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The end of the delusion

By Robert Manne - posted Wednesday, 23 October 2002

I write this column on Australia's national day of mourning. Our country has never forgotten those innocent and brave young soldiers who died, in fear and trembling, at Gallipoli. Nor shall we forget the innocent and carefree young men and women who were murdered, so brutally and senselessly, on Bali one week ago. The terrible events of October 12 made intimate for Australians what the world has known since September 11. A new and evil political force has entered the world.

The 10 years between the collapse of the Soviet Union and September 11 can now be seen as a decade of delusion, when Westerners had come to believe that an era of perpetual peace had arrived. On the moderate right, Francis Fukuyama published a famous article where he claimed victory for the Western idea of democratic capitalism and predicted that international relations were destined to become boring and "Common Marketised". On the moderate left, Anthony Giddens, a friend of Tony Blair, was even more confident about this aspect of the future than Fukuyama. "Nations today," he announced, "face risks and dangers rather than enemies."

With September 11, the Pollyanna Decade died. For me at least the recognition that some new malevolent spirit was abroad came not only when the World Trade Centre was destroyed but when I heard, a month later, the political sermon on its meaning delivered by Osama bin Laden, the inspirer of the event. My reaction needs briefly to be explained.


I was born to Jewish parents who fled from Nazi Europe and thereby escaped death in an extermination camp. In my early life I was preoccupied by an attempt to understand the decision taken to rid the Earth of the Jews. Later I studied other, similar, ideologically driven mass political crimes, perpetrated by Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot. When I heard bin Laden's post-September 11 sermon, it came from a voice altogether too familiar to me.

Like its vanquished precursors - Nazism and communism - the ideology of bin Laden was Manichaean. It divided the world into two camps, between whom an apocalyptic battle would be waged. For the Nazis, that battle was between races - Aryans and Jews. For Stalin and Mao the struggle was political - between socialism and imperialism. For bin Laden the struggle was essentially religious - between what he called the camps of faith and unbelief.

As with his precursors, the ambition of bin Laden's Islamist ideology was limitless. Nazism sought the Thousand Year Reich. Stalinism was committed to the global victory of communism. Bin Laden's fantasies concerned not merely the destruction of Israel or the humiliation of the United States but the defeat of the infidel and the victory of fundamental Islam on a worldwide scale.

It was clear that the thought of bin Laden was closer to Nazism than to communism. Like Nazism, his form of Islamism was founded on a rejection of the democratic, secular and materialist spirit of modernity, although in his case, as with Nazism, his movement was capable of deploying modernity's most advanced technologies in the quest for the restoration of a mediaeval-theocratic state.

As with Nazism, moreover, bin Laden's worldview was racist in the most precise sense. As he repeatedly explained, the enemy he wished to destroy was not the US or Israel but "Americans" and "Jews". No one who has attended to his words and deeds could doubt that if bin Laden and his followers had it within their power to take the lives of millions of human beings they would do so without moral qualm. Because of the anti-modernist and racist dimensions of his thought, bin Laden's militarised version of Islamic fundamentalism has been called Islamo-fascism. Now that Islamo- fascism has made its rather spectacular appearance on the stage, there can be no serious doubt that it must be fought. The far more difficult question is in what manner and by what means.

When the Nazi threat emerged in the late 1930s, its Western opponents divided between those, like British prime minister Neville Chamberlain, who believed in the possibility of appeasement and hardliners, like Winston Churchill, who were convinced of the necessity for war. We now know Churchill was right.


After that war, the former Soviet ally under Stalin posed to the West a different kind of threat. US hardliners advocated the "rollback" of communism or even preventive war; the more moderate party a strategy known as "containment". Although containment was responsible for bloody wars in Korea and Vietnam, it was this strategy that, by exposing its lethal political and economic weaknesses, caused the Soviet empire to self-destruct without disturbing the peace of the world. In this case it was the more moderate rather than the hardline position that was right.

At present the US is involved in a fundamental debate about the strategy by which the novel military threat of Islamo-fascism - a potential nuclear or chemical or biological weapons attack on the US - can be overcome. Two parallel strategies have been devised. One involves the creation of a worldwide counter-terrorist coalition aimed at destroying al Qaeda and its associates. The second involves, in addition, US preventive wars against "rogue states", such as Iraq or North Korea, who are thought to be stockpiling weapons of mass destruction and who, it is feared, might ultimately either attack the US directly or pass weapons of mass destruction to an Islamo-fascist terrorist group.

I believe the first aspect of this strategy must be supported and the second aspect opposed. The advocacy of preventive war is based on an implausible estimation of the likely behaviour of rogue states, whose leaders are brutal but by no means suicidal or mad. In defence of the principles of unilateralism and preventive war, moreover, the US is likely to destroy the unity of the counter- terrorist coalition and to undermine the most fundamental idea of international law.

On occasions, as with Nazi Germany, wars cannot be avoided. Yet under contemporary conditions war must always, in my opinion, be a policy of last resort. In war the human costs are terrible. In war, moreover, the political consequences simply cannot be foretold.

Contemporary American policymakers would be wise to recall that it was because of the unpredicted level of slaughter and destruction in the First World War that communism was able to seize power in the old Russian empire and that the ideology of Nazism came to birth. They would also be wise to remember that it was precisely the military struggles fought by the mujahideen in Afghanistan against the Soviet army that provided the crucible in which fundamentalist Islam was transformed into that vicious ideology Islamo-fascism, which now imperils the world and which was, on October 12, almost certainly responsible for the murder of 100 or so fine young Australians in the prime of their lives.

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This article was first published in The Age on 21 October 2002.

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Professor Robert Manne is professor of politics at La Trobe University.

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