losers when we live in fear, and we need to counteract it. The BBC documentary is well worth watching for the way that it connects many different pieces of knowledge into a coherent story, told in an entertaining way.
POST SCRIPT: CSA: Confederate States of America
I recently heard about the above film, which is a fake documentary (along the lines of the classic This is Spinal Tap). This one seems like an alternate reality version of Ken Burns’ PBS series The Civil War. The website for the film describes what we can expect:
CSA: THE CONFEDERATE STATES OF AMERICA, through the eyes of a faux documentary, takes a look at an America where the South won the Civil War. Supposedly produced by a British broadcasting company, the feature film is presented as a production being shown, controversially, for the first time on television in the States.
Beginning with the British and French forces joining the battle with the Confederacy, thus assuring the defeat of the North at Gettysburg and ensuing battles, the South takes the battle northward and form one country out of the two. Lincoln attempts escape to Canada but is captured in blackface. This moment is captured in the clip of a silent film that might have been.
Through the use of other fabricated movie segments, old government information films, television commercials, newsbreaks, along with actual stock footage from our own history, a provocative and humorous story is told of a country, which, in many ways, frighteningly follows a parallel with our own.