• Frank Furedi
  • Frank Furedi
  • Sociologist, commentator and author

‘The war on terror is a symmetry of confusion’

Frank Furedi, writer, sociologist and regular contributor to spiked, is the author of 14 books, covering everything from imperialism and fear to parenting panics and therapy. His latest book Invitation to Terror: The Expanding Empire of the Unknown, examines today’s terror threat, and how it is encouraged and exacerbated by the collapse of meaning within the West itself.

Furedi argues that the ‘official reaction to terror is driven by a narrative of fear that invites us to regard terrorism as incomprehensible, senseless and beyond meaning’. Such a ‘dramatisation of security’, he says, communicates a ‘sense of helplessness that inadvertently offers society’s enemies an invitation to come and terrorise us’. Brendan O’Neill, editor of spiked, discussed today’s ‘empire of the unknown’ with Furedi.

Brendan O’Neill: One thing you discuss at length in the book is the inability of the authorities to define or give a name to the terrorist enemy. ‘Al-Qaeda’ has become a convenient tag, but Western officials seem to find it hard to describe exactly what they are up against. Why do you think that is significant?

Frank Furedi: Well, given the fact that everyone involved in the ‘war on terror’ argues that this is not just a physical threat but also an ideological one – and given the fact that time and again everyone from President Bush to Tony Blair to Gordon Brown makes the point that this is a ‘battle of ideas’ – then if you cannot even give a name to the people you are fighting, or you cannot explain what are the ideas that motivate the enemy, then you are going to have a mighty big problem. In many ways, this loss of language, the inability to find the right words, is symptomatic of a loss of clarity – about the enemy the West faces today and about what the Western elites might be fighting to defend.

BON: Does this explain how the name al-Qaeda came about? Many commentators argue that this name was not thought up by Osama bin Laden himself but rather was imposed on him from without. Was that an attempt to define an ill-defined enemy?

FF: Whenever you have a war against terrorists, or so-called terrorists, the name that is given to the terrorist group is attributed to them by others rather than something they come up with themselves. The Mau Maus are a very good example of that. They didn’t call themselves that; the British simply labelled the insurgency in Kenya ‘the Mau Maus’. So there isn’t really anything new in this. Nor is there anything new in the attempt to find a single network, a single organisation, that can be said to be responsible for all these things going on around the world – even though common sense and the evidence suggests that there are a number of loose and disparate networks.

The one really original thing today is the way that terrorism, which has traditionally been defined as the application of terror, an attempt to terrorise the population for a specific political end, is now feared more because of its ideological appeal. Today, the real fear of terrorism is not so much the act of physical destruction but its ideological and moral appeal to other people – or its potential for ‘radicalisation’, as the authorities call it. This strikes me as very significant. It reveals much about the mindset in the West’s war on terror.

BON: Not only do the authorities find it hard to name the enemy, but they also consciously avoid using certain words to describe it. For example, British government officials bend over backwards to avoid uttering the words ‘Islamic’ and ‘terrorism’ in succession, lest they offend Muslims.

FF: Yes, and there is a very real problem here from the authorities’ point of view. It is certainly clear that the people they are confronted by today are driven by some kind of ideal associated with Islam. You just can’t avoid that conclusion. The people carrying out these acts of terrorism are not Catholics or Jews or Protestants. But at the same time, there is a kind of moral cowardice, which means the authorities avoid saying that this is ‘Islamic terrorism’. They fear, possibly rightly, that if you link Islam with terrorism then you might provoke an even bigger reaction amongst people of Muslim conviction. So what they have opted for is a very self-defeating policy, which I think will blow up in their faces, of trying to divide the world into good and respectful Islam on one side and extremist Islam, as they define it, on the other. This doesn’t make any sense at all. Indeed, it could entrench certain people’s view of themselves as anti-Western outsiders.

BON: Some would argue that it is the incoherence of the enemy itself, of al-Qaeda and all these other little groups, which makes it difficult to know who they are or what they represent. For example, bin Laden seems to steal and borrow his ideals from all over the place. Perhaps the question ‘who are they and why do they hate us?’ is a response to the fact that their agenda and goals are not clear-cut.

FF: I think that what we have today is a very formless, diffuse anger, which lashes out at certain symbols of modernity and the West, or against what these individuals think of as the Empire. And I certainly think it is a problem when this phenomenon is redefined as something with a coherent ideology, or when it is called ‘totalitarian’ and various other names. This endows the networks with a coherence that they otherwise lack. But what is interesting is that their incoherent rage is matched by an equally incoherent response from Western governments. You’ve got this kind of symmetry of confusion in the war on terror.

Today’s terrorist networks simply lack the intellectual resources to offer any coherent alternative. And therefore they opportunistically draw on all sorts of resources. They’re just as likely to draw on some anti-consumerist manifesto or anything else that represents some kind of alternative to the onward march of a modern, technologically advanced society, as they are to draw from the Koran. So in a perverse kind of way, although they often have Islamic convictions, their worldview is fuelled by ideals that are much more to do with a backward-looking anti-capitalist, anti-consumerist, anti-modernist imagination; an outlook that says: ‘Stop the world I want to get off.’

Some people refer to them as ‘Islamofascists’. I am against all this use of historically specific labels stripped out of their context, whether it’s totalitarianism or fascism. All of those things had a very clear meaning and arose in very specific circumstances. Using those tags for today’s terrorist networks is more like moral condemnations rather than an objective label, and therefore it just confuses things. There is the continuous attempt to associate what is a very specific phenomenon in the early twenty-first century with movements that were much more historically significant, such as fascism or communism. This collapses the specific features of what is going on today and turns everything into an ahistorical mess.

BON: What do you mean by meaning? In the book you discuss the absence of meaning in contemporary society, and how this can actually encourage acts of terrorism and accentuate their impact. What is this meaning? Political vision? Political coherence? Or something more profound than that?

FF: Throughout human history, people have always tried to discover dimensions of life that have appealed to them, which have motivated them, which they believed in: dimensions that were to some extent outside of themselves as individuals, and which bound them together in some way with other individuals. If people have a sense of what direction society should move in, and what kind of problems they should try to avoid, then that provides them with a common sense of motivation of how they ought to work together. Quite often, this meant that people were able to act in a neighbourly way, and to show acts of solidarity and altruism to one another, because they recognised that their own self-interest could only be realised through combining with others for a higher purpose.

Today, in the absence of that, we’ve got no real clarity about what is the purpose of society, and what is non-negotiable in terms of our values and freedoms. And in this situation, in the absence of an overarching meaning, people can turn in on themselves. Amongst the elites, there is a feebleness about standing up for a particular way of life. Indeed, the very expression ‘way of life’ has an increasingly rhetorical character and offers no real clarity about what society and life is about today.

BON: Could you say something about the relationship between this absence of meaning and acts of terrorism themselves, the process of what you refer to as an ‘invitation to terror’ in your book. Is it incoherence and even collapse within the West that actively invites the terrorists to push the West over the edge, so to speak? And what about the terrorists themselves – surely they have their own motivational reasons for acting, distinct from the political turmoil of their opponents?

FF: There is obviously a motivating element that leads people to rebel or revolt, or to destroy and lash out. There is an element of self-destruction of course, which comes in part from our society – but terrorism has other foundations, too. The important thing is that our society finds it very difficult to make sense of itself, and to understand what the threat is. So when Bush and others say ‘Why do they hate us?’, they sound like children asking a very naïve question: ‘What is going on here?’ When these kinds of questions are constantly asked – why do they hate us, why is this happening, why now? – then there is a number of unfortunate consequences. One is disorientation amongst ordinary people in Western societies, who are almost encouraged to be confused – and another is the parallel crisis of nerve amongst those who run society, who lack clarity and belief in what they are doing.

BON: Many discuss terrorism as an entirely external threat. So they refer to London as ‘Londonistan’ or ‘Kashmir on the Thames’, to indicate that there is something exotic and strange infiltrating our societies. Are you arguing that the dynamic for terrorism is actually internal, something within the West itself?

FF: I wouldn’t counterpose externality and internality in such a sharp way. We live in a world where people move very fluidly, and where the relationships between different parts of world are no longer governed by powerful gatekeepers who keep one group and culture separate from other groups and cultures. At the same time, it is really striking that, whatever you might say about the origins of a specific act of terror, what is always seen as the principal problem is that of ‘radicalisation’ – the problem of people, including in the West, being motivated to engage in these nihilistic forms of destruction. That problem does have very powerful domestic roots. So without sharply counterposing domestic to foreign influences, I would say that if there is a long-term problem that comes out of this phenomenon – which is a growing number of people developing relatively strong destructive urges and backward-looking ideals – then I think the source for that predominantly comes from inside the West rather than from anywhere else.

BON: How do you feel about using the word ‘terrorism’ today? That has always been a problematic word; in the past it was frequently used to delegitimise political groups by painting them as criminals or maniacs. Does the new terrorism bring this problem of language to an end?

FF: Well, I think the more concepts we have of terrorism, the better. As you suggest, it is always problematic when you use the word ‘terrorism’ because it’s got such powerful ideological and moral connotations. It is not, strictly speaking, an objective scientific concept, so one has to be very clear about how one is using it. Wherever possible we should unpack what is called ‘terrorism’ and look at its political, social and cultural dimensions. I would say, however, that it is reasonably legitimate to talk about terrorism in two instances. The first is when people actively define themselves as terrorists, which has happened in different times in history. The second is in circumstances where individuals engage in terror not just as a means to realising a goal, but as something more than that, something expressive. And to a certain extent we can see that in today’s terrorism.

Even today, however, I prefer to make a distinction between calling people a particular name or label, and describing certain phenomena as ‘acts of terror’. I am much more comfortable with talking about ‘acts of terror’ than talking about ‘terrorists’. We should be concerned about the acts. With the individuals, we should be much more concerned with understanding what drives them, and unpacking what cultural forces motivate them.

BON: When you talk about a fragile West inviting acts of terror, is this new? Are there not historical precedents where a society has been so morally incoherent and destabilised that it has implicitly encouraged individuals to urge it towards collapse?

FF: Throughout history, there have always been examples where a society has either become so fragmented, or where its members have been so much at each others’ throats, or where the failure of nerve has been so powerful, that it has implicitly invited other people either to restore stability or to take it over and destroy it. You can see that very clearly in the case of the Roman Empire. There is a big debate as to whether the Roman Empire declined because of internal or external factors – I would say it was a bit of both. But certainly the dissolute incoherence of Rome was an invitation to people to have a go.

I’m not arguing that we have exactly the same situation today. But what strikes me is that in contemporary society, one of the most powerful influences on public and social life is fear and anxiety, and the politicisation of fear and anxiety. The second feature is that our political and cultural elites are very disorientated and are uncomfortable with the values into which they were socialised and therefore are very reluctant to uphold them. And when you have both cultural disorientation and elites who are distancing themselves from their own societies, and who regard their own people with contempt and find refuge in politicising fear, I think, yes, that serves as an invitation to terror, an invitation to try to destroy us, if you like.

It is interesting that since 9/11, terror has become a benchmark, from which you measure and understand all threats. So people now say things like ‘child obesity is an even bigger problem than terrorism and will kill more people’, or they say ‘climate change is worse than terrorism’. You have these kind of competing threats being bandied around; and this creates a situation where you are basically giving the signal that you really are afraid of the slightest challenge to your integrity. That is what I mean by ‘invitation to terror’, because society is effectively saying: ‘We’re much weaker than you think. Have a go.’

BON: The comparison with the fall of Rome is striking. Only today, society is moving along on an everyday level, and apart from occasional bombings by dissolute networks there isn’t a political or violent threat to Western societies.

FF: It is always problematic to make historical parallels, of course. We live in a world today where the loss of political meaning and the crisis of authority have characteristics that are distinct from any other particular time. One reason why I would hesitate to draw strong parallels with Rome or other historical examples is that, today, whatever the weakness of the elites’ authority, the challenge to it tends to be equally weak. So what we’re going through today is a period of stasis, rather than a period with any heightened sense of polarisation or any real sharp clash between definable sides. So it’s worth being restrained in how we interpret things. That is why, in the book, I put so much emphasis on the whole issue of meaning, because that is a problem, of course, but it is a problem that is always susceptible to a resolution.

BON: When you talk about the values the elites were socialised into, and now tend to disregard, what kind of values do you mean?

FF: Just about everything! All the values that would have maintained their authority in the past, which legitimised their rule of society, have a much weaker status today. For example, in Britain, being British doesn’t mean the same thing that it meant even two or three generations ago. The same thing goes for France or Germany or other European societies. Similarly, a belief in progress, a more future-oriented belief in the ability of their institutions to make life better in the future, has gone, too. Even the sometimes rhetorical but sometimes powerful commitment to things like democracy is much weaker than it was previously.

At the same time, some of the negative forms of identification which were important in the past, such as the Cold War and anti-communism, are no longer useful today. In that sense, we have a situation where governments have got to find artificial ways of reminding people that they belong to a distinct political culture. So in America they have ‘values education’ in the army; in Britain we have citizenship education in schools. It’s an attempt to remind people that there is something there, even if it is now quite empty, shallow and rhetorical.

BON: On the issue of artificial reminders of who we are, Bush’s critics often claim that he and others cynically concocted the enemy of al-Qaeda, almost invented it in fact, in order to create a new Soviet Union and paralyse Western populations with fear. What do you think of this argument?

FF: Governments have always been cynical, there is nothing new in that. They have always tried to construct convenient enemies. No doubt there are people around today who are tied up in a propaganda war, and are working on exaggerating the power of the enemy and stoking up fear. But it seems to me that you can’t really explain the situation in such simple, conspiratorial terms.

The interesting point to remember is that almost the morning after the Cold War ended, there was a strong sense of ‘well, what are we going to do now? What bound us together is no longer there.’ Right from the very beginning there was an element of vilifying tinpot dictators and calling them ‘failed states’ or ‘rogue states’, and small countries like Libya were recast as major threats to the world. All of that indicated that there was more than a conspiracy going on here: there was a political confusion, which disposed governments to overreact and to pay the consequences for their overreactions.

One good example is the Somalia invasion by President Clinton. It may well have been a Hollywood-staged, highly-orchestrated propaganda coup, yes – but whatever the intent was, in the very act of staging that drama you come out of it with a bloody nose, and you reinforce the idea that the world is a very dangerous place. You also further confuse the dynamic of foreign policy. What’s more, you signal to others that, far from being invincible, America is far more vulnerable than you imagine. That is how these things work and really play out: rather than being a simple conspiracy put into action, they signify deeper problems within the West, and highlight the unstable character of foreign policy.

BON: Some left-wing commentators and activists claim that today’s terrorism is a revolt against Western government’s actions in Iraq or Afghanistan. Or they claim, against all the evidence, that the terrorists are poverty-stricken and so are rebelling against their own predicaments. What do you say to these arguments?

FF: I’m quite happy to debate and discuss why people carry out acts of terrorism, and one does need a subtle and sensitive understanding of this phenomenon. But the way in which, right from 9/11, there has been this attempt to treat terrorism as some kind of anti-poverty campaign speaks to a profound sense, not only of self-loathing, but of paralysis of the imagination.

Essentially being radical and on the left simply means putting a minus next to Bush’s plus. So saying just the opposite of what Bush or Blair or Brown says becomes the simpleton’s ‘radical critique’. You end up in a situation where you have a disturbing moral equivalence drawn between different kinds of acts. By their simplistic logic, you can explain the actions of poor Germans who joined the Nazi Party as well as the actions of somebody who leaves a bomb in a Russian school: it’s because they’re poor, apparently. These are interpreted as equally understandable actions, and judged as no worse than anything else that is going on today.

Invitation to Terror: The Expanding Empire of the Unknown by Frank Furedi is published by Continuum. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

Contact me

If you want to get in touch or keep updated with my activities, either email me, connect with me on LinkedIn or follow me on Twitter.