Two Hours That Shook The World by Fred Halliday

The roots of Nine Eleven
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The Independent Culture

Terrorists do not get up one morning and suddenly decide to hijack a plane. There is a history and a context to their motives: a rationale, however twisted, to their behaviour, and some sort of strategy with future implications for their actions. To appreciate the true significance of 11 September 2001, we need a much broader context, and this is exactly what Professor Fred Halliday of the LSE aims to provide. He is up to the task, and has been travelling around the domain of the terrorists for decades.

Much in this book had already been written by 11 September. Only two chapters directly address the events of that day. However, the tortuous lack of progress in the peace process, the rise of fundamentalism in the Middle East, the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, and the political shenanigans in Iran and Saudi Arabia are essential underlying causes: vital preconditions behind the attacks on New York and Washington.

The day, suggests Halliday, will be seen as a landmark of modern history. It has triggered a military, economic and cultural backlash of immense potential. American military involvement in regional conflicts has been extended, relations between states have been transformed, and reformist shifts have occurred within the US and Europe regarding security, intelligence, surveillance and compliance. Economic consequences of the attacks will stretch far into the future. And all societies will now feel the cultural, philosophical and psychological aftermath of violence and insecurity.

We have arrived at this juncture mainly through two historical processes: colonialism and the Cold War. The legacies of both have fuelled resentment in the Muslim world against the West; a resentment augmented by the inequalities ushered in by globalisation. Responsibility also lies on the shoulders of Western states for stoking up fundamentalist movements during the Cold War period, particularly in promoting the "autonomous terrorism'" that culminated with the Taliban and bin Laden.

Neither Palestine nor religion, Halliday argues, is at the root of terrorist actions. We ought to be looking at the broader context of "the greater West Asian crisis". West Asian states – the Arab world as well as Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan – have been in turmoil for decades, fuelling resentment among the population. Palestine has played no part in creating this ferment. The Iran-Iraq war, or the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait, or the 1973 Opec oil price hike, have nothing to do with it.

Some of these states, such as Lebanon, Yemen and Afghanistan, are intrinsically weak. Many support despotic and authoritarian regimes. It is their very character that has generated fundamentalists and militant movements. But the fundamentalist movements that have ravaged West Asian states are not motivated by religion, or a sense of culture or values, he maintains. They are stirred almost exclusively by politics: they seek to take power from those who control the state and, once they have power, to hold it by whatever means necessary. Which leads to the conclusion that the main target of terrorist attack was not American power, or some ill-conceived notion of the democratic world, but the states of the Middle East themselves.

So how should we respond both to the context and to the changes ushered in by the fateful "Nine Eleven"? With calm reason, suggests Halliday, and with commitment to principles enshrined in UN Charters and human rights conventions. Above all, our response should be based on explanation; and explanation should come from the academic field of international relations.

The problem is that international relations is not much of an academic field. As a discipline, it is little more than collective memory of recent Western political experiences. It has hardly any theoretical structure and, though it has a rich storehouse of ideas, they are rather badly organised. Moreover, there are few academic disciplines as stubbornly Eurocentric as international relations, both in its unwillingness to accept non-Western political thought and its refusal to analyse politics from a non-Western perspective.

Indeed, the strength and weaknesses of Two Hours That Shook The World are those of Halliday's academic subject. The book, like international relations itself, is very good on surface analysis, unthinking in its acceptance of conventional ideas, and myopic on history.

Halliday places the state as "the institution at the heart of the crisis", simply because that is the basic unit of analysis of international relations. Much like western political theory, it is all about explaining and justifying the political form that has hegemony in the modern world.

Since, by definition, viable states are secular institutions, Halliday writes off religion as a force in shaping or governing the state. Islamic movements may be motivated by politics, but it will come as a surprise to them to discover that religion plays no part in their endeavours. This focus on the state provides a partial explanation at the expense of other perspectives.

A little cultural theory would have revealed that beyond the state there is a serious problem with the whole idea of "nationhood". Minorities and religious communities who do not see themselves as part of a secular nation are marginalised from the seats of power. Halliday places the origins of the "age of colonialism" in the 1870s, with the beginning of the scramble for Africa. A deeper appreciation of colonialism, tracing it back to 1492, would have enabled him to see that the state itself has turned out to be largely a creation and function of colonialism. The discontent in the Muslim world may be propelled by the fact that colonialism is alive and well.

In his discussion on globalisation, Halliday takes great care to be balanced. Yet nowhere does he question the role of capital, or analyse the fact that under globalisation, the function of colonialism is taken over by transnational corporations, largely of American. That would have been an explanation too far. In America, international relations is in fact a euphemism for studying US foreign policy from a US perspective. That is why Halliday has little to say about America – except that we should not denounce the US and must appreciate its post-Cold War policy.

It is only when he steps out of the international relations framework that Halliday reveals his true calibre. His analysis of "anti-Muslimism", even though deprived of the broader context of Orientalism, is full of brilliant insights, as is his dissection of Islamophobia. Which leads one to wonder why he is so hampered with the mediocre tools of his academic trade.

Ziauddin Sardar's 'The A to Z of Postmodern Life' will be published by Vision Paperbacks next spring