Al-Qaeda: real grievances, wrong answers

An extremely insightful commentary on al-Qaeda and the new terror wave from Al-Jazeera. Soumayya Ghannoushi cuts through the propaganda that the attacks are unrelated to Iraq or any other legitimate grievances—without loaning the slightest degree of legitimacy to either criminal tactics or totalitarian ideology. However, we take issue with the comparison to 19th-century anarchists and post-1960s leftist urban guerillas—who, even in their most misguided bomb-throwing phases, never contemplated anything as grandiose as the serial acts of mass murder attributed to some entity known as “al-Qaeda.”

Al-Qaida: Wrong answers to real problems

By Soumayya Ghannoushi

Monday 25 July 2005, 18:23 Makka Time, 15:23 GMT

Once again I watched the nauseous devastation and massacre, this time in the heart of my city, near the universities and libraries, where I have spent much of my adult life.

Madrid and Bali, Casablanca and Riyadh, I have come to predict al-Qaida’s responsibility for a given criminal act through the following test. If I find myself at a loss for an answer to the questions: “Why the innocent?” and “For what purpose?”, then, in all likelihood, the crime is of al-Qaida’s doing.

The absurd, random mass carnage of young and old, male and female is its trademark. Residential buildings, tourist resorts, rush hour trains and crowded buses turn into grand spectacles of mass murder where no heed is paid to the victim’s identity and the extent of his/her responsibility for the policies of a country defined as the enemy. The boundaries between the world of politics and that of organised crime are blurred, as political demands get wedded to criminal methods.

Al-Qaida, it must be said, is no pioneer in this field. For although it founds its ideology on religious references and speaks a language overwhelmed by religious symbols, al-Qaida falls largely within the modern tradition of revolutionary anarchists – from the Jacobins and the Bolsheviks down to latter-day Marxist guerrillas like the Baadr-Meinhoff Gang.

Destruction as a passion

Like these modern revolutionary nihilists, al-Qaida warriors subscribe to an instrumentalist logic that recognises no distinction between the legitimate and illegitimate, thereby sanctioning acts of terror for the attainment of their ends. Like them, they are more interested in the act of destruction than its effects. As the father of Russian anarchism Mikhail Bakunin put it, ‘the passion for destruction is also a creative passion’.

Al-Qaida is also a revival of the radical currents that surfaced in Islamic history from time to time only to be defeated by moderate mainstream Islam led by the Ulama (scholars). In particular, they appear to be a continuation of Kharijite thought with its dualistic puritanical conception of the world and the community of Muslims and of Gnostic underground organisations like the Assassins and Qaramita, who sought to disrupt the stability of Muslim societies through acts of terrorism.

Al-Qaida would be best seen as a mixture of these political and ideological strands. Apart from the ideological justifications it takes recourse to, one would, indeed, be hard put to find much that distinguishes it from Latin American anarchist groups. Their acts share the same destructive ferocity, the same absurdity. The difference is that where one finds its ideological legitimacy in Marxism, the other seeks it in the Islamic religion.

Islam misinterpreted

How can the murder of the innocent be perpetuated in the name of a religion that likens the loss of one human life to the loss of humanity at large? How can Islam be said to sanction such acts of aggression when it openly forbids revenge and declares in no less than five Quranic chapters that: “No bearer of a burden bears the burden of another”?

How can the killing of ordinary men and women going about their business be permissible when even the battlefield has been regulated by the strictest moral code: “Destroy not fruit trees, nor fertile land in your paths. Be just, and spare the feelings of the vanquished. Respect all religious persons who live in hermitages or convents and spare their edifices”?

Perhaps the one thing al-Qaida militants have proven good at, apart from the shedding of innocent blood, is fanning the flames of hostility to Islam and Muslims. From the darkness of their caves and hiding places, these self-appointed spokesmen for about one and a half billion Muslims worldwide have excelled in stirring latent negative images of Islam within the Western psyche. Through their senseless crimes, Islam, in the minds of most, has become a euphemism for mass slaughter and destruction. Thanks to them, racism, bigotry and Islamophobia could rear its ugly head unashamedly in broad day light.

The terrible irony is that Muslims currently find themselves helplessly trapped between two fundamentalisms, between Bush’s hammer and Bin Laden’s anvil, hostages to an extreme right wing American administration, aggressively seeking to impose its expansionist and hegemonic will over the region at gunpoint, and to a cluster of violent, wild fringe groups, lacking in political experience or sound religious understanding.

‘Us’ and ‘them’

Although the two claim to be combating each other, the reality is that they are working in unison, one providing the justifications the other desperately needs for its fanaticism, ferocity and savagery.

No wonder, it didn’t take the neo-conservative world supremacists long to spot the immense opportunities 11 September handed them. Their puritanical missionary belief in being God’s instruments on earth and grand imperial ambitions could now be realised through shameless emotional blackmail and bogus moral claims.

The two share a shallow, myopic, dualistic conception of the world populated by ‘us’ and ‘them’ in Bush’s language, ‘believers’ and ‘non-believers’ in Bin Laden’s. Al-Zarqawi and his fellows then brandish the sword of excommunication (takfir) against the Muslim body itself in an endless orgy of maiming and mutilation.

Some are to be expelled, because they are Shia, others because they are Sufis, or Mu’tazilites (rationalists) and so on in a perpetual elimination process that spares no one but a handful of puritan elects from its deadly reach.

The vast stock of common denominators is ignored, that which tears and divides is sought. These would rather see the world turn into an ever- raging battlefield, Muslim societies into blazing scenes of sectarian schism and civil war in a region rich in ethnic, religious, sectarian and linguistic diversity.

I daily use London’s trains and buses and could have been one of Thursday bombings’ victims. I hardly think that killing or maiming me would have aided the causes the bombers claim to defend. The truth is that these narrow-minded fanatics are a scourge to the causes they purport to champion.

Ask any Iraqi or Palestinian if the bombing of the innocent in Bali, Casablanca, or London has helped alleviate their suffering. If anything, they have handed their oppressors with an open permit to butcher and destroy, safe in the knowledge that blame has been shifted from them to their victims.

Just causes, unjust means

So, Sharon demolishes the homes of Palestinians, expropriates their lands and sends his helicopters to massacre them in their hundreds in the name of combating terrorism. Arab regimes stifle dissenting voices, imprison and assassinate in the name of resisting terrorism. American tanks and gunships invade, occupy, kill and rampage, all in the name of terrorism.

Al-Qaida’s mindless acts have turned the aggressor, who colonises, massacres and pillages, into a victim. For all their material vulnerability, victims have a very powerful asset: their moral case as innocent victims. Perhaps, this is the cruellest dimension to these senseless crimes: That the powerless has been stripped even of his victimhood. Even this has been appropriated by the powerful.

The causes al-Qaida extremists speak for are certainly just causes. The sanctioning of genocide and occupation in Palestine, slaughter of hundreds of thousands in Iraq through exposure to depleted Uranium and years of barbaric sanctions first, then through bombing and shelling without bothering to count the dead, brutal invasion of the country, destruction of its infrastructure and humiliation of its people undoubtedly rank among modern history’s bloodiest crimes and darkest tragedies.

But the mindless killing of the innocent in Madrid, or New York is the wrong answer to these real grievances. These are illegitimate responses to legitimate causes. Just as occupation is morally and politically deplorable, so, too, is this blind aggression masquerading as Jihad.

Soumayya Ghannoushi is a researcher in the history of ideas at the School of Oriental & African Studies, University of London.

See our last post on the London attacks, and on the politics of Islamic terrorism.