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An explosion of pity

Faisal Devji, author of Landscapes of the Jihad, explains how the London bombers were driven by pity – that most 'dangerous and bitter passion'.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

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Millions, perhaps even billions of words have been written about al-Qaeda since 9/11, all of them struggling to explain this network’s origins, belief systems and methods. Scores of books on Osama bin Laden and his henchmen have hit the shelves (many of which, for my sins, I have read), and thousands of articles have been published (some of which I wrote).

For me, one of the most interesting of the many texts on al-Qaeda is Faisal Devji’s Landscapes of the Jihad: Militancy, Morality, Modernity, published last year. Devji cuts through the two most common perceptions about al-Qaeda: that it is political or religious. In fact, he says, it cannot be understood as a political movement in any traditional sense; indeed, it has dispensed with ‘an old-fashioned politics tied to states and citizenship’ (1). It is not traditionally religious, either, he argues, in the sense that it does not follow any recognisable Islamic hierarchy and chops and changes the religious justifications for its actions.

Devji argues that al-Qaeda is better understood as a new global movement more interested in making ‘ethical’ gestures than winning territory or building a state. The contemporary jihad, he argues, ‘is more a product of the media than it is of any local tradition or situation and school or lineage of Muslim authority…. [T]he jihad itself can be seen as an offspring of the media, composed as it is almost completely of pre-existing media themes, images and stereotypes.’ (2)

On Monday evening, I will be interviewing Devji about ‘The ethics of al-Qaeda’ at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in central London, an event for which spiked readers can buy tickets at a reduced price (see below). As a pre-interview taster, I asked him about his views on the video of Shehzad Tanweer released on the first anniversary of 7/7, and what it might reveal about the London bombers.

‘This video is a media product more than a political statement or anything else’, he says. ‘It’s interesting that both Mohammad Sidique Khan in his video, and now Tanweer, try to fit themselves into a global mould of what a jihadist looks and acts like. They wear the same kind of clothes; both of them even wag their fingers while they’re speaking to the camera, which is something that Ayman al-Zawahiri [bin Laden’s second-in-command] does quite a lot. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if that was something they very deliberately imitated from him.

‘Even Tanweer’s mention of Afghanistan and Iraq is not novel in any way. They have become part of a litany of complaints used to justify the jihad. It is not that Tanweer had any personal connection to those conflicts – he didn’t – but again he is repeating a kind of globalised script: this is what explains the jihad, this is what explains my actions.’

Devji argues that there is a ‘great deal of narcissism’ in both Tanweer’s and Khan’s video testaments. ‘I would distinguish this from earlier forms of terroristic publicity. In the past, a terrorist desired publicity for his cause, in his own lifetime. Here, it is almost publicity for its own sake, and the publicity is desired after the death of the person. It is almost going back to an old-fashioned literary form of immortality: my name shall live on after my death.’

So perhaps Khan and Tanweer were motivated, not by ancient mystical beliefs or by the old politics of anti-imperialism, but by that very modern thirst for overnight celebrity, where you can become famous, infamous or notorious almost in an instant. In this sense, Devji was also struck by a revelation in the British government’s report into the London bombings. ‘I think it was Tanweer actually – the report said he went into a petrol-station shop and haggled over the change, even though he’s on his way to blow himself up in London later that day. And while he’s haggling, while he’s arguing, he looks directly at the CCTV camera in a very knowing kind of way. I found that extraordinarily interesting – it is like he knows this image, staring at the CCTV, will become famous, immortal. It is narcissistic in the sense that they are seeking immortality in the media.’

For Devji, the emphasis on creating media images and spectacles – through video testaments, glancing at CCTV cameras, and all the rest – demonstrates that these are not political acts in any traditional sense. ‘There is an absenting of ordinary political action. That is why those who argue that these kind of acts are simply a cost-effective way to achieve political ends don’t really get it. First of all, it is not really cost-effective: there are not that many people around willing to be sacrificed in this way, so in fact the cost to jihadists is very high. Secondly, these acts are not necessarily designed to achieve a tangible, political aim.

‘I would argue that, robbed of political meaning, by default they become moral or ethical acts – acts carried out for their own sake.’

According to Devji, this kind of terrorism is not a product of some wacky foreign ideology infiltrating our British way of life. ‘One of the most important things about these acts of terror, and the thing that we need to fear about them most, is that they are actually very intimate to the world we live in. They are very close to us. They come from everyday occurrences. We know that one of the bombers met his wife on an anti-war march in London and communicated with others in internet chatrooms. Most of the London bombers’ acts of bonding occurred in public – not in mosques but on rafting expeditions and at ink-ball shooting games, in clubs and gyms. There is nothing traditionally religious, or private, about that.

‘These men do not cut themselves off from British society; instead their politics and their bonding are conducted in the full glare of public scrutiny. They are made by the world we live in.’

Devji says the London bombers, and other al-Qaeda-style terrorists, appear to be driven more by pity than political conviction or ambition – and that this, too, is a common trend today. ‘Pity can be dangerous, precisely because one is not personally involved in the suffering. One is acting, apparently, on behalf of others. You see this among leftist groups today, as well. It’s vicarious, it’s luxurious in a way, and luxuriant; it is also narcissistic. It is a very dangerous and bitter passion.

‘It is so impersonal, this kind of pity, that the terrorists seem to exhibit no hatred even towards their victims. Actually they blend in with them; they are like them. The London bombers didn’t have any history of exhibiting dislike or hatred, or removing themselves from British society. They got along fine with Britons and were exactly like them. It is precisely because the hatred and the pity is so abstract – so removed from traditional political or religious structures – that they seem not to be killing real people, in a sense. It is more abstract than that. These bombers really could say, “It’s nothing personal.”’

Brendan O’Neill will be interviewing Faisal Devji further on ‘The ethics of al-Qaeda’ at the Institute of Contemporary Arts at 7pm on Monday 24 July. Tickets normally cost £10, but they are on offer to spiked readers for £6. To reserve your ticket, phone +44 20 7 930 3647 and quote ‘spiked’. For more information, visit the ICA website here. Visit Brendan O’Neill’s website here.

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Topics Politics

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