Carry On Empathizing: The ISIS Crisis and Western Political Thought

Cardiff ISIS

Malcolm Caldwell may not be a name that is readily remembered today. A Marxist academic at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, virulent critic of American foreign policy and ardent apologist for the genocidal Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, he was murdered in mysterious circumstances the night after an apparently congenial meeting with the object of his veneration, Pol Pot. Shot dead in his guesthouse by unknown assailants in December 1978, connected possibly to the factionalism then consuming the disintegrating regime in Phnom Penh, the faintly ridiculous tragi-comedy figure of Caldwell gained brief notoriety in the world beyond.

Deluded though he may he have been in his sympathy with the mad autarchy of the Khmer Rouge, the point about Caldwell – the only point in his defense – was that at least he was prepared to follow through on his empathic preferences, travelling into the heart of Indochina to sample the delights of the Kampuchean utopia, where he met his untimely demise. Caldwell, the socialist-Maoist, anti-American, true believer, exhibited a degree of warped intellectual consistency. Though now residing in a degree of probably deserved obscurity, few could accuse him of not living – and dying – according to his principles.

We shall return to the memory of Malcolm Caldwell later. For the moment, his example demonstrates, as we shall indicate below, that moral and intellectual consistency, albeit sometimes of a hopelessly misguided character, is rare in what passes for the social and political sciences in contemporary Western universities. Fast forward thirty years later and the point brings us, in a roundabout way, to the mid-noughties and the current dilemmas confronting the foreign and defense policies of Western governments in working out how to deal with the persistent threat posed by the activities of violent, radicalized Islamism.

Back to the Future

In 2007 a lively exchange took place in the pages of International Affairs when a number of outraged scholars denounced us for various offenses against academia that we had supposedly committed in an article that appeared in the journal in November 2006. The article critiqued public policy in the United Kingdom in the aftermath of the attacks on the London transport system on July 7, 2005 – the so-called 7/7 bombings – in which 52 people lost their lives (56, if you include the bombers themselves). Our thought crime was to draw attention to the fact that much public commentary – journalistic, academic, legal and political – had consistently underplayed the threat posed by jihadist activism in the years before 2005. Indeed, this ignorance had contributed to the evolving threat by disregarding the appeal to jihad among deracinated second generation Muslims in British cities, who had, among other things, been encouraged in their ideological evolution by a blinkered official faith in multiculturalism to despise mainstream British society and revel in a separate identity.

Our advocacy was for a modest return in British policy to prudent realism both at home and abroad: to develop a shared, inclusive, public morality at home that provided a sense of something worth defending and did not foster soft forms of apartheid that encouraged minority grievance and separate development in ethno-religious ghettoes. From a set of commonly accepted and openly articulated values would, we argued, extend a clearer sense of the national interest upon which a coherent long-term foreign policy could be constructed.

In that regard we offered a critical appraisal of the Blair government’s incoherent foreign policy that, inconsistently, was willing to prosecute wars against Islamist militancy abroad in conjunction with the United States in Afghanistan and Iraq, while indulging jihadist activities at home. This meant turning a blind eye to the rantings of hate preachers in mosques and the behavior of radical Islamic groups such as al Muhajiroun and Hizb ut Tahrir that garnered converts within the UK and spread subversion abroad. It also meant inadvertently facilitating the growth of radical Islamist ideology through the award of grants and privileged access to policy formation to its more eloquent, but still relativist, spokesman in the belief that overcoming the jihadist phenomenon resided in dealing with the repulsive forms of minority exclusion, alienation and social deprivation.

It was not a surprise – at least not to us – that the result of the quasi-official view that ethnic and religious minorities were victims of prejudice, Islamophobia, and discrimination at the hands of the majority culture, was to produce a steady stream of British-schooled jihadis and suicide bombers: something that has since 2005 entrenched itself as one of the UK’s few remaining export industries.

To a range of critics who excoriated us in International Affairs, our views were abhorrent. Ignoring the central claims in our thesis about the existence of an edifice of denial about the extent of the building threat prior to 2005, we were, it seems, instigators of a new McCarthyist witch hunt that sought to impose an illiberal order based on conservative “British values,” while closing down the space for debate across the media and college campuses. We were, apparently, unconcealed haters of multiculturalism, open admirers of U.S. foreign policy, and advocates of even greater militarization of British responses to terrorism.

To read these fulminations by academics from such venerable halls of learning as Oxford, Manchester and Cambridge, one might have been forgiven for thinking we had been responsible for 7/7. And in a way, that was the allegation. For our offense had been to question the ruling orthodoxy that believed that violent jihadist radicals were no more than a few dunces and losers who posed little threat, except possibly to themselves. Raising the prospect of a more serious danger to society was to be guilty of promoting the “politics of fear.” This belief felt that to draw attention to the new political religion of ideologized Islam was no more than an Orientalist trope, used by racists and conservatives to crack down on dissent, discriminate against minorities and curb civil liberties through draconian laws. In this view, an overreaction to a fringe minority, merely fuelled Muslim grievance and – somewhat unfalsifiably – either created or exaggerated the threat.

The Fallacy of “Root Causes”

For our critics the solution lay not in ascertaining the appeal of a doctrine of radicalized Islamism, but in the identification of “root causes.” Predictably, they claimed the possession of a higher knowledge that enabled them to divine what these “root causes” comprised. This capacity for Olympian insight was, of course, denied to other mortals. The key to obtain this higher knowledge was a position of fully-fledged empathy. According to one of our protagonists, Tarak Barkawi, writing in 2004: “Should it not just be accepted that suicide bombers are fighters in a cause,” which “can be recognized, with just a small dose of empathy, as a response to historic injustice?” He went on: “Only by granting one’s enemies a full and unqualified humanity can one ever hope to understand them.”

Through the policy of empathy, its adherents were granted the unique capacity to uncover the “root causes” of Islamist violence, which did not reside, they discerned, in the growth of an insidious death-worshipping fascist cult. Instead, they believed the problem could be found in the long-term grievances arising out of the suffering at the hands of decades of Western imperialism and prejudice. Unbearable Islamophobia endured by Muslim communities within the domestic realm created injustices that demanded redress. Armed with this special insight, Barkawi asserted that through empathy it was possible to learn to “live in peace with people different from ourselves, people who may not choose to live as we do or to organize their societies along western lines.”

For us, the problem with this thesis was that the homegrown bombers responsible for 7/7 were not the product of a different society: they were the product of British society, a society that routinely extended tolerance, asylum and empathy to its many faiths and minority communities. Yet, despite this, British society was still attacked from within. The difficulty was that the suicidal ideologues that Barkawi and others felt were deserving of “full and unqualified humanity” did not appear especially willing to grant much in the way of humanity in return.

In the aftermath of July 2005, much media and academic commentary shifted its focus, refusing to look inward into the policies that might have contributed to the radicalization of activists in Britain itself, but instead looked outward, externalizing responsibility for the attacks. Homegrown radicals of Western liberal democracies were, it was implied, the product not of the failed policies of multiculturalism at home but as a reaction to the insensitivity of a Western foreign policy abroad that invaded Muslim lands, foisted unacceptable regimes on its populations, and supported Israel.

Enraged by the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan and the treatment of the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, it was a logical consequence that a few lone wolves would take matters into their own hands to avenge the injustices and humiliations being visited upon their religious brethren abroad. This was blowback in its purest form. Indeed, this was the very justification given by one of the perpetrators of 7/7, Mohammad Siddique Khan, in his videoed statement before he proceeded to immolate himself and 6 others on the London Tube:

Your democratically elected governments continuously perpetuate atrocities against my people all over the world. And your support of them makes you directly responsible, just as I am directly responsible for protecting and avenging my Muslim brothers and sisters. Until we feel security, you will be our targets. And until you stop the bombing, gassing, imprisonment and torture of my people we will not stop this fight.

The West: Keep Out

The lesson for the empathizers was clear: the West should give up on its neo-imperialist battlefields and resist the temptation for further interventions. Muslim lands should be left to govern themselves free from malign interference from abroad in order that they could discover their own distinctive, and attractively non-Western, identity and developmental path. Moreover, in this path of self-discovery, according to another of our critics, Richard Jackson, Islamism was not the enemy of democracy. “Jihadist texts,” he maintained, “reveal a nuanced political analysis of the situation in the Middle East and a clear set of goals.” Islamist parties, he argued, were committed to multiparty democracy, accepted the legitimacy of elections, and where they gained political influence, they “evolved in strikingly moderate and pragmatic directions.”

Since 2007, Western nations have largely followed the advice of this critical orthodoxy: withdrawing from Iraq in 2008, drawing down in Afghanistan, and eschewing intervention in Syria in 2013. Now, with formation of a putative Islamic State over large swaths of Iraq and Syria, the public decapitation of American journalists, the taking of aid workers as hostages, the mass execution of Iraqi Army prisoners, and the widespread persecution of Shi’ites and Yazidis, along with other examples of Islamist governance, such as the Muslim Brotherhood’s brief rule in Egypt, which resulted in the ramping up of extremist rhetoric and the exclusion of moderate voices, the moment would seem propitious to consider the sagacity of the empathizers’ prescriptions for non-intervention, and to review the character of Islamism’s commitment to democratic principles and its evidently “strikingly moderate and pragmatic directions.”

The Paradox of Disengagement: An Increased Threat

Of course, what a cursory consideration reveals are the strikingly erroneous positions of those neo-Caldwellians who perceive “political nuance” in jihadist ideology and would extend unqualified empathy, which has now seen the mutation of an Islamist dream into a temporal reality. The consequences of non-intervention have revealed themselves, not in a reduced threat to the West, but in the creation of a jihadist beacon on the hill that has drawn in recruits from across the Sunni Muslim world, from Pakistan to Indonesia, as well as from an alienated diaspora of Muslims located in the West. Thus an estimated 350-500 jihadist fighters exported from Britain have been joined by Americans, French, Dutch, Swedes, German and Australian nationals. The result is an increased threat arising from the migration of displaced peoples, the potential of further terror assaults by returning jihadis trained in the arts of bomb making and beheading, along with the unpredictable consequences of regional instability. Ironically, as result of following the exact formulas for reducing the threat offered by the critical orthodoxy, the prospect of direct military intervention in Iraq and Syria is now back on the table.

In terms of what these events portend for Western self-understandings, they disclose, in the first instance, the folly of relying on simplistic cause and effect reasoning that holds that Western intervention necessarily provokes the very threat it is intended to counter. The dissolution of any prospect for enduring stability in the Middle East occurred only after 2011, at a time when Western involvement in the region was notable for its decline. Western forces had departed Iraq by the end of that year. Support for anti-Gaddafi forces in Libya, delivered via air power at a distance by Western powers in 2011, only taught the West to be wary of any further Middle Eastern interventions, humanitarian or otherwise. Libya descended into tribal and religious factionalism despite, or perhaps because of, the ousting of the Gaddafi regime receiving UN authorization under the Responsibility to Protect mandate. Subsequently, European national parliaments explicitly rejected intervention in the far more strategically important Syrian civil war.

The West’s post-2008 disengagement from the turbulent politics of the Middle East and the wider Islamic world, together with the popular rejection of any further exercises in rebuilding failing states or engaging in large-scale counterinsurgency operations therefore radically questions the “correlation as cause” argument of the anti-interventionist commentariat. Recent events thus demonstrate a further level of incoherence embedded in the empathic orthodoxy, which is that “keeping out” equates to the fostering of stability. Staying uninvolved is not as easy as it appears, or at least comes with costs attached. We might justifiably slate naïve ideas of nation-building, evident in misguided counterinsurgency efforts in Afghanistan or Iraq, which held that invasion and forced modernization would produce stable democratic states. But that doesn’t mean the converse is true: that keeping out and leaving regions of concern to their own devices is necessarily a precursor to stability either. As ever, the reality is contingent and messy.

Empirical Refutations

Furthermore, the other level of inconsistency in the Western cause/jihadist effect thesis offered by the critical empathizers is that it routinely overlooks ample evidence that contradicts their thesis. In the first instance, of course, it fails to observe the inconvenient fact that Islamist attacks upon Western targets pre-dated the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and indeed, 9/11. Bombings in Lebanon in the 1980s, the attacks upon U.S. bases in Saudi Arabia in 1996, the U.S. embassies in East Africa (1998), and the attack on the USS Cole (2000) early on signalled a wider assault on what Ayman al-Zawahiri, the Lenin of Islamist thought, identified as “the infidel invaders.”

Secondly, the advocates of empathy ignored the fact that the citizens of nations that were critical of, or unaligned with, the United States either before or after 2001 were afforded no more protection from the visitations of jihadist violence. This was clear in the first wave of jihadist attacks on tourist venues in Egypt and Casablanca from the late 1990s onwards. Moreover, murderous assaults against other non-Islamist Muslims occurred with growing frequency, again from the 1990s, from Pakistan to Nigeria. Paradoxically, the rising pre-9/11 incidences of jihadist attacks reflected the belief of al-Qaeda and its affiliates that the West was decadent, weak and lacked moral or political purpose. Contrastingly, after the Iraq invasion, al-Qaeda attacked countries that, whilst European and secular, had played no part in the coalition of the willing.

The Western culpability thesis also expediently neglected to mention examples where NATO or U.S. led coalition forces intervened to defend Muslim populations in Kuwait, Kosovo, and Bosnia. If the cause-effect thesis had any validity, then one would expect some acknowledgment from the supposedly politically nuanced Islamists that the West’s actions were not all bad, or badly motivated. Instead, both the jihadists and the critical empathicists insist on the collectivization of ethics that defines Western actions as intrinsically malignant.

Finally, and posing even more of an inconsistency for the critical orthodoxy, if there were any correlation between Western behavior and Islamist retaliation, it was more often based on the accusation of Western non-intervention that energized the call for a radical and violent reaction. Accordingly, the initial reluctance of European states and the international community to interdict the Bosnian genocide after 1993 fuelled Euro-Islamic resentment and drew recruits to groups like al Muhajiroun operating from radical mosques in London’s Finsbury Park. Analogously, today’s jihadists criticize the West’s failure to intervene in Syria and assert that Western indifference legitimates the Islamic State’s turn towards a hardline, chiliastic millenarian alternative.

Three Inconvenient Truths

In other words, a cursory examination of the politics of intervention and non-intervention since 1990 fails to demonstrate a simple process of Western cause and jihadist effect. What it demonstrates are three profound realities, utterly ignored by the critical commentariat:

1) The West is damned if does intervene, and damned if it doesn’t.

2) The West, and indeed, all non-Islamist inclined polities, are rendered culpable not for what they do, or do not do, but for what existentially they represent for the ideology of jihadism: infidel, kuffar states, lost in a condition of secular and pagan ignorance.

3) The mere fact of their jahaliya (pre-Islamic ignorance) status confers a duty upon the jihadist to seek a violent, non-negotiable showdown. In the words of an Al-Qaeda training manual:

The confrontation we are calling for…does not know Socratic debates… Platonic ideals… nor Aristotelian diplomacy. But it knows the dialogue of bullets, the ideas of assassination, bombing and destruction and the diplomacy of the cannon and machine gun.

Finally, then, what do these three realities portend for a more effective analysis and strategic response beyond the crude anti-interventionist Western cause and jihadist effect thesis? Five general points suggest themselves.

Five Points for a More Effective Strategy

First, the prosaic, but necessary, starting point is to accept that the world is complex and throws up challenges that are rarely reducible to simplistic mono-causal explanations. Consequently, the conceit that claims empathy as a method to discern “root causes” should be rejected because it is misleading and counterproductive. Causality in social relations, as philosophers from classical times have known, is endlessly debatable. “Causes” don’t exist in any objective sense. They are a contingent construction of the intellect that may have an infinite number of variations depending on the individual stance of the onlooker. The particular problem the “root cause” thesis poses in terms of the current strategic dilemma confronting Western nations in the Middle East is that it erects, on little empirical evidence, a monolithic Islamist identity and attempts to impose a single ideological answer to the monolithic problem it has erroneously identified.

Secondly, then, similarly false inferences should be rejected that assert singular solutions (which are often built upon mono-causal explanations) as universal norms of conduct. Such grand theoretical claims might proclaim that Western intervention in foreign lands is always iniquitous, or that negotiating with intractable enemies is the only way, or that only the unanimous approval of the United Nations can possibly legitimize any basis for action. The international system is one of risk and exigency, where threats arise within a complex, ever changing, milieu. Thus, even a superficial examination of the intense sectarian and tribal divisions and rivalries affecting the diverse societies of the Middle East or across the wider and more diffuse “Muslim world” renders grand, rationalist, claims both abstract and spurious. Indeed, the diversity of Islam both in its heartlands and its diaspora illustrates the absurdity of trying to assert a set of timeless practices that will somehow supply a universal remedy for very different issues and conflicts.

Therefore, thirdly, it is clear that contingency rules. A prudent Western strategy needs to be guided by a case-by-case evaluation of the merits of intervention together with a careful assessment of its practical and moral limitations. To achieve this requires a strategic appreciation of what constitutes the national interest and how it should be maintained, which is ultimately premised on the state’s right to self-defense. It may contradict the critical orthodoxy in international relations, but in this pragmatic state-determined world, political diplomacy requires a sophisticated appreciation of history, culture and past precedent, not an abstract commitment to a historicist teleology or an Olympian cosmopolitanism.

Fourthly, selective involvement can work, as examples of Western state intervention attest from Bosnia, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, to Mali. In other words, a legitimate state, based on the political consent of a plural society within a given territory, asserts its interests via a well-considered foreign policy. This may in certain circumstances demand the strategically necessary, but not always morally virtuous, intervention overseas. Such a position is not to maintain that external involvement, howsoever conceived, should be the default position of Western policy. Far from it. As many commentators and scholars have articulated, there are often principled, ethical, and strategically compelling reasons for keeping well away from conflicts that promise only to stir a hornet’s nest: the Syrian civil war, perhaps, being a potent example. Our argument is against those who are ideologically opposed to Western intervention merely because it is undertaken by the United States and other Western powers, a stance that is perhaps more commonly asserted in pacifist and utopian European thought, rather than in more skeptical and pragmatic appreciations of foreign policy that tend to characterize the more realistic debates in the United States. The point is that an argument against ideological anti-interventionism cannot be answered by asserting an opposing ideology of pro-interventionism. Pragmatism is the name of the game, and that can only be a matter of good judgement. And “good judgment” can only be informed by a principled examination of what is practical, attainable, and politically feasible in each separate circumstance.

Finally, the liberal democratic state has the right to demand a minimal standard of civil association from its citizens. Minorities, and indeed, any member of the electing public, who reject such strategic calculations have the right to dissent, but not the right to blow up fellow citizens in the name of a transnational ideocracy. Moreover, if citizens of a democracy commit themselves to an enemy entity, like the Islamic State by joining the jihad, they necessarily forfeit the rights of political citizenship that assume consent to government authority as a condition for enjoying those legal rights and the security they afford.

Conclusion: Where Are They Now?

Taking a step back, what the assessment here ultimately divulges is that the argument against all forms of Western intervention is no solution to the hard security dilemmas posed by the absolutist claims of militant Islamism, which does not seek any form of accommodation with its self-proclaimed enemies. To that extent, the arguments of the critical empathicists have, naively, facilitated the ends of jihadist extremism. As Shiraz Maher has observed, the West’s reluctance to intervene is “precisely what Bin Laden always envisioned.” “His main thesis,” Maher noted, was that “western interference in the Middle East prevented the rise of Islamic governments. Weaken the west’s sphere of influence, he argued, and a caliphate would emerge.” And so it has.

Consequently, now that the world faces the black flag-waving reality of an Islamic State in the Middle East, we might plausibly ask: where are the representatives of the critically empathic orthodoxy, now that their arguments lie in ruins? They are, for the moment at least, little seen or heard. This is not, one suspects, because they are taking a leaf out of Malcolm Caldwell’s book, and are being drawn to the region to extend the hand of unqualified humanity. Far more likely, they are continuing to pontificate upon their utopian schemes at a distance from the safety of their comfortable university sinecures funded of course by hideously Orientalist, neo-imperialist, Western governments. Far more preferable to carry on empathizing when, unlike Caldwell, one never has to experience the consequences of one’s empathy.


David Martin Jones is Associate Professor in the School of Political Science and International Relations, University of Queensland, Australia. M.L.R. Smith is Professor Strategic Theory in the Department of War Studies, King’s College, University of London. Their book, Sacred Violence: Political Religion in a Secular Age, has just been published by Palgrave Macmillan.