Terrorism, Imperialism and Globalisation
John Harriss

Editors Introduction On October 12, 2001, one month and a day after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the Development Studies Institute, based at the London School of Economics and Political Science, hosted a panel debate on the subject of terrorism and the developing world. Chaired by James Putzel, director of the Crisis States Programme at the LSE, it brought together a group of academics with unique perspectives on the roots of terrorism in the developing world, to consider the events of September 11 from a development-studies perspective.

In this feature, John Harriss, director of the Development Studies Institute at the LSE, considers the economic, political and cultural contexts for the emergence of movements so hostile to the west and to modernity as to be committed to acts of terror. He argues that terrorism was born from the defeat of secular and socially progressive forces around the world, and from the decline of programmatic political parties.

September 11 was a significant date in the recent history of the world before 2001. One anniversary which falls on that date is that of the signing of the Camp David accords by Anwar Sadat of Egypt and Menachem Begin of Israel, orchestrated by US President Jimmy Carter. That agreement saw the capitulation of Egypt and the isolation, subsequently, of the Palestinians. This is a reminder to us of the significance for current events of the question of Palestine and of the rights of Palestinians to their own state--only grudgingly and recently acknowledged by the US. It also reminds us of the, by now, long history of state-sponsored terrorism perpetrated by Israel against Palestinians.

September 11 is also the date of the overthrow in 1973 of the social democratic regime of Salvador Allende in Chile, in a coup headed by Augusto Pinochet, which also heralded a savage period of state-sponsored terrorism in that country. The complicity of the US through the CIA in these events, and the active involvement of the Nobel Peace Prize winner Henry Kissinger, is by now well established.

This reminds us of the extent to which western powers--notably the US but also Britain and France, both constrained more by resources than by intention--have intervened in the affairs of other countries and been ready to sponsor terror as a tactic against those whom they have seen as enemies. The role of the CIA in the creation of the cult of Osama bin Laden and of the al-Qaida network, and,though less directly,in the creation of the Taliban, has by now come to be widely recognised.

The United States has pursued a cynical foreign policy--nowhere more than in the Middle East, where crucial oil interests are at stake--based on the principles of 'realism' propounded so eloquently by Kissinger in his academic writing, though sometimes dressed up in the language of 'idealism'--'the defence of freedom'. And the enemy that we are now fighting--terrorism--is to an important extent a creature created by western imperialism, headed up by the US.

Terrorism is a Frankenstein born (1) of the defeat of secular and socially progressive forces of the left across so much of the world, and (2) of the general decline of programmatic political parties.

The defeat of the left has been long pursued, as an object of policy, in the context of the cold war. It began in Europe in the later 1940s when the US brought about not only the reconstruction of the continent via the remarkable Marshall Plan, but also contributed to the defeat of left-wing parties that had, as in Germany, initially been strong in the aftermath of the Second World War. In the years that followed, the same policy was pursued across the world, sometimes by covert means, as in Chile in 1973, or through support for regimes such as that of the late Nguyen van Thieu in Vietnam, or of organisations such as the Contras in Nicaragua. In Iran the destruction of the secular revolutionary left by the CIA-sponsored regime of the Shah created a political space taken over by Islamists. In Afghanistan, in 1979, the resistance led by rural religious leaders to the socialist Afghan government's decision to make education mandatory for women provided US intelligence with an opportunity to contrive another campaign against the left, with consequences--the empowerment of the Mujahideen and the collapse of Afghanistan into warlordism--that have contributed so largely to the present crisis, and to other crises around the world. I think in particular of the spill-over effects to Kashmir of the long war in Afghanistan, where the Kashmiri people's own struggle for self-determination has been compromised by the intervention of religious fighters from outside.

Of course it would be simplistic to ascribe the defeat of secular and socially progressive political forces across the world entirely to the success of the operations of western intelligence agencies. Their limitations were, after all, made all too plain in the destruction of the World Trade Center. The left has very often contributed significantly to its own demise, through its own internecine conflicts. Trends in the global economy have also played a significant part. The last quarter-century or so has seen the rapid development of what some describe as a new regime of accumulation, characterised by 'flexibility'. This has involved the decline of the organised working class in industrialised countries, as many areas of production have been informalised, and short-term and part-time employment have become extensive; while the new global division of labour has seen the expansion of casual employment in poor countries rather than of the organised working class. These economic trends--developments in the organisation of the production of goods and services--are associated directly with the weakening of class politics and their projects of social change.

The current epoch has seen the rise, in their place, of a kaleidoscope of the so-called 'new social movements'. These are mostly single-issue movements--around gender, environmental or specific economic issues (such as the movement for lower fuel prices supported by farmers and truckers in the UK last year)--usually making demands upon states, rather than having projects of comprehensive social change. Among them are ethnic, nationalist and religious movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood or the Hindu nationalist movement in India.

Who supports these sorts of religious-based movements? If I may judge from the one I know best (the Hindu nationalist movement in India), mass support comes partly from somewhat educated young men whose aspirations have been frustrated as a result of the failures of the modernising developmental state. It is this sort of men--and some women too--who have participated in acts of terror directed against Muslims, or latterly against Christians. But Hindu nationalism--and, I believe, comparable Islamic movements--are also supported by members of the middle class. The reasons for their support include their own sense of the frustrations of failed modernity and their feeling that to allow their country to take its 'rightful' place in the world they must be more truly themselves by being 'true' to their own religious and cultural traditions.

These are the economic, political and cultural contexts for the emergence of movements that are so hostile to the west and to modernity itself as to be committed to acts of terror against it. It is the context of 'failed development'.

There is one more piece in the jigsaw puzzle I am putting together, which is another aspect of globalisation. This term for me, whatever else it may mean, refers to an ideology--one which seeks to legitimate the pursuit of neo-liberal economic policies. These politics include those associated with so-called 'structural adjustment', which has often involved the curtailment of public expenditure on social services. Isn't it a salutary thought that part of the reason for the importance of Islamic schools, the madrassas, in Pakistan--the schools that gave birth to the Taliban--is a crisis in public education related in part to Pakistan's experience of structural adjustment? An American expert, Stephen Cohen, estimates that only about 12 per cent of the madrassa have produced recruits for the Taliban. Many of the rest provide a better education than alternatives available in the public system. But this means that there will be many, for example in the middle ranks of the Pakistan army, who are likely to be sympathetic to Islamic fundamentalism. How ironic it is that both George W. Bush in the US, and Tony Blair in the UK, should regard faith-based schools favourably.

A last word: somewhere at the heart of the long wars that have torn Afghanistan apart is a struggle over the place of women in society. We should remember that we have abundant evidence of the importance of female literacy for development. It has been shown, for example, in a fascinating reworking of Robert Putnam's celebrated analysis of social capital in that country, that levels of female literacy in the different parts of Italy in 1871 very substantially explain variations in levels of economic development, of government performance, and in the development of civil society by the end of the nineteenth century and even at the end of the twentieth. Now it is claimed by some that for women to be secluded and denied even basic education is part of another culture and that outsiders have no right to question its precepts.

But who, I ask, defines the precepts of a culture? Cultures are always in process of being contested, usually against the dictates of old men. I do believe that members of different 'cultures' have, as it were, a right to non-interference but only, I suggest, on condition that they allow for free and rational debate within the group.

This feature was taken from a panel debate held at the London School of Economics and Political Science on October12, 2001. Copyright The London School of Economics and Political Science.