Al-Qaeda - An Ethical Movement?


Written by Karim Khan
30 Monday 30th June 2008

You've described Al-Qaeda activities as 'ethical practices'. Ethical how, exactly?

I do not use the term “ethical” to describe virtuous as opposed to vicious actions. As an adjectival form the word refers to the kind of ethic that characterises any group or movement, good, bad or indifferent. Thus we can talk about a Nazi ethic as much as about a Christian one.

What distinguishes it in the case of Al-Qaeda is the fact that this ethics dominates the movement’s politics, which has become attenuated in a global arena where Al-Qaeda is not in a position either to predict or control the consequences of its own actions.

Lacking institutional form, unable to compel or discipline those inspired by it and forced to operate by a series of gambles, the network bears more resemblance to the ethics of financial risk and speculation than it does to traditional states, political parties or even terrorist groups dedicated to some territorially limited objective.

In what ways can Al-Qaeda be compared to the environmentalist movements in the West?

Like the environmentalist, today’s globalised terrorist is concerned not merely with some particular nation or piece of territory but with the future of the earth itself and humanity as a whole. Thus for Al-Qaeda the world’s Muslim population represents not a theological category so much as the human race itself in its double status as the victim and potential victor of a planetary struggle against an enemy who Osama bin Laden very frequently accuses of threatening the environment as much as Islam by corporate-sponsored pollution, global warming and the possibility of nuclear war.

Like the environmentalist, the terrorist also recognizes that no amount of local activism, however widespread, will resolve the global issues that interest him, since climate change, for example, is not going to be addressed by any personal and proselytizing form of conservation. The actions of both figures, then, are “ethical” rather than “political”, since they have lost instrumentality in the global arena and taken on an existential dimension instead.

You have suggested that Al-Qaeda and other jihadi movements are mirror images of industrial globalisation. Are the actions of fundamentalist Islam just a response to Western imperialist behaviour in the Middle East?

Fundamentalism, these days often called Islamism, refers to traditionally organized groups and ideologies that take nation-states for their primary sites of action. Whether they take the form of a political party (generally of the communist kind) or a social movement (increasingly like NGOs), fundamentalists, like conservatives everywhere, are interested in protecting what they see as traditional structures of Muslim authority from the inroads of the modern state.

As with conservatives elsewhere, however, these fundamentalist efforts have ended up transforming traditional societies far more than liberal or secular states ever did. This is why an Islamic revolution is their great political ideal, which is to say an ideal of the future rather than the past. Such radicalism always beats the reformist sentiments of Muslim liberals hands down because its ideology occupies tradition as well as modernity.

It was the liberals, of course, who had been anti-imperialist and founded new states with the end of colonial rule in many parts of the Muslim world. While these men still cling to the old anti-imperialist verities, however, fundamentalists have long redefined the struggle by purging it of racial and national factors, so that it is now the liberals and their dictatorial successors in power across the Muslim world who are seen as advancing the imperialist agenda in a much more powerful way than the European colonists ever did, with imperialism seen no longer as the political project of a certain country or continent so much as a form of global domination akin in some ways to the communist idea of capitalism.

Can Osama bin Laden or the 9/11 conspirators be compared to Ghandi?

There is of course no moral equivalence between Gandhi and Bin Laden, though the two can be brought together on other grounds. Since the Mahatma was perhaps the most acute analyst of violence in modern times, his work offers us a productive new way of thinking about Al-Qaeda.

Gandhi surmised that violence and nonviolence were not separate and opposed categories but intimately entwined with each other. Thus he pointed out that the former’s evil could as little do without the virtues of selfless loyalty and sacrifice among its followers as the latter’s good. This meant that one could be converted to the other by advancing a superior claim to these virtues.

For Gandhi such a claim could only be advanced by demonstrating the capacity for courage and sacrifice at a higher level than any competitor, which is why the arguments of liberal moderation seemed to him useless in the face either of British or indeed Indian violence. Only by voluntarily and collectively choosing sacrifice could a superior claim to virtue be effectively demonstrated. Today we see such forms of sacrifice practiced with great violence by Al-Qaeda, with no sacrifice of a nonviolent kind available to counter them.

You have said that Al-Qaeda is an unstable movement and that it could turn on its head and become a peaceful movement. How will this happen?

If, as Gandhi thought, violence and nonviolence were intimately related, then the former’s task was to withdraw its cooperation from the latter and so cause its collapse. In other words the Mahatma argued that the power of evil lay not in the dominance of cynics, opportunists and thugs, but instead in the fearful or genuine acquiescence to them of otherwise virtuous people, and indeed even in the virtues of courage, etc. that inevitably marked evil’s vicious supporters as well. The problem then was how to turn these virtues from evil to good. Following Gandhi, I contend that evil’s violence is sometimes so excessive precisely because the category itself is so unstable, depending as it does on the same virtues as goodness. It is because evil cannot really control its own supporters that it needs to be so violent, which means that any situation it creates could always have been otherwise. Gandhi thought he had found the Archimedean point that allowed him to turn evil into good: sacrifice. Al-Qaeda’s violence has today occupied the language of sacrifice more fully than any competitor, but this language possesses the seeds of nonviolence as well. Whether or not there will be a turn from one to the other is difficult to say.

Who is the greatest enemy?

It might sound like a cliché, but we are our own greatest enemies, for if the crises of climate change, food and water security or nuclear war tells us anything, it is that the enemy can no longer be externalized.

Osama bin Laden, too, realizes this, which is why he not only mentions these crises quite regularly, and however disingenuously, but also refuses to externalizse his own enemies. This is why Al-Qaeda has no utopia of its own and operates within the conceptual and geographical world of its enemies, with whom it claims the closest kind of kinship, one that is most shockingly exhibited in the suicide bombing, which unites both sides if in death alone.

Is terrorism always a bad thing?


If a violent Al-Queda is ever to become a thing of the past, what are the fundamental political and cultural changes that are going to have to take place in our society?

Whatever role the Global War on Terror plays in the diminution of militancy (and it is not clear whether this war creates the very terrorists it goes on to eliminate), I suspect that Al-Qaeda’s violence is a transitional phenomenon that will run its course according to an internal dynamic.

Killing and capturing terrorists might decrease their numbers but will not shut down the movement itself, which possesses its own historical logic. This history is that of globalisation, and it is in this realm that Al-Qaeda has contributed the most by showing how new forms of mobilisation, organisation and sacrifice are possible on a planetary stage. From this experience the world itself will learn, not least Al-Qaeda’s greatest enemies.

If in the meantime the global order should change, as it undoubtedly will with the rise of Asia to economic dominance, this will have little to do with the best laid US plans to defeat terrorism in any way whatsoever. We should not overestimate our control over the global arena, and therefore, as Gandhi suggested, think more about the rightness of our means than the desirability of our ends.

Read more about Faisal here.

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