A Symbol of No Hope

Taking a pessimistic look at the thinking behind both Al Qaeda and the hopes of liberal democracy…

I don’t know for sure why the Americans invaded Iraq – maybe George W. Bush means what he says, maybe he doesn’t – but I think this is why ‘messianic’ Tony Blair supported him:

“Now, this is an historic struggle, and we’re at a very, very crucial moment… And you just imagine an Iraq, stable and prosperous and democratic, and think of the signal that would send out. Think of the instant rebuttal of all that poisonous propaganda about America, about it all being an attack on Muslims or it being part of a war on civilization — Iraq, run by the Iraqis, the wealth of that country owned by the Iraqis, and a symbol of hope and democracy in the Middle East.”

So said Blair on 16 April in the Rose Garden at the White House (full text). Each day since, the news from Iraq has gotten substantially worse. I suppose now is the time that the anti-war movement can say, “I told you so” to those who supported the war in Iraq. But the latter cannot be characterized simply as demented Fundamentalist gun-collectors, either. Many ordinary, informed, intelligent people supported this war. I was on the fence for a long time. By the time the war started in 2003 I concluded that I was against it. I thought (correctly) war in Iraq would strengthen Al Qaeda. But, at the back of my mind, I thought that it was a good thing for the brutal regime of Saddam Hussein to end. He may have had nothing to do with Al Qaeda, but had certainly supported international terrorism over the years, assassinating both Iraqi opposition and moderate Palestinians (source), and giving safe haven to the rogue terrorist leader Abu Nidal (until he was assassinated in Baghdad in August 2002). Saddam modelled himself after mass-murder luminary Joseph Stalin, and even secretly visited his birthplace in the 1970s (source). He and his sons took a cruel pleasure in ruling – and crushing – the people of Iraq. So I understood why people would be convinced by Blair’s preaching about bringing democracy to Iraq.

However, I see now that there was something irrational about this way of thinking. I supported the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001, because I thought there was no way after the events of September the 11th 2001 that Al Qaeda should be allowed continue to train openly, and I knew from the massacre of thousands of Hazaras in Mazir-i-Sharif in August 1998 that the Taliban had seriously genocidal tendencies. Yet after the invasion, and the deposing of the Taliban, what has happened? Afghanistan is back in the hands of the warlords and the opium trade is booming. Where’s the democracy? I should have known that the failure to bring democracy to Afghanistan did not bode well for the Iraqi project. What is irrational is that supporters of these ventures truly believe that if democracy and peace don’t come immediately to Afghanistan and Iraq, they will come eventually, and to the whole world in centuries to come. World history is viewed as an inevitable progression from backwardness to liberal democracy. And this is a “crucial moment”.

This irrational belief is exposed very clearly in John Gray’s Al Qaeda and What It Means to Be Modern, published by Faber and Faber in 2003, in which the philosopher makes two salient, very important points.

1. There is nothing more incorrect than the notion that Al Qaeda are somehow backward, an organization belonging to the Dark Ages. Al Qaeda are thoroughly modern and could only be a product of our times. They represent a new global conflict, which “arises from the interaction of new technologies with age-old religious and ethnic divisions” (p.92). September 11th was “not ordinary terrorism” – Al Qaeda have “demonstrated that unconventional warfare had escalated to a global level” (p81). Furthermore, these radical terrorists’ thinking is quite new to Islam. It originates with the writer Sayyid Qutb (executed in Egypt in 1966), who “borrowed many of his ideas from Western sources” – his “ideas about revolutionary struggle were of recent European vintage” (p.24). His lineage can be traced to nineteenth century European anarchism, the philosophy of violent destruction invented by Mikhail Bakunin and depicted in Joseph Conrad’s 1907 novel The Secret Agent as using methods of deliberate “madness”.

2. The dominant myth in the Western world today is that our liberal values will spread through the globe as knowledge, technology, and economic prosperity spread. But knowledge and technology are entirely neutral. No matter how they advance, they will be, and always have been, used to serve age-old human purposes, both good and bad. Ethics and politics do not advance in step. This Western myth, even at its most atheistic, originates with the Christian concept of world salvation. The Enlightenment merely secularized Western thought, it did not change its structure. The myth involves a belief in the brotherhood of mankind, and the possibility of salvation for everyone. It is a belief in the existence of “humanity” rather than “humans”. This myth survives despite having been the driving force behind historical acts of mass murder. What we have not learned is that Nazism and Communism emerged from exactly the same intellectual source as modern liberal humanism. Hitler and Lenin tried to kill their way to a “perfect society”, a paradise on Earth. Instead of the Christian salvation of souls for the Heavenly afterlife, these were attempts to create conceptions of Heaven here on Earth, secular versions of the medieval millenarian cults depicted in Norman Cohn’s The Pursuit of the Millennium. While Christianity acknowledges that human beings are flawed creatures whose endeavours can never achieve perfection, Nazism and Communism did not, and were disasters on the grandest scale the world had ever seen. Liberal humanism is not necessarily different. Although Blair himself is a Christian, he and his supporters come from a European secular humanist tradition, and his “mission” to bring democracy to Iraq is surely another futile campaign to bring salvation to mankind through violence. “The flaw in the modern myth is that it tethers us to a hope of unity, when we should be learning to live with conflict,” says Gray (p103).

You can read more of what John Gray has to say about the war here.

When the first photos from Abu Ghraib prison (here and here) were released, the sense of moral purpose voiced by the likes of Blair was unravelling. Then the video of the murder of the screaming Nick Berg by an Al Qaeda-linked group was released. I watched this and I hope it is the last ‘snuff movie’ I ever see (I wish for the days when such things were myths and hoaxes). It is an example of how Al Qaeda supporters are now entrenched in Iraq, which they never were before the war. I trawled through some conservative websites, and noted comments such as, “It’s nearly impossible to give a damn about the nude pyramid and the guy on the leash when you’ve seen a man scream until the exact moment his head is removed from his body” (full text). I can understand that point of view. But more recently released Abu Ghraib prison photographs (May 19th) can only invite a less comfortable reaction. An apparently attractive woman – a female American soldier, Sabrina Harmon – smiles at the camera, holding her thumb aloft. She leans over the mutilated corpse of an Iraqi, Manadel al-Jamadi. Then comes the news that Iraqi Professor Mohammed Munim al-Izmerly died in custody of “brainstem compression” i.e. he died from a blow to the head. It is obvious that those who came to free Iraq are now murdering its civilians. And smiling about it. They may have been fighting monsters – like Saddam Hussein and Nick Berg’s killers – but they have become monsters themselves. “He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster. And if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you” (Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil). This is the reason that democracy and liberal values cannot be spread by war. The means totally obliterate the ends.

Afterthought: While I might seem to be joining in with the critics of secular humanism here, I support goals of the Enlightenment such as democracy, freedom of speech, separation of church and state, freedom from religious persecution, etc. I just don’t agree that these values can be spread by war.

Barry Kavanagh writes fiction, and has made music, formerly with Dacianos.

Contact him here.


  1. Before there can be democracy there are several conditions that must be met. We in the west, seem to forget that democracy and liberalization were born out of tremendous violence and misery.
    Somehow western democratic nations have forgotten the bloody revolutions that eventually brought democracy. Leaders in the west somehow think democracy can be ‘exported’ as easily as pepsi or coca-cola.
    This memory lapse by western leaders is the main reason missions in Afghanistan and Iraq fail to bring about democracy. Every nation that is today democratic, took decades to actually become democratic, and we think Iraq will be democratic in 2 years?

  2. Despite what Bush may say about bringing democracy to Iraq, we have to first realize the main motivators behind they why.. I don’t think many people actually believe it was WMDs or even to end a cruel regime. Greed led us into Iraq ans now we are up to our necks in “Holy Shite” The US economy was/is in a slump (it can be debated daily which way it’s heading) and war can make a slumping economy boom. Bush wanted to look good – he has a re-election to win. But I think the main reason has got to be contol of Iraq’s oil. The US House and Senate have blocked Bush’s efforts to drill in the forests of Alaska time and again – so hey! Let’s invade an oil producing country (and oh yeah – we feel bad for the people there too) Bush is a Texas oil man at heart…. and so are his very wealthy friends.

  3. Many people supported these wars not because of oil gains but because they thought they could improve the world. In addition to the aims of the US administration, it is worth also examining the thinking of the European coalition partners and the ordinary people who supported the invasion.

  4. You cannot herd a pack of housecats into an orderly assemblage and you cannot unite the
    many different tribes in Iraq with Abrams tanks. The United States “effort” in Iraq is insane.
    “First we will shock and awe them, Then we will
    win their hearts and minds.”

  5. all good points to be sure.. but must we use the term “american regime”. I mean really…

  6. I think that the real problem is that certain people in positions of national power in the western community, without a great deal of basic life experience, seriously see themselves as Captain Kirk, landing on alien planets, destorying the supercomputer that has brainwashed the population, and standing upon a plastic rock to tell the staggering, awakened masses that “everything you believe in is WRONG!”. It’s the romantic horseshit concept of the mighty armies of democracy that dates back to the Enlightenment.
    I marched against the war, for the basic reason that I didn’t trust the American and British armies not to fuck things up, but noticed the complete lack of an alternative solution among the protestors. Stop the war and… what? Leave Saddam there (no effect)? More sanctions (no effect)? Bumb him off with some poisoned umbrella tip (instant civil war)? The protest’s message was mostly just ‘American is bad, Blair is stupid (I’m clever coz I know that)’. Not that I could come up with an alternative either.
    Certainly the war fallout has buggered up any chance of peace in the Middle East for the near future, but what else could have been done?
    William Burroughs said that today’s democratic leaders would be “rulers by accident; inept, frightened pilots of a machine they cannot understand”. I guess we, the voters and protestors, aren’t much better.

  7. on ‘american regime’
    Umm…it’s a common enough term in the mainstream media in Britain and Ireland! Seems rather apt to me! What do you suggest instead?

  8. Hey Thanks, Blather! I wasn’t getting very far with the consumer complaint I lodged against Merriam Webster, which assured me that ‘regime’ was defined as a: mode of rule or management b: a form of government c: a government in power d: a period of rule.
    Now, granted the word is French in origin, always a warning sign in these here parts, but Our President uses it a lot and he pretty much sticks to words of which he knows the meaning, and if it’s good enough for George, then, by God and Daniel Webster, it’s good enough for this American patriot.
    Speaking of dictionaries, here’s a link to one of the great ones:

  9. Perhaps my sentence was ambiguous; I meant the type of violent revolutionary anarchism invented by Bakunin, not that that type is particularly obscure. I suggest you read up on Bakunin, Kropotkin, Malatesta, the anarchist bombings in France in 1893, etc.

  10. Read up on Bakunin, Kropotkin an Malatesta? How about reading them? For that matter I have both read about them and read their works, Bakunin never bombed anyone, Kropotkin was a Russian prince who chose a life of obscure poverty rejecting any title or state gift on moral grounds, very nearly a secular saint himself, and Malatesta was simply a writer who lived much of his life in exile from Italy because of state repression. To quote one of his last entries in his journal,
    “He who throws a bomb and kills a pedestrian, declares that as a victim of society he has rebelled against society. But could not the poor victim object: ‘Am I society?”
    These men were not violent, though some of them believed that revolution in classic form was necessary to achieve freedom, however so did the founders of the USA. Read what these men wrote of and what they believed worth fighting for, before you blamed the ill-conceived tactics of a few anarchists on them.

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