Language – A Tool to Transform Different into Dangerous
Alastair Crooke interviewed by Christian Porth, Daily Star, February 2, 2008
“If thought corrupts language,” the English author George Orwell wrote in his famous 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language,” “language can also corrupt thought. A bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation, even among people who should and do know better.” Alastair Crooke, a fellow Briton, would agree. A former British intelligence officer and co-founder of Conflicts Forum – a Beirut think tank and international movement which engages with Islamist movements broadly – Crooke spends much of his time advocating that the West move toward serious intellectual engagement with Islamists, unfortunately more often than not to no avail.
For Crooke, the origins of the current dialogue (or lack thereof) between the West and Islamists are fundamentally a function of two things: language and power.
“If you want to look at why we use language like this, you would have to look very much at the philosophical origins,” he told The Daily Star. “You have to look clearly at how in the West we now see power.”
Tracing the origins of Western attitudes toward power and its use, Crooke detailed how the experience of Germany’s Weimar Republic had an extraordinary influence on thinkers in the West. “What was wrong with Weimar? Well, for people like Leo Stauss [godfather of modern neoconservatism] and the Chicago School, it was too tolerant and it therefore it had a tendency to come apart and turn into a mess rather than coalesce. So that the only thing to protect it from these sorts of threats was to have a very strong unifying element.”
And that’s where fear came in. “There was the need to have an enemy, an enemy that was presented in terms of being in black and white, of having no grays, of being an absolute enemy. And there was a very strong trend that power therefore was simply and essentially about destroying alternatives to your power.”
“Language, then, became a tool of power and not only in terms of the nation-state but as a means of communication, not as a means of understanding, but to use language to make somebody else’s identity, to make the Islamist’s identity that they have or tried to create as an alternative to the Western identity, appear repellent, appear unattractive, distorted and to be ridiculous,” Crooke said. “So there was a real effort to create a language that defined them in terms that no one would want: ‘You’re going back to the 7th century, they hate modernity, they hate freedom.’ Well, no Muslim living in middle-class, secular Muslim society wants to go back to the 7th century and he doesn’t want to ignore modernity; we all like our telephones and so on. So it was intended to undermine and erode and destroy their sense of identity.”
“So language is then destroyed as a tool for mediation and mediation itself is a target for those using power. Like Carl Schmitt said, ‘the mediators, these are the queasy liberals that don’t understand the struggle.’”
For Crooke, another important factor is the West’s abandonment of critical thinking. “I think you have to go back quite a long way to determine when these ideas in America started. I think it was in the aftermath of Germany’s defeat [in World War II] that these ideas became more credible.”
“There was a sense of ‘you don’t need to know’ which came around from these ideas around the 1950s and 1960s with the ‘Team B’ concept. The Team B was put up to challenge the CIA view on the Soviet Union where there was a belief that what mattered was not the characteristics of the Soviet Union, but its central nature.”
In Crooke’s personal estimation, then-US President Ronald Reagan went even further in the 1980s to undermine the necessity of critical thinking and dialogue in international politics. “What Reagan produced and put very strongly into the American conscience was the sense that this was about good and evil. He was the first one who put the Soviet Union not in terms of a competitive power but as an ‘Evil Empire’ and it started … early in Reagan’s term and it was certainly used by the conservatives to mobilize America.”
“Because how do you negotiate with evil, with the devil? You don’t. There has to be a victory. And this became part of Reagan’s language and it became explicit so clearly for the first time that this wasn’t a question of power or right and wrongs, this was evil. Once you moved into that mediation and partial victories drop out because there is only one thing you can do with evil: you have to vanquish it.”
“And this is what happened to the intelligence services both then and recently. They started saying to them ‘don’t bother me with the facts, you don’t need to know the details about what’s happening, it’s enough for you to understand these people are evil. You don’t need to know facts or history, just need to know that they’re evil.’”
“So if language doesn’t mean anything and this is about power, well-intentioned mediators that come from America or from Europe and try and talk to Islamists, will they change anything? No. They’re not going to change anything.”
Crooke sees a failure on the part of the West to listen, to understand and to acknowledge what Islamists have to say – which he partly traces to a failure in education. “I think people outside of the region read more about the West than vice-versa. It’s incredible how read they are in Western philosophy. Far more than us … We’ve dropped that out of Western education.”
“This is one of the points the Islamists make, the West has lost the ability to use other forms of reasoning. We’re so buried in empirical reason, and reasoning we believe is objective and therefore better and unassailable because it’s objective. And Islamists would say ‘well that type of reasoning is just as laden with value judgments as any other category of reasoning.’ But what we’ve done in the West basically since the Renaissance is to drop out deductive, syllogistic and metaphysical thinking along with other types of rationality which allow one to bring everything into a more unified overview. So we’ve ended up with an approach to thinking that is one of dominating: You divide it up and conquer that area of knowledge. Which certainly translates to the political arena as well.”
“Westerners are confused because we say we want to talk to these people about nuclear issues and then they come back and talk cosmology,” he added. “And I say it’s actually quite important because until you recognize they have authentic views that are different, then there’s no point to this dialogue.”
“Only when you understand a different perspective and say: ‘How do you see history?’ ‘How do you see your future?’ And only when you can accept that even when you disagree with their statements, even if they are irreconcilable with your vision of your future and you can actually say ‘well, that statement they’re making is an authentic and a legitimate statement as they see it.’ Once you accept that, then you can have a political process. And only then can you really start to look at a process of engagement.”
“Simply having well-meaning groups doing [low-level] talks with Islamists … is just part of an industry that is vacuous and has no real meaning.”
“We need to put the human being back at the center of society – the complete human being in a multidimensional form,” Crooke argued. The West needs to “understand that Islamists are saying that they don’t accept the primacy of the individual and they believe that the individual is not responsible for his own well being, in that society shares that responsibility with him as he shares that responsibility for society also. That progress is not about individual satisfaction, it is about community cohesion. So there are these important points being made by Islamists but until people start to say that we need to think about these or at least hear them then I don’t think there will be any talk.”
Solutions will not come easy, Crooke said, but the search for them is important because of the long-term benefits for all concerned.
“I think in my experience there is one thing that changes politics, in America and in the West, and it does change it much more effectively than mediation or writing good articles,” he said. “That’s failure. When policy really fails, when people start looking in the bottom drawer for alternatives and start saying things like ‘what happened here?’ At that point you get to where dialogue is actually meaningful and either side isn’t simply shouting ‘when we sit down, we’re going to tell you how it is.’”