‘We should refuse to be terrorised’

At the London launch of his new book, Invitation to Terror, Frank Furedi offered some salutary advice to Gordon Brown on how to win the ‘battle of ideas’.

Tim Black

Tim Black

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A large audience at the London-based foreign policy research institute, Chatham House, recently saw Frank Furedi, a name familiar to regular readers of spiked, discuss his new book Invitation to Terror. Fortunately, the evening began not with a bang but a health and safety announcement from the organisers: ‘The emergency exit is on the left, so in the event of a fire please form an orderly queue.’ This, as it happens, was to prove a suitably risk-conscious opening.

Despite the allusive title, Invitation to Terror is not concerned with terrorism as such: it does not catalogue terrorist groupings, trace illicit cash flows, or identify shadowy puppet masters. It focuses rather on the contemporary significance of terrorism, particularly after 9/11. This is to grasp terrorism, not as an entity apart from Western societies, a destructive element spawned somewhere in the Middle East, but as an objectification, a symbol, of prevailing cultural attitudes in the West towards the ‘nature of change and risk’ (p.49).

Indeed, the future has never seemed more frightening. Whether it’s a flesh-eating super-bug, ecological collapse or a WMD ‘in the wrong hands’, catastrophe dominates the headlines and political thinking these days. While the utopian imagination dwindles, it seems its dystopian counterpart is flourishing. So heightened is this perception of impending disaster that dreaming up ‘worst case scenarios’, once the preserve of authors like Tom Clancy or Michael Crichton, now constitutes a policy document, ‘dodgy’ or not.

Risk-consciousness, too, seems to have adjusted to the mundanity of the apocalypse. No longer concerned with probable events or factors that might affect an economic investment or an engineering project, it now denotes an awareness of the possibility of the unanticipated event, that is, events beyond prediction, or to quote the former US secretary of defence, Donald Rumsfeld, ‘unknown unknowns’.

Paradoxically, it is modernity itself which is often blamed for the proliferation of existential threats. Science and technology have developed to such an extent that their effects are beyond our control and comprehension, to paraphrase Ulrich Beck, prime proponent of the risk society thesis. Increasingly, it’s assumed that the coming end will be self-induced; the fruits of societal labour will be turned against us, be it a plane or global warming. The reasons for such pessimism are not hard to fathom. Without the traditional collectivities that gave meaning and purpose to social life, to the individual, whose powerlessness is proportionate to his atomisation, social and economic development might well appear infernal. ‘It is difficult to avoid the conclusion’, writes Furedi in Invitation to Terror, ‘that often anxieties about the forces unleashed through economic and technological change are indistinguishable from ones that are focused on the growing destructive potential of terrorists.’ (pp.24-25)

Furedi’s focus during the discussion at Chatham House was on precisely this sense of ‘vulnerability and why it’s become a defining feature of our times’. His answer hinges less on the capacity of the putative terrorist networks themselves than on the Western response to the threat of terrorism. What’s remarkable, he notes, is that the Western elite’s response to 9/11, namely the launch of the ‘war on terror’, far from forging a sense of solidarity and galvanising Western societies against a common enemy has actually had the opposite effect. ‘The unexpected legacy’, he concluded in his introductory remarks, ‘seems to be the decline of the moral authority of the West.’

This form of moral disorientation, he explained, is evident in the language used to conceptualise the war on terror, or as it has since been termed, the ‘long war’. As many commentators have observed, the problem is that you can no more wage a war on terror than you can on any other military tactic. ‘Terrorism’ simply refers to the act of inspiring terror amongst a group of people, that is, a means to an indeterminate end. It fails to say anything specific about those on whom the war is being waged. In fact, where it does signify something, that is, in the moment of moral judgement, is precisely the point where Western elites are most insecure, particularly when it comes to offending internal Muslim communities. Such has been the confusion that, as Furedi notes, BBC editorial guidelines were unable to say when the use of words ‘terrorist’ or ‘terrorist groups’ were appropriate (p.viii). The US Homeland Security department, deciding that vagueness was the best policy, opted for ‘universal adversary’ (p.xiv). Little wonder then that the phrase ‘the long war’ has replaced ‘war on terror’ as the description du jour – its semantic value lies precisely in its lack of specific referents.

But as Furedi was keen to point out, as slippery or evasive as the concepts are, their failing is not one of language. They evince, rather, the ‘inability of Western elites to give meaning to their own policies’. This means that instead of cohering society around a shared set of values – in other words, those modes of social being that might define ‘us’ – the response to 9/11 merely exposes the absence of anything like a purposive meaning to social life.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the notion of a ‘radicalisation process’. This refers to the process whereby, for example, a British Muslim is converted over the course of few weeks into a suicide bomber. Jonathan Evans, director general of Britain’s domestic intelligence service, MI5, gave vent to the anxiety about radicalisation last November: ‘As I speak, terrorists are methodically and intentionally targeting young people and children in this country. They are radicalising, indoctrinating and grooming young, vulnerable people to carry out acts of terrorism.’ (1) Combining the motif of a vulnerable citizenry with that of an unscrupulous foreign operator, this vision both invests the latter with an ideological appeal and presumes the former too weak, indeed too infantile, to resist. This is significant in that it indicates the changing meaning of terrorism – what was once a means has now become an ideological entity in its own right. It has been transformed into an ‘ideological competitor’ in the battle for what Gordon Brown, in last year’s ‘anti-terror’ speech, called ‘hearts and minds’ (2).

What this does tell us is that in the ‘hearts and minds’ of estranged Muslims, British society is losing what the government itself describes as the battle of ideas. This touches upon what Furedi called ‘the principal message’ of his book: ‘Those increasingly attracted to the wrong ideas… are reacting to the unravelling of meaning in Western societies.’

This becomes clear when looking at the ‘wrong ideas’ themselves. In Osama bin Laden’s message to Americans in October 2002, he asserts that Americans ‘exploit women like consumer products’, have ‘destroyed nature with [their] industrial waste and gases’, and ‘refuse to sign the Kyoto agreement so that [they] can secure the profit of [their] greedy companies and industries’. These are not ideas generated in the Middle East. They indicate rather how bin Laden – who, if Western troops ever do get hold of him, could become the Che Guevara for the environmental movement – opportunistically fastens upon a rejection of modernity fostered in the West, from anti-consumerism to environmentalism, and uses it to berate America. Here, Western self-loathing has been exported, repackaged and imported as pseudo-Islamic anti-modernism. And that poses a problem for Western elites looking to win ‘hearts and minds’. The tradition to which the Western political elites might once have had recourse – that is, a wealth of cultural, scientific and technological achievements, coupled with predominantly liberal political systems – has been so thoroughly denigrated internally that they have very few cultural resources with which to win the battle of ideas.

This was aptly illustrated when Furedi answered a question regarding the link between Western nations’ foreign policy and ‘radicalisation’. ‘The causal link’, he responded, ‘is far from clear’. Historically, the West has been making ‘cack-handed’ interventions in the developing world for years without prompting a wave of anti-Westernism. Looking in particular at Kenya, where Furedi has previously studied the Mau Mau rebellion against British colonial rule, he noted that as much as the insurgents wanted the British out, they still held up Western society, democratic and governed by the rule of law, as a model to which to aspire. In short, ‘during the Sixties and Seventies, the West had a much more confident rendition of itself’. Developing nations emerging from their imperial subjugation did not want to destroy the West; they wanted to emulate it.

Towards the end of the question and answer session, Financial Times commentator, Samuel Brittan, praised Furedi for being ‘very eloquent on what’s wrong with the approach to terrorism’. But, he wondered, ‘if you had half an hour with Gordon Brown what would you actually advise him to do?’ Furedi’s answer was twofold: first Gordon Brown ought to ‘put his money where his mouth is’. Because for all Brown’s talk of a battle of ideas, a fight to win the hearts and minds of the disaffected, the preferred route of engagement has been to ban dissenting or ‘extremist’ voices.

The second part was to appeal to the robustness and resilience of the public. So, rather than allow the threat of terrorism both to structure public policy and regulate our day-to-day existence, it should simply be accepted as something that might happen and that we, as a society, should just get on with life. The reason for arguing this is that terrorism’s outcome, its effect, is not determined by the perpetrators; rather, it is determined by the response to it. As Furedi argues in his book: ‘If people did not play the role of intimidated targets, then terrorism would be defeated… We can encourage such a response by constantly questioning the belief that we live in an “age of terror”. It is up to us to delineate the defining characteristic of our era. Ours is not an “age of terror” anymore than it is the “age of the internet” or the “age of environmental consciousness” or the “age of fear”. We can refuse to be terrorised.’

Tim Black is staff writer at spiked. Frank Furedi’s Invitation To Terrorism: The Expanding Empire of The Unknown has just been published by Continuum Press. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

Previously on spiked

Frank Furedi asked are terrrorists grooming our kids?. In conversation with Brendan O’Neill, he described the war on terror as a symmetry of confusion. Elsewhere, O’Neill suggested that long before Gordon Brown became prime minister, he was obsessed by security and said the 2007 car bombs, set up in London and Glasgow, were packed with nihilism. Munira Mirza showed how ‘homegrown terrorists’ are a product of Western self-loathing. Mick Hume suggested Islamic terrorism is real but overstated as a threat to our society. Or read more at spiked issue War on Terror.

(1) MI5 chief says terrorists targeting UK teenagers, Guardian, 5 November 2007

(2) In full: Brown anti-terror speech, BBC News, 30 November 2007

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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