Al-Qaida, globalisation and Islam: a response to Faisal Devji

James Howarth
20 January 2006

It was supposed to be simple. The civilised world is fighting an ongoing "war on terror" against evil, exotic forces that want to destroy freedom and progress everywhere. This enemy is spearheaded by a shadowy but highly organised collective going by the name of "al-Qaida", masterminded by Osama bin Laden.

In the real world, meanwhile, this crude narrative continues to unravel to the point of absurdity. The formulaic reactions in western politics and media to the broadcast on 19 January of bin Laden’s most recent taped message – in which he both threatens "new operations" and proposes "a long-term truce (with the Americans) based on just conditions that we will stand by"– reinforces its irrelevance.

Whether this message is really a miraculously revived bin Laden or not – and there is evidence to doubt its authenticity – are we now any nearer to understanding what this al-Qaida is and what it wants than four years ago? The ambiguity of the Arabic term Qaida (base, precept, rule, methodology or vanguard) only adds to its effectiveness, although bin Laden himself has scoffed at the idea of some hidden significance behind it.

James Howarth is reviewing the book by Faisal Devji, Landscapes of the Jihad: Militancy, Morality, Modernity (Hurst, 2005)

Also in openDemocracy, two articles by Faisal Devji, including a review of the book Bruce Lawrence, ed., Messages to the World: The Statements of Osama Bin Laden (Verso, 2005) (translated by James Howarth):

"Spectral brothers: al-Qaida’s world wide web" (August 2005)

"Osama bin Laden’s message to the world" (December 2005)

Al-Qaida and the global

If al-Qaida is a product of the information age, is it as a .com, a .net, a .org, or maybe all at once? At least three analogies have been proposed:

  • Jason Burke’s idea of the "Holy War Foundation": a wealthy university distributing research grants to localised militant groups who need logistical and financial assistance for terrorist attacks
  • the venture-capitalist model: assorted groups approach Osama bin Laden and his deputies in their capacity as CEO and executive board of a multinational. Significantly, this model reflects the structure and modus operandi of economic globalisation, suggesting that global terrorism is the evil but inevitable shadow of neo-liberal capitalism
  • the media empire: freelancers approach with ideas for independent projects, for which resources are occasionally granted.

At another level, al-Qaida's jihadism appears like an ideological tumour whose cells are spreading through the interstices of global discontent. Although military cures only worsen such a disease, by radicalising moderates and legitimising extremists, the western coalition nevertheless maintains its role in bin Laden's macabre theatre of cosmic struggle between two imagined, Manichean adversaries: "the abode of Islam" and "the abode of war".

Conscious of this complicity, and fearful of criticism, western leaders have stressed that this is a new kind of war against a new kind of enemy. The current Washington approach – mirroring al-Qaida's – argues that the enemy only understands force, and that victory will in itself prove this right. Are neo-conservatism and jihadism then locked into a mutually-sustaining metaphysical alliance in which each requires the other in equal measure? Without a ferocious and unambiguously evil enemy who can strike anywhere and anytime, what need for Americans' fear of terrorist annihilation?

Equally, every misguided attempt to eradicate terrorism only strengthens bin Laden's authority. Each has an interest in sustaining the vicious circle, while other world leaders, in supporting roles, seize on this metaphysical "war on terror" as carte blanche to deepen ethno-political conflicts like Israel-Palestine and Chechnya.

But is this really a new kind of war, and is al-Qaida really a new kind of enemy? In some respects yes; in others, no. The conceptual models described above may be useful, but they all lack one crucial dimension: the transcendental. bin Laden is not just a financial resource for suicidal extremists, he is also a spiritual symbol for millions of alienated individuals, a fact reflected in his powerful video performances. Whilst being a new departure, therefore, he is also merely the latest charismatic leader to issue the historic call to jihad. Easily exploiting the structures of globalisation to tap into the discontent of vulnerable Muslims – and non-Muslims – everywhere, he has brought this jihad from the local to the universal level.

Al-Qaida and Sufism

The image of bin Laden among his followers is very different to his bogeyman image in the west; known to them as "the sheikh", he clearly resembles a Sufi leader whose pious devotion, hushed tones and studied asceticism create an aura of holiness. Unlike countless politicians, he is seen as a man of principle, someone who practices what he preaches. To many he even appears blessed with extraordinary powers, a kind of baraka: by his own admission 9/11 outstripped even his wildest dreams.

Sufism is renowned primarily for its achievements in the fields of poetry and mysticism, and its popular image in the west is an inner spiritual quest that eschews external action. But the legacy of anti-imperialist insurgencies from Algeria to Chechnya over the past two centuries shows that nothing could be further from the truth. Historically, it is a very broad phenomenon, spanning quietist sects to militant splinter groups. The ambiguous relationship between these two persuasions is key to understanding al-Qaida. In his Landscapes of the Jihad (pdf), Faisal Devji, one of the most perceptive and original observers of al-Qaida writing today, picks up on this otherwise neglected point.

Sufism is not a marginal phenomenon within Islam, as widely perceived even by many contemporary Muslims themselves, influenced perhaps by Wahhabi or Orientalist agendas. It was in fact the basis of Islamic practice between the 11th and 19th centuries, and the openness and enthusiasm of its practitioners largely accounts for the expansion of the Islamic world during the same period. Even the intellectual resource to which Islamist polemicists invariably refer in their quest for legitimacy, the militant "sheikh of Islam" Ibn Taymiyya (1263-1328), was committed to a branch of mainstream Sufism.

The best model for understanding al-Qaida is arguably the Sufi tariqa, or brotherhood, of which it is in many respects a postmodern version. This conception maintains the Islamic element emphasised by scholars of the middle east as well as the global aspect stressed by scholars like Devji, who is so keen to highlight al-Qaida's structural parallels with apolitical non-Islamic movements that he appears entirely to discount its links to the middle east (a category he queries in any case).

Tariqas are hierarchical spiritual orders, headed by a sheikh whose authority rests on his own exemplary devoutness, honest deeds and spiritual distinction. He travels the inner path towards divine truth, and allegiance to him is therefore a means to God. Traditionally, followers crystallised into eponymous brotherhoods: for example, the disciples of Mevlana Rumi (now one of America’s favourite poets) became the Mevlevi tariqa, better known as the "whirling dervishes" after their circular dancing ritual. Then as now, individuals turned to the brotherhood in despair at the world and in the desire to overcome a deep sense of loss. The many peaceful Sufi tariqas still functioning across the world today are in fact the peaceful psychological alter-ego of al-Qaida.

As a theosophy of universal proportions, linking microcosmic man to macrocosmic God and enjoining its followers to a moral existence, it is no surprise that Sufism forms the psychological underpinning of a movement like al-Qaida that, as Devji reminds us, is essentially global and ethical in nature. This is what accounts for the family resemblances, as he argues, with other universalist ethical trends like environmentalism and anti-globalisation. While such resemblances exist, al-Qaida is more precisely the spiritually orphaned grandson of the Sufi movements that once dominated the Islamic world, particularly those that upheld an absolute ontological gulf between man and God.

Al-Qaida and fragmentation

Al-Qaida is a grandson and not a son because – sandwiched in between – lies the fleeting ascendancy of modern, European-style ideologies like pan-Arabism, nationalism and Ba’athism. These, however, foundered on their internal contradictions and their leaders' delusions of grandeur, and are now seen by many Arab Muslims as corrupt, tyrannical and godless. Islamist movements, and subsequently al-Qaida's jihadism, rose out of the ashes of this short-lived secular interlude, and in that sense are postmodern phenomena, even though their absolutist claims are relativised in the contemporary global "faith market".

The shrill, superficial religiosity of many Islamist movements is further evidence of this status. In many ways such offshoots are shallow simulacra of their original version, discarded as soon as they have served their purpose, and a reflection of the fickle, nervous world in which their adherents live. There is an increasing burnout rate among young converts to salafism, although contingent factors like prison or sexual repression can exacerbate the problem – al-Qaida’s new leader in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, being a case in point.

Devji asserts the relative importance of non-Arab actors like Pakistanis, Afghans, Bosnians and Chechens in the emergence of al-Qaida. But its psychosocial genesis undeniably traces back to the Arab world, and primarily to two countries: Egypt and Saudi Arabia. After all, these two produced both al-Qaida's leadership and the vast majority of the 9/11 bombers, while the network has now become largely re-territorialised in Iraq, where many of the foreign jihadis are also Saudi.

It was the confluence of several critical factors – the failure of secularism, the excesses of imperialism, and the continued disappearance of Islam's sustaining myth from the horizon – that sowed the original seeds of this moral catastrophe. This generation really is spiritually orphaned in the sense that, since their parents' generation was largely secular, they have lost the inherited contact with the myth that supposedly provided their raison d'etre. This was the psychological disconnect for which al-Qaida offered merely the most extreme answer.

For more sensitive individuals, the fragmentation of political realities has brought home profound existential realities, albeit often unconsciously. The painfully neurotic disposition of the 9/11 mastermind bomber, Mohammed Atta, as seen in his will, is a case in point. Europe faced its own existential questions when the Christian myth succumbed to the secular, rationalist worldview; the Islamic world has long been experiencing a similar crisis of mythology, albeit an even harder one as it does not hold a "cultural patent" on the modernity that undermines it.

Al-Qaida is the culmination of this process. That is why Devji is correct to imply that its most frightening aspect is not how exotic or distant it is, but how closely linked it is to the intellectual legacy of the European enlightenment and contemporary American existence. It is no surprise that Eliot's The Waste Land and Nietzsche's Thus Spake Zarathustra were the most influential European literary works in the Arab world during the 20th century.

It is worth remembering here that an evolutionary process that took Europe five centuries has been compressed for Arab Muslims into a few generations, complicated all the while by the designs of external powers. Nowhere is this clearer than in the almost overnight transformation of sleepy Arabian villages to glassy, high-rise metropolises: pre-modern to postmodern with precious little inbetween. In such a context the psychological disconnections of bin Laden's generation are hardly surprising.

At the apex of this hasty transition, the Arab individual often finds him/herself victim of a sharp sense of insecurity and anomie. Perhaps poor, part of a large family, recently migrant and lacking in prospects, or perhaps well-off but spiritually lost, this individual is acutely vulnerable to the instant comforts of religious ideology.

James Howarth is an analyst for Prince Hassan bin Talal of Jordan and translator of Messages to the World: The Statements of Osama bin Laden (Verso, 2005). He lives in Amman.

Also by James Howarth in openDemocracy:

"Jordan’s 9/11" (November 2005)

"The fallout from Amman" (November 2005)

If you find this material valuable please consider supporting openDemocracy by sending us a donation so that we can continue our work for democratic dialogue

Al-Qaida and modernity

The search for permanence and identity in a fickle world often translates into a new-found attachment to Islam, a framework to find oneself and reassert a semblance of psychological self-control. But this knee-jerk reconversion is often accompanied by a lethal flaw: the inability to interpret an essentially mythological idea in anything other than a rational way. This explains the prevalence of scientists and engineers in the Islamist ranks. Cut off from the inherited tradition and searching for concrete answers, the modern subject reads the religious text literally and therefore adopts absolutist positions.

Ironically, Islamism reveals not a lack but a surfeit of modernity. Al-Qaida's chaotic jihad, in being open to all-comers, is in fact a strange democratisation of Islam, undermining all previous forms of social control at every turn. With its Sufi and capitalist characteristics, it privatises religion.

Just as people once turned to Sufism, this unstable, atomised individual, brought face to face with his ultimately helpless human condition, chooses to become part of a brotherhood that aims at psychological redemption. Sufism was an early Islamic version of psychology, and many of al-Qaida's more affluent recruits today share the affliction that Kierkegaard called despair: "the sickness unto death".

Over the last decade, bin Laden has not only appropriated the practical benefits of globalisation, but knowingly adopted the iconic mantle of prophecy on behalf of a spiritually lost nation. Answering the Muslim desire for a heroic saviour of mythological proportions, his darkly coherent speeches strike a deep chord in the collective psyche. It is only ironic that he should emerge from such a rigidly traditionalist school as Wahhabism, despite the fact that in drawing on Sufism, Shi'ism and secular ideas, al-Qaida displays all the characteristics of a monumental bid'a, or innovation.

Is there really good reason to conceive of al-Qaida as a quasi-Sufi order of the information age? Historically, certain tariqas have crossed over from quiet spiritualism to violent confrontation, while remaining true to one principle: jihad. These erstwhile peaceful and inward-looking brotherhoods have turned to military campaigns in response to invasion or occupation. As non-state actors with concentric and often clandestine structures, such tariqas can be understood as prototypes of modern jihadist organisations.

In the 1930s, pioneering Egyptian Islamist Hassan al-Banna (1906-48) described his newly-formed Muslim Brotherhood as "a Salafiyya message, a Sunni way, a Sufi truth, a political organisation, an athletic group, a scientific and cultural union, and economic enterprise and a social idea". In other words, modernity – experienced largely as an aggressive other – meant that the tariqa concept could no longer afford to exist in solipsistic isolation: it had to be transformed into an expressly political institution that would restore truth to the world.

This is but one example of mutual reinforcement between the spiritual and political dimensions of religion. The restoration of personal psychic integrity through union with God that was the aim of Banna's childhood Sufism became the restoration of social integrity at large. In this, Banna was clearly influenced by modern conceptions of the state and European political movements. Like Sayyid Qutb, the brotherhood's intellectual donation to al-Qaida, he became a "martyr" for the Islamist cause, a concept which Devji also notes is largely borrowed from Shi'a mythology.

The worldview of the Naqshbandi tariqa, one of the most well-established orders in the Islamic world, needed relatively little adaptation to go political. Islam in 19th-century Chechnya essentially comprised a complex network of Naqshbandi lodges, whose politicisation can be traced directly to the aggressive designs of a cultural other over this strategic region. This generated a classic model of asymmetrical conflict – occupation versus resistance – with the Naqshbandis adopting guerrilla tactics against a Russian military power that, like the American army and its massive arsenal today, was rendered clumsy and largely obsolete when the exchange was not on their terms.

The tariqa's strategic advantages were its strict spiritual hierarchy, clandestine cell structure and religious authority. The order became "dual-purpose", adapting its entrenched system of lodges and disciples towards a military goal. In Islamic terms, the "greater jihad", inner purification of the self, had been exchanged for the "lesser jihad", outer purification of the larger self, or nation, from foreign contamination. The Naqshbandi imam and commander Ghazi Muhammad (c1793-1832) declared, quite plausibly, that spiritual perfection and foreign occupation were mutually exclusive – therefore expelling the enemy was the first step towards God.

Al-Qaida and the Islamic world

Islam and the common enemy also had the unprecedented effect of uniting the tribes and ethnic groups of a diverse, mountainous region under a common banner. This is also true of bin Laden and the transnational jihadi network under his name, except that the homeland in a globalised jihad is not just Chechnya but any Muslim territory, past or present. Is it the nature of the battlefield that has changed as much as the ideas at stake?

In any setting, foreign occupation undoubtedly instigates far more politicised religious interpretations. The believer's preoccupation is inverted from the divine Other within to the aggressive other without. Such confrontation inevitably generates dogmatic insistence on orthodoxy and hasty delineation between believers and infidels. The more superficial religious tenets begin to outweigh the spiritual truth they symbolise.

In Chechnya, a series of wars were fought against Russian occupation under the Naqshbandi leadership, whose spirituality became almost entirely eclipsed by the political struggle. The Russians, with their far greater resources, often passed up opportunities for negotiated settlement in favour of outright victory. Over time, however, this only exacerbated the Naqshbandis' capacity to recover from setbacks, regroup and respond quickly with devastating consequences. The inevitable collective punishments of ordinary people by the Russians in their attempts to crush the resistance only played into Naqshbandi hands. It is hardly surprising that this conflict still festers today, when it has become subsumed by both Russia and al-Qaida under the "war on terror" umbrella.

Bin Laden's astute ambiguity between the spiritual and the political bears clear parallels to this historical Chechen struggle. After the destruction of his Afghan base in 2001, his significance in the symbolic rather than practical realm has clearly increased. His frequent references to Chechnya reinforce the notion of al-Qaida as the latest incarnation of militant tariqas on a global scale. In both cases, the clandestine structure and spiritual authority of the Sufi brotherhood, based on total trust and loyalty, is readily adaptable to military objectives of "pure" Islam, centred around an essentially spiritual axis.

The tariqa has found an unexpected descendent in the form of an underground, disparate and constantly shifting hierarchy of associates. This post-tariqa functions under the aegis of religious inspiration, transformed in a globalised age by the existence of a militarily and economically superior adversary. The neo-conservative and jihadi ideologies, similarly lacking in political vision, represent mirror-image exoteric postmodernisms. That is why the higher echelons of al-Qaida and the Project for the New American Century, can be seen, as Devji hints, as psychological shadows of each other. The danger of both projects is their metaphysical dogmatism, facile resort to violence and narrow-minded contempt of the other, which is sucking impressionable individuals worldwide into a widening opposition.

Al-Qaida and the future

Faisal Devji's original and penetrating insights offers a refreshing alternative to the usual US or Eurocentric viewpoints. However, in theorising al-Qaida's ethical nature, it is surely too rash to dismiss out of hand the links between Islamic fundamentalism and jihadism. Al-Qaida thus presented comes across as a fait accompli that has appeared almost entirely spontaneously, overlooking its political or psychological causes.

Unconcerned with root causes, Devji devotes himself instead to a skilful exposition of al-Qaida as an integral part of our 21st-century global order. What we are observing is a religious edifice in disarray, brutally undermined by modernity and now watching its remains endlessly splintering. In the wake of the cold war and the failure of both secular and fundamentalist ideologies in Islamic countries, political ideas have been transcended towards individual radicalisation and ethical gestures. In an internally split Islamic world short on direction but long on vested interests and natural resources, it is hard to foresee any realistic renewal of authority. Instead we may be left with a daunting array of fragmented, feuding factions, the violent legacy of a once-peaceful tradition defending what remains of its honour.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData