The Naive Armchair Warriors are Fighting a Delusional War

Alastair Crooke

The French philosopher Michel Foucault notes that in all societies discourse is controlled – imperceptibly constrained, perhaps, but constrained nonetheless. We are not free to say exactly what we like. The norms set by institutions, convention and our need to keep within the boundaries of accepted behaviour and thought limit what may be touched upon. The Archbishop of Canterbury experienced the backlash from stepping outside these conventions when he spoke about aspects of Islamic law that might be imported into British life.

Once, a man was held to be mad if he strayed from this discourse – even if his utterings were credited with revealing some hidden truth. Today, he is called “naive”, or accused of having gone “native”. Recently, the Royal United Services Institute (Rusi) marshalled former senior military and intelligence experts in order to assert such limits to expression by warning us that “deference” to multiculturalism was undermining the fight against Islamic “extremism” and threatening security.

Former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger, in a recent interview with a German magazine, embellished Rusi’s complaints of naivety and “flabby thinking”. Radical Islam won’t stop, he warned, and the “virus” would only become more virulent if the US were to withdraw from Iraq.

The charge of naivety is not limited to failing to understand the concealed and duplicitous nature of Hamas and Hizbullah, Iran and Syria; it extends to not grasping the true nature of the wider “enemy” the west is facing. “I don’t like the term ‘war on terror’ because terror is a method, not a political movement; we are in a war against radical Islam,” says Kissinger. But who or what is radical Islam? It is those who are not “moderates”, he explains. Certainly, a small minority of Muslims believe that only by “burning the system” can a fresh stab at a just society be made. But Kissinger’s definition of “moderate” Islam sounds no more than a projection of the Christian narrative after Westphalia, by which Christianity became a private matter of conscience, rather than an organisational principle for society.

If radical Islam, with which these experts tell us we should be at war, encompasses all those who are not enamoured of secular society, and who espouse a vision of their societies grounded in the values of Islam, then these experts are advocating a war with Islam – because Islam is the vision for their future favoured by many Muslims.

Mainstream Islamists are indeed challenging western secular and materialist values, and many do believe that western thinking is flawed – that the desires and appetites of man have been reified into representing man himself. It is time to re-establish values that go beyond “desires and wants”, they argue.

Many Islamists also reject the western narrative of history and its projection of inevitable “progress” towards a secular modernity; they reject the western view of power-relationships within societies and between societies; they reject individualism as the litmus of progress in society; and, above all, they reject the west’s assumption that its empirical approach lends unassailability and objective rationality to its thinking – and universality to its social models.

People may, or may not, agree, but the point is that this is a dispute about ideas, about the nature of society, and about equity in an emerging global order. If western discourse cannot step beyond the enemy that it has created, these ideas cannot be heard – or addressed. This is the argument that Jonathan Powell made last week when he argued that Britain should understand the lessons of Northern Ireland: we should talk to Islamist movements, including al-Qaida. It has to be done, because the west needs to break through the fears and constraints of an over-imagined “enemy”.

Camouflaged behind a language dwelling exclusively on “their” violence and “their” disdain for rationality, these “realists” propose not a war on terror, nor a war to preserve “our values” – for we are not about to be culturally overwhelmed. No Islamist seriously expects that a “defeated” west would hasten to adopt the spirit of the Islamic revolution.

No, the west’s war is a military response to ideas that question western supremacy and power. The nature of this war on “extremism” became evident when five former chiefs of defence staff of Nato states gathered at a think-tank in Washington earlier this year. Their aim was not to query the realism of a war on ideas, but to empower Nato for an “uncertain world”.

“We cannot survive … confronted with people who do not share our values, who unfortunately are in the majority in terms of numbers, and who are extremely hungry for success,” Germany’s former chief of defence staff warned. Their conclusion was that the security of the west rests on a “restoration of its certainties”, and on a new form of deterrence in which enemies will find there is not, and never will be, a place in which they feel safe.

The generals concluded that Nato should adopt an asymmetrical and relentless pursuit of its targets regardless of others’ sovereignty; to surprise; to seize the initiative; and to use all means, including the nuclear option, against its enemies.

In Foucault’s discourse, he identified a further group of rules serving to control language: none may enter into discourse on a specific subject unless he or she is deemed qualified to do so. Those, like the archbishop, who penetrate this forbidden territory – reserved to security expertise – to ask that we see the west for what it has become in the eyes of others, are liable to be labeled as naively weakening “our certainties” and undermining national resolve.

But do we, who are brushed out of this discourse by the blackmail of presumed expertise, really believe them? Do we really believe, after so much failure, that Islamist alternative ideas will be suppressed by a Nato plunged into an asymmetrical warfare of assassinations and killings? The west’s vision for society holds power only so long as people believe it holds power. Do we really think that if force has not succeeded, that only more and greater force can restore belief in the western vision? If that is the limit to western thinking, then it is these “realists”, these armchair warriors fighting a delusional war against a majority who “do not share our values”, who are truly naive.


  1. Wonderful article. I believe the term of radical Islamics is a scare tactic to validify “the war on
    terror.” There has to be a bad guy, someone to hate and to keep the industrial military operation running. Such a waste of all resources and yes, naieve.

    I charge the Bush Administration of genocide; war crimes and misdemeanors on every level.
    To save face for blunder after blunder, over a million Iraqis dead and 4 thousand Americans lost………FOR NOT. How sad

    I don’t believe in statements from the likes of Kissenger who is a member of the New World Order and has little respect for human life.

    There is Good and there is Evil and conflict will always be there to tantalize our leaders. Let us pray more for peace on Earth.

  2. […] Alastair Crooke, The Guardian, March 24: […]

  3. […] The naive armchair warriors are fighting a delusional war By Alastair Crooke, The Guardian, March 24, 2008 The French philosopher Michel Foucault notes that in all societies discourse is controlled – imperceptibly constrained, perhaps, but constrained nonetheless. We are not free to say exactly what we like. The norms set by institutions, convention and our need to keep within the boundaries of accepted behaviour and thought limit what may be touched upon. The Archbishop of Canterbury experienced the backlash from stepping outside these conventions when he spoke about aspects of Islamic law that might be imported into British life. […]

  4. Thank you Alastair Crooke for explaining the Islamist discourse so well. As you have pointed out several times, drawing from direct experience, it is possible to have a dialogue with the Islamic mass movements like Hamas and Hizbullah. A dialogue predicated on the right to self determination by all parties, is the only sane way forward.

  5. Bill Phanstiel wrote:

    With regard to establishing a dialogue across cultural biases I think this very problem has been successfully tackled in the Western tradition. It was hermaneutic discipline that bridged the philosophic differences between the Roman Church and its Protestant reformers once they realized that militancy would not succeed for either viewpoint. Hermaneutics’ chief philospher that I am aware of, in the modern context, is Gadamer. Perhaps some effort to “walk in eachother’s principles” might be helpful in reaching some accomodation with our contradictory views.

  6. John Merryman wrote:

    The logical flaw with monotheism is that the absolute, the universal state, is basis, not apex. Zero, not one. So a spiritual absolute would be the essence out of which we rise, not an Ideal Form from which we fell. It just happens to be politically useful for society to view the apex as the source of all that is wise and wonderful, rather than just the capstone of that on which it rests. Divine right of kings and all that.
    Islam had the misfortune of being wildly successful as a model of society for its first millenium and is drawn to this very real golden age, unlike Judaism and Christianity, both of which are defined as much or more by their misfortunes and tend to place hope in a better future.

  7. mark mulligan wrote:

    Foucault never took his analysis far enough. Discourse is constrained by whatever means are sustainable: from the chopping block, through economic censorship, to “polite people don’t discuss such things.” Your analysis of Western weapon technicians is a propos, but fails to note the mirror-image minority among Islamists (or Chinese, or Russian, or developing nations, or any self-defending social aggregate). Each reinforcing the others and silencing all other discourse.

    In essence, a tiny minority of weapon mentors (like Kissinger) supported by a larger minority of weapon fellow-travelers, act like guerilla fish in a sea of lethargic human cattle intent on their personal priorities and nothing more (until it is too late and military Armageddon engulfs them all), and in successful opposition to an equally small minority of so-called “progressive activists” who oppose them on circumstantial, reductive grounds and nothing more — who refuse to consider any clearer analysis of the situation.

    All the while, both sides deny that their weapon-peace dialectic is the central node of their discourse, (“My peace is good, my weapon systems are justified; your peace is hypocritical, your weapons systems are bad”) because it would drag all their elaborate debates into the sunlight of reason and mutual recognition. Since they are all saying essentially the same thing, just swapping proper nouns (God and Allah, Westerners and Islamists, Sunni and Shia, etc., etc. : take your pick) to suit their militarist fantasies.

    For elaboration on this post-Foucault theme:

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