Al-Qaeda: what’s the big idea?

Faisal Devji’s new book draws some daring parallels between the outlook of militant suicide bombers and that of Western humanitarians – but it ultimately projects the author’s own search for political meaning on to the al-Qaeda network.

Philip Hammond

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It is now commonplace to argue that al-Qaeda is better understood as an idea rather than as an organisation. In contrast to the sophisticated global super-network that haunted the West’s imagination after the 11 September 2001 terror attacks, al-Qaeda is now more realistically discussed as a ‘brand’ with small-time franchise-operators and amateurish freelance imitators. Yet the attempt to comprehend the ‘idea’ of al-Qaeda has given rise to its own delusions.

UK government policy, for instance, aims to ‘support vulnerable individuals’ who are ‘at risk’ of being radicalised by extremists. Officialdom assumes that the problem is somehow external to British or Western society, and that the extremists’ toxic ‘messages of hate’ can be countered by promoting Britain’s famous ‘shared values’ (1). Faisal Devji’s analysis of contemporary terrorism unsettles such complacent assumptions.

As Devji observes, for example, the men who carried out the 7/7 London bombings ‘attended no mosque regularly, evidenced little internet use at home and had no real association with any radical figure, let alone an al-Qaeda sleeper lurking in some Islamic school or bookstore’. Only one, Jermaine Lindsay, had any known history of political activity, and his ‘activist stance over racism and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq put him in the mainstream of British political concerns’. Perhaps they were ‘radicalised simply by watching television’, as Osama bin Laden claims to have been.

One of the most striking aspects of Devji’s highly-praised 2005 book, Landscapes of the Jihad, was that it placed al-Qaeda firmly in the context of Western political culture. Rather than viewing militant Islamism as an alien threat, he drew surprising parallels between the jihadis and the followers of other, more familiar, contemporary movements, such as anti-globalisation and anti-war protests. Devji further develops this theme in his latest book, The Terrorist in Search of Humanity, arguing that ‘alongside the environmentalists or pacifists who… are their intellectual peers, the men and women inspired by al-Qaeda’s militancy consider Muslim suffering to be a “humanitarian” cause that, like climate change or nuclear proliferation, must be addressed globally or not at all’.

The motivations of al-Qaeda-style suicide bombers rarely have anything to do with any direct experience of oppression or injustice. Rather, their acts are ‘committed out of pity for the plight of others’, argues Devji, ‘the same abstract and vicarious emotion that characterises the actions of pacifists or human rights campaigners’. Examining the speeches of leading figures such as bin Laden or Ayman al-Zawahiri, Devji notes that they offer no alternative political or utopian vision. Instead, they use ‘the language of humanitarianism’, and even model their proposals for jihad on the West’s ‘air strikes of humanitarian intervention’. Indeed, a frequent complaint of the militants is that the West fails to live up to its own proclaimed human rights standards, giving their rhetoric more the character of an internal critique than an exotic foreign ideology.

Devji pores over the terrorists’ videos and websites, ruminating on the intimate details of events and drawing on a range of political thinkers, from Hannah Arendt to Michel Foucault. The danger of his approach is that, as he tries to tease out the significance of contemporary suicide bombing, he risks seeing meaning and purpose where none exists. Much of the time this seems a risk worth taking, as he arrives at some useful insights. Of particular interest is his analysis of how ‘the War on Terror has increasingly become a quasi-criminal rather than a military operation’. Contemplating practices such as the US military’s use of contractors, or its perpetration of abuse at Abu Ghraib, Devji notes how ‘modern war has been dragged down from its technical heights to the messy level of interpersonal relations’, so that war is conducted in a way that exacerbates the military’s own ‘cultural and institutional fragmentation’.

Yet while the logic of his argument ought to lead him to focus on Western societies, and particularly on the rise of the ‘humanitarian’ and environmentalist thought echoed by al-Qaeda’s rhetoric, Devji instead takes a detour to South Asia, his own area of academic specialism. In particular, he develops an extended comparison between contemporary ‘martyrdom operations’ and Mahatma Gandhi’s ideas about sacrifice. While this allows Devji to take a fresh look at al-Qaeda, free from ‘medieval exoticism’ and the usual fixation with the Middle East, it is questionable how much is gained in terms of understanding. Worse, it seems to compound Devji’s tendency to attribute an intellectual coherence and importance to al-Qaeda which it does not really warrant.

The overall argument of the book is that, like other forms of ‘global’ politics, today’s militant Islamism represents a ‘search for humanity as an agent and not simply the victim of history’. Not only that, but the would-be holy warriors are, according to Devji, more successful in this quest than the humanitarians and environmentalists with whom he compares them. It is evidently not Devji’s intention to glorify suicide bombing, though at times he appears to come close. ‘Martyrdom is noble’, he maintains, summarising the militant outlook in a way that mirrors his own argument, ‘not because it will result in the political, economic or religious triumph of Islam so much as because it allows Muslims to exhibit the fundamentally human virtues of courage and sacrifice, thus doing their duty to represent humanity itself as a global agent rather than victim’.

Can suicide bombing really be about ‘turning humanity from victim into agent’? This unlikely claim is built around a shaky scaffolding of arguments describing, but unfortunately not really explaining, a contemporary crisis of political subjectivity. Where his analysis implicitly suggests the confusion and disarray of the West, Devji instead ascribes purpose and agency to al-Qaeda.

Devji argues that our contemporary ideas about humanity and the global were brought into being during the Cold War era, by technologies of nuclear destruction and space flight. These technologies transformed our view of humanity by undermining the humanist conception of subjectivity, he contends: once we were able to observe the world from space, for example, we began operating on a non-human scale; once we possessed the possibility of nuclear annihilation, traditional values of courage and sacrifice were rendered irrelevant. Into the space once occupied by humanism rush ‘humanitarian’ ideas.

This humanitarian outlook is an attempt to imagine global humanity, but it offers only a limited vision of humanity as victim, with no greater goal than bare survival. Islamist militancy goes one better, Devji argues, in that it supposedly attempts to transform humanity into a potential actor. Like humanitarianism, it too sees the ‘impossibility’ of humanist subjectivity, but at the same time also refuses the abstract, statistical humanity conjured up in Western humanitarian concern for victimhood, condemning this as hypocritical. Instead, properly human virtues of bravery and sacrifice are realised through the suicide bomber’s self-immolation, and expressed in his ability to see a horizon beyond mere survival (loving death rather than simply life, in the terrorists’ phrase).

Devji’s mistake is to take the decline of humanist subjectivity at face value, attributing it essentially to technical causes and seeing it as inevitable and permanent. The ‘impossibility’ of the humanist subject is the big untold story here (2). Similarly, globalisation is invoked as the implacable cause of the hollowing out of local or national politics, whereas the opposite scenario seems more plausible (3). It is the collapse of politics that makes a flight to the ‘global’ seem attractive, whether in the form of cosmopolitan humanitarianism, planetary ecological concern or rootless global jihad. Equally, it surely makes more sense to see al-Qaeda as a symptom of the crisis of political subjectivity, rather than as some sort of creative response to it. As an idea, al-Qaeda is just not that big, and it’s not that clever.

Philip Hammond is reader in media and communications at London South Bank University, and is the author of Media, War and Postmodernity, published by Routledge in 2007 (Buy this book from Amazon(UK)).

The Terrorist in Search of Humanity: Militant Islam and Global Politics by Faisal Devji is published by C Hurst & Co. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

(1) See, for example, £12.5 million to tackle radicalisation and help prevent extremism in communities, Department of Communities and Local Government, 3 June 2008

(2) See The ‘Death of the Subject’ Explained, by James Heartfield, Sheffield Hallam University Press, 2002

(3) See Hollow Hegemony: Rethinking Global Politics, Power and Resistance, by David Chandler, Pluto Press, forthcoming

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