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.

Many of these men were imprisoned and executed for their attacks on Arab regimes; Sayyid Qutb, for example, a major figure in the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, was executed in Egypt in 1965. But their ideas lived on. Qutb's intellectual progeny included Fathi Yakan, who likened the coming Islamic revolution to the French and Russian revolutions, Abdullah Azzam, a Palestinian activist killed in a car bombing in 1989, and Safar Al-Hawali, a Saudi fundamentalist frequently jailed by the Saudi government. As such men dreamed of a pure Islamic state, European revolutionary ideology was seldom far from their minds. Wrote Fathi Yakan, "The groundwork for the French Revolution was laid by Rousseau, Voltaire and Montesquieu; the Communist Revolution realized plans set by Marx, Engels and Lenin....The same holds true for us as well."

The influence of Qutb's "Signposts on the Road" (1964) is clearly traceable in pronouncements by Islamic Jihad, the group that would justify its assassination of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat in 1981 as a step toward ending American domination of Egypt and ushering in a pure Islamic order. In the 1990s, Islamic Jihad would merge with al Qaeda, and Osama's "Declaration of War Against America" in turn would show an obvious debt to the Islamic Jihad manifesto "The Neglected Duty."

It can be argued, then, that the birthplace of Osama's brand of terrorism was Paris 1968, when, amid the student riots and radical teach-ins, the influence of Sartre, Fanon, and the new postmodernist Marxist champions of the "people's destiny" was at its peak. By the mid '70s, according to Claire Sterling's "The Terror Network," "practically every terrorist and guerrilla force to speak of was represented in Paris. . . . The Palestinians especially were there in force." This was the heyday of Yasser Arafat's terrorist organization Al Fatah, whose 1968 tract "The Revolution and Violence" has been called "a selective precis of 'The Wretched of the Earth.'"

While Al Fatah occasionally still used the old-fashioned Leninist language of class struggle, the increasingly radical groups that succeeded it perfected the melding of Islamism and Third World socialism. Their tracts blended Heidegger and Fanon with calls to revive a strict Islamic social order. "We declare," says the Shiite terrorist group Hezbollah in its "Open Letter to the Downtrodden in Lebanon and the World" (1985), "that we are a nation that fears only God" and will not accept "humiliation from America and its allies and the Zionist entity that has usurped the sacred Islamic land." The aim of violent struggle is "giving all our people the opportunity to determine their fate." But that fate must follow the prescribed course: "We do not hide our commitment to the rule of Islam, . . . which alone guarantees justice and dignity for all and prevents any new imperialist attempt to infiltrate our country. . . . This Islamic resistance must . . . with God's help receive from all Muslims in all parts of the world utter support."

These 1980s calls to revolution could have been uttered last week by Osama bin Laden. Indeed, the chief doctrinal difference between the radicals of several decades ago and Osama only confirms the influence of postmodernist socialism on the latter: Whereas Qutb and other early Islamists looked mainly inward, concentrating on revolution in Muslim countries, Osama directs his struggle primarily outward, against American hegemony. While for the early revolutionaries, toppling their own tainted regimes was the principal path to the purified Islamic state, for Osama, the chief goal is bringing America to its knees.

THE RELATIONSHIP between postmodernist European leftism and Islamic radicalism is a two-way street: Not only have Islamists drawn on the legacy of the European Left, but European Marxists have taken heart from Islamic terrorists who seemed close to achieving the longed-for revolution against American hegemony. Consider Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida, two leading avatars of postmodernism. Foucault was sent by the Italian daily Corriere della Sera to observe the Iranian revolution and the rise of the Ayatollah Khomeini. Like Sartre, who had rhapsodized over the Algerian revolution, Foucault was enthralled, pronouncing Khomeini "a kind of mystic saint." The Frenchman welcomed "Islamic government" as a new form of "political spirituality" that could inspire Western radicals to combat capitalist hegemony.

Heavily influenced by Heidegger and Sartre, Foucault was typical of postmodernist socialists in having neither concrete political aims nor the slightest interest in tangible economic grievances as motives for revolution. To him, the appeal of revolution was aesthetic and voyeuristic: "a violence, an intensity, an utterly remarkable passion." For Foucault as for Fanon, Hezbollah, and the rest down to Osama, the purpose of violence is not to relieve poverty or adjust borders. Violence is an end in itself. Foucault exalts it as "the craving, the taste, the capacity, the possibility of an absolute sacrifice." In this, he is at one with Osama's followers, who claim to love death while the Americans "love Coca-Cola."

Derrida, meanwhile, reacted to the collapse of the Soviet Union by calling for a "new international." Whereas the old international was made up of the economically oppressed, the new one would be a grab bag of the culturally alienated, "the dispossessed and the marginalized": students, feminists, environmentalists, gays, aboriginals, all uniting to combat American-led globalization. Islamic fundamentalists were obvious candidates for inclusion.

And so it is that in the latest leftist potboiler, "Empire," Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri depict the American-dominated global order as today's version of the bourgeoisie. Rising up against it is Derrida's "new international." Hardt and Negri identify Islamist terrorism as a spearhead of "the postmodern revolution" against "the new imperial order." Why? Because of "its refusal of modernity as a weapon of Euro-American hegemony."

"Empire" is currently flavor of the month among American postmodernists. It is almost eerily appropriate that the book should be the joint production of an actual terrorist, currently in jail, and a professor of literature at Duke, the university that led postmodernism's conquest of American academia. In professorial hands, postmodernism is reduced to a parlor game in which we "deconstruct" great works of the past and impose our own meaning on them without regard for the authors' intentions or the truth or falsity of our interpretations. This has damaged liberal education in America. Still, it doesn't kill people--unlike the deadly postmodernism out there in the world. Heirs to Heidegger and his leftist devotees, the terrorists don't limit themselves to deconstructing texts. They want to deconstruct the West, through acts like those we witnessed on September 11.

What the terrorists have in common with our armchair nihilists is a belief in the primacy of the radical will, unrestrained by traditional moral teachings such as the requirements of prudence, fairness, and reason. The terrorists seek to put this belief into action, shattering tradition through acts of violent revolutionary resolve. That is how al Qaeda can ignore mainstream Islam, which prohibits the deliberate killing of noncombatants, and slaughter innocents in the name of creating a new world, the latest in a long line of grimly punitive collectivist utopias.

Waller R. Newell is professor of political science and philosophy at Carleton University in Ottawa.

November 26, 2001 - Volume 7, Number 11