The twentieth anniversary of the September 11 attacks coincided with the West’s failure in Afghanistan, which is cultural even more than it is political or military. The two events call for a serious reflection on the relationship between the West and the Muslim world

Last update: 2022-04-22 10:05:13

It is rare for an anniversary to coincide with the end of an era. That is what happened this 11 September 2021, which symbolically closed the season of the war on terror and the export of democracy opened by George W. Bush in 2001. The results of that war can be judged by comparing the event that opened it with the one that closed it: the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan at the time ruled by the Taliban, who were guilty of giving shelter to Bin Laden and al-Qaeda; the 2021 return of the Taliban to power and the United States’ clumsy—euphemistically speaking—withdrawal from the country, further blighted, among other things, by the attack perpetrated by the local branch of the Islamic State, an organisation that would perhaps never have existed, had there been no war on terror. As a seal to this sneering epilogue, the Taliban chose to install their new government on 11 September.


That is not to say that nothing has changed in the last two decades or that the US operations have been completely ineffective. Al-Qaeda has been significantly weakened and, after its terrifying exploits in the three years from 2014 to 2016, the Islamic State has not been defeated but is folding, jihadism is increasingly evolving into more territorial and local forms, and states, especially western states, have developed monitoring and prevention capabilities that make large-scale attacks on their respective soils a lot less likely. In that respect, what, if anything, causes great concern for the future of democracy is the efficiency achieved by surveillance instruments and devices of totalitarian repression, as Thomas Hegghammer pointed out in Foreign Affairs.


What is more, Afghanistan was never a strategic priority for America, and the withdrawal does not mark a handover from the US to China as the world’s hegemonic power. Rather than the political or military failure of the West, therefore, it is on the cultural dimension that I think we should reflect. Along with the Iraqi disaster, the failure in Afghanistan casts doubt on the model and world vision that the United States and, subordinately, her European Allies, have, to varying degrees of conviction, championed. If we do not deal with the issue of the relationship between the West and the rest of the world, hypothetical common European defence projects or reforms of NATO will not suffice to truly change things.


An Imaginary Anthropology


I begin my reasoning by returning to the Afghan issue. I will do so through a book published in February 2021 and titled Le Gouvernment transnational de l’Afghanistan. Une si prévisible défaite (The Transnational Government in Afghanistan. A Predictable Defeat). The work is by French political scientist Gilles Dorronsoro, who draws from his decades-long experience studying the central Asian country to highlight with great accuracy and considerable foresight the resounding dysfunctions in the system set up by the American-led coalition. The aspects Dorronsoro analyses include a distorted understanding of the terrain, underestimating the enemy, an inconsistent approach to regional politics and chaotic management by the new administration, where the plethora of entities (state bodies, US agencies, international organisations, NGOs) which ruled Afghanistan for twenty years—hence the idea of a “transnational government”—generated a colossal waste of money, abuse of power and widespread corruption. Rather than a process of state-building, it was state-destruction that was enacted.


However, the most original and perhaps most interesting aspect of the book is the chapter dedicated to the intellectual premises of this shambolic intervention. The simultaneous flow of significant financial resources into the country along with enormous numbers of experts—anthropologists, political scientists, economists, jurists, development and counter-terrorism consultants—led, in fact, to unprecedented quantities of knowledge: hundreds of research projects, reports and statistics aimed at guiding and assessing the myriad of programs devised and implemented by international institutions and NGOs. Dominated by a neo-positivist predilection for quantification, this knowledge—consisting of metrics and benchmarks, and self-referential by nature because ultimately designed to meet the expectations of those who commissioned it—has prevented Afghanistan from really being known, and has thus created, in the author’s words, an “imaginary anthropology” of local society. All this was seasoned with dogmatic and assertive optimism, as Dorronsoro himself experienced in the three years he spent as a scholar for a Washington think tank, where no one was allowed to say that things were going badly.


Dorronsoro puts this intellectual, political and military debacle down to the neo-liberal frenzy of the last decades. He is not wrong. But in order to understand what is truly at play here, a broader view needs to be taken. It will serve not only to grasp what went wrong in Afghanistan, and perhaps not to repeat the same mistakes elsewhere, but also to figure out what the West’s role in the world might be.


The Obscuring of Intelligence


Reduction of knowledge to its quantitative and instrumental aspects is not really a shift that has occurred in recent decades. In this regard, Dorronsoro’s remarks reminded me of another book, published in far-off 1970 and written by a sharp critic of modernity, the Italian philosopher Michele Federico Sciacca. Sciacca, in fact, considered “reducing knowledge and reality to a set of sensations-data-facts-phenomena ‘without being’, that can be calculated and organised rationally for practical purposes” as one of the signs of the Obscuring of Intelligence (L’oscuramento dell’intelligenza)the title of his book—that has affected the West since the seventeenth century. For Sciacca, the historical manifestation of this “obscuring” was Westernism, that is, “assuming the decadence of the West as progress.” While the West, the product of the creative blend of the Greco-Roman world and Christianity, is founded on an openness to transcendence, the intelligence of being, a sense of the limits and the harmonious tension between the natural and the supernatural, Westernism arrogantly does away with all constraints, brings about a worldly flattening of man’s purposes and asserts military power and economic expansion as the sole parameters of human development.


In Sciacca’s severe judgement, it follows that Westernism “has nothing to teach and export except technology and affluence, data, numbers, calculations, robots, computers and corruption. It has no moral, religious, aesthetic, or even social, political or legal values to export, having adulterated and lost them all. What it declares at the borders as ‘Western’, a label used to deceive customs officers, is damaged, low-quality goods.” And if many peoples are hostile to the West it is “because, having known it, they have endured its oppression” in the form of Westernist degeneration.


Islam in the Westernist Trap


All this is decisive when it comes to understanding, even today, our relationship with the Muslim world. Modern Islam came into being in the confrontation with a West that was already blinded by will to power. When, in the second half of the nineteenth century, Europe triumphalistically foisted domination on much of the Muslim world, the relationship between these two realities entered a new phase. Not only did the power dynamics change, the very rationale of their interaction was altered. This can be seen in the debates of the time. Whereas medieval disputes between Christians and Muslims hinged on which was the true religion, now the argument was about which was the most prosperous and powerful civilisation. Some Muslim intellectuals fell into the trap, and although they called for resistance to the conquering West, at the same they became entangled in its categories. To understand what I mean, a few words will suffice from the two champions of late nineteenth-century Islamic reformism, Jamal al-Din al-Afghani and Muhammad ‘Abduh, who jointly wrote:


The Islamic religion is founded on the pursuit of domination, strength, conquest, honour, and on the rejection of any law in conflict with its own and any power that does not apply its rules. Anyone who considers the sources of this religion and reads a surah from its revealed book will conclude without hesitation that its faithful should be militarily second to no one […]. Anyone meditating on the verse “Prepare against them whatever you can of power” (Qur’an 8.60) will be convinced that the followers of this religion should be driven by a love of domination and the pursuit of all means to achieve it, and not only by the desire not to fall under the domination of others.


This—from the 1880s—is, in essence, the creed of all Islamisms to come, from the Muslim Brotherhood to ISIS. But the Islamist overtaking of the Westernist West (if I can be forgiven the play on words) failed to come about. Even the Islamic state, a chimeric alternative to corrupt Western and pro-Western regimes, was slow to materialise. Where it finally did, it only brought repression and violence. Two options remain for Islamism: a pragmatic retreat into “Muslim democracy” (the path attempted by Ennahda in Tunisia) and the war of attrition (al-Qaeda, ISIS, etc.), which is as brutal as it is inconclusive. The victory of the Taliban, an atypical Islamist movement, may have lifted the morale of those who dream of the resurgence of Islam, but does not change the terms of the issue. As Kamran Bokhari remarked in the Wall Street Journal, they, too, will have to come to terms with the impossible task of squaring the circle: being pragmatic and ideological at the same time.


Nor does Westernism win, which, as Sciacca noted, does not have much to export, and for which— fortunately—“smart” bombs and state of the art drones are not enough to fully assert its domination.


The Way of Intelligence and Fraternity


Sciacca was no backward-looking nostalgic. His solution to the obscuring of intelligence did not consist in an impossible return to the centuries between Charlemagne and the Renaissance when, for him, the West came into being. Instead, he invited people to “step through” the problems posed by Western nihilism, and reclaim the entire technological and industrial apparatus in a new amalgam “marked by intelligence.” He also trusted that the values of the West would be reborn into a new culture, which would feed on them and contribute to their renewal. He also predicted that Latin America might “spearhead this movement”.


Following his intuition, it is not difficult to imagine a possible way out of the clash between Westernism and Islamism: it is the path of fraternity and social friendship as indicated by the Argentine Pope and, with him, travelled by Imam el-Tayyeb.


The Italian original version of this article was published on September 10, 2021


The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Oasis International Foundation