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Osama bin Laden: more media whore than guerrilla warrior

The author of a refreshing new book says al-Qaeda has more in common with new global movements than with nationalist armies of old.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

Landscapes of the Jihad: Militancy, Morality, Modernity, by Faisal Devji, Hurst & Company (London), 2005.

‘It is disingenuous to try to claw back all these recent events and attacks – things that I think are actually quite new – and put them into old ways of seeing political acts.’ Faisal Devji, author of a refreshing new book on al-Qaeda, Landscapes of the Jihad, has had quite enough of the various attempts to explain the antics of Osama bin Laden and his henchmen as having some traditional political or national motivation.

Ask yourself the question: what the hell does Osama bin Laden want? Why did he authorise (apparently) the worst terrorist attack of modern times on 9/11, and why do groups or individuals linked to him, or inspired by him, detonate crude bombs – and often themselves, too – everywhere from beachside cafeterias in Bali to bank forecourts in Istanbul to Tube trains packed with working men and women on a sunny Thursday morning in London?

The oft trotted-out answer to these questions is that bin Laden wants a free Palestine. Or he wants America’s grubby mitts off Saudi Arabia and an end to the sell-out House of Saud’s domination of that state. Or he wants to liberate Iraq and Afghanistan from American and British occupation and that however bastardised and bloody his tactics may be, he is nonetheless part of an ‘arc of resistance’ to Western meddling in the Middle East (1).

In short, many argue: it’s about territory, stupid! This view is held by thinkers on both sides of the left/right divide. So some of a leftish persuasion have come dangerously close to gushing over al-Qaeda and its offshoot groups, or at least seeking to explain their actions with reference to historic movements for land and freedom. Tariq Ali, for example, compares the al-Qaeda-inspired insurgents in Iraq – those car-bombing killers of children and religious worshippers – to the French resistance to the fascist Vichy regime, and said of the 9/11 attacks that ‘the subjects of the [American] Empire had struck back’, demonstrating the ‘universal truth that…slaves and peasants do not always obey their masters.’ (2) He wilfully overlooked the fact that the ‘peasants’ who organised 9/11 were in fact middle-class students with cushy lives.

On the right, al-Qaeda is referred to as an ‘Islamo-fascist’ movement seeking to create a ‘Greater Islamic State’ in which sharia law will be ruthlessly enforced and the people will dream of the good old days when they were dominated by comparatively civilised and mild-mannered Westerners. A recent piece on Open Democracy went so far as to describe al-Qaeda as ‘classically imperialist’, since it wishes to ‘craft the next chapter of human history in its own image’ (3). Come off it: al-Qaeda’s leaders can’t even craft an escape route from Waziristan, never mind human history. Such views wilfully overlook the fact that al-Qaeda is mostly made up of pissed-off posh kids who spend their days fantasising about jihad in chatrooms on the world wide web and occasionally muster up enough nerve to strap a homemade bomb to themselves and murder some civilians. History is not normally made by such individuals.

The right cites al-Qaeda’s alleged territorial and political ambitions as a justification for a continuing Western presence in the Middle East (because if we leave they will set up hostile and barbaric Islamist regimes), while the left cites them as the reason we should get out of the Middle East (because if we stay they’ll keep blowing us up). Into this tiresome and unconvincing debate, where both sides have effectively made that amorphous thing we call al-Qaeda into a petty proxy army for their own prejudices and actions, comes Devji’s fascinating new book.

Devji, an assistant professor of history at the New School University in New York, argues that al-Qaeda cannot be understood in traditionally political, strategic or territorial terms. Rather than trying to force al-Qaeda into political boxes where it simply doesn’t fit – whether it’s those labelled ‘nationalist’, ‘imperialist’ or even ‘traditional terrorist’ – Devji has conducted a fairly exhaustive study of al-Qaeda’s own statements and actions and come up with some surprising conclusions: that this outfit is more ethical than political; that the main landscape for its jihad is the media rather than the towns and cities of Afghanistan, Palestine or Chechnya; and that it is not unlike other new global movements, including environmentalism and the anti-war movement.

In his book, Devji describes al-Qaeda as a group that has dispensed with ‘an old-fashioned politics tied to states and citizenship’ (4). At the most basic level this can be glimpsed in al-Qaeda’s make-up: its members and associates come from all over the place, and often never even meet. They do not have a shared history or geography, as nationally-inspired movements like the Palestine Liberation Organisation or the Irish Republican Army did in the past; nor do they share a clear political outlook or ‘vision for the future’, in Devji’s words, in the same way that the old internationalist movements that also were made up of different nationalities did, such as the International Brigades who fought on the side of the communists in the Spanish Civil War.

Rather, al-Qaeda is a new and peculiarly globalised movement. Its people can hail from Riyadh, Paris or Huddersfield, and can claim to be acting on behalf of Muslims in Iraq, Chechnya or Palestine – or even across historic periods as well as borders, as in the case of bin Laden’s claim that he wanted vengeance for the Moors who were booted out of Spain over 500 years ago. They blow up civilians in London or Madrid as payback for the killing of civilians in Grozny or Ramallah, and profess to represent Muslims in nations they have never visited, and which they might have difficulty pointing to on a map (a bit like their arch enemy, George W Bush, perhaps), but which they once saw on an evening news bulletin. ‘Take Mohammed Siddique Khan’, says Devji, referring to the Leeds-born former supply teacher who blew up himself and six others at Edgware Road in London on 7 July. ‘He said he was motivated by Iraq. When did he ever go to Iraq? What does he truly know about Iraq?’

This is not a movement tied by territory, history or politics; it looks more like an outfit with a chaos-theory reading of international affairs. The idea that a Yorkshireman can kill people in London as revenge for the bombing of ‘my people’ in Baghdad or Bethlehem brings to mind the old saying about a butterfly flapping its wings in one part of the world and causing a hurricane in another.

In Landscapes of the Jihad, Devji argues that al-Qaeda’s relations are ‘not the kind of relations that had characterised national struggles in the past, which brought together people who shared a history and a geography into a political arena defined by processes of intentionality and control’. The jihad, he writes, ‘unlike the politics of national movements…is grounded not in the propagation of ideas or similarity of interests and conditions, so much as in the contingent relations of a global marketplace’ (5). In short, the disparate individuals who are part of al-Qaeda, or who claim to be part of al-Qaeda, are not bonded by any common experience of oppression (many of them are well-to-do and Western-educated) or by shared political visions, but rather by fleeting and fluid relationships, often forged in the planning and execution of a one-off spectacular event rather in the pursuit of a future-oriented programme of ideas and tactics.

So al-Qaeda’s fanciful war is not for something tangible; it is not about making a state or an Islamic territory. Where the Islamic radicals of the past – from the Iranian revolutionaries of 1979 to that last gasp of Islamic fundamentalism in the shape of the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan in 1996 – were motivated by the desire to create an ideological state, al-Qaeda’s actions are better understood as a pose, Devji tells me, as ‘ethical gestures’. ‘Their acts function as exclamation marks’, he says.

‘Prior to al-Qaeda and networks of that ilk, the form that radical Islam took was fundamentalism – a form that explicitly drew from the communist imagination’, says Devji. ‘These were movements dedicated to setting up, through revolution, an ideological state, and they made use of all those terms: revolution; ideology; ideological state; even workers’ committees and all that. They had critiques of capitalism built into them to various degrees. That is no longer evident and it is not invoked at all by al-Qaeda. They have taken leave of that.’

He points to the recent letter allegedly written by Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden’s Egyptian deputy, to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the mysterious Jordanian who is accused of causing mayhem and bloodshed in postwar Iraq apparently in the name of al-Qaeda. ‘In the letter – if we believe it is genuine – al-Zawahiri says he is afraid that the Iraqi insurgency will degenerate into a standard-issue national movement’, says Devji. ‘So he says: look, the jihad is not meant to stop with Iraq. In fact, jihad is something that goes on until the day of resurrection. By that, I don’t think he necessarily means that it will be suicide techniques and violence all the way, but he sees it as a specifically ethical act that is part of everyday Muslim life in whatever form it occurs. It is not something that is simply meant to institute new states.’ So much for those who argue – often from a position of moral cowardice more than political conviction – that the terror might stop if coalition forces leave Iraq.

What about Palestine? I have lost count of the number of times I’ve been on radio or TV shows or at conferences to discuss terrorism and heard someone say ‘Palestine is the issue!’, where it’s argued that al-Qaeda’s grievances are mostly motivated by Israel’s domination of the Palestinians and therefore we must address that issue if we are to put a stop to terror. I once attended a conference with some fairly high-level journalists and thought I might have wandered into a meeting of the Al-Qaeda Defence League by mistake: my suggestion that al-Qaeda’s actions were more nihilistic than a political response to Palestine were brushed aside as ‘rubbish’.

Devji argues that al-Qaeda refers to Palestine mostly opportunistically. ‘Both al-Zawahiri and bin Laden tend to refer to Palestine more as a symbolic than an actual cause’, he says. ‘It’s well known that they haven’t devoted much time to it – apart from saying, both of them, that isn’t it interesting that the issue of Palestine seems to arouse people?’ It’s also been pointed out that, post-9/11, bin Laden only started namechecking Palestine after it was raised by commentators and politicians in the West as the most likely explanation for the terrorist attacks. In his book Devji quotes al-Zawahiri’s view of Palestine, in a book al-Zawahiri wrote while on the run in Afghanistan in late 2001, titled Knights Under the Banner of the Prophet. ‘The fact that must be acknowledged is that the issue of Palestine is the cause that has been firing up the feelings of the Muslim nation from Morocco to Indonesia for the past 50 years’, wrote al-Zawahiri. ‘In addition, it is a rallying point for all the Arabs, be they believers or non-believers.’ (6) In short, if you want to make an impact, mention Palestine. Bush and Blair do the same thing.

Devji locates al-Qaeda, not in traditional international relations, but more in the collapse of international relations as we previously knew them. ‘Bin Laden and al-Zawahiri explicitly trace their origins to the Cold War, or the end of the Cold War’, he says. ‘They don’t trace it to some peculiarly Islamic thing, but to a global phenomenon: the end of the Cold War. It is a global network, and self-consciously sees itself as emerging from the collapse of the Soviet Union and a certain kind of international communism or Marxism.’ It strikes me that it was the falling apart of the old world order – one based on relations between states, and conflicts over nation and territory – that allowed the rise of a post-national, non-state actor like al-Qaeda which sees jihad as some kind of endless duty rather than the means to the end of an ideological entity.

In these post-political circumstances, al-Qaeda fights its battles in the media: its attacks are aimed at making global headlines rather than winning incremental victories towards some definable end. In his book, Devji argues that al-Qaeda’s acts of martyrdom only achieve meaning ‘by being witnessed in the mass media’. He describes one video obtained by Time magazine, which showed martyrs reading their last testaments and bidding farewell to their families before blowing themselves up in various parts of Iraq, as ‘the closest the jihad has come to creating its own form of a reality television show’. The video is ‘replete with scenes straight from Hollywood’, he argues: for example, one martyr dramatically kisses goodbye his beloved through her veil, which is ‘hardly an acceptable public spectacle for any Muslim tradition’ (7). Just as the media has increasingly become the place where politics happens across the West – a new political arena that has superseded crisis-ridden or sluggish parliaments – so it is also the ‘landscape’ in which al-Qaeda fights its weird war, or at least imprints its exclamation marks.

According to Devji, al-Qaeda is not that different from other movements that inhabit our changed world – in terms of its substitution of moral posturing for politics and its appeal to the media rather than to a grassroots constituency. Indeed, Devji says al-Qaeda associates ‘resemble the members of more familiar global networks, such as those for the environment or against war and globalisation’. He writes: ‘Like the gestures that mark the environmentalist or anti-war movements, those of the jihad arise from the luxury of moral choice. This is a world whose concerns are global in dimension and so resistant to old-fashioned political solutions, calling instead for spectacular gestures that are ethical in nature. The passion of the holy warrior emerges from the same source as that of the anti-war protester – not from a personal experience of oppression but from observing the oppression of others. These impersonal and even vicarious passions draw upon pity for their strength. And pity is perhaps the most violent passion of all because it is selfless enough to tolerate monstrous sacrifices.’ (8)

Devji is at pains to point out that he isn’t saying al-Qaeda and Greenpeace are the same thing. ‘One uses murderous violence, the other doesn’t!’, he tells me. But he does think we need to interrogate the new political and social forces that have created something like al-Qaeda if we are going to come up with better ways of dealing with terrorism than simply by saying ‘sort out Palestine and everything will be okay’. It is time to ditch the lazy explanations that really are political hangovers from a bygone era, and look afresh at the problem of terrorism today.

Landscapes of the Jihad by Faisal Devji is published by Hurst & Company. Buy this book from Amazon(UK) or Amazon(USA).

Read on:
spiked-issue: War on terror
(1) Palestine is now part of an arc of Muslim resistance, Seumas Milne, Guardian, 25 March 2004
(2) The Clash of Fundamentalisms: Crusades, Jihad and Modernity, Tariq Ali, 2002
(3) Whose al-Qaeda problem?, Sasha Abramsky, Open Democracy, 4 October 2005
(4) p87, Landscapes of the Jihad: Militancy, Morality, Modernity, Faisal Devji, Hurst & Company, 2005
(5) p11, Landscapes of the Jihad: Militancy, Morality, Modernity
(6) p28, Landscapes of the Jihad: Militancy, Morality, Modernity
(7) p95, Landscapes of the Jihad: Militancy, Morality, Modernity
(8) A war fought for impersonal passions, Faisal Devji, Financial Times, 25 July 2005

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Topics Politics

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