Possibly the most lamentable outcome of the raised tension and insecurity that has accompanied the theatre of terrorism in Australia is the decline in our political culture, which will last for as many years as such a threat is declared – even if it is never fully demonstrated.
Opposition parties and mainstream media have become more or less paralysed into doing nothing other than focus on the power of terror, as a real threat and as a psychological spectre that is preoccupying the minds of many Australians.
As satirised recently, the Australian Labor Party has been all but neutered by the call to protect citizens from a largely invisible threat that few Australians seem to understand, let alone know what to do about.
The failure to understand this threat largely rests with the spectacle-reporting that is pushed at us by the tabloid media in this country. The tabloids have been feeding off images of beheadings, while giving airtime to the proclamations of both extreme Islamists and the daily repetitive pounding of the security warnings of government ministers.
But here we can point to a perspective for which the declarations of the radical Islamists and of the Australian government actually share a common basis – one that is not easy to see unless we explore the background politics of terrorism in the modern era.
For this purpose, I am going to draw on the fascinating insights of a little-known BBC documentary released in 2004, known as the Power of Nightmares: The Rise of the Politics of Fear. The program, produced by Adam Curtis, is in three parts, and explores the rise of both radical Islam and neo-conservative thinking on terrorism as having a common origin.
Imagined threat vs empirical evidence
Post-9/11, Power of Nightmares argues that much of the threat of terrorism is a fantasy, which has been exaggerated and distorted by politicians.
Certainly, this is true empirically. The University of British Columbia produced a Human Security Report the following year to show that, measured by fatalities, terrorism was much more significant in the 1930s than it was up to that time post- 9/11. It is just that today, the power of the “image” conveyed by instantaneous communication is hundreds of times more powerful than it was in the ‘30s.
As the Power of Nightmares explains, terrorism has become:
… a dark illusion that has spread unquestioned through governments around the world, the security services, and the international media.
The film does not deny that terrorism exists, it is just that it is of great benefit to Western governments to exaggerate this threat. In turn, such exaggeration can be domestically divisive, causing alienation in one group and imagined fear in mainstream society, to the point where real violence can actually break out.
The real event then vindicates those who had been promoting the imagined fear and, before long, the real and the imaginary state of affairs become indistinguishable.
This is the place that Australia is in right now.
As the power of the image asserts itself, it is not that it directly influences what people think, but that it changes the media ecology in which we think. This can therefore make decisions that would have been unacceptable before the spectre of terror was heightened come to be seen as entirely justified.
For example, almost two weeks ago, on his last day before retiring, the head of ASIO raised the terrorist alert level to high, even though no specific threat to Australia has been identified, only a general global threat.
A “show of strength” of 800 police was deployed last week in raids that resulted in only one arrest of a person who had made a threat in a private telephone conversation. On the same day, Australian military were deployed overseas to fight a terrorist group that the raid in Australia was trying to expose here.
Daily, prime minister Tony Abbott is making declarations about “those who would do us harm” and foreshadowing that the freedoms Australians are used to will have to be sacrificed in the name of security for many years into the future.
At first glance the protection being offered by the government, at least to non-Muslim citizens, seems to be the major benefit of these deeds and words, but what of the terrorists, the mass media and the Abbott government? Could they also be beneficiaries?
The Power of Nightmares
Part one of the documentary begins in the small town of Greely in the US state of Colorado in the summer of 1949. This is the place where a middle-aged school inspector from Egypt, Sayyed Qutb, spent time studying the US educational system.
The documentary traces Qutb’s unique kind of anthropological assessment of American society as a crass, hollow, materialistic and vulgar society into the thinking of extreme anti-Western Islamic doctrine. It makes the clam that:
Qutb was going to develop a powerful set of ideas that would directly inspire those who flew the planes on the attack of September the 11th.
The documentary traces the direct influence of Qutb on the ideas of Ayman Zawahiri, who is infamously known as the mentor of Osama Bin Laden. A core thread running through the thinking of these men was contempt for what Qutb called Jahillayah, a state of materialistic “barbarous ignorance”, which Jihadist Islam sees as spreading like a cancer across Muslim states in the Middle East, particularly Egypt, infecting the minds of Muslims.
Such people believed they were free but were in fact trapped by their own selfishness, according to Qutb.
At the same time as Qutb’s views were becoming influential, so were those of an obscure philosopher at the University of Chicago by the name of Leo Strauss, on the ideas of a group who were to become known as the neo-conservatives.
The neoconservatives were actually anti-liberal in the sense that they shared the same fears as Qutb about the destructive force of individualism in the US, that Western liberalism ultimately led to nihilism, a world without values that could bind people together, a state that some intellectuals later came to know as “postmodernism” – a situation in which liberalism had gone too far, leading people to question absolutely everything.
Strauss cultivated a strong following among figures who were to become extremely influential in the conservative circles of US politics, including Irving Kristol, Paul Wolfowitz, Dick Chaney and Frances Fukuyama.
The Power of Nightmares, documents the resolve of the neo-cons to cultivate powerful myths for people to believe in: which could be in the name of religion, or a nation. In America, this myth was specifically the idea that America had been chosen with a unique destiny to battle the forces of evil around the world.
What was important for the neo-cons was not that they themselves believed in such a myth, but that Americans needed something to bring them together, a kind of “team America” spirit or zeitgeist, which could transform both their selfishness and isolation.
The documentary charts the influence of Strauss and this group on the Reagan, Bush Snr and Bush Jnr administrations, but also the way that a neo-conservative American foreign policy set the agenda for even Democrat parties to take seriously the Commander-in-Chief role of the president in fighting “evil” throughout the world.
The emphasis quickly shifted from the Soviet Union to Islam at the end of the cold war. To secure popular support for the demonising and “othering” of such groups, neo-cons managed to make an alliance with a number of powerful preachers in America.
Before the 1970s, the millions of fundamentalist Christians in America avoided politics and did not vote. This was quickly turned around by these preachers, who the documentary argues swept Ronald Reagan to power.
As one fundamentalist preacher, James Robinson, told his audience in 1980:
I’m sick and tired of hearing about all of the radicals, and the perverts, and the liberals, and the leftists, and the Communists coming out of the closet! It’s time for God’s people to come out of the closet, out of the churches, and change America! We must do it!
At the same time, in 1979 Iran had become an Islamic state, proving to Zawahiri that a fundamentalist Islamic caliphate was possible. This development consolidated what was later to be expressed in US intellectual circles as the “Clash of Civilisations” thesis.
It is possible to argue that understanding the role of media, politicians and religion in the contemporary reality of terrorism in the contemporary world is not possible without looking at how the emergence of Islamic extremism and neo-conservatism co-developed.
Nightmare comes to Australia
In Australia, the rapid escalation of a real and imagined “state of terror” has occurred very much in the shadow of the practices of the neo-conservatives in the US.
This is not to suggest that the Coalition has adopted a neo-conservative policy in its attitude to Islam and in what some see as the overnight creation of a police state in Australia. There are several differences between the views of the neo-cons and those of Coalition politicians, chief amongst them the inconsistency and pragmatism of the Coalition.
No sooner has the government been embarking on a classical liberalist platform of the rights of citizens to be bigots than we see the incarceration of members of a group identified as bigots.
It would be difficult to argue that the Coalition is interested in bringing Australians together around a common spirit after the failure of its first budget that alienated so many groups. Nor does the party have a mass population of fundamentalist Christians to sign up to its support base.
If there is an ideological apparatus ready-at-hand for this government, it would be the oligopolistic tabloid press which, as been noted, are the first to receive press releases from the prime minister’s office.
Certainly some of the techniques used by neo-conservatives, as depicted in the film, are also ones at play in Australia right now and in many Western democracies. But it is very difficult to see any kind of coherent philosophy behind it other than electoral survival. Some have noted the intellectual decline of the right in Australia and the sense that the Coalition’s core agenda has become disconnected from science and a serious or intelligent discussion of social progress.
Perhaps, in the context of this decline, the Coalition is simply defaulting to what has worked for neo-conservatives in the past, and the neo-conservative philosophy has temporarily become the content of a destructive pragmatism.
But to the extent it is true that the Coalition is sharing the views of the neo-cons, even if for pragmatic reasons, according to Curtis, they actually share the views of radical Islam itself.