spiked-politics | Article | Landscapes of Jihad: Osama bin Laden: more media whore than guerrilla warrior

spiked-politics | Article | Osama bin Laden: more media whore than guerrilla warrior

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.

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?’

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.’

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.

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