These are trying times, hard times to know where we are from one day to the next. The attack on the World Trade Center has left many kinds of damage in its wake, not the least of which is a gaping ethical and political confusion in the minds of many Americans who identify in some way as 'progressive' -- meaning, anti-racist, feminist, democratic (small d), anti-war. While we have a responsibility to those who died in the disaster and their loved ones, and to ourselves, to mourn, it is urgent that we also begin the work of thinking through what kind of world we are now living in and what it demands of us. And we have to do this, even while we know our understanding at this time can only be very tentative and may well be invalidated a year or even a month or a week from now by events we can't foresee or information now hidden from us.
So, at the risk of being completely wrong, I want to try to draw a picture or a kind of mapping of the global power dynamics as I see them at this moment, including their gendered and racialized dimensions. I want to ask whether there is some alternative, more humane and peaceable way out of the two unacceptable polarities now being presented to us: the permanent war machine (or permanent security state) and the regime of holy terror.
Let me make very clear that, when I pose the question whether we are presently facing a confrontation between global capitalism and an Islamist-fundamentalist brand of fascism, I do not mean to imply their equivalence. If, in fact, the attacks of Sept. 11 were the work of Bin Laden's Al-Qaeda network or something related and even larger -- and for the moment I think we can assume this as a real possibility -- then most of us in this room are structurally positioned in a way that gives us little choice about our identities. (For the Muslim-Americans and Arab-Americans among us, who are both opposed to terrorism and terrified to walk in our streets, the moral dilemma must be, I imagine, much more agonizing.) As an American, a woman, a feminist, and a Jew, I have to recognize that the Bin Ladens of the world hate me and would like me dead; or, if they had power over me, would make my life a living hell. I have to wish them -- these 'perpetrators,' 'terrorists,' whatever they are -- apprehended, annulled, so I can breathe in some kind of peace. This is quite different from living at the very center of global capitalism -- which is more like living in a very dysfunctional family that fills you with shame and anger for its arrogance, greed, and insensitivity but is, like it or not, your home and gives you both immense privileges and immense responsibilities.
Nor, however, do I succumb to the temptation of casting our current dilemma in the simplistic, Manichean terms of cosmic Good vs. Evil. Currently this comes in two opposed but mirror-image versions: the narrative, advanced not only by the terrorists and their sympathizers but also by many on the left in the US and around the globe, that blames US cultural imperialism and economic hegemony for the 'chickens coming home to roost'; versus the patriotic, right-wing version that casts US democracy and freedom as the innocent target of Islamist madness. Both these stories erase all the complexities that we must try to factor into a different, more inclusive ethical and political vision. The Manichean, apocalyptic rhetorics that echoed back and forth between Bush and Bin Laden in the aftermath of the attacks -- the pseudo-Islamic and the pseudo-Christian, the jihad and the crusade -- both lie.
So, while I do not see terrorist networks and global capitalism as equivalents or the same, I do see some striking and disturbing parallels between them. I picture them as the phantom Twin Towers arising in the smoke clouds of the old -- fraternal twins, not identical, locked in a battle over wealth, imperial aggrandizement and the meanings of masculinity. It is a battle that could well end in a stalemate, an interminable cycle of violence that neither can win because of their failure to see the Other clearly. Feminist analysts and activists from many countries -- whose voices have been inaudible thus far in the present crisis -- have a lot of experience to draw from in making this double critique. Whether in the UN or national settings, we have been challenging the gender-biased and racialized dimensions of both neoliberal capitalism and various fundamentalisms for years, trying to steer a path between their double menace. The difference now is that they parade onto the world stage in their most extreme and violent forms. I see six areas where their posturing overlaps:
1. Wealth -- Little needs to be said about the US as the world's wealthiest country nor the ways in which wealth-accumulation is the holy grail, not only of our political system (think of the difficulty we have even in reforming campaign finance laws), but of our national ethos. We are the headquarters of the corporate and financial mega-empires that dominate global capitalism and influence the policies of the international financial institutions (IMF, World Bank, WTO) that are its main governing bodies. This reality resonates around the globe in the symbolic pantheon of what the US stands for -- from the MacDonald's and Kentucky Fried Chicken ads sported by protestors in Genoa and Rawalpindi to the WTC towers themselves. Acquisitiveness, whether individual or corporate, also lurks very closely behind the values that Bush and Rumsfeld mean when they say our 'freedoms' and our 'way of life' are being attacked and must be defended fiercely. (Why, as I'm writing this, do unsolicited messages about Wall Street investment opportunities or low fares to the Bahamas come spewing out of my fax machine?)
Wealth is also a driving force behind the Al-Qaeda network, whose principals are mainly the beneficiaries of upper-middle-class or elite financing and education. Bin Laden himself derives much of his power and influence from his family's vast fortune, and the cells of Arab-Afghan fighters in the 1980s war against the Soviets were bankrolled not only by the Pakistani secret police and the CIA -- $3 billion writes Katha Pollitt in The Nation, 'more money and expertise than for any other cause in CIA history'-but also by Saudi oil money. More important than this, though, are the values behind the terrorist organizations, which include -- as Bin Laden made clear in his famous 1998 interview -- defending the 'honor' and 'property' of Muslims everywhere and '[fighting] the governments that are bent on attacking our religion and on stealing our wealth. . . .' Paul Amar rightly urges us not to confuse these wealthy networks -- whose nepotism and ties to oil interests eerily resemble those of the Bush family -- with impoverished and resistant social movements throughout the Middle East and Asia. There is no evidence that economic justice or equality figure anywhere in the terrorist program.
2. Imperialist nationalism -- The Bush administration's initial reaction to the attacks exhibited the behavior of a superpower that knows no limits, that issues ultimatums under the cover of 'seeking cooperation.' 'Every nation in every region has a decision to make,' pronounced Bush in his speech to the nation that was really a speech to the world; 'Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists.' 'This is the world's fight, this is civilization's fight' -- the US, then, becoming the leader and spokesman of 'civilization,' relegating not only the terrorists but also those who refuse to join the fight to the ranks of the uncivilized. To the Taliban and to every other regime that 'harbors terrorists,' he was the sheriff stonewalling the cattle rustlers: 'Hand over all the terrorists or you will share in their fate.' And a few days later we read 'the American announcement that it would use Saudi Arabia as a headquarters for air operations against Afghanistan.' As the war campaign progresses, its aims seem more openly imperialist: 'Washington wants to offer [the small, also fundamentalist, drug-dealing mujahedeen mostly routed by the Taliban] a role in governing Afghanistan after the conflict' (NY Times, 9/24), as if this were 'Washington's' official role. Further, it and its allies are courting the octogenarian, long-forgotten Afghan king (now exiled in Italy) to join in a military operation to oust the Taliban and set up -- what? a kind of puppet government? Nothing here about internationally monitored elections, nothing about the UN, or any concept of the millions of Afghan people -- within the country or in exile -- as anything but voiceless, downtrodden victims and refugees.
Clearly, this offensive involves far more than rooting out and punishing terrorists. Though I don't want to reduce the situation to a crude Marxist scenario, one can't help wondering how it relates to the longstanding determination of the US to keep a dominant foothold in the gulf region and to maintain control over oil supplies. At least one faction of the Bush 'team,' clamoring to go after Saddam Hussein as well, is clearly in this mindset. And let's not forget Pakistan and its concessions to US demands for cooperation in return for lifting of US economic sanctions -- and now, the assurance of a sizable IMF loan. In the tradition of neo-imperial power, the US does not need to dominate countries politically or militarily to get the concessions it wants; its economic influence backed up by the capacity for military annihilation is sufficient. And, spurred by popular rage over the WTC attacks, all this is wrapped in the outpouring of nationalist patriotism and flag-waving that now envelops the American landscape.
Though lacking the actual imperial power of the US, the Bin Laden forces mimic its imperial aspirations. If we ask, what are the terrorists seeking', we need to recognize their worldview as an extreme and vicious form of nationalism -- a kind of fascism, I would argue, because of its reliance on terror to achieve its ends. In this respect, their goals, like those of the US, go beyond merely punishment. Amar says the whole history of Arab and Islamic nationalism has been one that transcended the colonially imposed boundaries of the nation-state, one that was always transnational and pan-Arabic, or pan-Muslim, in form. Although the terrorists have no social base or legitimacy in laying claim to this tradition, they clearly seek to usurp it. This seems evident in Bin Laden's language invoking 'the Arab nation,' 'the Arab peninsula,' and a 'brotherhood' reaching from Eastern Europe to Turkey and Albania, to the entire Middle East, South Asia and Kashmir. Their mission is to drive out 'the infidels' and their Muslim supporters from something that looks like a third of the globe. Provoking the US to bomb Afghanistan and/or attempt ousting the Taliban would surely destabilize Pakistan and possibly catapult it into the hands of Taliban-like extremists, who would then control nuclear weapons -- a big step toward their perverted and hijacked version of the pan-Muslim dream.
3. Pseudo-Religion -- As many others have commented, the 'clash of religions' or 'clash of cultures' interpretation of the current scenario is utterly specious. What we have instead is an appropriation of religious symbolism and discourse for predominantly political purposes, and to justify permanent war and violence. So Bin Laden declares a jihad, or holy war, against the US, its civilians as well as its soldiers; and Bush declares a crusade against the terrorists and all who harbor or support them. Bin Laden declares himself the 'servant of Allah fighting for the sake of the religion of Allah' and to protect Islam's holy mosques, while Bush declares Washington the promoter of 'infinite justice' and predicts certain victory, because 'God is not neutral.' (The Pentagon changed the 'Operation Infinite Justice' label to 'Operation Enduring Freedom' after Muslim-Americans objected and three Christian clergymen warned that 'infinite' presumed divinity, the 'sin of pride.') But we have to question the authenticity of this religious discourse on both sides, however sincere its proponents. A statement written by a distinguished list of Islamic scholars firmly denounces terrorism -- the wanton killing of innocent civilians -- as contrary to Sh'aria law. And Bush's adoption of this apocalyptic discourse can only be seen as substituting a conservative, right-wing form of legitimation for the neoliberal internationalist discourse that conservatives reject. In either case, it is worth quoting the always wise Eduardo Galeano: 'In the struggle of Good against Evil, it's always the people who get killed.'
4. Militarism -- Both the Bush administration and the Bin Laden forces adopt the methods of war and violence to achieve their ends, but in very different ways. US militarism is of the ultra-high-tech variety that seeks to terrorize by the sheer might, volume and technological virtuosity of our armaments. Of course, as the history of Vietnam and the survival of Saddam Hussein attest, this is an illusion of the highest order. (Remember the 'smart bombs' in the Gulf War that headed for soda machines?) But our military technology is also a vast and insatiable industry for which profit, not strategy, is the driving rationale. As Jack Blum, a critic of US foreign policy, points out, 'the national defense game is a systems and money operation' that has little if any relevance to terrorism. Missiles were designed to counter hostile states with their own fixed territories and weapons arsenals, not terrorists who sneak around the globe and whose 'weapons of mass destruction' are human bodies and hijacked planes; nor the famously impervious terrain and piles of rubble that constitute Afghanistan. Even George W., in one of his most sensible comments to date, remarked that we'd know better than to aim 'a $2 billion cruise missile at a $10 empty tent.' And yet four days after the attack the Democrats in Congress piled madness atop madness and withdrew their opposition to Bush's costly and destructive 'missile shield,' voting to restore $1.3 billion in spending authority for this misconceived and dangerous project. And the armaments companies quickly started lining up to receive their big orders for the impending next war -- the war, we are told, that will last a long time, maybe the rest of our lives. US militarism is not about rationality -- not even about fighting terrorism -- but about profits.
The war-mania and rallying around the flag exhibited by the American people express desire, not for military profits, but for something else, something harder for feminist and anti-war dissidents to understand. Maybe it's just the need to vent anger and feel avenged, or the more deep-rooted one to experience some sense of community and higher purpose in a society where we are so atomized and isolated from one another and the world. Barbara Kingsolver writes that she and her husband reluctantly sent their 5-year-old daughter to school dressed in red, white and blue like the other kids because they didn't want to let jingoists and censors 'steal the flag from us.' Their little girl probably echoed the longings of many less reflective grownups when she said, wearing the colors of the flag 'means we're a country; just people all together.'
The militarism of the terrorists is of a very different nature -- based on the mythic figure of the Bedouin warrior, or the Ikhwan fighters of the early 20th century who enabled Ibn Saud to consolidate his dynastic state. Their hallmark is individual courage and ferocity in battle; as one Arab witness wrote, foreshadowing reports of Soviet veterans from the 1980s Afghan war: 'utterly fearless of death, not caring how many fall, advancing rank upon rank with only one desire -- the defeat and annihilation of the enemy.' (M. Ruthven, Islam in the World, p. 27) Of course, this image too, like every hyper-nationalist ideology, is rooted in a mythic golden past and has little to do with how real terrorists in the 21st century are recruited, trained and paid off. Moreover, like high-tech militarism, terrorist low-tech militarism is also based in an illusion -- that millions of believers will rise up, obey the fatwa, and defeat the infidel. It's an illusion because it grossly underestimates the most powerful weapon in global capitalism's arsenal -- not 'infinite justice' or even nukes but infinite Nikes and cd's. And it also underestimates the local power of feminism, which the fundamentalists mistakenly confuse with the West. Iran today, in all its internal contradictions, shows the resilience and globalized/localized variety of both youth cultures and women's movements. (Sciolino, NY Times, 9/23/01)
5. Masculinism -- Militarism, nationalism, and colonialism as terrains of power have always been in large part contests over the meanings of manhood. Feminist political scientist Cynthia Enloe remarks that 'men's sense of their own masculinity, often tenuous, is as much a factor in international politics as is the flow of oil, cables, and military hardware.' In the case of Bin Laden's Taliban patrons, the form and excessiveness of the misogyny that goes hand in hand with state terrorism and extreme fundamentalism have been graphically documented. Just go to the website of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), at www.rawa.org, to view more photos of atrocities against women (and men) for sexual offenses, dress code offenses, and other forms of deviance than you'll be able to stomach. According to John Burns, writing in the NY Times Magazine in 1990, the 'rebel' leader in the Afghan war who received 'the lion's share of American money and weapons' -- and was not a Taliban -- had been reputed to have 'dispatched followers [during his student movement days] to throw vials of acid into the faces of women students who refused to wear veils.'
In the case of transnational terrorists and Bin Laden himself, their model of manliness is that of the Islamic 'brotherhood,' the band of brothers bonded together in an agonistic commitment to fighting the enemy to the death. The CIA-Pakistani-Saudi-backed camps and training schools set up to support the 'freedom fighters' (who later became 'terrorists') in the anti-Soviet war were breeding grounds not only of a worldwide terrorist network but also of its masculinist, misogynist culture. Bin Laden clearly sees himself as a patriarchal tribal chief whose duty is to provide for and protect, not only his own retinue, wives and many children, but also his whole network of lieutenants and recruits and their families. He is the legendary Arabic counterpart of the Godfather, the padrone.
In contrast to this, can we say that the US as standard-bearer of global capitalism is 'gender-neutral'? Don't we have a woman -- indeed an African-American woman -- at the helm of our National Security Council, the president's right hand in designing the permanent war machine? Despite reported 'gender gaps' in polls about war, we know that women are not inherently more peace-loving than men. Remember all those suburban housewives with their yellow ribbons in midwestern airports, schoolyards and shopping malls during the Gulf War? At the same time, global capitalist masculinism is alive and well but concealed in its Eurocentric, racist guise of 'rescuing' downtrodden, voiceless Afghan women from the misogynist regime it helped bring to power. Feminists around the world, who have tried for so long to call attention to the plight of women and girls in Afghanistan, cannot feel consoled by the prospect of US warplanes and US-backed guerrilla chiefs coming to 'save' our Afghan sisters. Meanwhile, the US will send single mothers who signed up for the National Guard when welfare ended to fight and die in its holy war; US media remain silent about the activism and self-determination of groups like RAWA; and the US military establishment persists in denying accountability before an International Criminal Court for the acts of rape and sexual assault committed by its soldiers stationed across the globe. Masculinism and misogyny take many forms, not always the most visible.
6. Racism -- Of course, what I have named fascist fundamentalism, or transnational terrorism, is also saturated in racism, but of a very specific, focused kind -- which is anti-semitism. The WTC towers symbolized not only American capitalism, not only finance capitalism, but, for the terrorists, Jewish finance capitalism. We can see this in the reported misreporting of the Sept. 11 attacks in Arabic language newspapers in the Middle East as probably the work of the Israelis; their erroneous allegation that not a single person among the dead and missing was Jewish, so Jews must have had advance warning, etc. In his 1998 interview, Bin Laden constantly refers to 'Jews,' not Israelis, in his accusations about plans to take over the whole Arab peninsula. He asserts that 'the Americans and the Jews. . . represent the spearhead with which the members of our religion have been slaughtered. Any effort directed against America and the Jews yields positive and direct results.' And finally, he rewrites history and collapses the diversity of Muslims in a warning to 'Western governments' to sever their ties to Jews: 'the enmity between us and the Jews goes far back in time and is deep rooted. There is no question that war between the two of us is inevitable. For this reason it is not in the interest of Western governments to expose the interests of their people to all kinds of retaliation for almost nothing.' (I cringe to realize I am part of the 'nothing.')
US racism is much more diffuse but just as insidious; the pervasive racism and ethnocentrism that fester under the American skin always boil to the surface at times of national crisis. As Sumitha Reddy put it in a recent teach-in, the targeting of Sikhs and other Indians, Arabs, and even tan Latinos and African-Americans in the wave of violent and abusive acts throughout the country since the disaster signals an enlargement of the 'zone of distrust' in American racism beyond the usual black-white focus. Women who wear headscarves or saris are particularly vulnerable to harassment, but Arab and Indian men of all ages are the ones being murdered. The state pretends to abhor such incidents and threatens their full prosecution. But this is the same state that made the so-called Anti-Terrorism Act, passed in 1995 after the Oklahoma City bombing (an act committed by native white Christian terrorists), a pretext for rounding up and deporting immigrants of all kinds; and that is now once again waiving the civil liberties of immigrants in its zealous anti-terrorist manhunt. Each day The New York Times publishes its rogues' gallery of police photos of the suspects, so reminiscent of those eugenic photographs of 'criminal types' of an earlier era and imprinting upon readers' minds a certain set of facial characteristics they should now fear and blame. Racial profiling becomes a national pastime.
If we look only at terrorist tactics and the world's revulsion against them, then we might conclude rather optimistically that thuggery will never win out in the end. But we ignore the context in which terrorism operates at our peril, and that context includes not only racism and Eurocentrism but many forms of social injustice. In thinking through a moral position on this crisis, we have to distinguish between immediate causes and necessary conditions. Neither the United States (as a state) nor the corporate and financial power structure that the World Trade Centers symbolized caused the horrors of Sept. 11. Without question, the outrageous, heinous murder, maiming and orphaning of so many innocent people -- who were every race, ethnicity, color, class, age, gender, and some 60-odd nationalities -- deserve some kind of just redress. On the other hand, the conditions in which transnational terrorism thrives, gains recruits, and lays claim to moral legitimacy include many for which the US and its corporate/financial interests are directly responsible even if they don't for a minute excuse the attacks. It is often asked lately, why does the Third World hate us so much? Put another way, why do so many people including my own friends in Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Middle East express so much ambivalence about what happened, both lamenting an unforgivable criminal act and at the same time taking some satisfaction that Americans are finally suffering too? We make a fatal mistake if we attribute these mixed feelings only to envy or resentment of our wealth and freedoms and ignore a historical context of aggression, injustice and inequality. Consider these facts:
And the list goes on, with MacDonald's, Coca-Cola, CNN and MTV and all the uninvited commercial detritus that proliferates everywhere on the face of the earth and offends the cultural and spiritual sensibilities of so many -- including transnational feminist travelers like me, when we find pieces of our local shopping mall transplanted to downtown Kampala or Kuala Lumpur, Cairo or Bangalore. But worse than the triviality and bad taste of these cultural and commercial barrages is the arrogant presumption that our 'way of life' is the best on earth and ought to be welcome everywhere; or that our power and supposed advancement entitle us to dictate policies and strategies to the rest of the world. This is the face of imperialism in the 21st century.
None of this reckoning can comfort those who lost loved ones on Sept. 11, or the thousands of attack victims who lost their jobs, homes and livelihoods; nor can it excuse the hideous crimes. As the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish writes, 'nothing, nothing justifies terrorism.' Still, in attempting to understand what has happened and think how to prevent it happening again (which is probably a vain wish), we Americans have to take all these painful facts into account. The United States as the command center of global capitalism will remain ill equipped to 'stop terrorism' until it begins to recognize its own past and present responsibility for many of the conditions I've listed and to address them in a responsible way. But this would mean the United States becoming something different from itself, transforming itself, including abandoning the presumption that it should unilaterally police the world. This problem of transformation is at the heart of the vexing question of finding solutions different from all-out war. So let me turn to how we might think differently about power. Here is what I propose, tentatively, for now:
Let me again quote from the poet Mahmoud Darwish's statement, which was published in the Palestinian daily Al Ayyam on Sept. 17 and signed by many Palestinian writers and intellectuals.
We know that the American wound is deep and we know that this tragic moment is a time for solidarity and the sharing of pain. But we also know that the horizons of the intellect can traverse landscapes of devastation. Terrorism has no location or boundaries, it does not reside in a geography of its own; its homeland is disillusionment and despair.
The best weapon to eradicate terrorism from the soul lies in the solidarity of the international world, in respecting the rights of all peoples of this globe to live in harmony and by reducing the ever increasing gap between north and south. And the most effective way to defend freedom is through fully realizing the meaning of justice.
What gives me hope is that this statement's sentiments are being voiced by growing numbers of groups here in the US, including the National Council of Churches, the Green Party, a coalition of 100 entertainers and civil rights leaders, huge coalitions of peace groups and student organizations, New Yorkers Say No to War, black and white women celebrities featured on Oprah Winfrey's show, and parents and spouses of attack victims. Maybe out of the ashes we will recover a new kind of solidarity; maybe the terrorists will force us, not to mirror them, but to see the world and humanity as a whole.