The figure of the lonely metaphysical terrorist who blew himself up with his bomb appeared in Russia at the end of the nineteenth century … The real genesis of al-Qaeda violence has more to do with a Western tradition of individual and pessimistic revolt for an elusive ideal world than with the Koranic conception of martyrdom.
Nazism and communism are products of the modern West. So too –though the fact is denied by its followers and by western opinion –is radical Islam. The intellectual founder of radical Islam is Sayyid Qutb, an Egyptian intellectual executed by Nasser in 1966. Qutb’s writings show the influence of many European thinkers, particularly Nietzsche, and they are full of ideas lifted from the Bolshevik tradition. Qutb’s conception of a revolutionary vanguard dedicated to the overthrow of corrupt Islamic regimes and the establishment of a society without formal power structures owes nothing to Islamic theology and a great deal to Lenin. His view of revolutionary violence as a purifying force has more in common with the Jacobins than it does with the twelfth-century Assassins. The Assassins devoted themselves to killing rulers they believed had deviated from the true path of Islam; but they did not believe that terror could be used to perfect humanity, nor did they see self-destruction in suicide attacks as a token of personal purity. Such views arose only in the twentieth century when Islamic thinkers came under European influence. Ali Shariati – the predecessor of Ayatollah Khomeini as leader of Iranian fundamentalists in exile during the reign of the Shah –defended martyrdom as a central practice in Islam, but his conception of martyrdom as a type of chosen death came from modern western philosophy. The fundamentalist redefinition of Shi’ism advanced by Shariati invoked an idea of existential choice derived from Heidegger.
Islamist movements think of violence as a means of creating a new world, and in this they belong not in the medieval past but the modern West. Talk of ‘Islamo-fascism’ obscures the larger debts of Islamism to western thought. It is not only fascists who have believed that violence can give birth to a new society. So did Lenin and Bakunin, and radical Islam could with equal accuracy be called Islamo-Leninism or Islamo-anarchism. However the closest affinity is with the illiberal theory of popular sovereignty expounded by Rousseau and applied by Robespierre in the French Terror, and radical Islam may be best described as Islamo-Jacobinism.
Radical Islam is a modern revolutionary ideology, but it is also a millenarian movement with Islamic roots. Like Christianity, Islam has always contained a powerful eschatological element. Both Sunni and Shia Islam contain a Mahdist tradition that anticipates the arrival of a divinely guided teacher who will re-order the world – a tradition that Bin Laden has exploited when projecting his image as a prophet-leader. Some scholars question the orthodoxy of Mahdist beliefs but they exemplify a conception of history that is clearly Islamic. As one contemporary Islamic scholar has written: ‘The Mahdist “event” … is History as eschatology, giving history a progressive nature.’ The apocalyptic beliefs of president Ahmadinejad of Iran are a version of this view of history.
In thinking of history in this way Islam shares common ground with Christianity and with the secular creeds of the modern West. It is misleading to represent Islam and ‘the West’ as forming civilizations that have nothing in common. Christianity and Islam are integral parts of western monotheism, and as such they share a view of history that marks them off from the rest of the world. Both are militant faiths that seek to convert all humankind. Other religions have been implicated in twentieth-century violence – the state cult of Shinto in Japan during the militarist period and Hindu nationalism in contemporary India, for example. But only Christianity and Islam have engendered movements that are committed to the systematic use of force to achieve universal goals. At the same time the notion that Islam lies outside ‘the West’ neglects Islam’s positive contributions. It was Islamic cultures that preserved the inheritance of Aristotle and developed much of the mathematics and science that Europe later used. In the medieval kingdoms of Moorish Spain, Islamic rulers provided shelter for persecuted Christians and Jews when Christian Europe was mired in religious conflict. To erase these Islamic achievements from the western canon misrepresents history.
The belief that Islam developed outside or against western civilization leads to a mistaken view of Islamist movements as being directed against ‘the West’. In fact the chief objective of Islamist jihad is to overthrow what are seen as infidel governments in Islamic countries. Qutb’s goal was to topple Nasser, while Osama Bin Laden has always viewed the destruction of the House of Saud as his major objective. Islamist movements seek the destruction of secularist regimes such as Baathist Syria and Iraq (where the work of destruction was done for them by the American-led invasion). The Palestinian Sunni Islamist organization Hamas began by attacking Fatah and the PLO, which are secular in orientation. To the extent that the US has intervened in these struggles, Islamist movements have been drawn into conflict with western governments, but this has not always been so. Throughout the Cold War western governments viewed Islamist movements as instruments in the struggle against communism. The Afghan muja-hadeen were western-armed, trained and financed, with al-Qaeda being among the organizations the West assisted. The Reagan administration developed close contacts with Ayatollah Khomeini’s Iran in order to contain Soviet influence in the Gulf, and the use of Islamist movements as western proxies continued after the Cold War had ended. The Taliban regime in Afghanistan had friendly relations with the United States until 9/11. As Ahmed Rashid, one of the best-informed writers on the subject, has noted,
Between 1994 and 1996, the USA supported the Taliban politically through its allies Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, essentially because Washington viewed the Taliban as anti-Iranian, anti-Shia and pro-Western … [Many US diplomats] saw them as messianic do-gooders – like born-again Christians in the American Bible Belt.
If western governments have often been able to use Islamists as allies it is partly because Islamists have not seen western power as their principal enemy. Though it harboured al-Qaeda, the Taliban regime was at war not with the West but with the people and culture of Afghanistan – banning songbirds and kite-flying because they distracted the population from religious observance, and rejecting the authority of tribal law. The Taliban were an extreme manifestation of ‘salafism’, the family of fundamentalist movements that aim to return to the original purity of Islam. In other countries such as Yemen (where its followers have attacked the privileges accorded to descendants of the Prophet) and Saudi Arabia (where a version is embodied in the powerful Wahhabi clergy), salafism has been intensely hostile to local cultures. Wherever salafism has taken root it has attempted to counter the influence of Sufism, which has been more tolerant of indigenous practices.
In all its varieties radical Islam is a movement of rejection of traditional cultures – whether Islamic or ‘western’. Islamists talk of restoring a caliphate – a form of Islamic government that claims to go back to the Prophet (though the succession was contested almost from the beginning) that was last embodied in the Ottoman Empire. Yet Islamist movements recruit some of their most active members in highly advanced societies – notably amongst deracinated Muslims in western Europe. Islamism is a by-product of the conflicts that go with accelerating globalization.
A clash of civilizations may yet occur, but thinking of radical Islam in terms of cultural conflicts mistakes its true character. If it aims to achieve a traditional goal – the ummah, or universal community of Muslims – it does so by waging war on traditional Islamic societies. Like other modern political religions, radical Islam is a hybrid of apocalyptic myth and utopian hope, and in this it is unmistakably western.
Of course, ‘the West’ stands for nothing fixed. Its boundaries shift with cultural changes and geo-political events. There are those who think the medieval world was a synthesis of the whole of western civilization, but to think of ‘the West’ in this way is to leave out the inheritance of pagan polytheism and tragic drama, Greek philosophy and the lamentations of Job, the inheritance of Rome and Islamic science. During the Cold War the countries of the Soviet bloc were described as being outside the West or opposed to it though their governments subscribed to a European ideology. Later, post-communist Russia was expected to become part of ‘the West’ despite the fact that it had rejected this ideology and resumed an older identity of which anti-western Orthodox Christianity was an important part.
Nowadays ‘the West’ defines itself in terms of liberal democracy and human rights. The implication is that the totalitarian movements of the last century formed no part of the West, when in truth these movements renewed some of the oldest western traditions. If anything defines ‘the West’ it is the pursuit of salvation in history. It is historical teleology – the belief that history has a built-in purpose or goal –rather than traditions of democracy or tolerance, that sets western civilization apart from all others. By itself this does not produce mass terror – other conditions including large-scale social dislocation are required before that can come about. The crimes of the twentieth century were not inevitable. They involved all kinds of historical accidents and individual decisions. Again, there is nothing peculiarly western about mass murder. What is unique to the modern West is the formative role of the faith that violence can save the world. Totalitarian terror in the last century was part of a western project of taking history by storm. The twenty-first century began with another attempt at this project, with the Right taking over from the Left as the vehicle of revolutionary change.
GRAY, John, Black Mass: How Religion Led the World into Crisis. London: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008.