Monthly Archives: February 2007

With Us or Against Us: The Rhetoric of the War on Terror

After 9/11, there has been a shift in the cultural representations of Muslims towards more direct political themes and the use of terrorist violence. In particular, there has been the emergence of a shared political rhetoric, particularly between Washington and London, that is central to the “war on terror”. Rhetoric, which is part and parcel of political speech-making, is still vulnerable to the ancient criticism of Plato that it is too concerned with the means of persuasion rather than the framing of good argument itself. One species of rhetoric identified by Aristotle, the enthymeme, commonly features an unstated premise, the veracity of which is a probable rather than an established truth. A comparison with actual policy would show that rhetoric can have a contested relationship with reality.

This essay offers an analysis of this rhetoric to see what it seeks to persuade Muslims to do, what its unspoken premises are and which categories it uses to mobilise Muslim sentiment. Five years on after 9/11, and with the descent of Iraq into bloody civil war, it is essential that Muslims develop a critical distance from this rhetoric, not only because it can be internalised and have negative consequences for Muslims and how they evaluate themselves and their faith, but also because the rhetoric does much to justify an aggressive militarism that feeds the very terrorism it purports to be ending.

The Crude Form of the “War on Terror” Rhetoric

There is a crude form of rhetoric in the “war on terror”, which is summarized as “Islam verses the West” or “the clash of civilisations”, which, because it generally serves to antagonise Muslims, is not commonly used. In fact the evidence is that, if used, this terminology is quickly modified or retracted. In its crude form, the “war on terror” rhetoric is explicitly tied to the dictates of nationalism and anti-terrorism. The most famous example is George W. Bush’s assertion that “You are either with us or you are with the terrorists”, of which we find a rare British echo in a comment from Dennis MacShane in 2003, then the British Minister for Europe: “It is time for the elected and community leaders of British Muslims to make a choice: it is the British way – based on political dialogue and non-violent protests – or it is the way of the terrorists, against which the whole democratic world is now uniting.” The reason why this crude form is not normally employed is that it does nothing to mobilise Muslim sentiment in favour of the “war on terror”. Another good example is Bush’s use of the word “crusade” to describe the war on terror a few days after 9/11, which was quickly retracted. It could also be argued that this crude form does not necessarily represent the most prevalent view among American and British political elites either.

The crude form has some historic pedigree. With the fall of the Berlin Wall, a new Muslim enemy comes to be constructed by right-wing academics, policy-makers and politicians associated with the neo-conservative wing of the Republican party. The story is too well-known to be rehashed here at any great length. But, briefly, the two key figures who give the idea proper substance are Bernard Lewis, the British-American Middle East studies specialist, who in a 1990 article introduces the term “the clash of civilisations” which is subsequently popularised by the political scientist Samuel Huntingdon, in which ideological clashes in global politics are replaced by civilisational ones. The chief antagonists for the West are now Islam — with its “bloody borders” — and Confucian China.

It is not Christianity as such that is opposed to Islam, for the “clash of civilisation” argument has its roots in a secularised form of American Protestantism. At the end of the Cold War, conflict would no longer be an ideological clash between communism and liberal capitalist democracy but based on civilisational conflict. It compares an idealised West – based on democracy, human rights, free enterprise and globalisation, with its opposite portrayed as “unsympathetic, adversarial and incapable of betterment”. [1] It is a correction of the post-war modernisation thesis that said that religion would simply fade away. Instead, after the Iranian Revolution of 1979, there was a revision so that religion could still play a part in political conflict, and this was seen in a negative and combative way. These are different civilisations and they are destined to clash on the basis of value-difference. The crude version relies on persistently asking the question: can Islam meet the test of civilisation for although it is a civilisation, it is an inferior one. It allows for purveyors on the “clash” thesis to be blind to the many occasions when they fall short of their own civilisational standards. Muslims are judged by the most extreme adherents of their faith, whereas Christian extremists are exceptional.

Huntingdon’s thesis is largely discredited, and is not taken seriously by many neo-conservatives, including, for example, Daniel Pipes, who criticised it in a recent debate in London with Mayor Ken Livingstone. The Muslim world and Europe have had a deeply enmeshed interaction, which certainly cannot be defined as characterised largely or solely by conflict. Fourteen of today’s 34 European countries were at one time wholly or partly ruled by Muslims for a century or more, and similarly, all Muslim societies except for three have experienced direct European rule in the last 200 years. Yet this deep interaction is written out of European history and self-definition. Instead, it is written only as a relationship of rivalry and conflict, but with no proper assessment of long periods of peaceable co-existence or of profound cultural interchange. In particular, there is the huge legacy of late medieval and philosophical Muslim thought later drawn on by European Jews and Christians to create the modern West. Richard Bulliet has even coined a new term, “Islamo-Christian civilisation”, to denote

a prolonged and faithful intertwining of sibling societies enjoying sovereignty in neighbouring geographical regions and following parallel historical trajectories. Neither the Muslim nor the Christian historical path can be fully understood without relation to the other. [2]

If we take these Muslim and Christian societies to denote one civilisation then conflicts between them take on an internecine character. After periods of conflict, the realisation of a common heritage would make eventual reconciliation easier, and would prevent the conception of conflict as the result of a “clash”. The terrible treatment of Jews in Europe did not prevent, after the Holocaust, the development of an idea of Judeo-Christian civilisation, emphasising what was held in common. There is no reason why commonalities between the Muslim world and the West should not be similarly achieved, despite the current round of conflict.

The Sophisticated Form of the “War on Terror” Rhetoric

The sophisticated form of the “war on terror” rhetoric has defeated many a critic, Muslim or otherwise; many end up inadvertently confirming some of its features. Sayres Rudy provides one of the best current analyss of this form, and his work has heavily informed much of this section. [3]

The sophisticated form argues that while suffering is found everywhere and is constant, only Muslims are highly likely to be involved in terrorism. The reason for this is that there are some aspects of Islam that turn normal grievances into exceptional, anti-human ideologies and actions like suicidal terrorism on the part of a delusional and inexcusable minority of Muslims. This minority is termed “Islamic fascists”. This sophisticated argument is evidence-based, rejects simple racism and crude essentialism, and replaces the crude form of “Islam verses the West” with the more sophisticated form “Islamism verses Americanism”.

In more detail, the argument goes something like this:

(1)Political, economic and cultural grievances are ubiquitous;
(2)Muslims are over-represented among terrorists [although terrorists are not necessarily over-represented among Muslims];
(3)Thus, some Islamic quality uniquely inspires terrorist overreaction to grievances;

1.Islamist terrorists do not share political or economic grievances;
2.Islamist terrorists do share cultural grievances;
3.Thus, Islamist terrorists overreact to cultural grievances.

(4)Islamist terrorists attack the US.

1.America boasts a liberal-democratic-secular culture;
2.Islamists oppose liberal-secular-democratic culture;

(5)Thus Islamist terrorism against the U.S. is an overreaction sparked by a unique Islamic quality to the minority Muslim grievance against America’s cultural valuation of liberal-secular-democratic culture;
(6)Culture valuation and value-conflict are immutable;
(7)Therefore, anti-American Islamist terrorism reflects an immutable conflict of cultural valuations between the U.S. and Islam(ism) [4]

The key concept at play here is “grievance”, usually popularly expressed as “Muslim anger”, which precludes any analysis of the normal causes of political conflict. Economic, political and social causes, or injustices, are reduced to a critique of Islamism, which is comes out of and is reinforced by Islam’s supposed anti-modernism. This is a subset of the general argument that the discontent caused by the disparities produced by globalisation (used interchangeably with modernisation here) creates religious fundamentalism. Thus not only does global modernisation cause local fundamentalism, but local modernisation creates global fundamentalism, and all of a sudden we have a single global fundamentalist movement, otherwise known as al-Qa’ida. But there is no reason to think that the various Islamist movements around the world are in fact “cohesive, connected, or even compatible”. [5]

The normal anti-racist arguments made by critics of the “war on terror” rhetoric — that Islam is complex and diverse, that Muslims should not be denied political agency, and that all cultures, including Islamic ones, are changeable — are accepted by proponents of the sophisticated form of the “war on terror” rhetoric. So not only is anti-essentialism shared by critics and proponents alike, but this argument is politically irrelevant too, for the proponents will say “We are talking about Islamism, not Islam, and a level of internal distinction, political agency and cultural dynamism within Islam is central to our argument”.

In the sophisticated form of the “war on terror” rhetoric, there is a distinction made between “good” and “bad” Muslims [6], a differentiation that is part of a post-colonial project of assimilation, replacing older, colonial discourses of blanket and distancing rejection, to which Huntingdon’s “clash” thesis is nearer in spirit. In other words, the attempt to provide a binary distinction is properly termed “Islamophobia”, and is understood to describe part of a condition internal to the post-colonial state, which has replaced Orientalism, a metaphor of spatial segregation in an earlier age of imperialism. This sort of bifurcation of complicated Muslim individuals into either moderates or extremists appears at present to have little end in sight. The open-endedness of the war on terrorism, with its policing, legal strictures, and military ventures abroad, offers up the prospect of social re-engineering on a grand scale. This sort of binary opposition between the Muslim pacifist and Islamic terrorist predates the “war on terror” and actually emerged over the last quarter century since the Iranian Revolution of 1979, chiefly through the mass media. Edward Said noted in the early 1980s that Islam had become a scapegoat, a catch-all explanation for various disliked social and political ills, even if in the overall schema, the Muslim world’s status as a potential bulwark of anti-communism was still useful back then. [7]

Of course the political goal now is to form a bulwark of moderate Muslims against extremist Muslims: in the sophisticated form of the “war on terror” rhetoric, there is not a clash between civilisations, but within Islamic civilisation, to which others are innocent bystanders and victims, or between the civilised West and moderate Muslims against the barbarian Islamists or bad Muslims. However, it is certainly arguable that even if Islamism is separated from Islam and is set up in opposition to a U.S.-Islam alliance, Islamism is still re-identified with Islam and is still seen as an enemy of the U.S. coming from within the House of Islam. Even if it is seen as the exception to the norm of Islam, violent Islamism is still seen as pervasive within the House of Islam. Islamism, in sophisticated “war on terror” rhetoric, is thus both inside and outside Islam.

To counter this, one needs to take apart — and not confirm — the assumption of a continuum that places all the various currents of Islam on a sliding scale to terrorism and violence, which contends that the causal explanations for why the various trends within Islam act the way that they do are merely reducible to a “grievance theology” alone, i.e., the idea that an increase in the grievance felt pushes all Muslims down that sliding scale towards violence. Of course, the occupation of Iraq has made that argument more difficult to sustain because it could in many ways be characterised as an insurgency with features in common with anti-imperialism anywhere. But the larger point is that this form of the “war on terror” rhetoric seeks to refute the position that the vast majority of Islamist militants or terrorists are fighting military or police repression within the Muslim world with an anti-Islam purpose that is either implicit or explicit.

The distinction made between good and bad Muslims often gets replicated and mapped onto ancient and modern sectarian divisions in the Muslim world. An overarching division, as mentioned, has been “Islamism verses Islam”. But there are other forms too. A strong element since 9/11 has been to exacerbate the differences between Wahhabis (or Salafis) and Sufis. Another is to support establishment ulema against anti-establishment Islamist movements in places like Egypt. The third element, noticeable in the build-up of an anti-Iran rhetoric, has been to pit a Sunni “arc of moderation” against a Shiite “extremist crescent”. None of these add up to a consistent view of the internal debates within Islam, and betray an inherent flexibility suited to changing political purpose, e.g. Wahhabism is decried as part of Bin Laden’s patrimony at one moment, and as a bulwark against Iran and the Shia the next.

These divisions are rhetorically invoked on the grounds that good Muslims are the ones that comply and the bad ones are the ones that don’t. Furthermore, the goodness of a Muslim relates to how closely that Muslim is like “us”. That “us”, as Rudy argues, is an idealised (not an actual) America imagined as always unified, stable, infused with integrity, and contrasted negatively with a disunited, unstable and volatile Islam. It is worth saying more about the “us”. Unlike Europe, which has historically defined itself in many periods against its Muslim neighbour, the United States has represented itself as a form of universalism, as a civilisation that is the right template for everyone. President Bush in a State of the Union address in 2004 reflects this sentiment:

The cause we serve is right, because it is the cause of all mankind. The momentum of freedom in our world is unmistakable – and it is not carried forward by our power alone. We can trust in that greater power who guides the unfolding of the years. And in all that is to come, we can know that his purposes are just and true. [9]

This outlook collapses the future into the present-day, and thus those who resist the aspiration of American hegemony do so because they are anti-Americans and not primarily because they have yet to experience freedom and security. And in their anti-Americanism, they are not true to the real teachings of Islam. So while essentially, Islam and America are not opposed to each other, Islam still produces enemies who oppose America’s universal morality. As American values are always held to be coherent, beneficent, exportable and humane, there is no legitimate resistance to them. [10] This shift, then, to a conflict over values has meant that Washington has twice redubbed the “war on terror”, which at the end of the day refers fundamentally to technique and not motivation or values. In July 2005, it became the “war on extremism” and in the summer of 2006, it was semi-officially renamed “the freedom agenda against Islamic fascism”, although the phrase “war on terror” seems to have stuck in the popular consciousness.

It is worth pointing out, as an aside, that the rhetoric about the exceptionalism of Islamism comes out of the rhetorical justification of American exceptionalism, and a view of its global role in the post-Cold War world. The locus classicus is the National Security Strategy of the United States 2002, which sets out something like a Bush foreign policy doctrine for the world. This extraordinary document, which may easily be accessed online, enunciates a “doctrine of pre-emption” that precludes any predisposition to international diplomacy alongside a commitment to a “millennial military state”, and promises a perpetual global role as the world’s policeman which should remain militarily pre-eminent. It recapitulates the idea of universalism as Americanism, centred around “a post-communist world of evangelical capitalism”, in which America’s economic power is assured through an advantageous penetration of global markets. It operates under the assumption that to oppose America is to oppose “the good”. Of course, such rhetoric is hardly self-sustaining in any self-critical analysis. [11]

The key issue with the good/bad Muslim distinction is that it conflates criminal and moral registers. The consequence of this is that the definition of who is a moderate and who is an extremist becomes ambiguous and unstable. It means that legal definitions of an extremist who takes innocent human life are inevitably mixed up with more general moral judgements made about Muslims, who, while they oppose terrorism, are seen to be illiberal. Thus counter-terrorism arguments get caught up with discussions about national identity and belonging, multiculturalism and integration. Thus the list of extremist attributes grow longer and longer, and therefore more Muslims become labelled as “extremist” in political rhetoric. Muslims who are moral conservatives come under as much scrutiny as those who actually endorse terrorist violence. For instance, the official Conservative Party report that came out in January 2007, “Uniting the Country”, lists several groups who have opposed al-Qa’ida as in fact being an integral part of the “Muslim problem” with regard to national security imperatives. [12] It is unsurprising therefore that as the “box” labelled “extremist” grows ever larger, polling finds that a majority of ordinary Muslims conceive the “war on terror” to be a war against Islam.

As Saba Mahmood comments, the rationale of defining moderates and extremists is not seeking to extirpate religion entirely from public life but to produce the kind of Muslim believer who is “compatible with the rationality and exercise of liberal political rule”. [13] America has undertaken an ambitious plan to reform and reshape Islam not only in the diaspora but in the Muslim world as well, largely under the aegis of programmes like Muslim World Outreach established in 2003 (with an inaugural annual budget of $1.3bn). This outreach finds important allies among Muslim reformers who agree that received authority (taqlid) is overemphasised and that more should be done to create the believer who apprehends religion as a series of personalised symbols that may be interpreted flexibly in consonance with the rationales of liberal secular rule. The relationship between text and context should be set by the individual, and not by scholarly consensus. It is of relatively little moment that these reformers may or may not endorse the anti-imperialist critique of the global Left when there is a far bigger debate about the constitution of religious authority within Islam at stake.

The problem with the good/bad Muslim distinction is that it robs Muslims of the power of self-definition, and it politicises the ordinary process of upholding ethical standards among Muslims. It is no longer a question of whether something is good or bad, but an additional consideration emerges: why and for what purpose is someone condemning or supporting something? It is vital here for Muslims to be alive to this pressure but not, at the same time, to let go of their own moral and legal definition of “moderation” and “extremism” (ghuluw), and to insist on it in the current context. After all, prophetic tradition warns Muslims to “beware of excessiveness in religion” (al-ghuluw fi’l-din). Moderation includes combining the interests of continuity and change, acknowledging both fundamental principles and that which is subject to change in religion, avoiding rigidity and elasticity at the same time, and having a holistic understanding of Islam. Fanaticism (ta`assub) includes bigotry and intolerance of other people who are different, excessiveness and exaggeration in religious observance, sternness of manner and outlook, a lack of patience, harshness towards others and an attitude of suspicion and distrust. [14] A similar sentiment — realising the need to maintain the power of self-definition — ought to inform debate, too, around the formation of religious authority among traditionalists and reformers within the House of Islam. This requires retaining the claims of tradition, reason and consensus in creative balance, even in this overly-politicised context, where intellectual debates retain their autonomy and integrity, and accusations of impolitic motivation should be set aside to this end.

In fairness, it should be added that the rhetorical response to 9/11 is partly due to the deregulation of large-scale capacity for violence and destruction — away from the hands of the nation-state — that the new al-Qa’ida global terror franchise represents. There is still serious puzzlement, and not just manipulative political rhetoric, about where to place the motives of this new terrorism within a traditional framework of nationalist self-determination. In fact, the new terrorism is part of generalised emergence of globalised political protest movements, like the anti-globalisation movement, two decades or so after the emergence of a global neo-liberal economic order. Al-Qa’ida is in many ways unthinkable without globalisation, without the internet. It is not jihad as we know it, but, appropriately, as Slavoj Zizek dubbed it, McJihad. As Bin Laden commented on the 9/11 attacks in one of his videotapes: “Those youths who conducted the operations did not accept any fiqh”. [15] Not only is al-Qa’ida unorthodox, but in many ways it refuses even to react against orthodoxy, and so sets out its own modus operandi. So for the Muslim world, a theological response is probably insufficient.

However, while it might be difficult to set a context for political resolution to this new and endless war on terror, the burden of my criticism is that seeking to leave the mode of war for politics is not even being imagined at present. And this failure of imagination therefore devolves into a generalised anxiety that opposes simultaneous loyalty to the nation and to the ummah (the Muslim supernation), which is a particularly pressing issue for Muslim minorities of the West, whose loyalties, presently, must first be ascertained before they may be trusted. The other feature that this failure of imagination provokes is a fear of unrestrained and apparently motiveless violence that is stripped of historical context and is reduced to ideology, which casts a pall of fanaticism over all Muslims. It is this presumption that prevents a conversation of humankind, a dialogue within and between civilisations, from eclipsing the partisans and the warmongers on all sides.


[1] Richard Bulliet, The Case for Islamo-Christian Civilisation (New York: Columbia University, 2004), 2.
[2] Ibid., 10.
[3] Sayres S. Rudy, “Pros and Cons: Americanism against Islamism in the ‘War on Terror’”, Muslim World, January 2007, 97(1), 33-78.
[4] Ibid., 43, the whole outline of the argument is taken verbatim from Rudy.
[5] Ibid., 42.
[6] Mahmood Mamdani, Good Muslim, Bad Muslim (New York: Pantheon, 2004).
[7] Edward Said, Covering Islam (New York: Vintage, 1997 [1981]).
[8] Rudy, 54.
[9] Cited in Rudy, 54.
[10] Ibid., 55.
[11] Stephen John Hartnett and Laura Ann Stengrim, “War Rhetorics: The National Security Strategy of the United States and President Bush’s Globalization-through-Benevolent-Empire”, The South Atlantic Quarterly, Winter 2006, 105(1), 175-205.
[12] National and International Security Policy Group, “Uniting the Country” [interim report on security issues, chaired by Dame Pauline Neville-Jones], 31 January 2007, available at
[13] Saba Mahmood, “Secularism, Hermeneutics, and Empire: The Politics of Islamic Reformation”, Public Culture, 2006, 18(2), 323-347, quote at 344.
[14] M. Hashim Kamali, “Fanaticism and its Manifestations in Muslim Societies” in Aftab Ahmad Malik (ed.) The Empire and the Crescent: Global Implications for a New American Century (Bristol: Amal Press, 2003), 175-207.
[15] Faisal Devji, Landscapes of the Jihad (London: Hurst, 2005), 13.

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