September 17, 2009

Book Review: A Fury for God (A Critique of Millenarian Ideology)

Although its now a bit out of date (it was written on the eve of America's invasion of Iraq), Malise Ruthven's A Fury for God: The Islamist Attack on America is well worth picking up for those interested in the rapproachment (or lack thereof) between the now commonly reified entities of "Islam" and the "West." This is a good reading companion to more famous books like Samuel Huntington's The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, and Benjamin Barber's Jihad vs. McWorld.

Despite its ominous sounding title, A Fury For God is far from a scurrilous screed against Islam. Ruthven demonstrates how similar ideologically are the Islamism of al-Qaeda and the neo-conservative foreign policy outlook which characterized the Bush years. Ruthven uncovers their common ideological roots and shows how both al-Qaeda and the US response to its actions as an organization are characterized by their millenarian and Manichean content. His insights into the US-Saudi relationship are particularly incisive. Ruthven argues that despite its virulently anti-Western ideology, al-Qaeda has in fact been profoundly shaped by a Western understanding of millenarian revivalism.

Al-Qaeda is both organization and ideology. Bin Laden’s participation, along with other Arabs in the Afghan resistance to Soviet invasion laid the foundation for the modern al-Qaeda, a point Ruthven makes, along with emphasizing how crucial American funding was to their victory over the Soviets. As the Soviet threat diminished, the American-funded fighters—the so-called “Afghan Arabs” who made up the mujahhidin, dispersed, but many followed bin Laden to Sudan, where they participated in his various construction projects, such as building a road from Port Sudan to Khartoum. Here bin Laden was able to help finance the bombing of US embassies in Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam. It was through these actions that he first came to the attention of US leadership.

Post-9/11, al-Qaeda’s popularity led to a rapid export of its message and tactics; local versions of the organization sprang up in Iraq, for example. Although the core of al-Qaeda was damaged by the 9/11 attacks, its message proved resonant for a variety of these “copycat” organizations. Thus al-Qaeda as an ideology was much more exportable than al-Qaeda as an organization; this feature is what gives al-Qaeda a truly trans-national character. The primary architect of this ideology was Professor Abdullah Azzam, one of bin Laden’s primary influences, who used Salafi interpretations to argue for an activist form of “global jihad” against the enemies of Islam. Much like other millenarian revival movements, al-Qaeda promised eternal riches and glory in paradise, and asked its fighters to give up everything in the world for an eternal reward. This radical vision of a break with temporal and worldly reality was shared by other millenarian resistance movements like Maji Maji or Kimbanguism, as well as movements based more on purely spiritual revival. Ironically this idea of revitalization and millenarian redemption also share a great deal of ideological linkage with secularist projects like communism. They all believed in some ideal vision of the future, if only certain sacrifices could be endured in the present.

John Gray has an excellent passage on this idea in Al-Qaeda and What It Means to Be Modern:

“In contemporary western societies, repressed religion returned in secular cults. When Saint-Simon and Comte founded the Religion of Humanity they devised the prototype of every subsequent political religion. The eschatological hopes that animated these intermittently sane nineteenth-century savants shaped Marxian ‘scientific socialism’ and neo-liberal ‘free-market economics’. In dilute and timorous form, they sustain liberal humanists today.”

The ideology of al-Qaeda is built on similar structural foundations. There are no demands for talks or release of prisoners as conditions of negotiation. Al-Qaeda speaks the language of people whose faith in the power of redemptive violence is unshaken. Adds Gray:
“Self-evidently, the belief that terror can remake the world is not a result of any kind of scientific inquiry. It is faith, pure and simple. No less incontrovertibly, the faith is uniquely western,”
The planners of 9/11 were strategists first and foremost. They recognized both the power of symbolism and the roots of Western dominance. They struck in such a way that their blow would impact financially and symbolically. The Twin Towers, as one of the major “nerve-centers” of capitalism, represented the hegemony of international capital. Furthermore, their height, their physical dominance of the surrounding landscape, their iconic status in the New York skyline, ensured that their destruction would guarantee maximum media coverage. For al-Qaeda, whose earlier efforts did not attract near the amount of coverage, the attack on the World Trade Center was a media blitz, designed to thrust them into a direct confrontation with their enemy, a confrontation that would exacerbate the Manichean dimensions of the conflict. It was the “propaganda of the deed” that was important to them, not the loss of life itself.

Those who piloted the planes that hit the Twin Towers on September 11 were not alienated radicals. They were disciplined operatives, true believers, and obviously possessed the courage of their convictions, whatever the evil dimensions of their deed. Ruthven explains their motivations in terms of: “the perception of spiritual emptiness” in the West. “The emigrant becomes obsessed with the materialistic and hedonistic aspects of Western culture because he does not know how to gain access to its spiritual and aesthetic goods.”

Given al-Qaeda’s millenarian tendencies, it would seem that the US would present a vision that refuted the crude Manichean tendencies of its opponent. But this was not the case. Instead the appellation “war on terror”, which merely flipped the Manichean coin on which al-Qaeda’s ideology rested, was used by the Bush administration introduced to justify its occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan. The sacrifices demanded by the Bush regime, its calls to patriotism and its framing of the conflict as “good” versus “evil” and its willingness to justify any and all of its actions based on that belief—these ideas all have a millenarian ring, albeit watered down by secular nationalism.

To be at battle with a known enemy, a physical group is one thing. To be at war with violence itself is a cultural presumption that, whatever their other differences, links Bin Laden and Bush. Their millenarian expectations of the cosmic dimensions of eternal judgment are the same, and remarkably they both saw (and see) themselves as representing the actualization of the good on earth, fighting to bring an eternal vision to reality, consequences be damned. The ends justify the means is an old adage, and remarkably, the antecedents of Bin Laden’s theology and Bush’s articulation of US policy are not only religious but secular. Nazism and Socialism had similar beliefs about the elimination of evil from the world.

In this respect, the attempted distinction of terrorism as comprising essentially non-state actors is a dangerous move, as it implicitly places states outside of the moral judgment implied by the word “terror.” States as well as organizations can be millenarian in their thinking. The ideology of the war on terror is the latest incarnation of the US myth of eternal progress, in which it exports its model of “democracy” to the entire world. Thus the war on terror is really the West at war with itself, at war with the groups it has helped bring into existence through its machinations to accomplish this.

It is worth noting that the strategy undertaken by the Bush administration to respond played into the Manichean designs of the al-Qaeda. For in designating not al-Qaeda but “Islamofascists” as the enemy, the US overplayed its hand and involved itself in the invasion of a sovereign country where a notion of “victory” seems increasingly unlikely with each passing day, Obama notwithstanding. If the last eight years of the Bush administration have taught the US government anything, it is that its own version of a universal millenarian ideology failed miserably by allowing it (and its allies) to justify nearly any action in the name of the “war on terror.” The danger of such millenarianism ought to be clear: it can start fires, but those fires can easily become uncontrollable conflagrations.


Austin Thompson September 20, 2009 at 7:17 AM  

Since the time in which the Malise Ruthven book was written, more information about Al-Qaeda has come to light which accounts for the change in strategy by the US administration. The characterization of Al-Qaeda as a millenarian cult seeking to re-cast the world in its image, was overly simplistic. Today, US and European military and counter-terrorism specialists recognize that al-Qaeda's primary motivation was too reverse US presence in Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Palestine, Afghanistan, Iraq et al. At the level of operations, Al-Qaeda has shown limited interest in administering Sharia law and instead has focused on organizing military operations aimed at punishing foreign occupying forces.

The rhetoric which the author refers to as millenarian was a common mischaracterization of the "organization" and its allies. In reality al-Qaeda ( whose name means "the base"), restricted its actions to the supply of military, logistical and financial support to local struggles with intersecting interest of attacking foreign occupying forces. Some of these groups like the Taliban in Afghanistan or Al-Shabaab in Somalia have sought additional, broader aims of establishing particular visions of Sharia law. But al-Qaeda has focused its role to military operations. The specialized nature of al-Qaeda is what makes it so difficult to wage of war against them as President Bush attempted. In response to the terrible attacks of 9-11-01, Osama bin Laden listed US foreign occupation, not western hedonism or cultural norms as the basis for militant action.

If I had more time, I would critique the apparent nihilism in the book as well. He implies that all ideology (socialism, islam etc) is inherently bad. I completely disagree and think that in fact people who claim to be post-ideological are merely prophets of the status-quo. The ideology of 21st century of global capitalism IS post-ideology!

Nathaniel Mathews September 21, 2009 at 10:52 AM  

You bring back memories of debates in my Islamic Movements class. Good points, the book is a bit dated. And I like this: "The ideology of 21st century of global capitalism IS post-ideology!"

Its important to point out, as you allude to, that all of al-Qaeda's actions, even when they are on Western soil, are aimed at ending the foreign occupation of Islamic lands.

In the book, Ruthven does his deepest analysis of (as I recall, I don't have the book in front of me) Sayyid Qutb. One of Qutb's points was that both capitalism and communism were corrupt and spiritually bankrupt and that only Islam correctly understood could truly bring about reform and realize the ideal just society.

The term millenarian is borrowed from Christian eschatology, so maybe Ruthven using it is a bit of a stretch, but I see what he is driving at: he is critiquing a form of revolutionary idealism, a belief that a major and salutory change is just around the corner if only people 'get back to basics.' In Qutb's case, that meant the Qu'ran. Shar'ia law is a seperate discussion that is outside the immediate purview of al-Qaeda's goals.

Considering the points you raised, I guess its a question of what kind of actions become 'justified' in the name of the 'coming age where everything is set right.'

I don't think al-Qaeda is a millenarian 'cult' either, but there are clear elements of millenarian or revivalist thinking in every intellectual architect who was most influential on Osama bin Laden. For example, there are many links to the intellectual work of the influential Islamic scholar Ibn Taymiyyah, who wrote at a time when the Islamic world was threatened by Mongol invasion and so did much to extend the concept of military jihad as obligatory. Abdullah Azzam, as I mentioned also was highly influential in reshaping this concept in the modern era.

Nathaniel Mathews September 21, 2009 at 12:20 PM  

Another point which I think Ruthven makes with some validity is that al-Qaeda is not an 'anti-modern' movement per se, part of some backward looking movement in Islam that wants to bring back the Caliphate. It is a modern movement, thoroughly modern in its tactics, its outlook, its organization and its message.

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