John Gray in Conversation with Nick Hackworth on Terrorism
NH: You’ve described Al-Qaeda as being ‘a modern phenomenon.’ Can you explain what you mean by that?
JG: Al-Qaeda’s modern in a number of ways. Most obviously it’s modern in the way that it uses the internet and modern travel and communications to achieve its goals, but its goals, its way of thinking and its ideology are also modern in important ways. Those who take up the cause of Al-Qaeda,—because it’s no longer a clearly-defined organisation, it’s rather a loose network of like-minded extremists,—those who belong to this network believe that society can be transformed by acts of spectacular terror, and this belief is a modern belief. I don’t believe it can be found in the medieval world, whether the medieval world be the medieval Christian, medieval Islamic or the medieval Jewish world. It’s a modern belief, which I think goes back to the French Revolution in the eighteenth century. Of course, before the French Revolution there had been many types of religious violence, both in Christianity and in Islam, but it had never been associated with the idea that life on earth could be radically transformed. It was usually associated with what was sometimes called millenarianism,—that is to say the belief that the world was actually going to end. I think Al-Qaeda has more in common with the revolutionary movements of modern times, which believe they could transform life on earth,—movements like the French Jacobins, or in the late-nineteenth century the anarchists who assassinated leaders, or in the twentieth century communism and Nazism, and groups like the Baader-Meinhof gang in Germany in the Eighties. Al-Qaeda has more in common with these revolutionary groups than it does with medieval or older religious violence. Where it stands out, though, is that it’s more ruthless and indiscriminate in its terror than the nineteenth-century anarchists. They normally struck at public officials, and they didn’t practice suicide bombing. So, Al-Qaeda is a more potent type of terrorism than these nineteenth-century variants.
NH: When you discuss the ‘globalisation’ of terror, and its modern use of communications technology, do you think that the fact that the suicide bombers have transpired to be British is illustrative of that point?
JG: Well, there are two things here, and I discuss some of them early on in my book Al-Qaeda and What It Means to Be Modern. One important point, in which they are definitely modern,—and even ultra-modern,—is that they aim to generate spectacular images. The atrocity that was committed in New York and Washington was intended to be—and was—something that had an enormous global media impact,—so they have an astute idea of how to project their capacity for terror to the global media, and that couldn’t have been done in any earlier time. As to the likelihood—practical certainty now—that the people who committed the terrorist atrocities in London on 7th July of this year were British,—that I think ought not to be too surprising, because the ideas of such an extremist movement,—ideas of changing the world through spectacular violence, and giving one’s life away to achieve some extreme, ill-thought-out goal—, because remember, there have been no statements yet as to why they did this, what they were attempting to achieve,—not even in the most general terms,—this kind of ultra-, pathological terrorism is unfortunately something that can spread contagiously. Partly, it can spread through the Internet, and the type of poisonous material that can be transmitted there, and partly by kind-of copying, emulation, just looking at the global media. What we have to understand is that suicide bombing can be two completely different things in different contexts. In places like Iraq, it can be a technique of what military strategists call isometric warfare,—that’s to say, when a relatively weak group attacks a very strong group. There, although the methods are atrocious and can never be justified, it’s a rational strategy with rational goals. But in the case of July 7th no goals were announced, no goals are apparent,—it’s a pathological expression of apocalyptic violence, by which I mean a kind of violence which—in a sense—simply wants to end things the way they are, but has no conception of anything that replaces them, except that it would be in some ill-defined way less corrupt or less evil. I think this type of violence—almost purposeless mass-murder and destruction—is one that is peculiarly frightening, and has to be taken with enormous seriousness. This type is peculiarly difficult to deal with.
NH: George Galloway has been roundly condemned for making the—I think—fairly acceptable point that in some ways this is partly a consequence of US and UK policy in Iraq. Do you think that’s a fair comment?
JG: Well, I’m not sure. As I said before, no statements were ever made before or after this atrocity, as to what it was intended to achieve, or—if it was purely an act of protest—what it was a protest against. While it is true that Iraq has greatly boosted terrorist recruitment, not only in Iraq itself and countries in the Middle East,—while that is true, it would be a mistake—an illusion—to think that there could be anything like safety if the policies had been different. France has always opposed the Iraq War, but France is a target. So there isn’t any safety. I think that if one condemns or criticises the Iraq War, as I have always done from before it began, those reasons still hold good and are not really changed by this terrorism. But it would be a mistake to think that an alteration of policy there would somehow magically remove the threat of terrorism, because those parts of the terrorist networks that have goals would still want to achieve them. For example, Bin Laden wants to achieve the destruction of the present regime in Saudi Arabia, and the complete withdrawal of Western powers from that country and other countries in the Gulf and the Middle East,—that goal would still be there and there would still be terrorism to achieve that goal. Equally, the profoundly pathological or purposeless terrorism could still be there, too. The bottom line, which I think is hard for many people to accept whether they be of the left, right, liberals or neoconservatives, is that although we can be more intelligent in our dealings with terrorism, it actually can’t be eradicated in this point. It can be diminished, subdued, controlled, contained, prevented in a number of cases, but actually can’t be eradicated. No change of policy, nothing that actually we can do, can now entirely exorcise this danger,—we’ll be at risk whatever we do.
NH: The kind of very fervent fundamentalist religious belief that motivates this kind of terrorism—I think I’m right in saying—you’ve described in your books as proving your point about the cyclical nature of social and intellectual human advance,—or rather the lack of it. Can you explain what you mean by that?
JG: Interestingly, many religions have caused violence in the name of their beliefs, and strong beliefs, especially apocalyptic beliefs about the end of the world,—which have occurred in a number of religions,—I think are extraordinarily dangerous, because they produce a willingness to accept or even to inflict large numbers of deaths and huge amounts of suffering and misery, for the sake of the vision of a new world coming after the end of the existing world that is completely delusive. It is important to remember that, apart from the present threat of extremist Islamist terrorism, there was in the United States in the mid-Nineties a major terrorist attack by Timothy McVeigh in Oklahoma, which killed over a hundred and sixty people, which was motivated by right-wing, anti-Semitic, neo-Nazi fantasies of a vast conflict which would destroy the existing order, which would wipe out many of its racial and religious minorities, and then there’d be a new world. Those kinds of beliefs are extraordinarily dangerous, and they keep recurring,—they’re very virulent, they’re very powerful, and when they die out in one form they have a habit of reappearing in another form. They were very powerful in Nazism, and in a different way they were powerful in communism. Interestingly, they’re two twentieth-century movements which are not normally thought of as being religious,—they were both actually founded in atheism, they were both anti-religious, they were both secular, and yet they were deeply infused with these apocalyptic beliefs in the end of the world, of violent and sudden transformation of the world, with huge numbers of people dying, with a different world and different humanity emerging from it. The roots of those beliefs are actually religious,—they’re in various elements of Western religion,—and yet they renewed themselves and reappeared in the secular revolutionary movements of the twentieth century. That suggests to me that these beliefs keep recurring in many societies throughout human history. So being a modern,—even an ultra-modern scientific society, founded on science, with science growing rapidly and the economy based on science,—in no way protects one against the recurrence of these beliefs. After all, Nazism was a completely indigenous European phenomenon,—it grew up in Germany which at that time was widely believed to be the most highly-educated society, which had a strong commitment to science and technology,—and indeed used science and technology in its most terrible crimes. So one of the things that I think is important to understand is that being a highly developed society is no protection against these types of apocalyptic terrorism. A different example is Japan in the Nineties, an extremely highly developed society,—tremendously highly developed in the areas of science and technology,—and that produced a cult which was dedicated to killing off most of mankind, and which succeeded in planting poisonous nerve-gas on the Tokyo underground. That’s a very important thing to understand,—that this apocalyptic impulse doesn’t go away just because society appears to have been secularised,—as it appeared to have been in the twentieth century,—or is now based on science. I know this is far off now, but it also means that when Islamist terrorism is no longer the chief terrorist threat, we shouldn’t believe that other types of terrorism won’t appear. Other types of terrorism will appear, because they’ve appeared in the past, and with new types of bio-weapons and new technology. We actually could be more at risk, in terms of mass deaths, from a single figure,—the almost-comic figure of the mad scientist could become real,—one scientist with the capacity to disseminate a destructive bio-weapon could pose an enormous threat. So, even beyond this threat we have to deal with practically now, we shouldn’t think that these types of apocalyptic terrorism won’t reappear.
NH: In that kind of future scenario, is there any alternative to increasingly repressive states monitoring everything that their citizens do?
JG: In Al-Qaeda and What It Means to Be Modern, I sort of predicted that the response of advanced societies everywhere would be to turn themselves into surveillance cultures, and I think that will happen. It’s not the only thing that could be done, and by itself is actually not sufficient, because there are lots of types of surveillance that simply can’t be implemented,—for example, you can’t have airport security on the London Underground,—London would strangle itself to death, it’s impossible. What can be done I think will be done, and there will be many civil-libertarians and others who will be greatly worried about this,—and it is worrying. It’s important not to have pointless and panicky reactions, to bring in unnecessary legislation, when probably—for example—in Britain the police have most of the powers that they need,—but I think it will happen. The reason is partly that this is such a frightening type of incursion into the security of everyday life, and in the case of this seemingly almost borderless terrorism, and that it seems to have no practical strategic goals, it’s very hard to think of what can be done. There are things that can be done, insofar as there are communities that are disaffected or alienated or suffer types of deprivation they can be brought into the mainstream. But you only need a very small number of people to generate this kind of threat, and if I’m right that in the future,—even when the threat from radical or extremist forms of Islamism,—not from the religion of Islam but from Islamism,—have disappeared, other types of terror are likely to emerge which might be using or trying to use biological and other more advanced techniques of terror, then I’m sure that advanced industrial societies will respond by developing much greater surveillance,—and I think it’s almost inevitable. I think then what we’d have to ask—, there would have to be some kind of new settlement as to which areas of human life the state cares about and which it doesn’t care about. You might have to think again—for example—about drug use. I’m no advocate of drug use, but it doesn’t seem to be a controlled prohibition. It might be that the state needs to step back, or to have a light hand in regulation in some areas where it intervenes now, and on the other hand to—, it might prove inevitable—, especially remember we’re talking about democracy here,—people may well demand that there be more surveillance of internet traffic and so on. So it might be the case that the state will need to redefine its scope, and step back in some areas and step forward in others. There will be quite a lot of difficult problems posed by that. I can’t see things remaining as they are if these threats continue to develop. I can’t see large complex, vulnerable democratic societies remaining just the way they are now.
NH: Why do you think opinion on your work is so polarised?
JG: What I’m trying to do in my work is to identify blindspots in the prevailing world view, which in the West is a form of liberal-humanism which believes that the growth of knowledge is somehow inherently liberating. It’s a view that goes all the way back, in different ways and forms, to Socrates in ancient Greece. If you aim, as I do, to bring out the illusions in that belief, or to bring out the fact that the growth of knowledge isn’t inherently liberating,—right from weapons of mass destruction, which do exist,—not in Iraq, but there are plenty of them about,—and there will be probably even more about,—all of those weapons of mass-destruction are by-products of the growth of knowledge, and most of the most serious problems that we face in the world today are aggravated by or spin-offs of the growth of knowledge. Now that’s not to say that we can or should try to stop the growth of knowledge. First of all we can’t, and secondly we shouldn’t because in many areas it is highly beneficial. But the belief that the growth of knowledge is somehow inherently good or inherently liberating is deeply rooted in the present world view, and is connected with ideas of progress which give a meaning to many people’s lives. As a critic of those, I’m bound on the one hand to gain support from a whole wide variety of people, ranging from religious believers of various traditions, to artists and poets and psychotherapists and writers of many kinds who’ve welcomed my work, and on the other hand I’m bound to provoke a strong negative response to those who are believers in this religion, because in a sense what I am doing is criticising the dominant religion of the West. In a sense, these dreadful events illustrate one of my main points, which is that no increase in the growth of knowledge, no increase in the power of science, no increase in the power of technology can exorcise these dangers, these inherent pathologies of the human mind, which have in the past been expressed in both religious and secular forms. I think that truth, which is a rather sobering truth,—but I think it is the truth,—is something that necessarily polarises opinion, because there are many that want to deny it, for various reasons, and it takes a certain amount of clarity of thought to face up to it.