The Futures of Power After 9/11

1. From a risk society to a state of insecurity

For a while, until at least the attack of February 26, 1993 on the World Trade Center, it might have seemed as if the old matters of identity were hardly of any concern. After the second more successful attack of 9/11 few could think that was still the case.12 Islamic claims to identity were serving as circuit-breakers to existing power relations.

What emerged from the Middle East was not so much a reassertion of pre-modern identities but a positioning of a contemporary identity. It is one that expresses a version of Islam as politically grounded within modern frameworks. Religious thoughts are used as political weapons, alongside modern instruments such as the Internet and video, and with a sophisticated grasp of mass media spectacle. What was evident about the actions of the terrorists who commandeered the planes was their intersection with, and irruption into, the global circuits of power that are cen- tered practically, symbolically, and emotionally on New York and Washington. Practically, New York is the media HQ of the world; the Twin Towers were the emblem of global capitalism; and the Pentagon is the symbol of American imper- ial might. If you want the whole world to watch a spectacle, what other venues would be better to stage it in than New York? The choice of the Pentagon as a target (and the White House, the presumed target of the fourth plane that was crash- landed in the countryside) made the meaning of the attack quite transparent. The primetime crews were right on hand at the center of global distribution networks. The whole world really could be watching what was achieved, very quickly. What was innovative about what the terrorists did was to bring the damage of war to the US mainland in a way that no other adversary ever had achieved, while simultane- ously bringing it to the attention of the whole world.

If you want to disrupt circuits of power then you need to determine what the necessary nodal points are that you need to shut down and what the new ones are that you want to create. It is better not to dissipate the effort too much with too many events, for the simultaneity of many different things can never compete for the attention as effectively as a carefully choreographed spectacle. Living to terror- ize again is not a paramount value for those who live and die for the politics of the deed, especially where there is the justification of a personally annihilatory but symbolically transcending target. Emotionally, the deaths of thousands of people in a single spectacular caught in the gaze of the whole television-viewing world in a replayable series of instances weigh far heavier as lives in the balance than the infi- nitely numerically weightier accumulation of deaths that have resulted from US foreign policy over the years. Mostly these were unseen; often they were unreported; and they were not, on the whole, spectacular. Nor, and not to put too fine a point on it, did they engage with the emotions of most people in that most self-centered of nations in which the identity other to that of American is that of ‘alien’, as US immigration control so nicely puts it.

Of course, that the US has in the past invariably been both politically discrimi- nate and ethically indiscriminate in its choice of friends and enemies is no excuse for the awfulness of what happened on 9/11, but it does put it into some kind of context. Choices involve responsibilities, in foreign relations just as much as any other. And sometimes others will configure and constitute these choices in ways that their progenitors could never have imagined in the past, by disturbing the architecture of politics, meaning, and war utterly. And this seems to be what has happened. The whole world watched the events of 9/11 in New York and Washington over and over again in replay; we can conclude that its designers had a sophisticated grasp of the realpolitik of power and its circuitry. They knew how to use fear and terror to try and reconfigure the circuitry of international relations, as well as to destroy lives. With absolutely no resource dependencies to speak of, with hardly any resources in fact, they were able to symbolically overwhelm, circuit-break, and reposition the entire architecture of power that has made the US so comfortable at home, so secure in its projections of power abroad and so despised by those who regard their causes and peoples as its victims.

The explanation of 9/11 that developed from the bin Laden videos makes it evi- dent that fundamentalisms were flourishing through which pre-modern claims to identity were paramount. The claims of and for a religiously fundamental identity have found realization and ruthless repression alike in different parts of the Middle East and Muslim Asia.13 Nor did their impact start and stop there. They also produced resonances amongst the broader Muslim diaspora, of whom there over 20 million in Europe alone.

For any diasporic community the central issue is always one of cultural integra- tion, a ‘two-sided process of immigrants’ adjustment to a new society without loss of what they consider essential to their identity (or self definition, particularly in the sense of their religion or ethnicity) and, simultaneously, of the adoptive society’s accommodation of them’ (McGown 1999: 43). The notion of difference that is indexed by the notion of ethnicity is usually thought of in terms of a con- tinuum that stretches from a primordial, internal concept to one that is external and structural. Primordially, it is the attachments and relations that one carries with one that define identity; structurally, it is the boundaries determined by the larger society, rather than the lifeworld that the communities construct, that define them. Externally, Isajiw defines an ethnic group as an ‘involuntary group of people who share the same culture or … descendants of such people who identify them- selves and/or are identified by others as belonging to the same involuntary social group’ (1979: 21–2). In many developed societies, especially where the Muslim population is concerned, external and internal definitions coincide. In the diaspora of British cities, as McGown argues, for specific ethnic communities there is developing a strong consciousness of identity through religion, in order to place themselves in a new society that is predominantly non-Muslim, and indeed to assert themselves within it … [a context in which] the Islamists have acquired a moral leadership beyond the circle of those willing to identify themselves as such. (1999: 228)14

McGown’s (1999: 232–3) research into London Somalis establishes that they are both alienated from and kept at a distance from British society; they are subject to more systematic racism than Somalis in Canada; and in terms of their internal life- world they have become ‘generally more religious on migrating into the diaspora’ and more hostile within the British than the Canadian context. For some in dias- poric Muslim communities generally, the hostility is such that their identities in question see nothing that resonates positively in the offerings that the market pro- duces in abundance in the host society. Instead, they see an overly sexualized, narcissistic and alienating environment. Revolted by what is on offer in the post modern market – and we in the West are all embraced by this institution now – for some a retreat to the certainties offered by fundamentalism seems desirable. Here, as Durkheim would have expected, an excess of social integration can lead to a sur- plus of altruistic suicide as some people, in some communities, are prepared to kill and die for their beliefs in the appropriateness of identity.15

One consequence is that, today, all major organizations in societies that are seen as implicated in the intractable problems of the Middle East – the plight of the Palestinians and militaristic intervention in the ‘War on Terror’ – face something a step beyond what Beck (2002) calls a ‘risk society’. Beck defines the risk society as one in which the processes of modernization have introduced systemic risks and insecurities previously unknown in nature (2002: 21). The risk society is char- acterized by decisions that are industrially produced and potentially ‘politically reflexive’ (2002: 183). Beck’s concern is with industrial production and ecological risk, typified by phenomena such as acid rain, global warming, and Chernobyl, and with the loss of identity and heightened insecurity associated with more flexible work patterns (Beck 1999).

Today, we live not only in a risk society but also in a state of insecurity, a condition that previously characterized societies quite marginal to Western civilization – such as Sri Lanka (George and Clegg 1997) in which context we first developed the con- cept of a state of insecurity. Generalized risk is further amplified by floating signifiers that attract fear and deliver terror. These signifiers can, in reality, be manifest in the destruction of anyone, irrespective of beliefs, ideologies, or identities. At essence they are to do with that most fundamental element of liberal political philosophy – the security of the body of the individual subjects and the security of the body of the polity as a whole.16 With these new threats, as they are apparent on the streets, skies and subways of Western cities, the risk society is transmuting into a state of uncer- tainty. Whereas the enemy was eternalized with 9/11 into an Islamic fundamentalism that was situated in failing states supporting network organizations of terrorists, after Britain’s 7/7 it suddenly transpired that the enemy was within as well as without.17 After the explosions that rocked London, the day after the city received news that it had been chosen to host the 2012 Olympics, and in the week immediately following Live8, there was widespread shock at the revelation that the suicide bombers were not emissaries from the Middle East but came from inner city Leeds and Dewsbury. They were homegrown, second-generation British Muslims.

Today, given the decline of traditional party loyalties, young people in general are less likely to find their identity in a voluntary political process of voting and politics.18 Thus, there are significant groups of people – particularly amongst the young – who are not fully political or democratic subjects in the normal senses of the word; the do not participate in the formal political process because its meaning is estranged from their own sensemaking. In terms of the sense they make, the major sources of meaning are to be found, as Berger (1990) argues, in transcendent ideas of religiosity. By the twenty-first century a group of young Muslim people in Western democracies were involved neither in the signifiers of a secular society nor in the positive polyvalence of the market.19 Yet, they were not just socially disinte- grated, anomic, normless, and meaningless subjects.20 They were not entirely out- side of civility but were building on some notions of civil society that had been nurtured from the most fundamentalist strains in contemporary Islamic thought (Ali 2002).21 In the West, in societies with large Muslim populations (most of the major EU countries), where a degree of political alienation is allied with a more general cultural and economic estrangement, it is hardly surprising if such young people do not become fully aspirational ‘normal’ economic subjects. Moreover, where they are not greatly involved in consumption – because its narcissism and sexualization are a constant affront to the religious sensibilities they are developing elsewhere – then they will hardly be incorporated as subjects of consumption.

There is an interesting dovetailing of two quite different projects in the estrange- ment of religious and cultural identities. Throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s the refrain of economic neoliberalism was that there was no such thing as society. Society could be conceived of simply in terms of individuals making economic choices, using price signals as allocative mechanisms. In the terms of the ‘no society’ project it was postulated that only individuals should be conceptualized as existentially real. As free subjects they were able to exercise choices in markets, such that consumption became the key to identity. An unanticipated side effect of the project is to whittle down the grounds for identity formation. If you are what you shop to become then identity formation becomes highly contingent on participation in the rituals of a market society. Thus, for those who refused the market and its choices and were estranged politically, economically and ideologically, there was little or no identity available that could relate to the central projects of the type of society in which they found themselves.22 For those Muslims with utopian religious worldviews estranged from the dominant orthodoxies, if what is on offer is a reality constructed on narcis- sism, consumerism, and individualism, then it is not surprising that it should be seen as constituting a hegemon that affronts their existence, faith, and identity. Where utopian ideals turn present-day life into a dystopia, it is hardly surprising if some responses are dysfunctional for the social reality that normalcy constructs.

Where utopian ideology exists in communities that barely interact outside the confines of chosen urban patterns of residence, which for all the usual reasons are highly concentrated, then dystopian beliefs about identity, the world, and one’s place in it as a member of the broader community can more easily flourish, especially where everything that is needed is found there – food, religion, spouses, culture, and appropriate garb – so there is little need to go outside.23 Within the embrace of utopianism all faiths develop dystopian groups little involved in the everyday life of a broader society in which they cannot find themselves, where disaffected young people are drawn to radical cliques largely devoid of pluralism, discursively and religiously, because the central role is played by a literalist interpretation of a key text. In such a situation all interpretive politics become condensed into one game of hermeneutics in which those interpretations that seem ‘purest’ will always attract alienated and anomic individuals.

Finally, as a result of digitalization, individuals have the choice not to be involved in the cultural life of the place where they live, in the larger sense, but to participate more vividly in the cultural life of the diasporic community through Al Jazeera and other media, and thus live a reality that, while it is real, is hardly shared at all with the broader context of everyday life. When this reality is treated on the BBC, CNN or France2, let alone FoxNews, it is rarely a personalized but mostly a dehumanized real- ity – 26 people were blown up in three suicide attacks in Baghdad on the day that we wrote these words – as opposed to the continuing focus on the people who were destroyed in the bombings on one day in London (7/7/2005) or New York (9/11/2001) or Bali (10/12/2002). These others are constituted as our brothers and sisters. We feel their pain, we know their faces, we read about their families, and we share their dis- tress and devastation on the nightly news and in the pages of the newspapers in a way that we do not when we hear statistics from the Middle East. Iraqi people are also brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, mothers and fathers, but their humanity is denied us, because of these others we know nothing. They are just a statistic. If we knew better these other people in places such as Sharm el-Sheikh (23/7/2005), if we knew these people who are not like us, and if in other places, such as Baghdad (25/7/2005), we less routinely expected the statistics, 24 there might be more under- standing and a few more heartfelt tears shed for the losses incurred.

Some young people will be drawn to a dystopian view of reality through a utopian view of religion. In countries in which their very presence is reflected as the selves they see in the looking glass of the others through the frame of difference – dif- ferent color, different ethnicity, different language, different food, different clothes, different lives, and different suburbs, all centered on different religion – this will be especially the case. If, in such circumstances, they might feel their difference exis- tentially, that should hardly be surprising. Especially, that is, when the difference that you represent seems to be one on which the other has declared war, via an abstraction of a terror whose sense signifies attack on ‘people like us’. If, at the same time, the opportunities for human growth afforded one are rarely posed in terms other than those that are heavily circumscribed for the deeply devout and ortho- dox, we should not be surprised if a few people take seriously both their future perfect utopia and their present imperfect dystopia.

Source: Clegg Stewart, Courpasson David, Phillips Nelson X. (2006), Power and Organizations, SAGE Publications Ltd; 1st edition.

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