The time has come at last for political theorist Benjamin Barber. His 1995 book, Jihad vs. McWorld, is now climbing toward best-sellerdom. Calls at his offices in New York, New Jersey and Maryland regularly bring invitations to address the public. One Sunday, he's quoted in The New York Times; the next, he's penned a cover story for The Financial Times.
The University of Maryland professor, adviser to the Clinton administration and recent director of a center for democracy at Rutgers University, is quickly stepping into the upper echelons of public intellectuals offering ways to understand the events of Sept. 11. For a nation that remains frightened, angry and bewildered, a quest for someone who can provide the one great narrative that will make inexplicable terror explicable might be one of the most significant undertakings of coming months.
"Americans are asking questions like, 'Why do they hate us? Who would do something like this? How can people be so perverse?'" Barber said last week at his office in College Park. "That speaks to the role of the public intellectual. Ideally, it's not a role where we give certain answers, but frame questions, expand the time horizon and offer some possible forms of explanation."
Almost six weeks after the terrorist attacks, the range and variety of explanations from academic quarters reflect an astonishing perplexity. At the Johns Hopkins University, for example, scholars invited to take part in a campus teach-in initially demurred because, as one historian said, "People were awed by the mandate to define a perspective." At the same time, said Hopkins anthropologist Ashraf Ghani, a native of Afghanistan, "Before Sept. 11 there were five of us [in the United States] specializing in Afghanistan who kept knocking on the doors of everyone to get a hearing, and of course it was difficult. Now there are 500 instant experts and another thousand lining up."
Casual soundings of the political landscape do, however, indicate that two prevailing stories might have become dangerously salient, according to Barber. The first, which found voice in President George W. Bush's initial pronouncements, is "the simplistic claim that terrorism literally comes from hell, comes from people who are diabolical, who have no cause, who have no explanation or rationale for what they do other than represent some abject evil."
The second did not so much spring from reactionary ignorance but from a 1993 essay by Harvard University's Samuel Huntington in Foreign Affairs titled "The Clash of Civilizations?" Written as a kind of post-Cold War premonition, Huntington's article had enormous influence among policy-makers at the time. In it, Huntington suggested that global politics had entered a new phase in which the fundamental source of world conflict would no longer be ideological or economic but cultural. To be more precise, Huntington predicted tensions between civilizations would leave the world spinning around one central axis: "The West versus The Rest." Not only did he name the interaction between Islam and the West as an example of such a clash, but he also predicted that what he called the Muslim World would bring the West's next confrontation.
Although Huntington has rapidly backpedaled since Sept. 11, saying the terrorist attacks do not exemplify his theory, the Clash of Civilizations idea has been raised repeatedly to explain the supposed enmity within Muslim nations for Western culture and pointed to as the fuel that fires fundamentalist rage.
"This is the primary alternative explanation right now," said Barber, who has joined a growing chorus of scholars objecting to Huntington. "But what's interesting is that this is also bin Laden's argument -- that certainly this is not a few of them against us, but an onslaught against Western civilization and everything the West holds sacred." In fact, other scholars are now pointing out that, more than 40 years ago, Muslim fundamentalist writers formalized the Clash of Civilizations notion to galvanize their forces against modernism. "The idea," Barber said, "is palpably false."
Like Huntington, Barber seems to have divined the present-day conflict several years ago. The mere title of his book, Jihad vs. McWorld, sounds surprisingly fresh. Although the title suggests a fractious dichotomy like Huntington's, the thesis is more along the lines of "Jihad via McWorld." In other words, Barber believes the globalizing culture of Western commercial values and policies that hold financial markets more important than the rights and needs of everyday citizens encourages the militant response -- not only among Islamic fundamentalists, but Americans, as well.
The intemperate rants of the Rev. Jerry Falwell and senseless violence of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy J. McVeigh might be two examples of America's own aberrant responses.
"The debate we face is not between Islam and the West, but forces that operate within Islam and within Protestantism, within the West, within the East. It's a war within civilizations, if you like, not between civilizations. It's a war between a radical fundamentalist minority who are deeply fearful of modernity and the principle architects of modernity. It's a battle within Islam, and it's a battle within America."
Barber's targets -- not unlike those of fundamentalist Muslims and fundamentalist Christians -- are Hollywood, MTV, fast food, pornography, "a homogenizing, monistic, one-dimensional world defined by all the things about which people of religious faith and people of moral seriousness complain." Terrorism, he says, is just the "hyper-response to those issues. Terrorism becomes the pathology that grows out of those underlying tensions."
His thesis, like most thoughtful scholarship, is far more involved and nuanced than it might appear on first glance. And like most public intellectuals entering the shadowy territory of international terrorism, he offers his own prescription: democracy -- or to be more precise, democratic pluralism.
"Put together, the economic and cultural dimensions of McWorld has helped create a global disorder in which we prosper and others are impoverished," he argues. "Our majority culture of a commercialized, secularized, privatized consumer world appears to others as a threatening, colonizing, homogenizing world in which there is no room for another culture.
"When we talk about preserving American values, do we mean preserving the violence of our computer games and this crap that comes out of Hollywood or impose fast food on the whole world? Are those the values we're preserving? Or are we interested in preserving real American values of tolerance and diversity and pluralism and the right of citizens throughout the world to govern themselves and the rights of men and women to a fair share of the economic pie? If those are our values, then the construction of that kind of world both in America and transnationally become critical."
Despite his certitude, Barber is being dismissed by some academics who believe the truth lies elsewhere. Marius Deeb, a Middle East scholar at Hopkins' School of Advanced International Studies, said he used to rely on Barber's book in his classes, but then dismissed it because he found the ideas in Jihad vs. McWorld were "crude in theory."
Instead, Deeb is enthusiastic about an article that will be published in Foreign Affairs next month by his Hopkins colleague, Fouad Ajami, which offers another interpretation. (Ajami has written elsewhere that the West is suffering from long-standing internal conflicts that Muslim nations have tragically failed to address among their own.) But then this is the nature of public intellectuals -- to trot out new ideas, forge alliances and debate without timidity. In the meantime, a frazzled citizenry waits for some truths, hungry for the real story, needing someone who can tell them exactly what caused their world to tilt on Sept. 11 and who is this enemy crashing through the gates.