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Clearing Away the Fog: Review of "The Clash of Barbarisms"

Alex LoCascio
Date Published: 
February 14, 2003

The Clash of Barbarisms: Sept. 11 and the Making of the New World Disorder
by Gilbert Achcar
Monthly Review Press, 2002

Since September 11th the publishing explosion of books on the Middle East, International Studies, and American Foreign Policy has been overwhelming. Writers from the left, right, and wonkish center have come forward to offer everything from tendentious patriotic drivel to impenetrable academic monographs. Nevertheless, a public hungry for information and eager to understand America’s place in the world has eagerly snapped it all up.

Gilbert Achcar’s recently published analysis is the ideal text for all readers. Snappy and concise without sacrificing intellectual rigor, thoroughly researched and sourced without being academically dry, and offering a solid historical context without overburdening the reader with extraneous detail, this slim 128-page text is the ideal introduction to the issues raised by September 11 and subsequent US military response.

Achcar begins with a devastating critique of the ideological nonsense and mystification that passes for serious discourse in the media, press, and intellectual circles concerning the attacks of Sept 11. He locates the source of so much of this drivel to what he calls the “two deliberate amalgams” being deployed to enforce a climate of “intellectual intimidation.”

The first amalgam is the idea that any critique of American military and political hegemony arises from some sort of insidious anti-Americanism. The second is the notion that any attempt to explain the tragedy of September 11 as a consequence of America’s imperial role on the geopolitical stage is “equivalent to a justification of mass murder.”

Crisp summary

Proceeding to methodically dissect the hollow good vs. evil dichotomy offered of the administration and its ideologues, the fatuous claims for the historical uniqueness of Sept. 11, and the inane discourse of the “thinking” classes, Achcar shows how the barrage of silliness surrounding the WTC attack has served to render impossible any illuminating or insightful discussion of its ramifications.

After clearing away the ideological fog, Achcar proceeds to offer exactly the sort of analysis that is missing in most mainstream analysis. He gives a crisp summary of the history of Islamic fundamentalist movements in the Middle East. He locates their emergence in the juncture between the US’s cynical manipulation of Islamist currents in order to prevent the emergence of credible secular nationalist or socialist liberation movements that would threaten the grip of oil interests, and the society-wide despair and hopelessness that such a situation gives rise to.

In providing rich historical detail touching upon aspects of Middle Eastern society stretching back to the colonial era, Achcar offers an illuminating perspective on the political impasse of the region, and manages to deflate the claims of so much Western “scholarship” on this question. While Achcar makes no claims for a progressive core to Islamist barbarism, he does resist the facile temptation to tar these movements with the brush of fascism or to assert an equivalency with the barbarism of the hegemonic power.

Achcar concludes with some very thoughtful meditations about the US’s unchallenged global hegemony in the postwar era. In situating the current crisis within the continuity of the history of the post-WWII global order, Achcar raises invaluable insights for activists and ordinary concerned citizens who have been lacking the intellectual tools to cut through the muddle of contemporary discourse and offer concrete solutions.

This is an extremely important book, which makes it’s marginalization from mainstream discussion in the US all the more criminal.