The ventriloquist

It is striking the extent to which Bin Laden, celebrity terrorist of the MTV era, speaks through Western dummies rather than in his own voice.

Faisal Devji

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Topics Politics

This review is republished from the September 2007 issue of the spiked review of books. View the whole issue here.

After a three-year gap in his media appearances, Osama bin Laden staged a successful comeback as a small-screen star a few days before the sixth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. There is nothing ironic about this description of a man who is after all nothing more than a celebrity these days, deprived as he is of any control over the fans he inspires, and himself a fugitive with neither financial nor military resources to command.

While bin Laden’s influence no doubt derives from his warlike past, his power has today become purely moral in character, though it is a kind of morality peculiar to the age of mass media. Indeed, his Muslim admirers apart, Osama bin Laden’s celebrity status is also acknowledged by his detractors, who attend so closely to their idol’s appearance that commentators in the press seemed to be obsessed by the dyed or even false beard sported in the latest videotape by the world’s most wanted man. He might as well have been an MTV star.

As a celebrity, of course, bin Laden is part of the West he criticises, remaining firmly inside it despite all attempts to play up his foreign provenance or exotic beliefs. And of this insider’s role, bin Laden himself is fully aware, not least because his attacks on America in particular are given voice in this videotape through the lips of dissenting figures like Noam Chomsky and Michael Scheuer. While not himself a socialist or a liberal, in other words, bin Laden adopts the anti-capitalist stance of such people to voice his opposition to the West. His own critique of the Occident is therefore an immanent or internal one, but more than that it is a form of ventriloquism in which the prince of terrorists speaks through one or more dummies rather than in his own name.

In itself, this adoption of readymade positions is not strange, marking in fact the language of most politicians in Europe and America, but in the case of bin Laden it illustrates additionally the fact that he possesses no position outside the world of his enemies.

It is because he speaks through a disparate set of dummies without occupying a position of his own that bin Laden can be said to turn internal or immanent critique into a form of terrorism, since all he does is to deploy one kind of argument against another in a battle which none is meant to survive. It is a form of rhetorical suicide bombing in which the Muslim critic is destroyed alongside his infidel enemy, given that the Islamic element in bin Laden’s argumentation serves as a false externality, a merely decorative covering for Marxism, Third Worldism and God knows what else.

Yet the internality of such a position to America or the West means that bin Laden can address his enemies in the most intimate, familiar and direct of ways, often mentioning them by name and always claiming to understand their motives perfectly. Indeed al-Qaeda’s founding father goes so far as to confess sharing many of the interests of his capitalist or neo-conservative foes, at one point even joking about sharing their hypocritical innocence as much as their guilt for shedding Muslim blood:

‘This innocence of yours is like my innocence of the blood of your sons on the 11th – were I to claim such a thing.’

By contrast, the way in which the West engages al-Qaeda is strikingly different, with bin Laden invariably seen as being irredeemably alien, rarely if ever addressed by his enemies, and usually described as sharing nothing at all with them. And yet what could be more familiar to political life in the West than the spectacle of a leader being fed bits of information and summaries of important books by his research assistants, the very procedures that allow bin Laden to quote Noam Chomsky or assail capitalism?

However, the fragmentation of a position that is truly external to the world of his foes results not only in the fragmentation of bin Laden’s critique, but in the dissolution, as well, of any alternative worldview he might hold. In addition to lacking a unified ideology or even a utopia, therefore, al-Qaeda ends up promoting a perverse and paradoxical moral pluralism instead. So its founding fathers routinely ask their opponents not to convert to Islam so much as remain true to themselves – or rather to their own ideal of human rights. If anything, Islam is conceived only as the fulfilment of this ideal, thus making conversion into an act of self-fulfilment. Bin Laden says:

‘And with your earnest reading about Islam from its pristine sources, you will arrive at an important truth, which is that the religion of all the Prophets (peace and blessings of Allah be upon them) is one, and that its essence is submission to the orders of Allah alone in all aspects of life, even if their Shariahs (Laws) differ.’

But conversion is by no means the sole option that bin Laden and his friends offer the West, dwelling rather upon the possibility of a harmonious co-existence in which Christians, Muslims, Jews and others can be faithful to their own ideals. Disingenuous though it might be, this vision of moral pluralism forms a fundamental element in al-Qaeda’s rhetorical logic, and is lavishly illustrated in the latest videotape by invocations of the protection that Muslims extended to Jews fleeing the Inquisition, as well as by the words of praise that are heaped upon Jesus and Mary in the Koran. Indeed, bin Laden states that intolerance of genocidal proportions is a characteristic of the West, mentioning as examples the Jewish Holocaust and the use of atomic weapons in Japan.

What is interesting about these illustrations of Muslim pluralism is that they are drawn directly from the apologetic literature of liberal or ‘moderate’ Islam, whose quest for an accommodation with the West goes back to the beginnings of colonial rule in the nineteenth century. And this appropriation of a rival Muslim tradition constitutes yet another instance of bin Laden’s ventriloquism – which is to say his unwillingness or inability to adopt a position external to the world he fights, which results in an attempt to destroy this world from the inside.

Unlike his previous attacks on the malice and hypocrisy of American or British warmongers, bin Laden’s comeback videotape focuses primarily on the failure of the very pacifists and socialists he so approvingly cites. Despite their unprecedented global demonstrations against the war in Iraq, for example, or their electoral rout of administrations like the one in Washington, bin Laden points out that the war’s opponents have remained politically impotent. It is their inability to change the course of events that leads him to blame the interests upon which liberal society is founded, and the corporate interests of modern capitalism in particular, for what he considers to be the failure of democracy. If demonstrations, opinion polls, elections and other constitutional methods of registering disapproval are ineffective in changing government policy, though they may well change the party in power, this is because the democratic system itself is based on an accommodation of interests rather than on the simple representation of popular will, of the sort favoured by fascism for instance:

‘And I tell you: after the failure of your representatives in the Democratic Party to implement your desire to stop the war, you can still carry anti-war placards and spread out in the streets of major cities, then go back to your homes, but that will be of no use and will lead to the prolonging of the war.’

As proof of this argument bin Laden points to the Vietnam War, which was brought to a close not by public disapproval, however overwhelming, so much as by military defeat and a realignment of corporate interests in the US. He gauges the failure of American popular opinion during the Vietnam War by the fact that its termination did not result in justice being done – neither for its Vietnamese nor even its American victims. And because no government officials were brought to justice over Vietnam, bin Laden claims that the interests these men represented could simply lie dormant for a while, mentioning the American vice president Dick Cheney and former secretary of defence Donald Rumsfeld as good examples of Vietnam-era officials returning to their old habits in Iraq. Conspiratorial though this account may be, it disdains the moral absolutism of similar theories on both left and right, presupposing as these do the existence of a sharp dividing-line between friend and enemy. After all, bin Laden is not averse to claiming a community of interest even with his worst enemies, capitalists and neoconservatives in this case:

‘Since the 11th, many of America’s policies have come under the influence of the Mujahideen, and that is by the grace of Allah, the Most High. And as a result the people discovered the truth about it, its reputation worsened, its prestige was broken globally and it was bled dry economically, even if our interests overlap with the interests of the major corporations and also with those of the neoconservatives, despite the differing intentions.’

Now, in political theory, democracy’s success or failure is usually judged by reference to the people and society it defines, with outsiders engaged by no other principle but convenience. And while such convenience might well translate into relations of mutual advantage among states, the international order cannot itself be democratic without the establishment of a universal state. At the end of the day, therefore, it remains a state of nature as Thomas Hobbes might have conceived it, with nothing but the fear of reprisal preventing countries from exploiting, oppressing or annihilating each other. Bin Laden, however, holds American democracy to account precisely from the perspective of those outside its demesne. Such a perspective takes humanity itself as its subject, which is why our celebrity terrorist is concerned most of all by the failure of democracies to respect the human rights of those beyond their borders. But his critique of democracy is not limited to the recognition that its citizens’ freedom depends upon the un-freedom of another. Instead, bin Laden begins his latest speech by telling us how even the richest and most powerful of democracies can be adjudged failures in a global arena. For example, he points out that despite all its might the United States was shaken to its constitutional foundations and led into a global war after 9/11, not because of any profound domestic issue, but merely by the unexpected actions of a few foreigners:

‘To preface, I say: despite America being the greatest economic power and possessing the most powerful and up-to-date military arsenal as well; and despite it spending on this war and its army more than the entire world spends on its armies; and despite it being the major state influencing the policies of the world, as if it has a monopoly of the unjust right of veto; despite all of this, 19 young men were able – by the grace of Allah, the Most High – to change the direction of its compass. And in fact, the subject of the Mujahideen has become an inseparable part of the speech of your leader, and the effects and signs of that are not hidden.’

In a global arena, bin Laden seems to be saying, the most insignificant powers and accidental events possess as much political weight as the deepest of domestic concerns, such that it becomes impossible to preserve the integrity of democratic politics within their traditional borders. Whether 9/11 compelled America to respond by offering it an opportunity or confronting it with a necessity, in other words, her subsequent transformation of the world’s political landscape possessed what would traditionally be considered a superficial cause that was external to the workings of this mighty democracy. For the paradoxical thing about al-Qaeda was that its votaries could with their negligible resources create battlefield conditions at the heart of a great power, though they could not of course threaten either its government or military in any significant way.

But this means that the terrorist threat, however numerous its potential victims, has never compromised America’s national security from the outside. At most it left open the possibility of an internal transformation in the country’s politics, at the very least by threatening to erode the electoral support of administrations unable to protect their citizens. Yet it was precisely this negligible militant network that managed to evacuate a great democracy like the United States of its integrity by erasing the line normally drawn in political theory between superficial and weighty causes, or between domestic and international ones. In fact, this very inability to sustain the boundaries of a democratic order is what allows bin Laden to speak from inside its crumbling rhetoric, whose marshalling by the American president, as he points out, illustrates more than anything else how the language of democracy has been hijacked by a rag-tag band of amateur terrorists.

Only in the global arena was a negligible force like al-Qaeda able to subvert the integrity of an immense country like the United States, by forcing it to respond to a barely understood problem beyond the self-proclaimed limits of its democracy. But more than threatening its limits the global arena is if anything put at risk by democratic politics, which bin Laden argues have become irrational within its more capacious boundaries. So quite apart from engaging in vast massacres of civilian populations in places like Japan or Vietnam, a democracy like the United States will also compromise the future of humanity itself by ignoring the dangers of climate change to cater to the narrower interests of some among its citizens. As far as bin Laden is concerned, then, democratic politics becomes suicidal in the global arena because it cannot abandon the factionalism that makes it possible in the first place. Rather than blaming America’s rejection of the Kyoto Accords on particular interests, in other words, bin Laden attributes it to the politics of interest that underwrites democracy in general:

‘In fact, the life of all of mankind is in danger because of the global warming resulting to a large degree from the emissions of the factories of the major corporations, yet despite that, the representatives of these corporations in the White House insist on not observing the Kyoto Accord, with the knowledge that the statistics speak of the death and displacement of millions of human beings because of that, especially in Africa. This greatest of plagues and most dangerous of threats to the lives of humans is taking place in an accelerating fashion as the world is being dominated by the democratic system, which confirms its massive failure to protect humans and their interests from the greed and avarice of the major corporations and their representatives.’

While it is clear that bin Laden is trotting out a set of stereotyped popular concerns about greedy corporations and African poverty in the quotation above, what is interesting about it is the fact that democracy ends up being the rather abstract and structural cause of all this destruction. And this only because its factional politics means that democracy is unable to attend seriously to the long-term interests of humanity as a whole. True or false, such a view is manifestly global in dimension, taking as it does the entire human race as its subject.

Faisal Devji is assistant professor of history at the New School University in New York and is the author of Landscapes of the Jihad: Militancy, Morality, Modernity. For a full transcript of bin Laden’s video statement see here.

This review is republished from the September 2007 issue of the spiked review of books. View the whole issue here.

Landscapes of the Jihad: Militancy, Morality, Modernity by Faisal Devji, is published by C Hurst and Co. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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