Al-Qaeda: heirs of Mahatma Gandhi?

As six men are charged with murdering 3,000 on 9/11, Faisal Devji tells an audience in London that bin Laden has a lot in common with Gandhi.

Tim Black

Tim Black
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With charges finally issued against Kahlid Sheikh Mohammed, alleged third in command of al-Qaeda and apparently mastermind of 9/11 ‘from A to Z’, plus five of his cohorts, the impending trial will see many aspects of al-Qaeda come under renewed focus. What is it exactly? What was Sheikh Mohammed’s role in 9/11? What was Osama bin Laden’s involvement? What will probably not be mentioned is the extent to which al-Qaeda is indebted to the legacy of Mahatma Gandhi, leader of the Indian Independence Movement and a worldwide symbol for peace. Enter Faisal Devji, assistant professor of history at New School University in New York and author of the excellent Landscapes of the Jihad, to explain the link between Gandhi and contemporary jihadism.

Speaking last night at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, Devji was joined by discussants Akmal Asghar, senior member of Hizb-ut-Tahrir, Yahya Birt, writer and commentator on Islam, and the chair, Roger Hardy, the BBC World Service’s Middle East and Islamic affairs analyst. Devji’s ostensible focus was on the notion of the caliphate, that is, an Islamic state under the rule of Sharia law. His purpose, much as it was with the idea of jihad as discussed in his book, was to examine the use of the concept of the caliphate to shed light on the nature of contemporary Islamic militancy. In doing so, a striking affinity between Gandhi and bin Laden presents itself. For both, the caliphate serves a similar purpose: it allows them to posit a pan-Islamic ideal, a rallying point over and above material interest.

This, Devji argued, is partially due to their analogous historical junctures. The struggle against the British Empire after the end of the First World War demanded a concept broad enough, an ideal pluralistic enough to unify India’s disparate Muslim populations. As ‘the purest form of religious movement available at the time’ its importance for Gandhi was as a ‘supra-political’ entity. It offered up a notion with which ‘to think plurality’, ‘to unite Sunni and Shia’. Central to this was its ‘idealism’, that is, its refusal to offer any materialistic or pragmatic gain for supporters. Particular interests, interests that could cause conflict, were sacrificed to an idea – a self-denial of material concern echoed darkly in today’s language of militant sacrifice. ‘The radical simplicity of Mahatma Gandhi’, Devji surmised, ‘is more effective than complex theological doctrine’.

It is after another war, the Cold War, that Osama bin Laden inherits and exploits the radical simplicity of Gandhi’s notion of the caliphate. It provides him with a conceptual framework for a global arena, a pan Islamism as abstractly universal as the drab triumph of global capitalism is concrete. But in doing so, it does something else. It completes the transformation of politics into ethics, says Devji.

This, Devji is suggesting, was inherent in Gandhi’s original use of the caliphate as an ideal that took precedence over the local interests of Muslims. In the hands of bin Laden and, indeed, for those who act in the name of al-Qaeda, the disappearance of political interests is finalised. It is not a collective movement born of common interest, be it better pay and conditions or national liberation. It is, rather, a global network bereft of any local allegiances or territorial objectives. ‘[T]he particular sites of the struggles’, writes Devji in Landscapes of the Jihad, ‘are themselves unimportant, the territories being subordinated to a larger and even metaphysical struggle for which they have become merely instrumental’. The sacrifice of interest Gandhi felt central to any imagining of a plural Islamic movement, one able to cope with tribal and racial tensions, becomes, in bin Laden’s hands, a sacrifice of all worldly interest.

What’s interesting about Devji’s thoughts on al-Qaeda and its adoption and propagation of a near worldless caliphate are the parallels that can be drawn with similar responses to a globalised environment. In each, be it environmentalism or variants of anti-capitalism, individual powerlessness is transfigured as an ethics of rejection. Confronted by a world that appears at once corrupt and impervious to an individual’s will, a world of global cash flows and rapid commodity exchange, a market so vast that it’s positively unimaginable, that is to say, a world in which rational agency seems both absent and impossible, the individual’s political act becomes something else – it becomes a self-contained ethical gesture, a causeless effect, a symbol. In this sense, martyrdom appears as simply the most extreme expression of the ‘ethical’ act. Devji writes: ‘Like other global movements, but perhaps more clearly than them, the jihad displaces politics by ethics as a way of engaging with its accidental universe.’

Moreover, there’s a sense that Devji is talking as much about the West as he is the Middle East or the sub continent. In last night’s debate at the ICA, Yahya Birt argued that the post-ideological, post-political nature of al-Qaeda is actually resisted by those, like Hamas in Palestine, who al-Qaeda would like to solicit as symbols of its cause. With many Islamist and jihadist groups persisting with a more traditional nationalistic politics, al-Qaeda remains, it seems, on the fringes. And yet, as Devji’s conceptual gymnastics show us, al-Qaeda can also appear mainstream: in its replacement of politics with ‘ethics’, its focus on global symbolic ‘spectaculars’ over local or national struggles, and its demand for recognition of its adherents’ alleged suffering and victimhood, al-Qaeda comes across as a fairly Westernised outfit, sometimes sitting neatly alongside community groups, environmentalist outfits and other victim-oriented or global-focused movements of the contemporary period.

Here, too, Devji’s insights into al-Qaeda’s embrace of the caliphate are telling. Where, according to Devji, Gandhi talked up the caliphate in an attempt to unite disparate groups and push material interests to the background, al-Qaeda has adopted pro-caliphate arguments in a new globalised, apparently post-national world – in a similar way that the leaders of European countries disavow national responsibility by submerging themselves in the EU monolith. Fundamentally, the radical jihadists’ demand for the reinstitution of the caliphate shows not their strength, but their weakness and lack of influence, and their adherence to the new politics of global symbolism over earthly materialism.

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

Previously on spiked

Faisal Devji reviewed Bin Laden’s latest literary effort. And in conversation with Brendan O’Neill, Devji spoke of the London bombers’ explosion of pity, that ‘most dangerous and bitter passion’. Brendan O’Neill reviews Landscapes of the Jihad.

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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