Crusade is A Dirty Word


The Guardian, Wednesday September 19, 2001

On the one hand, we have a private language, with its poignance and terror. On the other, there is the language of public men, which struggles for the articulate and the inspirational. Their failure to find the right public words is partly an index of desolation.

What came instead was the stock response, with its talk of civilisation and barbarism, of democracy and fundamentalism. The conventional language of outrage has shown how poverty stricken our western political vocabulary has become. We have lived so long in a safe world, where words make a speech or fill a column rather than lead to the morgue. We had become trivial. Even in Britain, whose creation of a settler statelet within Ireland has led to terrorism - we have insulated the problem, living with consequences not causes.

In a world grown decadent, banality ruled. There's the synthetic stuff around which passes for political thought as we discuss "high quality public services". But when you come across the rage against America and Israel, it dislocates in its accusation that liberals are no better than the rest.

I first came across it when discussing the wickedness of the death penalty in Texas. And a Palestinian friend rose against me in tears and wrath. How could I be so partial in my anger - so vigorous in defence of the right to life of a few - when American foreign policy led to the deaths of so many thousands? To concentrate on the one wrong was to show that I was indifferent to the wider suffering ... and to what he felt and thought and endured. Mine was the irresponsibility of the do-gooder.

Western rationality and pride in democracy can seem an intolerable, parochial conceit to those whose lives have been so violently disturbed. And coping with the new terror will mean not just argument and debate, but also an education of the heart.

Already commentary is better. It is grave, sometimes eloquent, responsive to sorrow, filled with deep questioning. The only false note has come from a paranoid right, which stifles the real debate about responsibility and consequences. And so the suicide bombers are linked to antiglobalists, to anticapitalists, to the green movement. Outrage - like sorrow - is frustrated. It is balked of a convenient object. The "Islamic world" (that spurious collectivity of the western foreign policy specialist) after all has condemned the atrocity. And there is really no such thing as a "proportionate response". The reason is partly logistical. But what action could possibly be proportionate to the scale of the derangement?

There is a measure of despair in the hope that Iraq can be conveniently blamed. And Bin Laden has become a convenient symbol for a hydra's head. In its strength and also its ignorance, its bafflement and folly, American foreign policy has created a generation of the dispossessed in the Middle East, the young jobless, the landless and the refugees who blame the US for everything that's wrong in their lives.

President Bush now talks of a "crusade". It's an unhappy word. All this started eight centuries ago when renascent Europe unleashed a colonialising campaign to reclaim the holy places. Venice and France were lead culprits. And this was when "Islam" was first invented by the west as a single entity, as the face of the other which could be demonised. The security of emergent European states was consolidated by aggression and terrorism.

The Pentagon and the World Trade Centre were American holy places now desecrated. The language of a holy league comes easily to the great power, animated by a puritan sense that the world is divided between the light and the dark, between righteousness and wickedness. And that perception lies behind the instability of America's foreign policy, the violence of its oscillation in history between extremes of isolation and intervention.

Today we suffer the consequences not just of an 800-year-old crusading tradition but also an 80-year-old effect: the joint British-American dismantling of the Ottoman empire after the first world war. We designed maps and invented states. We dreamt up national identities where none had existed before and attributed them to the new countries. And the states were designed to be feeble, for older ethnic identities both stretched across the boundaries and coexisted awkwardly within them. This was classic imperial "divide and rule" for oil's sake. In this horror we do truly stand "shoulder to shoulder with the United States".

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