Reviewed by Kevin E Dodson
The Al Qaeda terrorist attacks of 9/11 and the subsequent “War on Terror” generated extensive philosophical discussion on the definition of terrorism, the concept of a just war, and the nature of evil. A decade after the destruction of the World Trade Center and three years after the election of Barack Obama to US Presidency, an electoral turn that initially promised to alter fundamentally the direction of American foreign policy, Tom Rockmore has published what seeks to be a historically-informed philosophical analysis of the events leading up to and following from the terrorist attacks of 9/11. What differentiates his book from that of so many earlier discussions is that he approaches the subject from that standpoint of the philosophy of history rather than political theory. Furthermore, Rockmore’s book is relatively short and avoids technical jargon in the discussion of philosophical issues, which also makes it appropriate for the educated lay public.
In general, Rockmore situates the events in question within a larger interpretation of the economic process of capitalist globalization, a framework with which I am largely sympathetic. However, the devil is in the details, and the value of this book is reduced by a number of factual errors, inconsistencies, and overly simplified formulations.
Rockmore begins by considering and criticizing three popular frameworks for understanding 9/11: George W. Bush’s religious interpretation, Samuel P. Huntington’s clash of civilizations thesis, and Bernard Lewis’s account of Islam’s failure to modernize. George W. Bush’s religious conception of Al Qaeda as “evildoers” was, of course, politically and rhetorically dominant during his administration, and thus directive of the US response. It is also little more than a dismissive description rather than an attempted explanation. If Al Qaeda is just evil, then no explanation of its activities is necessary, and any attempt to explain the terrorists’ motives amounts to a rationalization, an exercise in anti-Americanism.
The position of the Bush administration represented a fusion of two quite different strains of American thought – evangelical Protestantism and neo-conservatism. Evangelical Protestants are committed to a religious understanding of the course of world history in which the United States is an exceptional nation: Christian in character, free of the corruptions of the old World, and specially chosen by God as an instrument of providence. As Rockmore points out, it represents a sort of evangelical take on Nietzsche’s Üubermensch. Neo-conservatism, on the other hand, was the creation of disillusioned ex-liberals and even ex-leftists writing in Commentary and The Public Interest and has always had a decidedly secular cast. During the 1990s, neo-conservative foreign policy thinkers found a home in the Project for a New American Century, where they famously advocated for regime-change in Iraq. Though they are rather strange bedfellows, what united these two groups was a commitment to the benevolence of American power, the idea that the United States is the greatest force for freedom in world history. Two claims follow from this self-conception: first, that the United States should use its dominant position to transform the world in its own image; and second, that an attack on the United States is an attack on freedom itself and thus demands the most vigorous military response. The attacks of 9/11 provided the ideal opportunity.
The work of Samuel P. Huntington and Bernard Lewis respectively represent rather different approaches. Both are critical and academic in character. Huntington, a political scientist from Harvard, first laid out his hypothesis of a clash of civilizations in a 1993 article in Foreign Affairs, the premier journal of the American foreign policy establishment, and then later expanded it into a 1996 scholarly book. Huntington argued that the locus of political competition and conflict was shifting from nation-states to civilizations, of which he identified eight distinct spheres defined in cultural/religious terms. In terms of intercivilizational conflict, the most problematic was Islam, which had “bloody borders.” Not surprisingly, Huntington’s work attracted considerable attention after 9/11. Lewis, a scholar of Middle Eastern history at Princeton, focuses specifically on the failure of the Islamic world to accommodate itself to the modern world. Both Huntington and Lewis highlight the importance of religion, though neither provides a religiously-inspired interpretation of recent events. In contrast to Huntingtion and Lewis, Rockmore sets out to construct an alternative framework that emphasizes the economic process of globalization. The superiority of his account, he maintains, lies in its ability to accommodate all that is encompassed by the accounts of Huntington and Lewis respectively and account for further features as well.
In a very useful and succinct chapter on the epistemology of history, Rockmore outlines his constructivist model emphasizing understanding human action in terms of its intentional character as opposed to a positivist model of explanation in terms of general laws. The emphasis on intentionality is necessary in order to distinguish human action from physical motion, for human action is purposive in character and always aims at the good as understood by the agent who undertakes it. In order to comprehend fully an action, then, one must understand the aims of the agent by situating them in context, thus viewing the action both retrospectively and prospectively as part of an ongoing process. , An adequate account of the events of 9/11 requires that we place them in the appropriate context.
According to Rockmore, the appropriate contextualization for Al Qaeda’s actions is to be found in the process of capitalist globalization and its impact on the Islamic world. In his analysis of economic factors, Rockmore acknowledges his debt to Hegel and Marx and usefully calls attention to the destabilizing impacts of the operation of free-market capitalism that are either often neglected or valorized in other accounts. Specifically, Rockmore identifies a conflict between Islamic mercantilism and Western capitalism through which the Islamic world has been reduced to a subordinate position to the West, particularly the United States as the world’s preeminent capitalist economy, within the global economy, with Hegel’s master-slave dialectic serving as a useful metaphor for this relationship. At this point, we can begin to see some of the problems that plague the Rockmore’s work. First, he provides no evidence that in fact mercantilism is the favored economic arrangement within Islamic thought. Second, his account of mercantilism is rather simplistic, consisting of little more than a protectionist trade regime using monopolies to ensure a positive trade balance. Finally, and most importantly, such a neo-mercantilist economic strategy has actually proven quite successful in the rapid development of East Asian economies and, thus, an alleged Islamic mercantilism alone is insufficient to account for the subordinate economic position of the Islamic world. In this respect, Huntington’s focus on civilizational factors might actually have something to recommend it over Rockmore’s approach, in that Huntington at least takes a more global view and thus can avoid a binary opposition between Islam and the West that ignores other regions.
The problems that I identified earlier can be seen most clearly in Rockmore’s grand narrative (my expression, not his) of the rise and decline of Islamic civilization. From the outset, it is bedeviled by a fundamental contradiction regarding its pinnacle. At one point, Rockmore asserts that Islam reached its “relative highpoint in the century after Muhammad’s death” and “has been in decline ever since” (105). This is not insignificant for it tends to align his account of the trajectory of Islam with that of radical Islamists, and he does tend to accept their claims about what Islam requires, namely the “simple reproduction of the type of human existence specified in the Qur’an” (162).
Of course, dating the apotheosis of Islam to the century after Muhammad’s death is simply unsustainable for it ignores the intellectual and cultural achievements of the Abbasid Caliphate and Umayyad Spain (Al Andalus), all of which occurred after that time. I suspect that Rockmore himself would acknowledge this, since he recognizes the three great Islamic empires of the Ottomans, the Mughals, and the Safavids. In fact, in the paragraph immediately preceding that quoted above, he identifies the Turkish defeat at the Battle of Vienna in 1683 as marking the beginning of Islam’s territorial retreat, which is of course more than ten centuries after the death of Muhammad. Rockmore, however, does not follow up that recognition by paying careful attention to the impact of European imperialism on the Islamic world, devoting one brief paragraph to the dissolution of the three great Islamic empires under the pressure of imperialist aggression. (By contrast, he spends two pages on a digression about the Catholic Church’s conflict with science in the book’s third Chapter.) Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt is never even mentioned, despite its crucial historical importance in establishing in the Middle East the sense that modernization meant westernization. The master-slave dialectic is not just a useful metaphor for the present, but a reasonably accurate conception of the past two centuries of relations between the West and Islam.
Of course, if there is little discussion of European imperialism, then there is little discussion of anti-colonial struggles by secular nationalists and the non-aligned movement. Instead, for Rockmore, the response to Western dominance has been either cooperation by pro-Western regimes or resistance primarily by religious fundamentalists. It may be that the current political situation has devolved into such a binary opposition, but that is in large part a result of Cold War politics, which needs to be more fully incorporated into Rockmore’s account if he is to provide us with an adequate understanding of the historical context for Al Qaeda’s attacks on 9/11. For example, Rockmore sees Anwar Sadat’s domestic policies in Egypt as continuous with those of Gamel Abdel Nasser’s, when in fact Sadat departed from Nasser’s non-aligned secular socialism by embracing neo-liberal economic policies, seeking to accommodate Egypt’s conservative religious elements and allying with the United States, a trajectory continued by the now-disgraced Mubarak regime.
A more substantial discussion of the impact of the Cold War on the Islamic would actually have strengthened Rockmore’s case. First, it would have allowed him to examine closely the United States’s “anti-communist” alliance with reactionary forces, such as Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and the Afghan mujahideen, in response to the modernizing left. This alliance is critical in understanding not just the incubation of radical Sunni Islam due to the role it played in the resistance to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, but also because of the way Saudi petrodollars have financed the spread of radical Islam through support for madrassahs and other charitable institutions. On this point, Rockmore makes what is simply an inexcusable error by describing Osama bin Laden as a Shi’ite and Saudi Wahhabism as a form of Shi’ite Islam (89). Second, if one is going to emphasize economic factors, then one needs to consider the political economy of the American military-industrial complex and its role in promoting an aggressive American foreign policy.
I want to close by returning to Rockmore’s characterization of Islam as requiring the “simple reproduction of the type of human existence specified in the Qur’an.” While this is a simplistic formulation that ignores the richness and diversity of the Islamic intellectual tradition, it does seem to capture the core of Sunni radicalism and its challenge to the Islamic world. Rockmore does not really explain its sources in Islamic theology, so I will hazard a brief suggestion. It strikes me that there are two significant differences between Western Christendom and the Islamic world that have proven problematic for the latter: first, the concept of an uncreated Koran, fixed and eternal, as literally the word of God, and second, the status of Muhammad as a public official in his role as civil administrator of Medina and military commander of Muslim forces against Mecca. Neither of these have any equivalent in Christianity, where Jesus held no governmental position and the early Church did not exercise State power and was even persecuted for the first three hundred years of its existence. The combination of these two elements creates ideological difficulties in the development of a secular state within the Muslim world, a challenge that requires a reinvigorated political left for its resolution.
2 January 2014