The Arab World Geographer
Forum on 11 September 2001 Events

Not The Wretched Of The Earth: Osama Bin Laden And The “Clash Of Civilizations”

John Agnew
Department of Geography, University of California, Box 951524, Los Angeles, California, 9009–1524, U.S.A.

Living in Los Angeles, and therefore on Pacific Time, I first heard of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon when I awoke on the morning of Tuesday, 11 September 2001. The L.A. FM classic rock station had switched to the AM CBS station to report the news. My first reaction was shock and the horror that planes I could have been flying in had been turned into deadly weapons capable of downing or damaging the Trade Center towers and the Pentagon. As the day wore on and into Wednesday, I pushed my feelings aside and began to think how this had been possible: How had the suicidal hijackers arrived in the United States? Who was behind this? Why had U.S. intelligence been so oblivious to the potential use of such off-the-shelf weapons of mass destruction as coast-to-coast airliners? And what would be the consequences for the part of the world from which the hijackers came? By Thursday and Friday I was increasingly upset at the hubris of American commentators: that this signified a whole new world (as if others had not experienced terror bombings); that America was an innocent bystander in world affairs suddenly thrust into the “front lines” of global terrorism by nameless actors from afar (as if U.S. governments and many U.S. citizens hadn’t endorsed and sponsored a whole litany of terrorist organizations from the IRA to the Nicaraguan Contras and the holy warriors in Afghanistan following the Soviet invasion of 1979). Initially somewhat reticent about fingering Arabs or Moslems as the perpetrators, after the mistake of attributing the Oklahoma City bombing to Arabs in 1995, the media quickly seized on the Saudi venture capitalist and self-confessed Islamic militant, Osama bin Laden, as the mastermind of the attacks on America. The attackers seemed to be a group of fairly well educated Arabs from Egypt, Algeria, and Saudi Arabia who had been trained to fly Boeing 757s and 767s at flying schools in the United States. They did not fit the profile of the Hamas suicide bombers in Israel: young, poor, and ill educated. On the weekend I grieved for the victims and their relatives, wondering why some people had survived and others had died. Is life essentially arbitrary? Fearing this question unanswerable, I rapidly moved on. How could I understand what had happened? In particular, could I understand why it had happened?

I wasn’t happy with the explanations I heard. The American Christian right (in the persons of Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell) said the attacks were a judgement from God for allowing abortion in the U.S. and for the national tolerance of sinful lifestyles (such as those of Gays and Lesbians). Why God would not rather attack abortion clinics and individual trespassers directly and chose instead the buildings he supposedly did was left unanswered. The American secular right said it was about the jealousy of America of our “enemies.” Whoever did it wished they had buildings like this but, because they didn’t, would rather destroy ours than build their own. Another rightist, the Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, later averred that Moslems are incapable of building their own. This missed the point that the attackers seemed to hate these particular buildings rather than American buildings in general. After all, some of their comrades had tried to blow up the Trade towers once before. The symbolism of the buildings is not incidental to the entire affair. The buildings chosen represented America as a geopolitical abstraction. They signified America’s dominance in the world, not America as a world unto itself.

Responses from the left were equally abstract and equally disinterested in exploring the motivations of the probable perpetrators. For most, in one form or another, a vulgar economism prevailed. It is all about oil, some said. But how? I asked myself. Yes, the U.S. supports a bunch of despotic regimes to keep the oil running from the Middle East to supply the SUVs (sports utility vehicles) of Republican voters in the Los Angeles suburbs. Hadn’t Mike Davis told us this? But what did the guys who piloted the planes in the attacks have to do with the oil question? Do you commit political suicide to draw attention to who controls the world’s oil supply and in whose interest? I think not. To others, world poverty is said to be behind the attacks.  If only the world were less unequal then people wouldn’t do these things. Well, this might make sense if the perpetrators had any interest whatsoever in ending or even ameliorating world poverty. But if the people behind it were indeed bin Laden and his network, then this is not the case. Their beef is with the insult to Islam from American troops stationed in Saudi Arabia and with the spread of secularism into the Moslem world from the West. Bin Laden’s is a cultural war, not an economic one. He does not worry about the starvation of the Afghan masses among whom  he lives. The economy of the Middle East is definitely not his priority, as long as he can exploit credit card fraud and his inherited investments to fund his political activities. His writings and pronouncements do not give pride of place to the Palestinian struggle against Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, although the Jewish presence in the region is an “abomination” in his eyes. Among Western writers, Bin Laden is said to admire Machiavelli (the old realist reading, not the revisionist republican one). No hint of admiration for Karl Marx, darn it.

Here is my attempt, therefore, at understanding why what happened on 11 September. Bin Laden is the Samuel Huntington of the Arab world, to invoke the name of the Harvard Professor who in 1993 first presented the idea of the “clash of civilizations” as the emerging structure of geopolitics after the Cold War. He is a prophet and organizer of inter-civilizational conflict.

Bin Laden is the modern Arab geopolitician par excellence. Mesmerizing and charismatic in his effect on those who come into his company, he has a clear world-view based on a specific, if peculiar and heretical, reading of Islam’s holy book, the Qur’an.  His agents recruit adherents in a manner akin to that of the Reverend Moon and his Unification Church: approaching lonely, vulnerable young men affiliated with mosques and Islamic Centres throughout the Arab diaspora, particularly in Germany, England, and North America, and university students in Egypt, Algeria, and Saudi Arabia, using their alienation from the Western world to turn them into his zealots (Engel 2001). Exploiting the open borders, rapid transportation, and telecommunications of a globalizing world, he is bent on establishing an alternative geopolitical world to the American-dominated one now in the offing. This world would be one in which Islam would be re-established as the basis for political rule throughout the presently “nominal” Islamic world. A product of globalization, he is anything but a “traditional” figure, however ancient he might claim the tradition is that he has been inventing. He offers a mirror-image security mapping of the world to that offered by Huntington and other prophets of the “clash of civilizations.” Like the Western pundits, bin Laden collapses ontology into geography; the key move of the modern geopolitical imagination. Vice and virtue have geographical addresses. The U.S. is the major centre for global vice. Like the pundits he fails to see the arbitrariness of the “civilizational codes” that mark the world. Unlike them he sees the Islamic world as superior, needing to be protected from the contamination of the West. Like them he despises multiculturalism, gender equality, and tolerance, associating these social ideals with degradation and weakness.  Like them, and in a departure from orthodox geopolitical thinking, he rejects the world of states as the future model of world politics.  His priority lies in securing a home-space for an Islamic civilization defined against a West that has dominated the Arab world in particular and the Islamic world more generally for far too long.

Bin Laden’s problems will be twofold, whatever the initial and continuing success of his terrorist activities. The first is that the version of Islam he represents is a peculiarly puritanical and violent one. As commentators on Huntington have noted, “contemporary Islam harbours a complex and pluralistic set of relationships between religious and political institutions” (Shapiro 1999, 4; see also Lapidus 1996).  The particularly anomic conditions of Afghanistan following the Soviet invasion, the civil war, and the drought may have proved favourable to the spread of bin Laden’s view of the world among the largely Pushtun supporters of the Taliban regime. Alienated young men from the Arab world in the cheap hotels and student hostels of Western Europe may well continue to prove ready recruits to his ranks. But the nationalist aspirations of the Palestinians, the divergent interpretations of Islam between Sunni and Shia branches, the divisions between Arabs and other Moslems, the tolerant Islam characteristic of most American Moslems, and the deep-seated attractions of consumerism and/or democracy all over the Arab world will work against him (Esposito 1992; Sachedina 2001).

The second problem is one that can and must be created for him.  It is to challenge the plausibility of the story of a singular “West,” the moral geography, if you will, that bin Laden thrives on: the story of a secular, consumerist, spiritually bankrupt, amoral, and exclusionary world that values nothing other than the “bottom line” and continued economic growth at any price. In the shadow cast by the worst terrorist act visited on American soil, we can begin to ask both what we really stand for and what “we” have wrought in the world and how we should change to make the whole world a better place. Of course, “we” could just continue to be ourselves as bin Laden sees us, imposing economic and military hegemony to keep the world in line. But we could start to challenge the whole logic upon which both his and our actions in the world rely: the geopolitical abstractions that turn places into geopolitical commodities and people into pawns of Superpowers and the terror networks that aspire to similar power; the geopolitical abstractions that lead either to reducing Kabul to an even greater pile of rubble than it presently is or to the now-downed towers of the World Trade Center. This is a task that geography as a marginalized profession could set itself as a goal for the new century. Unlike in our distant past when geography was bound up with colonial adventurism, we are no longer as complicit with the seats of power as are many other more “popular fields” in the United States, fields such as political science and economics. With respect and understanding, we should be advocates for knowing about and valuing a world of difference and distinctive, if ever-changing, cultures; critics of global pressures for exploitation, coercion, and conformity; and proponents of non-violent approaches to resolving the fundamental conflicts that will undoubtedly continue to wrack humanity.  After listening to the poverty of the explanations on offer in the aftermath of 11 September I’m not confident that we have either the moral or the intellectual resources to do so.  I just don’t see any alternative.


Engel, Richard. 2001. Inside Al-Qaeda: A window into the world of militant Islam and the Afghani alumni. Jane’s International Security News, 28 September.

Esposito, John L. 1992. The Islamic threat: Myth or reality? New York: Oxford University Press.

Lapidus, Ira M. 1996. State and religion in Islamic societies. Past and Present 151:3–27.

Sachedina, Abdulaziz. 2001. The Islamic roots of democratic pluralism. New York:  Oxford University Press.

Shapiro, Michael J. 1999. Samuel Huntington’s moral geography. Theory and Event 2/4: 1–11.

(Submitted 11 October 2001)
© The Arab World Geographer

Flint (Intro) / Smith / Agnew / Abu-Nimer / McColl / Nijman / Marston & RouhaniFlint (conclusion)

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