The Magazine

Postmodern Jihad

What Osama bin Laden learned from the Left.

Nov 26, 2001, Vol. 7, No. 11 • By WALLER R. NEWELL
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MUCH HAS BEEN WRITTEN about Osama bin Laden's Islamic fundamentalism; less about the contribution of European Marxist postmodernism to bin Laden's thinking. In fact, the ideology by which al Qaeda justifies its acts of terror owes as much to baleful trends in Western thought as it does to a perversion of Muslim beliefs. Osama's doctrine of terror is partly a Western export.

To see this, it is necessary to revisit the intellectual brew that produced the ideology of Third World socialism in the 1960s. A key figure here is the German philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), who not only helped shape several generations of European leftists and founded postmodernism, but also was a leading supporter of the Nazis. Heidegger argued for the primacy of "peoples" in contrast with the alienating individualism of "modernity." In order to escape the yoke of Western capitalism and the "idle chatter" of constitutional democracy, the "people" would have to return to its primordial destiny through an act of violent revolutionary "resolve."

Heidegger saw in the Nazis just this return to the blood-and-soil heritage of the authentic German people. Paradoxically, the Nazis embraced technology at its most advanced to shatter the iron cage of modernity and bring back the purity of the distant past. And they embraced terror and violence to push beyond the modern present--hence the term "postmodern"--and vault the people back before modernity, with its individual liberties and market economy, to the imagined collective austerity of the feudal age.

This vision of the postmodernist revolution went straight from Heidegger into the French postwar Left, especially the works of Jean-Paul Sartre, eager apologist for Stalinism and the Cultural Revolution in China. Sartre's prot g , the Algerian writer Frantz Fanon, crystallized the Third World variant of postmodernist revolution in "The Wretched of the Earth" (1961). From there, it entered the world of Middle Eastern radicals. Many of the leaders of the Shiite revolution in Iran that deposed the modernizing shah and brought the Ayatollah Khomeini to power in 1979 had studied Fanon's brand of Marxism. Ali Shari'at, the Sorbonne-educated Iranian sociologist of religion considered by many the intellectual father of the Shiite revolution, translated "The Wretched of the Earth" and Sartre's "Being and Nothingness into Persian." The Iranian revolution was a synthesis of Islamic fundamentalism and European Third World socialism.

In the postmodernist leftism of these revolutionaries, the "people" supplanted Marx's proletariat as the agent of revolution. Following Heidegger and Fanon, leaders like Lin Piao, ideologist of the Red Guards in China, and Pol Pot, student of leftist philosophy in France before becoming a founder of the Khmer Rouge, justified revolution as a therapeutic act by which non-Western peoples would regain the dignity they had lost to colonial oppressors and to American-style materialism, selfishness, and immorality. A purifying violence would purge the people of egoism and hedonism and draw them back into a primitive collective of self-sacrifice.

MANY ELEMENTS in the ideology of al Qaeda--set forth most clearly in Osama bin Laden's 1996 "Declaration of War Against America"--derive from this same mix. Indeed, in Arab intellectual circles today, bin Laden is already being likened to an earlier icon of Third World revolution who renounced a life of privilege to head for the mountains and fight the American oppressor, Che Guevara. According to Cairo journalist Issandr Elamsani, Arab leftist intellectuals still see the world very much in 1960s terms. "They are all ex-Sorbonne, old Marxists," he says, "who look at everything through a postcolonial prism."

Just as Heidegger wanted the German people to return to a foggy, medieval, blood-and-soil collectivism purged of the corruptions of modernity, and just as Pol Pot wanted Cambodia to return to the Year Zero, so does Osama dream of returning his world to the imagined purity of seventh-century Islam. And just as Fanon argued that revolution can never accomplish its goals through negotiation or peaceful reform, so does Osama regard terror as good in itself, a therapeutic act, quite apart from any concrete aim. The willingness to kill is proof of one's purity.

According to journalist Robert Worth, writing in the New York Times on the intellectual roots of Islamic terror, bin Laden is poorly educated in Islamic theology. A wealthy playboy in his youth, he fell under the influence of radical Arab intellectuals of the 1960s who blended calls for Marxist revolution with calls for a pure Islamic state.