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9/11 changed everything for Western approaches to identity, civilization and religion, and nothing.

9/11 changed everything for Western approaches to identity, civilization and religion, and nothing.

Ben Ryan’s forthcoming book How the West was Lost looks at the changing nature of Western identity and values, and the West’s lost sense of purpose and solidarity. In this essay he looks at how the events of 9/11 marked a turning point for the West, its sense of self and religion, but only in some ways. 19/09/2019

My wife, who works in a school, recently pointed out to me that not one single pupil was left who had been born when 9/11 happened. The last year group who actually remembered 9/11 as an experience in their own lives graduated from university years ago. I say this not to make people feel old, though it certainly has that effect, but to illustrate the essential truth that 9/11 is now, literally, history. It is something to be taught rather than something that was lived through for today’s Western youth.

As a moment of history, to my mind, it ranks as one of those rare, crucial, symbolic historical turning points, with a status not unlike the fall of the Berlin Wall. Is that hyperbolic? When the Berlin Wall came down it marked the effective end of the Cold War (not, in fact, immediately since the USSR limped on for two further years, but certainly symbolically). As a symbol it marked a total victory for Western liberal democracy over its ideological enemy in communism. The twentieth century, or at least the period from the end of the First World War to the end of the Cold War, was a history of three competing ideologies; fascism, communism and capitalist, liberal democracy (where capitalist, liberal, and democrat are often, wrongly, seen as equivalents or necessarily mutually enforcing, but that’s an argument for another time).

With the fall of the Wall, there was a default, but comprehensive winner. Fascism had been vanquished, and there was a remarkable complacency about the end of nationalism. Now communism had apparently joined it on the scrap heap. Francis Fukuyama’s famous thesis on the end of history is often misunderstood (or at least caricatured – as Nick Spencer’s recent essay Why History didn’t End explores), but it did become typical of a twenty year or so period in which Western triumphalism was absolute. Liberal democracy really did seem not only to be the last option standing, but to be spreading throughout the world. The “Pink Tide” of left wing elected politicians was underway in Latin America after an unhappy century in which every country (bar Costa Rica) had suffered under at least one dictator. Mandela had been freed, and South Africa seemed well on the way to total rehabilitation in the international community. Most of Eastern Europe had not only defied expectations with steady economic growth and a series of freely and fairly fought elections that seemed to have embedded democratic norms, but was also well on the way to joining the growing European project.  Optimism seemed to be pretty well justified.

9/11 as the ultimate reality check

9/11 was, first and foremost, an atrocity that killed almost 3000 people. But it also, like the Berlin Wall, marked a historic turning point in the self–belief and vision of the West. Where 1989 was a spark for triumphant optimism, 9/11 was the ultimate reality check. It wasn’t the first major Islamic terrorist attack on an American target , but it was the first to be carried out on American soil, and at an incredible, unimaginable scale. Any complacency about the USA’s (and the wider West’s) role in the world was shattered. We have been fighting the war on terror ever since, and given the dramatic upping of the ante in terms of domestic security and surveillance, and a succession of high profile terrorist attacks over the intervening years, arguably we have been losing. Terror, and a lack of belief in the world’s progress to some higher ideal, have become endemic. If Fukuyama’s end of history thesis was the defining text of the 1990s, it is his erstwhile tutor, Samuel Huntington, and his “clash of civilizations” theory that has come to be endlessly revisited as the text of the post 9/11 era.

Religion as Civilization in the Post 9/11 world

Huntington’s thesis, that the world was to become defined by clashing civilizations, rather than ideologies, had seemed to be proven correct by the rise of radical Islam. This had a remarkable impact not only on the West’s perception of itself and its diplomatic and military strategies, but also on the way in which religion and culture were perceived in the West.

Partly this was precisely because the civilizational clash was, against all predictions, along religious and ethnic lines; identities that had been thought to have been left behind in the modern age. Where previously in the public and policy imagination religion had been quietly drifting away, an irrelevance of marginal interest only to sociologists and the dwindling number of the developed world’s religious adherents, suddenly it was front and centre of a civilizational fight to the death.

In truth, this ought never to have been quite so shocking. Not only had the decline of worldwide religion been dramatically overestimated for most of the second half of the 20th Century (a period in which, worldwide, the number of religious people grew enormously), but the West still had plenty of evidence of the durability of ethno–religious fault lines in its own neighbourhoods. It was only in 1998 that the Good Friday Agreement had been signed, and no one was yet sure how durable it might prove (arguably we’re still not, though it would have been a brave observer who thought it was at risk because of machinations over the UK’s withdrawal from Europe). The Yugoslav wars had not yet come to a final close either, with all the horrors that that entailed. Yet, for all that, 9/11 was the event that radically shifted the vision of religion as an irrelevance to, at least in the case of radical Islam, an enemy and civilizational threat.

That trend of religion as civilizational marker has not only been applied to other cultures. In recent years the civilizational conflict narrative has allied itself with a wider disenfranchisement from politics and urban elites, a process catalysed by more than a decade of economic pain, and three decades of growing economic inequality. Into this febrile atmosphere the return of Christianity, weaponised as a marker of who “we” Westerners are has been increasing. A host of politicians and movements have laid claim to a Christian West defined, particularly in opposition to this perceived Muslim threat. It is a largely negative vision, one based on defending the West against outsiders more than any constructive theo–political vision with any obvious true intellectual legacy in Christianity. The sociologist Rogers Brubaker has characterized this stance as “a Christianism—not a substantive Christianity … It’s a secularized Christianity as culture … It’s a matter of belonging rather than believing.” He further describes the attitude as being one in which “We are Christians precisely because they are Muslims. Otherwise, we are not Christian in any substantive sense.” This attitude has come to define large parts of the European and North American populist nationalist right.

Christianism and integration

In a sense, this Christianism is nothing new. That right wing nationalist groups have played on religious motifs and identified outsiders as threats to a collective culture is an old and familiar story. What perhaps is new, and 9/11 served to catalyse, was the realignment of tribal loyalties from 20th century left–right ideologies, to nativist/cosmospolitan or populist/pluralist identity divides in the 21st century. The understanding of religion as an innate part of civilizational clash has helped to crystallize these divides, which have now extended far beyond terrorism and threats from abroad to questions of integration and local identity.

In France, which has a higher Muslim population than most of the West (probably around 7.5 per cent), about half of those surveyed by Ifop in 2016 and 2018 felt Islam to be incompatible with French republican values. The same proportion is true in the UK, on the compatibility of Islam with British values, and of 40% of Americans. Religion has gone from irrelevance, to a key factor in what defines someone as part of the national culture; at least in a negative sense.

The challenge (or at least perceived challenge) of integrating new people into Western culture long pre–dates 9/11. The USA is, famously, if at present somewhat reluctantly, a nation of immigrants being forged into a single people based on a series of American values. The UK and France are old empires still struggling with their own colonial legacy, reduced status on the global stage and waves of migration. The new era symbolised by 9/11 did not create any of these tensions, though the war on terror has certainly exacerbated them, but it does mark one of those historical turning points, particularly in the US, of a West that was beginning to worry that its mythical promise was not quite so assured as it might have been. The added religious element is powerful for the simple reason that it held up a mirror to Western ideas of progress and identity that had prematurely written off the idea that such pre–political identities could still matter, including in the most horrifying, destructive ways.

The tragedy of religion as “back” in public life

That religion is “back”, in the sense that it has returned resolutely and unavoidably into Western public life, is not necessarily a positive from a religious perspective. 9/11, 7/7 and other terrorist atrocities can seem to confirm all the old tropes about religion as the cause of all wars, or as a route back only to barbarism.

The New Atheist movement, certainly Sam Harris, were explicitly inspired by 9/11 in their more aggressive vision of an atheism that rejected religion not only as irrational but as a fundamental evil that undermined Western notions of progress, liberalism and rationality. In a similar way 7/7, in 2005, no doubt helped to fuel the more phlegmatic new atheistic appeal of Richard Dawkins (the God Delusion was published in 2006), in England, where such aggressive opposition to religion would have seemed utterly disproportionate and bizarre in opposition to the softness of the 1990s Church of England.

There is a certain irony that this very sense of time and progression from inferior barbaric eras towards a progressive utopia is itself an oft–overlooked debt to the embedding of Christian culture in Western intellectual life. The West’s politics and philosophy have always owed far more than is often acknowledged to the Judaeo–Christian theological idea of “eschatology”—the theology of destiny and the end times. This way of seeing time, as a linear process of successive epochs toward a final state, is absent from Greek philosophy, and largely absent from Eastern philosophy and religion too, but is at the heart of the distinctively Christian contribution to the West. The modern idea of progress, in the philosopher Robert Pippin’s words, is “the secularization … of Christian progress”. In other words, Western politics and philosophy have always been about realizing a vision of heaven on earth, whether the Kingdom of God or a non–religious utopia.

In a sense this is the second sad irony of 9/11 prompting a return to religion in public consciousness. It ought never to have been viewed as an irrelevance, but its return has helped fuel the idea of religion as dangerous, while the idea of a positive Christian underpinning to Western culture has increasingly become the purview of populist right wing groups using Christianity only as a stick with which to beat migrants and Muslims. There is precious little reason to take the claims to defend a Christian West seriously from people like Matteo Salvini (who for years was publically a neo–pagan, and despite insisting on clutching a crucifix in speeches, has been daggers drawn with the Church on virtually every issue imaginable) and Marine Le Pen, never mind Donald Trump.

In 2003 Pope John Paul II lambasted Europe—though it could have been the West more broadly—for its “loss of Christian memory” and heritage, characterizing Europeans as “heirs who have squandered a patrimony entrusted to them by history”. His vision of a restored Christian Europe, founded on Catholic political theology, can no longer be viewed as plausible in an increasingly diverse and secularized West. However, his challenge did serve a reminder that the values of the West have a heritage and foundation. We do not need everyone today to agree to an exclusively Christian sense of moral progress, but the sense of a collective “we” is much weaker for the pretence that it comes from nowhere, that Christianity is not a critical part of the development of the West, where it came from and what it is today.

This has been the final real tragedy of the civilizational conflict that 9/11 seemed to usher in. Religion made a return into policy and public affairs as an enemy. It retuned as the definition of an “other” culture, and for a certain segment on the political right this has created a response of sorts, of a “Christianism” which is only really defined by that other, but it has not prompted much wider sense of the importance of religion to our own culture and identity. 9/11 in that sense changed everything, putting religion back as an unavoidable feature of the modern world, and as the centre of civilizational warfare, and yet also changed nothing. In terms of understanding religion as a factor in Western civilization we are not much the wiser for the better part of twenty years of conflict.


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 Image: The U.S. National Archives/flickr.com

Ben Ryan

Ben Ryan

Ben Ryan is Head of Research at Theos. He is the editor of Fortress Britain? Ethical Approaches to Immigration Policy for a Post–Brexit Britain (JKP 2018) and the author of Theos reports on chaplaincy, the EU, the Catholic charity sector, mental health and ecumenism. He holds degrees in European politics from the LSE and in Theology and Religious Studies from Cambridge. Outside of Theos he is a trustee of CSAN (Caritas Social Action Network).

Posted 19 September 2019

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