No more 'war on terror'?

By Michael Marten
18 Apr 2007

The UK Secretary of State for Development, Hilary Benn, is urging world leaders to stop using the phrase ‘war on terror’. It gives, Benn says, strength to terrorists by making them feel part of something bigger, and distracts from the real battle that should be fought – ‘a battle of values and ideas’.

Rejecting the idea of a ‘war on terror’ is something that many religious and secular leaders around the world have been arguing for ever since President George W. Bush unleashed the term on the world in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington. On first view, it seems one can only wish Mr Benn and his colleagues success in their attempts to change the terms of the debate.

However, we need to ask whether this change in nomenclature really means anything at all. If the ‘battle’ cannot be won by military means alone, as Benn has said, then how does he propose to win it?

After all, even ‘a battle of values and ideas’ – if it is a battle – requires some semblance of strategy, but he doesn’t seem to be offering anything resembling a strategy in his comments. Of course, values and ideas are key to the debate, but not, perhaps, in the way that Benn and the UK government intend.

The suggestion behind the minister’s statement is that ‘our’ values and ideas (presumably such laudable aims as justice, good governance, democracy, and so on) are being sent into the fray against ‘their’ (undefined, but undoubtedly nefarious) values and ideas. There is no possibility of perhaps acknowledging that ‘their’ values and ideas have any context, let alone perhaps justification. This sounds remarkably similar to the discredited notion of a ‘clash of civilisations’ that played such a significant part in creating the original ‘war on terror’.

If talk of a ‘war on terror’ helps to make isolated and disconnected militant and terrorist groups feel that they are connected to a wider network, how does talk of a ‘battle of values and ideas’ differ? What Benn seems to be missing is that all along the ‘war on terror’ has been a battle of values and ideas, it’s just that the dominant values and ideas that many people in the Middle East see coming from our politicians are not necessarily the ones he would want to acknowledge. They include:

1.The power of might: from September 2001, the USA, supported by the UK, threatened the (admittedly very unpleasant) regime in Afghanistan, demanding the handover of Osama bin Laden without any attempts at judicial processes of extradition, although the Taliban did try to negotiate this. When demands were spurned, devastating attacks followed, with an ongoing occupation of Afghani territory and ever-worsening war.

2. Ignoring the law: the USA and UK led invasion of Iraq, because of the failure to secure any legal mandate for the attack, has undermined international structures designed to support and encourage peaceful ways of resolving conflicts through legal frameworks – all because the law would not bend to match desired policy aims.

3. Dismissal of democratic elections: in January 2006 the occupied Palestinians, in elections that were universally acclaimed as fair and open, elected the Islamist Hamas party to form the next government. The response from the UK, and many other western governments, was to cut all economic support for the occupied population, effectively abandoning the Palestinians to the systemic violence of the Israeli occupation.

This list, with its focus on the Middle East, could, of course, easily be extended well beyond these three examples. And each new example of the ‘values and ideas’ that these actions convey gives further incentive for disaffected Islamist groups to wreak ‘revenge’ attacks on western targets. This happens especially when, as with each of the examples given, western support is or was essential to the creation and maintenance of unjust regimes and structures.

No, this ‘battle of values and ideas’ is clearly going to result in as much of a defeat as the ‘war on terror’ – a defeat of honourable values and ideas, those that sustain and nurture people and places. Benn’s ‘battle of values and ideas’ leads to the same dead-end as the ‘clash of civilisations’ and the ‘war on terror’: to what Gilbert Achcar has called the ‘clash of barbarisms’, when the dark sides of opposing forces result in ever more barbarous acts that dominate in times of crisis.

It is not ‘western’ or ‘Christian’ civilisation that is pitted against ‘Islamic’ civilisation, but one barbarism fighting another. Any sense of morality that might exist here, whether in terms of so-called ‘moral equivalence’ or ‘humanitarian intervention’, is lost in the immorality of the weapons used – quite literally. Neither side wins, as the barbarisms repeatedly escalate at the instigation of the most powerful side.

The desperation of such a scenario must lead to the search for alternative imaginings of how to deal with the conflicts we find ourselves in. It is clearly no good changing the description of what our aims are if the aims remain the same, as Benn seems to be seeking to do.

Instead of seeking out more or other battles, we should firstly be seeking out the voices of those representatives of so-called ‘enemies’ that we could make common cause with, in the belief that there is always more that binds us than that separates us. Those of us exploring what it means to live out a Christian faith in a post-Christendom country need to work together with those Muslims seeking to recover alternatives to Islamism in societies that offer few social and political alternatives for public engagement.

Patience, engaged listening, trust and readiness to change ourselves is required – things that go well beyond the electoral cycles that seem to so dominate the thoughts of most members of the government’s cabinet. In engaging with people of other beliefs in this way, we will need not only the readiness to have our opinions changed, but also clarity regarding our own beliefs, including those that appear to question the very values and ideas that we would like to think we espouse – for example, was Samson a suicide attacker (Judges 16. 27-30)? How do we embrace this part of our tradition? Do we embrace it?

Secondly, we should enthusiastically welcome every positive alternative to the negation of constructive engagement with others that the dominant order is fostering. This is sometimes called the ‘anti-globalisation movement’ (though it is actually an anti-neo-liberalism movement), and centres on the desire to explore new ways of relating to one another on many levels. In Arundhati Roy’s words:

Our strategy should be not only to confront Empire, but to lay siege to it. To deprive it of oxygen. To shame it. To mock it. With our art, our music, our literature, our stubbornness, our joy, our brilliance, our sheer relentlessness – and our ability to tell our own stories. Stories that are different from the ones we’re being brainwashed to believe. The corporate revolution will collapse if we refuse to buy what they are selling – their ideas, their version of history, their wars, their weapons, their notion of inevitability. Remember this: We be many and they be few. They need us more than we need them. (Arundhati Roy, ‘Confronting Empire’, in The Ordinary Person’s Guide to Empire, Flamingo, London, 2004, 69-77: 77.)

Thirdly, we must engage with politicians at all levels: many in Westminster are in genuine despair at the directions of current government policy. We must therefore seek to support those searching for new ways of engaging with the world beyond our shores, whilst withdrawing our support from those that refuse to abandon the ‘clash of barbarisms’. More specifically, although the forthcoming elections in much of Britain do not offer the opportunity to remove those primarily responsible for fostering the ‘war on terror’, they do offer the opportunity to communicate to those parties that supported the invasions and increasingly barbaric occupations of Middle Eastern countries, that ‘they need us more than we need them’.

None of this will be easy, none of it will be without setbacks, and given the immense damage done, none of it will be quick. But Christians engaging with the world were never promised an easy time, and in the centuries of struggle with violence and oppression within our own tradition (Crusades, slavery, gender etc. – the list is depressingly long) we may yet find that we have learnt something that others might also benefit from: how to accept that we have a dark side that can lead to barbarism, and yet prevent it from becoming our defining feature. Then perhaps we can move from a ‘clash of barbarisms’ to a ‘debate between civilisations’ about values and ideas.

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© Michael Marten, an Ekklesia associate, is an Edinburgh-based historian and political scientist specialising in international issues, with a particular focus on the involvement of Europeans in the Middle East. He has taught Middle East history and politics in the Department of Politics and International Studies, School of Oriental and African Studies, London, and is a guest lecturer at the Institute for Advanced Study, University of Pavia, Italy. He has contributed to the forthcoming Eerdmans Encyclopedia of Christianity and to Christianity and Jerusalem: Theology and Politics in the Holy Land, ed. Anthony O'Mahony (Gracewing, 2007).

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