The essays in this collection seek to interpret the events of September 11, 2001 from the perspective of cultural theory—that is, from the perspective of the anthropological and social forces that motivate human beings and give meaning to their thoughts, actions, and feelings. Addressing the events that shape our world and our worldviews, particularly those possessing a symbolic dimension that cries out for interpretation, explanation, or reckoning, cultural theory brings us back to integrated modes of thought that have by and large been lost with the increased specialization and compartmentalization of the academy and of intellectual life in general. But to call cultural theory "interdisciplinary" is already to ratify the divisions this concept presupposes, and that cultural theory itself calls into question. Though the contributors to this volume work within various disciplines, their approach is necessarily holistic—because of the very nature of the event, which resonates on many levels (anthropological, social, historical) and in diverse spheres of human activity (religion, politics, the media).
In the immediate aftermath of the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, there was indeed, among the Western intelligentsia, a great effort to come to terms with what had happened. For the attacks appeared to have been aimed not just at the United States but at the Western world itself, with New York as its symbolic capital. Transatlantic intellectuals such as Jacques Derrida, Jürgen Habermas, Noam Chomsky, and René Girard gave interviews;1 cultural critics such as Jean Baudrillard and Slavoj Zizek published short, polemical tracts;2 and the journalists and political scientists produced all manner of books on jihadism, Bin Laden, and Al Qaeda. This frenzy of intellectual activity coincided with an upsurge of interest in and fascination with the Arab-Muslim world among the general public. Programs in Middle Eastern studies were created or expanded; enrollments in Arabic language courses [End Page 3] increased four hundred per cent between 1998 to 2006,3 far more than any other language; and the demand for Islamic and Arabic scholars has grown faster than appropriate PhDs can be produced. Conversely, from 1990 (after the fall of the Berlin Wall) to 2002, enrollments in Russian courses plummeted, decreasing by fifty per cent.4 Clearly the perception of who one's enemy is has a cultural and psychological impact that goes far beyond the superficial media representations consumed on a daily basis; the very curriculum of American universities has been altered as a result of the 9/11 attacks, and this will no doubt have profound and far-reaching effects.
The idea that conflict should spark interest in the culture of one's supposed enemy is certainly not a new one.5 Throughout much of human history, relations of war and conflict have often generated cross-cultural exchanges. The Ancient Romans adopted the deities of the peoples they conquered, and the beliefs of an obscure and persecuted sect from a rebellious province eventually became the official religion; in the thirteenth century, Mongol armies brutally invaded Muslim lands, laid waste to their greatest cities, and then converted to Islam; in the late-fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, French incursions into Italy brought the Renaissance to France; and in 1798-1799, Napoleon's invasion of Egypt led to the creation of Egyptology, the forerunner of modern departments of Middle Eastern Studies. A shift occurs with the colonial enterprises of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries—mostly French and British. The openness and eclecticism that had previously characterized the imperialistic impulse was superseded by a new kind of imperialism (infused with Enlightenment ideas) that actively resisted assimilation while attempting to eradicate indigenous practices and customs in the name of "civilization."6 After centuries of seeing the Arab-Muslim world principally in terms of exoticism, are we now on the threshold of a new understanding? Or on the contrary, are we more polarized and mystified than ever, with any possible reconciliation pushed ever farther into the future?
The essays contained in this volume attempt to rethink the relations between the West and the Arab-Muslim world that 9/11 has thrust into the spotlight. Clearly, any new understanding, if it is to be productive, must take...