Radical Islam and 9/11: inside the fundamentalist mind

This story - of spectacle, inferiorism, and abstract totalising - marks a phenomenon of acute intellectual regression in which both the west and the Islamic societies are implicated.

Murat Belge
3 October 2001

1908 poster for Giuseppe Verdi's Aida. | Wikicommons/ US Library of Congress. Some rights reserved.

The modern world, almost to a pathological extent, seems entranced by appearances, especially the spectacle. When the Suez Canal was opened nearly 150 years ago, the Khedive of Egypt invited the cream of European royalty to enjoy the performance of Aida with real elephants trodding on the stage. In present-day Hollywood productions, film after film offers up yet another possible contemporary “catastrophe”, with all the fire, blood - and, yes, terror - needed to satisfy our tender, callous souls.

And the attack on 11 September 2001 was, among many other things, a stupendous visual spectacle. It could, in pure technique, be compared to a well-planned fire-cracker show or military parade (especially aerial acrobatics). The "mastermind" behind the attack could rely on a random camera in a city like New York catching the first plane hitting the tower, and the news-channels across the global village to be up and running for the second.

The spectacle as message

This spectacle reached out and became a statement. In the link between the two there can be discerned, I believe, certain elements of a “Muslim fundamentalist mentality”. And part of the evidence for this is the tremendous appeal of the 11 September visual display in parts of the Muslim world.

What is this link, and what is the appeal? It can be described using the jargon of advertising, because there is a strong element of this in the affair. The "message" was directed at its "target audience" of the entire Muslim world. But within that diverse category, there are the immediate consumers and what can be called the "secondary audience".

Both are invited to appreciate the superiority of the event - but only the former are expected to buy the product. They, the "chosen few", then market the next move; while the remaining large majority can be left to gloat at the sight of the product. The ultimate aim is to transform even the latter category from happy (but still passive) spectators into active participators.

The product here is a conflict, a holy war. So there is a message also for the adversary, the unbelievers. They must be made to see and understand that they are vulnerable. The tragedy of this play (to vary the metaphor) is that it doesn’t involve outsize heroes or villains, but ordinary people. As spectators of the spectacle, they must (as in the Aristotelian definition of tragedy) fear for themselves while pitying the victims.

For both sets of receivers, in west and east, the spectacle had an essence: death. The passengers on the planes turned into weapons of destruction when they and the planes had been captured. They were not free. They were led to their death by the nineteen or so "free" agents who also went to their freely-willed death - which was , incidentally, the same destination.

The labyrinth of inferiority

One psychological source of the attack is rooted in obsessive fascination with western technology, which became a widespread ideological phenomenon in the Muslim world. Historically, some Muslims damned technology and material progress entirely; they saw it as the root of corruption. But this did not become the dominant trend in Islamic thought. The main preoccupation was rather to find a way to adopt western technology - which involved, in effect, the difficult balancing-trick of combining acceptance of western civilisation by societies determined to maintain their own religion and their culture.

Those who advocated this way forward claimed that technology is a neutral force and it can be wielded by anyone. But they did not convince: there was not, after all, any "Islamic state" which could prove the case by challenging the west. And the Israel-Palestine story has been seen as its ultimate refutation: the humiliation of the good because of the superior technology of the evil.

Now, here, in this attack, it is made very clear that technology is indeed neutral; and anybody with sufficient intelligence can use it for his own purposes. You can wear your middle-eastern robes and turbans yet time your life in such a way that you can use your computer and keep up with your Islamic worship five times a day. Voilá!

This historical context helps to explain a special quality in Muslim fundamentalism. Muslims - together with all "third world" peoples whose past and present are rich with memories of being exploited and insulted by western imperialism – have a full sense of oppression. A hurt dignity which justifies hatred against the responsible authority; and the dignity of the Muslim people has been hurt.

But if the shared experience of oppression is one link between Muslims and other peoples, there also exists a very different memory - of when Islam was itself an ideology of domination, seeking to expand its rule over very large parts of the world. In modern times, Muslim self-pity as the “damned of the earth” (to an extent justified), is coupled with the belief that the Islamic faith should be ruling over the world - with all that entails. This is a lethal combination.

Islam is a worldly religion. It does not distinguish greatly between the necessity of Islamic political power and all the other problems of faith. For several centuries its power was sovereign over much of the world. Then, the power disappeared. The Muslim world is now poor and underdeveloped, it has no internal unity, no all-embracing values or policies, nor even real sovereignity.

This is a "shameful" position - especially to those who feel the weight of history most keenly. They are the legions of the lost, the fighters who seek to reverse history so that it becomes a prelude to final victory. Often, such people are guided by a quasi-kamikaze spirit: “Let me inflict as much damage as I can in this hopeless struggle with these people whom I really hate!” In this attack, however, I feel something much more optimistic - the self-sacrifice of the believers for the victory of the right, the inevitability of which they have felt in their souls. We will see if this optimism will be sustained.

I am nothing, I will be everything

Fundamentalism is always conflictual. Its mentality considers those who advocate moderation, understanding, or dialogue to be even more detrimental to the cause than the "real" enemy. As long as such people determine the terrain, the final confrontation will always be postponed.

It is typical of the fundamentalist mind to deal with the concrete reality of life or death in this abstract manner. Such individual matters carry no weight when set against a huge, abstract generalisation: the victory of Islam. (In other circumstances, the fundamentalist mind embraces the glory of the nation, or the revolutionary emancipation of mankind. But this rehearsal of doomsday is more suited to a religious imagination).

The confrontation has to be total and decisive. A compromise is unacceptable. Coexistence cannot be a solution. The mastermind behind the attack wants recogniton for the uncompromising character of the struggle. He sees the inevitability of its hard quality and demonstrates his willingness to accept it as it is, and his skill in taking up the challenge. We are invited to admire him, and then follow him: for his "realism" and for his "courage" and for his "expertise".

In this light, the western hawk who launches a discourse smelling of gunpowder, with occasional hints of vengeful "crusades" and similar pleasantries, is much more welcome to the fundamentalist. The hawk has a vital role in the whole enterprise: to radicalise the naïve Muslim into appreciating the satanic quality of western society and the human types it produces.

The message of any western assault will be therefore appreciated with pellucid clarity: “The imperialist west is getting prepared to attack the Muslim world and it will strike without discrimination. Decide now: where will you stand? By your brother, or by the side of the fiendish aggressor who comes to kill your brother?” No need to analyse the feelings of the "brother".

But if western hawks are fundamentalism’s allies, western liberals are often its handmaidens. After all, the rational conception behind this attack - in spite of the many differences in its size and execution - is not all that different from Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa against Salman Rushdie. Like that event, it challenges people in the west to think carefully about their response.

In recent years, growing numbers of westerners have been dissociating themselves from the classically colonising, orientalising attitudes of their countries, even trying to go beyond concepts like toleration (which implies a kind of coexistence without mixing), and embrace “the other” with his/her cultural values and identity. When Khomeini ordered a writer to be killed for "abusing the Prophet in a novel", it was not easy for such left-liberal democrats in the west to defend the validity of Islamic values. Amid the ruins of the World Trade Center in the world’s capital, the simplistic "live and let live" of modern western "multiculturalism" is even less a viable option. Instead, the assault challenges east and west alike to enter a new, serious and hard dialogue - within as well as between their societies.

The poverty of regress

The fundamentalist project is quite diabolical, from any perspective other than that of the planners and executors of this attack. Given the state of affairs in the world, including especially the Muslim world, the terrain and method have been cleverly chosen.

This story - of spectacle, inferiorism, and abstract totalising - marks a phenomenon of acute intellectual regression in which both the west and the Islamic societies are implicated. We have all contributed to the present ideological, political, economic shape of the world which contributes, not to the final success, but to the tenacity of this new centre of evil.

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