Al-Qaeda and the modernist wall
So long as the West proposes itself as the sole model of existence, the breeding ground of extremism is present, writes Khalil El-Anani*
Abdul-Rashid Ghazi had been infatuated with the West and the Western way of life. As a young man in Pakistan, he worked for UNESCO as an education advisor. That was until his father was killed and his life turned upside down. Then he swung to the opposite extreme, joined his brother in the radical Lal Majsid (Red Mosque) leadership and headed a movement openly opposed to the "secularist" regime of Pervez Musharraf. Not long afterwards, he died in the course of his fight for Islamic rule in Pakistan and, eventually, the rest of the Muslim world.
Mohamed Jamil Al-Usha and his friends had been young jetsetters, living it up in Newcastle, Liverpool and Glasgow. Two years after they moved to Britain, they turned into Al-Qaeda-inspired suicide bombers. Before them, members of the Luton cell, led by Mohamed Sidique Khan, blew themselves up in the London underground, taking 52 people with them to their deaths. The young Pakistani suicide bombers were "martyrs" according to number two Al-Qaeda leader Ayman El-Zawahiri in his commemoration of the event one year later.
In the US, in April, security agencies unearthed and apprehended a terrorist cell that came to be known as the "New Jersey six". Its members had planned a suicide attack against soldiers in the Fort Dix Military Base, "in retaliation against what is happening to Muslims in Iraq."
As geographically dispersed and contextually removed as these cases are from one another, taken together they overthrow commonly propounded hypotheses on the Islamist phenomenon and shed new light on the relationship between extremism and modernism.
For one, they pull the rug from under the Marxist-materialist approach, in all the economic, social and cultural shades it has assumed since the 1960s, on understanding the rise in radical Islamism. Secondly, they put paid to the premise of political and epistemological impoverishment as the prime motivator for the clash with "the other" and as a vindication for revenge against the other's civilisational model. Thirdly, they underscore the weakness of the security approach to combating the recruitment and induction mechanisms that take place in jihadist pockets in various parts of the world.
On the other hand, they do lead us to a relatively new territory in the attempt to understand why some Muslim youths, in Western societies in particular, have turned towards militant Islamism. In this regard, I shall discuss an approach I have termed the "modernist wall", which seeks to deconstruct the ethical and epistemological structure of jihadist mentality, with an eye to obtaining a better grasp of what shapes it and how it works.
The common thread linking all the cases mentioned above, and many others, resides in the clash between life in a modern society and the desire to preserve one's identity of one's self. Clearly, there exist certain catalysts that can turn this psychological conflict into a deadly weapon aimed, in the mindset of the catalysed mentality, at purging society of "profanity" and "decadence". In all these cases, too, and contrary to conventional analyses of the origins of extremism, a certain level of cultural, economic and intellectual attainment was needed for this psychological conflict to reach the critical threshold that propelled its subjects towards Al-Qaeda culture and suicide.
In light of the foregoing, it stands to reason that the more adamantly a given society touts modernist values (which to the radical Islamist is synonymous with secularism and Westernisation) the higher the likelihood that it generates a trend towards extremism and violence. In like manner, the more economically and epistemologically advantaged an individual is, the greater the chances of a clash between his self and society. When these factors combine with such conventional stimuli as political and religious mobilisation, the way is paved for the behavioural metamorphosis from a peace-abiding individual into a violent avenger, as was the case with Ghazi, Al-Usha and the Kosovo-Albanian jihadists in New Jersey.
It is a life fraught with contradictions that is experienced by the "metamorphosed," torn as they are between a society bent on attaining the highest levels of modernism and beyond, with no regard for human specificity, and a mentality set upon uprooting that "worldly" modernism in the hope of reaping high rewards in "the other world" for sacrificing himself in the cause of the historic mission to change heretical society. In other words, they are victims of modernism and, specifically, the natural product of the attempt to impose modernism as the sole model for civilisational advancement.
The three cases cited above are virtual duplicates of those of Mohamed Ata and Ziyad Al-Garah (who commandeered the 11 September 2001 suicide hijackings and who underwent that metamorphosis from "modernists" in terms of their education and way of life to Al-Qaeda suicide operatives) and that of Ramzi Yusef (involved in the first attempt to bomb New York in 1993 and who had graduated from Suzanna Technological Institute in Wales and who was an expert in Newtonian physics).
Indeed, Al-Qaeda's famous leader himself is the very model of this phenomenon. Throughout the 1970s, Osama Bin Laden spent his wild and carefree youth in the heart of secularist Beirut, speeding around the Lebanese capital in a canary yellow Mercedes 450SL with automatic windows, only to resurface a couple of decades later as the leader of the most radical fundamentalist organisation in modern history.
But we can go further back yet. Sixty years ago, we come face to face with the original version of this "retrograde" metamorphosis. Sayyid Qotb went to the US in 1948 and stayed nearly two years. Initially he was in awe of the way of life there, but within the space of two years he had become a vehement critic of Western modernism and, upon in his return to Egypt, laid the cornerstone of jihad against a world he deemed beset by heresy and ignorance.
Nevertheless, this process of metamorphosis could not have brewed and regenerated itself in the absence of a major ingredient: the West's extremism in posing itself as the ultimate way of life, denigrating all other alternatives and forcing anyone who differs into having to choose either between identifying with it fully, at the cost of his religious and personal persona, or to turn fully and thoroughly against it.
We thus have a relationship that offers a new key to the mystery of extremism. It consists of unyielding modernism on the one side and the explosion of religious consciousness on the other. It is a latter-day version of the civilisational gauntlet that the West threw down before the Islamic world more than three centuries ago. The contemporary British political philosopher John Gray says as much when in Al-Qaeda and What it Means to be Modern when he writes, "the US must recognise that it is wrong to force people to subscribe to its values." He holds that Al-Qaeda, at a certain dimension, is a product of America's determination to impose on all a single paradigm for the movement of history and the pathway to modernism.
The predicament of positivists, according to Gray, is that they believe that the more science advances, the more people will share the same values and, by extension, the solider will become the embodiment of the ethics of secularism, enlightenment and peace. Al-Qaeda essentially destroyed this hypothesis, not so much because of Al-Qaeda itself but because the persistence in promoting this hypothesis breeds violent organisations bent on destroying it. Such is the case with "end of history" theories, which implicitly put paid to the notion of cultural coexistence. These have become an important source for generating and fuelling "exclusionist" cathartic movements set upon seizing the helm of history and steering it towards "redemption". All jihadist movements in the Islamic world have been motivated by the sense that the West is relentlessly attacking their history and civilisation with the purpose of effacing them and supplanting them with its own. It is little wonder, therefore, that the Islamist revivalist creed perpetuates itself so easily, feeding as it does on the very substance of Western modernism. Moreover, if this creed thrives on the new epistemology that holds that the more adamantly that mode of civilisation thrusts itself on others the more violently political Islam must respond, it is not odd that it should express itself most vehemently in the very heart of Western modernism in the form of the radical metamorphosis from one extreme to the other as described above.
The US's crude intervention in the Arab world four years ago, beneath the banners of democratisation and liberalisation, triggered this phenomenon as never before. The result of this flagrant bid to present the region with a sole model of "modernism" unleashed a widespread state of anarchy in which the metamorphosis to fundamentalist and jihadist mindsets thrived.
This said, the Islamist response to Western modernism was by no means uniform. In fact, it is possible to identify essentially different modes of response. One is negative and is epitomised by jihadist movements in the West, which form ideological incubators for Al-Qaeda-inspired ideas. It is there that the world was stunned by the transformation of a group of doctors, with no history whatsoever of political activism, let alone militant activism, into the Leeds and Glasgow terrorist cells within the space of two years since their arrival in the UK. But they were not alone; the discovery of 219 jihadist groups in London is indicative of the extent of this phenomenon.
The second mode of response is positive. Its exponents are the leaders of moderate Islamist movements, most of whom lived in the West for long periods of time, acquired a sophisticated appreciation of rationalist thought, came to subscribe, out of conviction, to democratic values and peaceful political activity, and believe that it is possible to interact with the Western "other" on the premise of the possibility of cultural coexistence.
Sheikh Hassan Al-Turabi completed his graduate and postgraduate studies in the universities of London and the Sorbonne and spent an entire summer in the US in 1961. Sheikh Abbasi Madani, leader of the Islamic Salvation Front, received his doctorate from the University of London. Leader of the "banned" Nahda (Revival) Party in Tunisia, Rashed Al-Ghanoushi, spent a year abroad in Paris and has been residing in London since 1993. The former Turkish prime minister, Necmettin Erbakan, head of the Virtue Party, is another graduate of a higher educational institution in London. Last but not least, Moussa Abu Marzouq, who heads Hamas's political committee, obtained his doctorate from Louisiana University and lived in the US from 1980 to 1997 with his wife and six children.
* The writer is a political analyst with Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.