Seven years after the tragedy of September 11, the world has not seen an act of terrorism to match it. That’s at least some comfort, when one considers that Osama bin Laden remains at large, that suicide attacks by his sympathizers have become commonplace in countries where they were once unheard-of, and that more than four thousand US soldiers have lost their lives in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, which continue with little abatement in Islamist recruiting efforts and no end in sight.
Countless books have been published on al-Qaeda and on US efforts to combat jihadist terrorism. These typically set out to clarify and illuminate the forces driving Islamist militancy and the ways America and the rest of the world have failed to understand or respond properly to threats. But how much do we really understand about jihadists? And why do we seem no closer to a resolution of this conflict? Despite the mountains of information and analysis generated by the ongoing fallout from the war on terrorism, we remain tangled in confusion over what exactly motivates Islamist militancy and its apparent nihilism—and are no closer to quelling the violence.
In countries such as Iraq and Pakistan, the United States has tried to send the message that everyone is in this battle together and that violent jihadism is an evil that hurts us all. But that claim doesn’t necessarily resonate. In much of the Muslim world, the fight is seen primarily as a US problem, and terrorists’ actions and anti-American rhetoric only re-inforce this belief. In Islamism in the Shadow of al-Qaeda, published in 2005 in France and now available in English translation, political scientist François Burgat, a longtime resident in and observer of the Arab world, argues that the West, especially the United States, has brought the “terrorist curse” on itself through its support of repressive regimes:
This anti-Western revolt might be much better understood as highlighting a relatively predictable reaction to the unilateralism, selfishness, and iniquity of policies implemented, directly or indirectly through the intermediary of pet dictators, in a whole region of the world. . . . The United States is today harvesting the bitter fruits of utterly irresponsible policies which it has been implementing for several decades in the Third World in general and in the Muslim world in particular: in these countries, the thousands of victims of such policies, just as innocent as those of the World Trade Center, and the West’s decades-long unswerving support for tyrannical dictatorships have fostered in their populations a sentiment of deep despair, favorable to the most extreme forms of revolt.
Burgat traces the trajectory of Islamist revolt from its first stirrings in 1928, with the anticolonialist Muslim Brothers, to its links with nationalist movements of the 1950s and 1960s, and finally to the violence of al-Qaeda and its sympathizers and supporters. He believes that al-Qaeda is inspired more by politics than any deep religious allegiance and that the West’s own excesses and oversimplifications have led inevitably to violent reactions by Islamists. His proposed solution: “sharing” by all sides, whether Western or Muslim, of “economic and financial resources,” political power, and “other discourses and other beliefs than our own.” And while sharing, or reciprocity, is certainly a worthy goal, it’s unclear how this would look on the ground and how it would be put into practice. Our current financial crisis looks likely to be shared by much of the world: Is that going to curb terrorism? Well, you never know.
It is certainly true that when it comes to terrorism, America has oversimplified much, and to its detriment. Al-Qaeda is not a monolith, and neither is the Taliban movement in Afghanistan and Pakistan (some members of which just want law and order at home, while others have pan-Islamic aspirations, and still others want to blow themselves up or are involved in criminal enterprises like drug trafficking). But sometimes things can be made overcomplicated, too, and this approach seems equally un-likely to be helpful.
In The Terrorist in Search of Humanity, Faisal Devji, a historian at the New School, views al-Qaeda through a postmodernist prism. Bin Laden and his followers represent “the globalization of militancy”; their “practices are informed by the same search that animates humanitarianism.” That’s a provocative viewpoint, likely to raise hackles. But in certain ways, al-Qaeda does lend itself to this critique, if one sees the group, as Devji does, as a globalized, postnational, postracial movement.
Devji seems intent on provoking readers into thinking about Muslim militancy in an unconventional, disquieting way—something he succeeded in doing with his 2005 book, Landscapes of the Jihad, which contended that Islamic terrorism should be viewed as an ethical rather than a political movement. In Landscapes, Devji tried to show similarities between Islamist terrorists and humanitarians, environmentalists and pacifists, and The Terrorist in Search of Humanity picks up where that work left off. Al-Qaeda, he argues, uses the “abstract and vicarious emotion that characterizes the actions of pacifists or human rights campaigners.” In other words, violent jihadists act less out of a sense of personal victimhood than “out of pity for the plight of others.” And they try to foster a sense of universality by framing their struggle as one of justice and equality.
Throughout the book, Devji repeatedly compares the terrorists of al-Qaeda to Mahatma Gandhi, the twentieth century’s best-known icon of nonviolent resistance, a comparison guaranteed to offend most Indians, practitioners of nonviolent resistance—and, who knows, perhaps even bin Laden. Devji bases this argument on Gandhi’s “suprapolitical deployment of sacrifice, which like them [i.e., terrorists] he glorified in the form of a willingness to die for principles,” and goes so far as to assert that “Gandhi himself would probably have welcomed the comparison between his methods and those of Osama bin Laden, whose practices he might have seen as the evil perversion of his own.” That’s a presumptuous statement, and it’s unclear what purpose this sort of analysis might serve until Devji explains that “placing al-Qaeda’s suprapolitical practices alongside the Mahatma’s allows us to shift our gaze from the familiar concerns of Western security and Middle Eastern policy to address the globalization of Muslim militancy as a properly intellectual problem.”
But is “Muslim militancy” in fact best addressed as a “properly intellectual problem”? Most policymakers would say no. Real-world problems require concrete solutions, and Devji’s analysis can be so abstract as to threaten to lose relevance altogether. Some sections of The Terrorist in Search of Humanity are unlikely to be understood by any but the most hardened postmodernists. The rest of us, lacking decoder rings, are left scratching our heads over sentences like this one, which concludes the book: “For if the globalization of militant Islam tells us anything, it is that a planetary politics cannot be conducted with the humanist subject as its foundation, and that the abstract humanity surging into the global arena to take its place might well find instantiation in posthuman forms—of which the sacrificial practices of Muslim militants provide only one example.”
Like it or not, we live in a world that’s all too human, not posthuman—and are struggling with human problems that require human solutions. (Bin Laden and the militants who support him would probably agree.) So far, those solutions are deeply flawed. Burgat and Devji provide two thoughtful perspectives, but even with exposure to various parts of the Muslim world, they remain outsiders. We need to start hearing more from the writers, intellectuals, and thinkers who inhabit the places that vex us so.
Hannah Bloch, a journalist based in Washington, DC, has written extensively on politics and religion in the Middle East.