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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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.