by Soumaya Ghannoushi
Last week I wrote about Anglo-American foreign policy and the part it continues to play in the generation of climates conducive to the rise of extremism and terrorism. But let’s be clear on this: to explain the phenomena that inhabit our lives, no matter how ugly, terrifying, and nauseating they are, is not to justify or legitimize them. Nothing, moral or political, could justify the indiscriminate slaughter of the innocent for Bush and Blair’s sins.
From New York to Madrid, from Casablanca to Bali, the absurd, random mass carnage of young and old, male and female has been al-Qaida’s trademark. Residential buildings, tourist resorts, rush hour trains, packed buses and crowded planes turn into grand spectacles of mass murder where no heed is paid to the victim’s identity and the extent of his/her responsibility for the policies of a country defined as the enemy. The boundaries between the world of politics and that of organised crime are blurred, as political demands get wedded to criminal methods.
Al-Qaida, it must be said, is no pioneer in this field. For although it founds its ideology on religious references and speaks a language overwhelmed by religious symbols, al-Qaida falls largely within the modern tradition of revolutionary anarchists - from the Jacobins and the Bolsheviks down to latter-day Marxist guerrillas like the Baader-Meinhoff gang.
Like these modern revolutionary nihilists, al-Qaida warriors subscribe to an instrumentalist logic that recognises no distinction between the legitimate and illegitimate, thereby sanctioning acts of terror for the attainment of their ends. Like them, they are more interested in the act of destruction than its effects. As the father of Russian anarchism Mikhail Bakunin put it, “the passion for destruction is also a creative passion.”
Al-Qaida is also a revival of the radical currents that had surfaced in Islamic history from time to time only to be defeated by moderate mainstream Islam led by the Ulama (scholars). In particular, they appear to be a continuation of Kharijite thought with its dualistic puritanical conception of the world and the community of Muslims and of Gnostic underground organisations like the Assassins and Qaramita, who sought to disrupt the stability of Muslim societies through acts of terrorism.
Al-Qaida would be best seen as a mixture of these political and ideological strands. Apart from the ideological justifications it takes recourse to, one would, indeed, be hard put to find much that distinguishes it from Latin American anarchist groups. Their acts share the same destructive ferocity, the same absurdity. The difference is that where one finds its ideological legitimacy in Marxism, the other seeks it in the Islamic religion.
But how can the murder of the innocent be perpetuated in the name of a religion that likens the loss of one human life to the loss of humanity at large? How can Islam be said to sanction al-Qaida’s insane violence when it openly forbids revenge and declares in no less than five Quranic chapters that “no bearer of a burden bears the burden of another”?
How can the killing of ordinary men and women going about their business be permissible when even the battlefield has been regulated by the strictest moral code? “Destroy not fruit trees, nor fertile land in your paths. Be just, and spare the feelings of the vanquished. Respect all religious persons who live in hermitages or convents and spare their edifices.”
Perhaps the one thing al-Qaida militants have proven good at, apart from the shedding of innocent blood, is fanning the flames of hostility to Islam and Muslims. From the darkness of their caves and hiding places, these self-appointed spokesmen for one and a half billion Muslims worldwide have excelled in stirring latent negative images of Islam within the western psyche. Through their senseless crimes, Islam, in the minds of most, has become a euphemism for mass slaughter and destruction. Thanks to them, racism, bigotry and Islamophobia could rear its ugly head unashamedly in broad daylight.
The terrible irony is that Muslims find themselves helplessly trapped between two fundamentalisms, between Bush’s hammer and Bin Laden’s anvil, hostages to an extreme rightwing American administration, aggressively seeking to impose its expansionist and hegemonic will over the region at gunpoint, and to a cluster of violent, wild fringe groups, lacking in political experience or sound religious understanding.
Although the two claim to be combating each other, the reality is that they are working in unison; one providing the justifications the other desperately needs for its fanaticism, ferocity and savagery.
No wonder, it didn’t take the neoconservative world supremacists long to spot the immense opportunities September 11 handed them. Their puritanical missionary belief in being God’s instruments on earth and grand imperial ambitions could now be realised through shameless emotional blackmail and bogus moral claims.
I daily use London’s trains and buses and may one day be one of al-Qaida’s victims. I hardly think that killing or maiming me would aid the causes the bombers claim to defend. The truth is that al-Qaida’s narrow-minded fanatics are a scourge to the causes they purport to champion.
Ask any Palestinian, Iraqi, or Lebanese if the bombing of the innocent in Bali, Casablanca, or London has helped alleviate their suffering. If anything, they have handed their oppressors with an open permit to butcher and destroy, safe in the knowledge that blame has been shifted from them to their victims.
So, Olmert demolishes the homes of Palestinians and Lebanese, occupies their lands, and sends his helicopters to massacre them in their shelters and refugee camps in the name of combating terrorism. Arab regimes stifle dissenting voices, imprison and torture in the name of resisting terrorism. American tanks and gunship invade, kill and rampage, all in the name of terrorism.
Al-Qaida’s mindless acts have turned the aggressor, who colonises, massacres and pillages, into a victim. For all their material vulnerability, victims have a very powerful asset: their moral case as innocent victims. Perhaps, this is the cruellest dimension to these senseless crimes: That the powerless has been stripped even of their victimhood. Even this has been appropriated by the powerful. He is both victim and aggressor.
The causes al-Qaida extremists speak for are certainly just causes. The sanctioning of genocide and occupation in Palestine, slaughter of hundreds of thousands in Iraq through exposure to depleted Uranium and years of barbaric sanctions first, then through bombing and shelling without bothering to count the dead, brutal invasion of the country, destruction of its infrastructure and humiliation of its people, undoubtedly rank among modern history’s bloodiest crimes and darkest tragedies.
But the mindless killing of the innocent in Madrid, New York, or London is the wrong answer to these real grievances. These are illegitimate responses to legitimate causes. Just as occupation is morally and politically deplorable, so too is any blind aggression masquerading as Jihad.
(Originally printed in The Guardian, U.K.)