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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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