To get maximum benefit from the ICJS website Register now. Select the topics which interest you.
Quadrant magazine is the leading general intellectual journal of ideas, literature, poetry and historical and political debate published in Australia.
In the realm of ideology, the war on terrorism is over—terrorism won. Is this assessment too bleak? Perhaps, but seven years after 9/11 the signs are not good. Various commentators have described how “the war of ideas” against terrorism and its associated ideologies is being lost in the UK, Europe and the US (for example, Melanie Phillips, Londonistan: How Britain is Creating a Terror State Within; Bat Ye’or, Eurabia: The Euro-Arab Axis; Walid Phares, The War of Ideas: Jihad Against Democracy), while in Australia the one book that attempted to describe local jihadism (Martin Chulov, Australian Jihad) was withdrawn under legal pressure.
Chulov did not address the situation of terrorism studies in Australian universities, but in 2006 I published two articles in the Australian (“Don’t mention the terror”, September 6; “Status quo defence fails”, September 20) and another in On Line Opinion (“9/11: Treason in the Academic Comfort Zone?”, September 11). These described the way in which the study of terrorism had either been ignored in Australia or had been colonised by the radical, postmodern Left, which was assimilating the study of terrorism to its prevailing ideological paradigm based on class, race, gender, anti-Americanism and cultural relativism, often under the guise of the neo-Marxist “critical terror studies” approach. My assessment was supported by two University of Queensland terrorism experts, Carl Ungerer and David Martin Jones (“Delusion reigns in terror studies”, Australian, September 15, 2006).
Subsequent events have only deepened concern at the ideological takeover of terrorism studies, especially in the various new university courses and centres providing studies in terrorism and related areas. These were established to take advantage of public concern and new government funding, and the latter are aimed at military, security, police and diplomatic personnel, whose organisations can pay the expensive fees. The study of terrorism is also an important part of the curriculum in our military training institutions, such as the Australian Defence Force Academy (ADFA), as will be discussed below. Because most tertiary students were only young teenagers when the 9/11 attacks took place and are very vulnerable to the influence of apparently knowledgeable teachers, the ideological orientation of teachers is a primary concern.
Some readily reveal their orientation. One academic from Macquarie University’s Centre for Policing, Intelligence and Counter-Terrorism addressed the Australian Police Summit held in Sydney in September 2006 shortly after he claimed on ABC radio’s World Today that terrorists (such as the 9/11 or Bali bombers) were not religious fanatics but were just responding to injustices, and indeed that suicide bombers “are people of deep concern, of deep thought about the injustice that they see being done to the people they identify with” (“Irreparable damage posed to counter-terrorism system”, Letters, Australian, September 16–17, 2006).
Griffith University’s Centre of Excellence in Policing and Security is notable for its staff’s lack of relevant experience, and its director was criticised for her naive comments about terrorism studies (“‘Science’ in terror plan”, Australian, May 9, 2007). It’s also located in the same faculty as the Griffith Islamic Research Unit, whose head, Dr Mohamad Abdalla, is an associate investigator at the centre. Dr Abdalla, who was born in Libya and lived in Jordan before coming to Australia, was recently the focus of public concern when it was revealed that Griffith had “practically begged the Saudi Arabian embassy to bankroll [the unit] for $1.3 million, even telling the ambassador it could keep secret elements of the controversial deal” and that Griffith would be happy to “discuss ways” in which the money could be used, further fuelling fears that the unit would be used to promote Wahhabism, the sectarian form of Islam that is the Saudi state religion and a major ideological influence among Islamist terrorists (“Top uni ‘begged’ for Saudi funding”, Australian, April 22, 2008). In March 2008 the unit hosted an international conference, “Challenges and Opportunities for Islam and the West—The Case of Australia”, at which the Saudi ambassador made the opening remarks and the keynote speaker was the highly controversial Islamist ideologue Tariq Ramadan, whose US visa was revoked by the State Department in 2004 after it concluded that his actions provided material support to a terrorist organisation.
The Griffith situation provided another illustration of the scale of the problem in this vital field of study, when the vice-chancellor, Professor Ian O’Connor, became involved in defending the university’s abject pursuit of Saudi funding, revealing an abysmal understanding of the nature and history of Wahhabism in a published article, substantial parts of which were lifted directly from the internet site Wikipedia (“Uni chief lifted Islam text from Wikipedia”, Weekend Australian, April 26–27, 2008). An ABC journalist also revealed that O’Connor’s principal policy adviser had told him that because Australia’s universities followed the Christian calendar and observed the Christmas and Easter holidays they were not secular institutions, and that because the public has “no objection to the ‘Christianisation’ of our universities, we could hardly object to attempts to ‘Islamify’ them or any other aspects of Australian life” (“No defence for ignorance”, Weekend Australian, April 26–27, 2008). The principal policy adviser to the vice-chancellor of a major Australian university with a high profile in both Islamic studies and terrorism studies said this!
At Monash University, the new Global Terrorism Research Centre offers a Master of Counter-Terrorism Studies aimed at law enforcement, defence and diplomatic personnel. Regrettably, the centre’s major contribution to the terrorism policy debate has been a study, Counter-Terrorism Policing and Culturally Diverse Communities (2007), which has been criticised by counter-terrorism experts for its one-dimensional, multiculturalist advocacy of passive “community policing” (Allon Lee, “Counter-Terror Contretemps”, AIJAC News & Articles, June 24, 2008). It advocates the pursuit of values like “building trust, rather than … gathering intelligence”, and alleges that “crude forms of racial profiling [which] unfairly target communities as inherently suspect” have “taken root” in counter-terrorism in Australia. It even advocates “the flow of terrorism-related information … from police to communities”.
A recent analysis of the report revealed that its data was obtained in a highly questionable fashion through interviews with rank-and-file Victorian police officers, the vast majority of whom had no responsibilities or expertise in counter-terrorism, and that “the questions asked of police may have been more closely related to how best to maintain relations with representatives of ethnic [that is, Muslim] communities, rather than how to prevent terrorism”. It appears the report’s advocacy of “community policing” was not arrived at through an analysis of counter-terrorism options but was a pre-determined conclusion from the outset. Unfortunately, “the Monash study has often been cited both in the media, and in policy debates … as having established that community policing is the only way to achieve counter-terrorism in Australia”.
As these examples indicate, Australian academics and universities are applying a “business as usual” approach to the study of terrorism, assimilating it ideologically to the prevailing leftist, postmodern and multiculturalist paradigms that already dominate academia, and marketing them with little or no awareness or concern about their ideological content. As Carl Ungerer recently observed, this means that universities “are consigning themselves to ever greater irrelevance” in the formulation of government policy on terrorism (“Radical pacifism in terror studies” Australian, July 9, 2008). Ungerer himself left academia in January 2008 to become director of the National Security Project at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in Canberra, deploring the domination of “university departments … by so-called critical terror studies”, and condemning what he calls “radical pacifism” in academic terrorism studies, which is extremely hostile to sovereign states like Australia, England and the USA, and “implied a moral equivalence between terror and counter-terror and even blamed open societies for the rise of religious extremists”.
As an example of this leftist domination in Australia’s elite academic centres, Ungerer drew attention to the recent “eyebrow raising” appointment of a leading critical terror studies advocate, Dr Anthony Burke, as an Associate Professor to the University of New South Wales at the ADFA. Ungerer emphasised that “the lecturers at ADFA are teaching the next generation of military leaders” in Australia, and Burke’s appointment certainly raises questions about what those future leaders will be taught about terrorism, especially as Burke’s far Left views are well known. Revealingly, Burke dismissed Ungerer’s concerns about the radicalism of “critical terror studies” as “a neo-conservative, highly culture wars-type argument”, while simplistically equating the Israeli government’s policies on the Palestinian question and international sanctions against Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq with terrorism “in that they targeted civilians and sought to inflict suffering and fear for a political purpose”.
At the centre of Burke’s worldview is the “radical pacifism” that Ungerer condemns. Burke denies any ultimate legitimacy to sovereign nation-states, and denies that they have any right to preserve their security, defend themselves from attack, police their borders, or pursue their national interests, when these might impinge upon “the Other”. Burke has drawn freely on the writings of Michel Foucault and other postmodernists to write two book-length polemics against the very concept of security, alleging hysterically in Beyond Security, Ethics and Violence: War Against the Other (2007) that “dreams of security, prosperity and freedom hinge, from their earliest conceptualizations to the contemporary politics of the national security state, on the insecurity and dying of others”. Burke has a similar objection to sovereignty, which allegedly “represses cultural, linguistic and political differences [and is] secured through the negative imagination of the Other”. On the question of terrorism, Burke declares that “our critical task is not to help power [that is, the USA] seek out and destroy the ‘enemies of freedom’ [that is, terrorists] but to question how they were constructed as enemies of ‘freedom’ [and how] we … might already be enemies of freedom in the very process of imagining and defending it”. As Burke’s use of scare-quotes indicates, he doubts that terrorists are enemies of freedom or that freedom has any particular value, while claiming that it is “we” who are its real enemies anyway. One wonders how students at the ADFA will feel if they are asked to place their lives on the line for Australia in Afghanistan, Iraq or in other battlegrounds in the war on terror.
In Fear of Security: Australia’s Invasion Anxiety (second ed., 2008), Burke represents national security not as a concrete state of affairs or balance of political forces, but in purely abstract terms as a “historically specific ‘system of truth’”, and as a “political technology [designed to] produce and manipulate bodies, identities, societies, spaces and flows”. The book makes astonishing reading, especially when it is recalled that the author has just been made an associate professor at the ADFA, and defence and military theory has hitherto been eminently practical in its approach to the world, which it sees in terms of forces and power, not “discourses” and “social imaginaries”, as Burke would have it. Nevertheless, according to Burke’s extremely abstract and tendentious postmodernist perspective, the security of the Australian community is “imagined on the basis of a bounded and vulnerable identity in perpetual opposition to an outside—an Other—whose character and claims threaten its integrity and safety”, and as a result, our community “is always an exclusive one, bounded by a power that seeks to enforce sameness, repress diversity, and diminish the rights (and claims to being) of those who are thrust outside its protective embrace”.
Ignoring the fact that almost one in four Australians were born overseas—a far higher rate than any other country—Burke claims that Australians “have constructed our identity in racist and exclusivist terms”, making Australian history “a grim and sometimes terrible story”, which he summarises as follows:
“security required the shipping of 180,000 convicts from England, the murder and dispossession of Aborigines, a racist immigration policy, the terrible sacrifices of the Great War, the confrontation of communism within Australia and in wars in Korea, Malaysia, Vietnam and Cambodia, the incarceration of asylum seekers, and an amoral embrace of Asian dictators.”
Overall, Australian national values and our way of life are merely “vast ideological abstractions”, and claims about “fundamental freedoms” just reveal a “narcissistic performance of self in which ‘Australia’ is represented as pure and good”, and as falsely superior to “the religion of Islam”.
Burke has a special obsession with East Timor and condemns Australian policy, claiming that 180,000 Timorese died as a result, and asking, “how many must die … so that we should be secure?”. Moreover, “this awful moral calculus has long been central to hegemonic images of Australian security and identity”, and led not only to the 180,000 dead Timorese, but to another 10,000 deaths in Bougainville, and millions in Vietnam. Australian national security policy is condemned as “coercive, exclusivist, antidemocratic and beholden to great power allies”, and is based on “the deliberate manufacture of insecurity and uncertainty as the key to a new and dangerous kind of politics”, while our defence of national sovereignty can be likened to the policies of the Nazis (see page 220 of his book).
Similarly, counter-terrorism policies are “piecemeal, inappropriate and counter-productive—at worst, provoking the very thing they claimed to defend us from”—that is to say, terrorism is Australia’s own fault. And Australian policy on illegal immigration has “a diabolical purpose”, accepts psychological torture, and is based on the principle that “the suffering and pain experienced by asylum seekers in detention is necessary”. Together, an alleged “wilful conflation of terrorism and refugees was … designed to transform Western societies in ways that encourage xenophobia and consent for coercive and extra-legal policy approaches”. Given this fearful (albeit fictitious) situation, the only way forward for Australia is “to abandon the selfish visions of security, sovereignty and national interest in favour of an ethical engagement” that somehow transcends the alleged limitations of “nation, culture and experience” in some abstract transnational realm of harmony.
As these examples indicate, Burke doesn’t provide objective or comprehensive historical or political analyses of terrorism, national security, foreign policy, or Australian history, but rather indulges in a familiar Foucaultian form of historico-theoretical leftist polemic that moves backwards and forwards between politically correct causes, invoking alleged facts, indiscriminate moral judgments and postmodern theories to promote the interests of allegedly marginalised groups, and, in this case, a quite eccentric vision of how international affairs should be pursued.
Moreover, in reading Burke’s polemics, one gets an impression not only of the “radical pacifism” deplored by Ungerer, but of a deeper, almost pathological tendency revealed in Burke’s antipathy for liberal democracies and mainstream Australians, and his relentless sympathy for terrorists, illegal immigrants, communists, and “the Other” in its multitudinous forms. Burke’s vision of international relations involves a desire to be absorbed into a transnational, ethically pure collectivity, combined with a desire to be passive, supine and receptive, to be penetrated and even violated if need be by the looming, ever-present “Other”, whose active and invasive power apparently expresses, in Burke’s mind, assertiveness, initiative, potency, and all that is good and humane in the world. Clearly, students at the ADFA will be given lots to think about by their new associate professor.
Unfortunately, Burke is not the only academic at the ADFA whose orientation to the study of terrorism raises concerns, as another new book makes clear. This is Terror: From Tyrannicide to Terrorism (2008), edited by Michael T. Davis and Brett Bowden, who is a Senior Lecturer at the ADFA. The book is presented as a history of terror and terrorism over the past 400 years, with the editors claiming that the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 inaugurated the age of modern terrorism—a typically confused and untenable claim that will be discussed below.
A close reading reveals the book has the following principal ideological and apologetic objectives. (1) To depict Europe as both the home and principal location of modern terror and terrorism. (2) To make the United Kingdom central to this allegedly Western tradition of extreme political violence. (3) To defend contemporary terrorist groups by claiming that they have been falsely “labelled” as “terrorists” and are merely doing what various European and the English political groups have done throughout their history. (4) To further deflect attention from contemporary non-state terrorist groups by emphasising the state terror carried out by totalitarian regimes—all in Europe. (5) To insist that the central issue is not actual terrorism but an alleged “Islamophobia”.
These objectives are reflected by the book’s structure, which focuses almost entirely on Europe and very much on the United Kingdom, providing limited or no coverage of vital areas in the history of terrorism. Of its sixteen chapters, three are generalised theoretical and conceptual discussions offering little that is new; five chapters are devoted to state terror, and also offer no new ideas or material. Two brief chapters provide overviews of the evolution of terrorism in Europe and America before the Great War, and in Western Europe between 1950 and 2000, leaving out most of the world and half a century in the history of terrorism. That leaves only six chapters dealing with specific case studies of terrorism, and all six are on the United Kingdom, including two that also discuss Spain and Ireland.
Notably missing is any dedicated discussion of the history of Islamist terrorism. The only entries in the index under “Muslims” are to “stereotyping of” and “violence towards”, implying that Muslims are the “real victims” and that Muslims play an inconsequential and misrepresented role in contemporary terrorism, an implication several chapters confirm. Particularly disappointing (especially for an Australian text) is the lack of any chapters or even extended discussions that focus on terrorism in Australia or the region, such as the Bali bombings. Indonesia is mentioned only once in the index and Australia is not mentioned at all and receives no particular attention.
The way in which the book pursues its ideological and apologetic objectives is exemplified by the introductory chapter by Brett Bowden on “Terror(s) throughout the Ages”. Given Bowden’s position at the ADFA and influence on the education of defence personnel, it is regrettable that his chapter offers such a disappointing discussion, and is so poorly supported by relevant and up-to-date material on contemporary terrorism.
For example, Bowden begins with some quotations from an article by Hannah Arendt, first published in 1953, which he then uses as a central reference point, despite the fact that Arendt’s essay was responding primarily to the state terror of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, rather than to the internationalist and religious terrorism of non-state groups like the Red Brigades, PLO, al Qaeda or Hamas, which have shaped the contemporary situation. Nor does Bowden’s dependence on dated material end there: of the forty-five references he lists, only twelve are to works published this millennium, and most of these are concerned with incidental philosophical and ethical issues. Even his principal reference work, Political Terrorism by Paul Wilkinson, dates from 1974, while other works he cites date back to the 1950s and 1960s. Bowden also gives no indication of how his book relates to the current state of scholarship in the history of terrorism, or that he even knows what that might be. For example, he makes no reference to prominent recent studies in the history of terrorism, nor does he refer to the major journals in the field.
Consequently, when he wants to expound on such fundamental concepts as “terror” and “regimes of terror”, he simply uses the definitions provided by the Oxford English Dictionary, apparently oblivious to the innumerable specialised scholarly analyses of these concepts in the now massive literature on terrorism. Bowden is remarkably comfortable providing extremely generalised comments about the nature of terror, claiming that terror is simply an emotion “like love or anger”, that people are “afraid of the dark”, that we can have “the proverbial pants scared off us by horror or slasher movies, and we queue for what seems an eternity to experience hair-raising and spine-tingling rides at amusement parks”. According to Bowden, being subjected to the threat of terrorist violence is apparently like a fun family day out, except that “someone or some other group is calling the shots”. He likens the effects of terror attacks like 9/11 to the mass hysteria caused by the famous 1938 War of the Worlds radio broadcast.
Bowden also seems to lack an adequate familiarity with the central debates in the field. For example, he quotes the observation of President George W. Bush that the 9/11 terrorists were “the heirs of all murderous ideologies of the twentieth century [following] in the path of fascism, and Nazism, and totalitarianism”, and then ponders whether “this statement [has] any measure of truth or reality to it”, as if that is the last thing one should expect about such an observation. In fact, Bush’s comment reflected the widespread view that Islamism is actually a species of fascism (hence, “Islamofascism”), exhibiting many of the characteristics found in fascism, Nazism, Marxism-Leninism and Maoism. Bowden seems oblivious to this and launches once again into an arcane discussion of Arendt’s historico-philosophical ruminations, labouring to reach another commonplace conclusion, this time that “the current wave of fundamentalist extremist terror and its stated aims and objectives might be seen to have something in common with totalitarian terror”, but only “in some small way”.
Bowden also allows himself to be sidetracked into a discussion of terror management theory (TMT), which he apparently thinks was developed in response to the threat of terrorism. TMT is in fact a marginal school of psychotherapy, designed for people facing terminal illnesses and inspired by Freud’s theory of the death instinct, Rank’s notion of the birth of the hero, Kierkegaard’s theory of existential dread, and The Denial of Death (1973) by Ernest Becker, who shortly thereafter died of cancer aged forty-nine. TMT claims that civilisation is an elaborate symbolic system generating meaning to serve as a defence mechanism against the “terror” people allegedly experience in the face of their inevitable mortality. Bowden invokes TMT jargon to observe that the Madrid bombings “constituted an extremely potent and enduring morality salience induction [sic]”, explaining that this piece of obfuscation means that “people were literally scared for their life [and] were terrified by the threat of harm to themselves and others”. This is not surprising when 191 people had been killed and 1755 injured on the suburban train system by Islamist terrorists, and one hardly needs to invoke Kierkegaard’s notion of existential dread or Freud’s notion of the death instinct to understand it. On the other hand, TMT fits in with Bowden’s desire to claim that the real problem with terrorism is in people’s minds.
It is also revealing that Bowden does not focus on the psychology of the terrorists longing to commit mass murder while claiming to embrace death as the portal to paradise and their seventy-two promised virgins (in the peculiarly carnal Islamist vision of Paradise). Instead he focuses on their potential victims, who are allegedly driven into a state of quasi-hysteria, not by a legitimate fear of terrorist violence but by an inherent dread of death, mobilised by politicians and others seeking to manipulate them. This emphasis seems to reflect Bowden’s underlying conviction (shared by other contributors to the book) that the real problem with terrorism is not that homicidal fanatics are plotting and executing plans for mass murder, but that governments and the general population are allowing themselves to get over-excited.
This revisionist perspective informs the chapters on the origins of terror in Britain. The first concerns “Early Modern Terrorism: The Gunpowder Plot of 1605 and its Aftermath” by Chris R. Kyle. This plot, Kyle alleges, inaugurated the age of modern terrorism. This claim is silly, not just because it anachronistically and inaccurately projects contemporary notions of terrorism into the distant past, but because the Gunpowder Plot was not a terrorist act at all but part of a planned coup d’état by a group of Catholic radicals designed to kill King James I, his two sons, all the members of parliament, and most of the rest of the nation’s ruling elite, opening the way for a rebellion by English Catholics, the invasion of England by Spain, and the forcible re-conversion of the population to Catholicism. As it transpired, the plot was thwarted and it therefore hardly instilled a debilitating state of terror, but provoked instead a rage that found an outlet in the singularly grotesque hanging, drawing and quartering of the plotters, their body parts placed on display around Westminster and London.
The plot was quite counter-productive, as it also produced a widespread sense of national deliverance, a belief that the plot’s discovery was an example of God’s providential involvement in English history and that divine intervention had delivered Protestant England from popish hands—a belief subsequently celebrated for centuries on Guy Fawkes Night. Such a state of national exultation and sense of divine election is precisely the opposite outcome to that intended by acts of terrorism.
Nevertheless, despite the absurdity of doing so, the editors have included a chapter on the Gunpowder Plot in their book, as it serves their desire to depict England as both the home and principal location of terror and terrorism. Consequently, Kyle asserts that
“there are undeniable echoes from the seventeenth century to the twenty-first, as represented in the events themselves and in government responses to their aftermath. It is not anachronistic to brand the Gunpowder Plot as an instance of terror, terrorists and terrorism.”
In fact it is extremely anachronistic and tendentious in its confusion of a coup d’état with terrorism. Such confusion would turn any account of the political history of Europe and Great Britain into an unrelieved narrative of “terror, terrorists and terrorism”, which appears precisely to be the objective of Kyle and the editors.
Consequently, another chapter on alleged terrorism, “The English Regicides and the Legitimation of Political Violence”, by Glenn Burgess, deals with the execution of Charles I and the defence of it by intellectuals such as John Milton. Once again leading questions depict the English as pioneers of modern terrorism: “Can [this] tyrannicide … really be distinguished from the terrorist assassin?” And, by implication, can people like Milton, one of the towering figures of English literature and Christian thought, really be distinguished from contemporary terrorist ideologues like Sayyid Qutb or Ayman al-Zawahiri?
The editors are unequivocal in their view of the matter: for them, the execution was an instance of terror—indeed, “an ideal bookend for the landmark moments of terror explored” in their book. According to Burgess, despite the “evasiveness and moral shiftiness [of] the English spirit the Cromwellians had no more right to put Charles I to death than had [Gavrilo] Princip … to kill [Archduke] Franz Ferdinand”. And therefore, as a corollary, if we accept the actions of the Cromwellians how can we condemn the actions of Princip and other modern political assassins and terrorists? In other words, the history of Britain implicates us all in terrorism.
This outrageous argument is continued in the chapter on “The British Jacobins and the Unofficial Terror of Loyalism of the 1790s”, by Michael T. Davis, the second editor of the book, and a lecturer at the University of Tasmania. A detailed reading of his chapter leaves no room for doubt that a principal objective of the volume is to provide a defence of contemporary terrorist groups and their supporters. In an essay of less than twenty-one pages Davis feels compelled to devote the first three pages to a gratuitous and contentious denunciation of the effects of the 9/11 attacks on Muslims, who he sees as the real victims of the tragedy. In an essay allegedly on English Jacobinism in the 1790s, this extended editorial against “Islamophobia” is serviced by eighteen endnotes referring to such publications as Silent Victims: The Plight of Arab and Muslim Americans in Post-9/11 America and Islamophobia: A Challenge for Us All.
In conducting this defence, Davis explicitly discounts the suffering of “those directly affected” by 9/11—the more than 3000 people who were killed or maimed, or who lost loved ones, or who were psychologically devastated, or suffered massive property or income loss in the tragedy. Instead, he strongly emphasises the allegedly “more profound [impact] felt by Muslims … who have been the increased focus of stereotyping and stigmatising”—which is apparently more traumatic than being blown to bits. Outraged by this alleged “Islamophobia”, Davis declares that “these acts of intolerance, bigotry and prejudice [allegedly directed towards Muslims] amount to a form of terrorism”. And, of course, he alleges that this “monstrous … subversion of the civil ideals of liberty and equality” was pioneered by the British during the 1790s.
In the rest of his essay Davis expounds on this claim through a portrayal of the British Jacobins seen through the prism of various outdated concepts from the sociology of deviance. In what’s left of his short essay he finds room to cite such works as Stanley Cohen’s Folk Devils and Moral Panics: The Creation of the Mods and Rockers (1972) and Howard Becker’s Outsiders: Studies in the Sociology of Deviance (1963). These were founding texts of the labelling theory of social deviance (dealing with marijuana smokers, jazz musicians, and youth gangs), according to which deviant acts (such as pot smoking or beating people up) have no intrinsic reality but are instead merely “social constructs” imposed on certain target groups (such as Beatniks or Mods) by a middle-class society intent on imposing conformity on such marginalised groups.
Incredibly, these counter-cultural ideas from the 1960s constitute the theoretical core of Davis’s perspective on terrorism. For example, he claims that “like the label ‘terrorist’ today, ‘Jacobin’ was one of the most loaded terms”, that “Jacobinism was simply a label for all that conservatives found detestable”, and that the goal of the conservatives “involved producing a deviant identity for British Jacobins”. This approach is echoed by Bowden, who claims that “terrorists are generally made by others who label them and their actions as terrorist”. For the two Australian editors, terrorists don’t identify or define themselves through acts of real, murderous violence, but somehow pop into some sort of virtual reality through an act of “labelling”.
Davis explicitly connects the situation of the British Jacobins in the 1790s with the situation of Muslims in the post-9/11 world. According to Davis, before their decline into barbarism the Jacobins were promoting political values that are now mainstream, but were labelled deviant at the time because “the alarmism of loyalists constructed and perpetuated a moral panic” led by Edmund Burke, who operated as a “moral entrepreneur” and “self-consciously terrified the public by constructing imaginative threats” that he falsely ascribed to the British radicals who were simply “openly and bravely [embracing] an attachment of Jacobinism”. By extension, readers are invited to conclude that the values and behaviour of contemporary terrorists will be accepted within the mainstream of a future society.
According to Davis, Burke’s campaign opened the way to “Pitt’s reign of terror”, “the English reign of terror”, and a misuse of the law that “made terror the order of the day” according to “the principle of suspended terror”, “vigilante politics”, and “hate crimes”. Davis predictably invokes Michel Foucault to claim that “the state sought to create … docile bodies” through the use of terror, while radicals were also perceived as “folk devils”. Burke sought “to depower [sic] reformers” by stigmatising them. Ultimately, Davis obscurely concludes that all of this was “a poignant discursive construction, with Islamophobia resonating through similar conceptions”, and he claims “the question is raised—for the 1790s and now—of who is ‘evil’: those stigmatized [that is, Jacobins or Islamists] or the stigmatizers [that is, the British government then and now]?” This is a loaded rhetorical question of course, and readers of the book are expected to know which answer to give, and to be outraged by the temerity and ignorance of the government, then and now.
Gender theory (incredibly but predictably) is invoked by Davis to explain the outburst of allegedly unwarranted “unofficial terror” in the 1790s (and, by implication, in the present). According to him,
“the British social system in this period was deeply patriarchal, underpinned by notions of male honour and masculinity that were confirmed by and associated with acts of violence. The physical intimidation of British Jacobins by loyalists can be understood as an extension of these notions, parts of the codes of masculine behaviour, offering them a means of affirming their gender identity”
—by attacking the Jacobins. “Unofficial terror” against these harmless folk arose (so to speak), because non-Jacobin British males suffered from problems with their gender identities.
Of course, there is another, much more likely, explanation for the widespread hostility towards the Jacobins: the British government and its loyalist supporters were correct, England actually was in a very precarious position facing the fully mobilised forces of Revolutionary France. However, this obvious explanation is not admitted to the argument because of Davis’s infatuation with labelling theory, and because he wants to emphasise the ways in which the innocent Jacobins were falsely “constructed” as “deviants”, in a manner that anticipated Britain (and Australia’s) alleged current attitude towards Islamists.
Davis therefore places no particular emphasis on the fact that France led by the Jacobins actually declared war on Britain in February 1793 and mounted invasions, and that the British Jacobins in 1790s (like Islamist terrorists today) were quite legitimately recognised as a serious internal threat by the vast majority of the British people who supported their government in its security measures. Nor were the Jacobins innocent reformers falsely “labelled” as threats by a conservative establishment. Like contemporary terrorists, they displayed a fascination with extreme ideologies whose adherents are quite prepared to sacrifice vast numbers of people in the name of some abstract ideal. After all, the Jacobin-led Reign of Terror exterminated some 40,000 French citizens and hundreds of thousands more died as the revolutionary wars unfolded. Davis could be expected to recognise these obvious facts if not for his misplaced political sympathies and superannuated theoretical commitments, which together have blinded him to the tangible and real issues of history and rendered him subservient to chimeras of his own construction.
The case against Britain as the home of terrorism is pursued by Paul Pickering in an even more extreme chapter: “Peaceably if We Can, Forcibly if We Must: Political Violence and Insurrection in Early-Victorian Britain”. Pickering draws on British history to defend the Islamist terrorists who carried out the July 2005 London bombings that killed fifty-two people and injured 700 in the deadliest terrorist attack in British history.
Pickering mounts his defence of these contemporary terrorists by comparing their actions favourably to the activities of the proponents of the People’s Charter, who pursued parliamentary and political reform in the years 1836 to 1848, and the Anti-Corn Law League, who were promoting free trade from 1838 to 1846. Pickering does this even though the Chartists were reformists who eschewed violence and focused on peacefully gathering signatures for their monster petition to present to parliament. As for the League, it was essentially a highly efficient lobby group that succeeded not by violence but through political agitation and the systematic use of lectures, mass meetings, petitions, pamphlets, tracts and other publications. The comparisons Pickering wants to make between murderous contemporary terrorists and early nineteenth-century reformists are therefore quite incongruous, indeed ridiculous.
Nevertheless, Pickering begins by attacking Gordon Brown for claiming that “a passion for liberty anchored in a sense of duty and an intrinsic commitment to tolerance and fair play” runs through British history. Rejecting this claim, Pickering insists the emphasis should be on the “systematic, wilful, insouciant violence … in the repertoire of British politics”. Indeed, “the resort to violence to resist tyranny was held to be a constitutional privilege enjoyed by all Britons”. Consequently, according to Pickering, the Chartists and the League included people who wanted to terrorise the establishment in a manner that emulated the Jacobins. Nothing much came of this however, and aside from the large riot in Newport in 1839, Pickering admits there were no comparable further outbreaks of violence.
Nevertheless, Pickering argues, the right to resort to violence and terrorism in the pursuit of political objectives remains a part of the “repertoire of politics” in Britain, and indeed he claims that high levels of political violence are legitimate when minority groups feel excluded from the “political nation”. In the past, he claims, such groups included the Chartists and the Anti-Corn Law League, and now other groups—Islamists and radicalised Muslims—perceive themselves to be excluded and are claiming their legitimate right to use violence and terror:
“Modern Britain now has a ‘democratic deficit’ in relation to a significant minority who feel that they are outside the political nation. At the very least it appears that the political conditions which made the ‘terrorism’ practised by the League and the Chartists seem a viable strategy have been recreated.”
Consequently, in seeking an explanation for Islamist terrorism, “Gordon Brown [can readily] find a parallel … for the four young men [that is, the Islamist terrorists] who ruthlessly attacked innocent London commuters in July 2005. The Chartist years were not that long ago.”
This is ridiculous: the Islamists who carried out the July 2005 bombings were not seeking political reform like the Chartists. In fact, Islamists are not seeking to extend democratic rights but rather to extinguish them. They adhere to an anti-democratic, violent, intolerant, exclusionary, xenophobic, misogynistic, anti-Semitic and ultra-repressive political ideology that seeks to create a theocratic state akin to that imposed by the Taliban in Afghanistan, and ultimately a “new Caliphate” stretching from Spain to Indonesia.
Moreover, Pickering’s argument is explicitly rejected in another chapter of the book, which reviews West European terrorism between 1950 and 2000 and rejects the assertion that people turn to terrorism when they feel excluded from the democratic process: “This generalisation does not seem to be true … In fact, if we analyse it on a worldwide basis democracies seem to be somewhat more susceptible to terrorist violence than strong authoritarian regimes.”
That Pickering and the other academics discussed here can have such views published by a university press in a text purportedly on the history of terrorism would be beyond belief if this wasn’t Australia, where academic terrorism studies have generally been taken over by the political Left, with all the anti-democratic, anti-liberal, anti-Western, anti-American, anti-Israel, pro-terrorist, and postmodernist ideological gobbledygook that entails. As for the ADFA, we can only wonder what the activities of people like Burke and Bowden portend for the future expertise and morale of Australia’s military forces.
Dr Mervyn F. Bendle is Senior Lecturer in History and Communications in the School of Arts and Social Sciences at James Cook University.
Good article. Alas the problem of infiltration of security runs deeper than educational institutions.
on 2008-09-21 01:11:21 GMT