Al-Qaeda: after the culture of complaint comes the terrorism of complaint

Al-Zawahiri’s latest moaning confirms jihadism is the bloody wing of the politics of victimhood.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

What a telling snapshot of the war between the West and those who would ‘destroy our way of life’. Yesterday Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda’s second-in-command, released a crackly audio recording in which he denounced the Queen of England and Tony Blair for honouring Salman Rushdie with a knighthood. So, here we have a terrorist who’s stuck in a dugout criticising a Queen who has long since ceased to have any real power for awarding a writer who made a perceived insult against Islam 18 years ago with an order of chivalry for his contributions to an Empire that does not exist.

This is not so much a clash of civilisations as a load of symbolics. It’s a war of gestures between a mythical British Empire and a YouTube terrorist with a chip on his shoulder.

Al-Zawahiri’s 20-minute statement, titled ‘Malicious Britain and its Indian Slaves’, showed up how parasitical al-Qaeda is on the West’s own culture of complaint and politics of grievance. Al-Qaeda is a movement in search of insults, scouring Western public debate for slights or perceived slights against Muslims that it can angrily react against. It has an Insult Antennae, a Victim Radar, that it uses to pick up alleged slurs against Muslims in order to bolster its claim that the West doesn’t care about/has declared war against the Muslim world. In short, al-Qaeda goes looking for offence in order to legitimise its victim identity – and in this sense, for all its exotic aura and occasional commissioned acts of bloody violence, it is not that different from numerous community groups and new political movements in the West.

Al-Qaeda now lives entirely off Western controversies over offending Muslims. The origins of the Rushdie stink lie in Britain more than the Muslim world. Almost as soon as it was announced three weeks ago that Rushdie would be knighted, some British MPs and Muslim community spokespeople expressed their concern about the ‘timing’ of the award – it might be perceived as an insult by ‘the world’s Muslims’ at a time when Britain is embroiled in conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, they said. They expressed a pre-emptive fear about a potential reaction. Then, members of the Pakistani parliament said they were indeed insulted by the award. One even said it would be justified to carry out suicide attacks in Britain in response to this act of war-by-knighthood. Now al-Zawahiri is using the same language, describing the Rushdie knighting as an ‘insult to Islam’.

Similarly, al-Zawahiri has made finger-wagging statements about the Danish cartoons controversy and the storm caused by Pope Benedict XVI’s comments on Islam last year. In March 2006, al-Zawahiri described the cartoons, which depicted Mohamed in various weird poses, as ‘an insult against the Prophet’ and a ‘continuation of the crusaders’ war’. We should remember that the fuss over these cartoons started in Scandinavia, not the Muslim world. When the cartoons first appeared in October 2005, Muslim groups in Copenhagen reported the newspaper that published them to the Danish police for ‘blasphemy and racial discrimination’. Then, in December 2005, a delegation from various Danish Islamic groups visited the Middle East to spread publicity about these little-noticed drawings. This was followed by demonstrations in Palestine, Iraq and elsewhere in January 2006, and then by al-Zawahiri’s sabre-rattling condemnation of Denmark, and the West in general, in March 2006.

Here, we can see that al-Zawahiri’s statements, and al-Qaeda’s raison d’être, is derived from the West’s culture of victimhood. In the case of the cartoons, al-Zawahiri’s complaints against the West were directly inflamed by Western PC sensibilities about offending minorities. In describing first the cartoons and now the Rushdie knighting as ‘insults’ that ‘hurt’ Muslims, al-Zawahiri is echoing the culture of grievance that has been nurtured by multiculturalism in parts of Europe in recent decades. Al-Qaeda should perhaps be seen as a logical and bloodily violent extension of today’s increasingly internationalised victim culture. Al-Qaeda statements are peppered with claims about feeling ‘humiliated’ by Western governments, and complaints about the West ‘ignoring’ Muslims’ pain. When Benedict XVI commented on Islam last year, al-Zawahiri said he was a ‘charlatan Pope’ and his words were part of the ‘crusader US campaign against Islam and Muslims’. In short, words hurt. Sound familiar?

Some claim that al-Zawahiri’s comments on cartoons, popes and knighthoods are just side-issue publicity stunts, and al-Qaeda’s real interest is still in opposing Western intervention in Palestine, Afghanistan and Iraq. In fact, the really striking thing is the extent to which al-Qaeda discusses issues of intervention in victim lingo, too. As one study of al-Qaeda points out, the terror group always talks about Palestine and Iraq in terms of ‘humiliation’ and ‘degradation’. And such ‘intensely personal feelings’ are ‘not elements in realpolitik. Rather they suggest its opposite: the reduction of a politics of needs, interests and ideas to the world of moral sentiments… For Osama bin Laden, violence is meant not merely to defend Muslims or retaliate against their enemies, but to gain self-respect.’ (Landscapes of the Jihad, Faisal Devji) Notice that now al-Zawahiri refers to ‘Malicious Britain’ rather than ‘oppressor Britain’. Clearly he sees Britain, not as a political opponent, but more as a bully wilfully causing harm and offence to others.

Al-Qaeda’s statements and occasional violent acts are best seen as the ‘terrorism of complaint’ to today’s culture of complaint. They are loud and explosive demands for recognition, a terroristic version of the politics of multiculturalism. At a time when Western leaders tell us that they ‘feel our pain’ – as if they are therapists-in-chief to groups of fragile and easily offended individuals – al-Qaeda’s terrorism is about making sure that we feel their pain, too. Literally and physically.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked.

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Topics Politics


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