Landscapes of the Jihad by eminent Oxford University thinker Professor Faisal Devji explores the features that Al-Qaeda and other strands of militant Islam share in common with global movements such as environmentalism and anti-globalisation activism – as well as, paradoxically, Sufism.
Islam became globalised after the Cold War. In 1989, the very year the bipolar world came to an end, starting with the Rushdie affair we have seen three global mobilisations initiated in the West, protesting against insults to holy figures in Islam. Protesters employ a liberal vocabulary asking for apologies, recognition and respect, which is to say invitations to build a new kind of civility between East and West. The language of jihad is absent from such mobilisations, which have in the past even interrupted and overshadowed Al-Qaeda’s domination of Islam as a media spectacle without once referring to it.
Devji reviews various Islamic groups including ISIS, the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. ISIS is a movement not in the classic mould of Sunni thought, since it seeks to destroy or redefine every person or object that can’t be defined by sharia. Breaking with traditional Sunni emphasis on protecting the privacy of domestic life, ISIS reworks totalitarian forms of surveillance to substitute a supposedly real society for the false one it has inherited. However, it occurs to me that ISIS recreates Saddam’s totalitarianism in a bid to create the Islamic state they simply recreate the horrors of Ba’athist Iraq or draconian methods of electronic surveillance employed by Israel, the USA or Britain.
The Taliban provides a perfect illustration of the kind of movement that has repeatedly been described as a foreign import. It was supposedly influenced by Deobandi practices from India, themselves funded and influenced by Saudi Wahhabism imparted in Pakistani seminaries. Yet the Taliban leader Mullah Omar chose in Kandahar to drape himself in a mantle supposedly belonging to the Prophet (PBUH) and declare himself the Commander of the Faithful, a title used for the Caliphs who were the Prophet’s (PBUH) successors. The fact that Omar donned the Prophet’s (PBUH) mantle, Devji asserts, suggests Sufi and especially Shia themes, since the latter believe in the apostolic succession is of those members of the Rasool’s (PBUH) family whom he famously covered with his cloak. Further it is precisely such charismatic forms of authority that both the Deobandis and Wahhabis are supposed to oppose. Devji does not explore the fact that Amir Dost Mohamed khan (1826-1839) also appointed himself Amir-ul-Mumineen in 1835 when he declared jihad against the Sikhs occupying Jamrud and Peshawar.
Al-Qaeda globalised jihad by attacking the USA the landscape of jihad changed from a national struggle to an international arena. Reciprocity of revenge taken to an extreme: a tower for a tower. Osama Bin Laden, citing the Lebanon invasion by Zionists during 1982, said:
“As I watched the destroyed towers in Lebanon, it occurred to me to punish the unjust the same way (and) to destroy towers in America so it could taste some of what we are tasting and to stop killing our children and women.”
Everything we know about Al-Qaeda compares favourably with Sufi or mystical brotherhoods, even if these happen to be disapproved of by members of the movement itself. There is, for instance, the very emphasis on jihad, which has historically been a characteristic of Sufi groups. Then there is the cult of martyrs, to whom are attributed supernatural powers including the ability to intercede with God
Killing has become the means of equivalence with the enemy. In essence, the Cold War doctrine of deterrence resulting in a balance of power has been translated into a balance of terror. The jihad’s quest for an equivalence of terror precipitates a common language between the jihad and its enemies. As Osama Bin Laden puts it in his “Letter to America”:
“America does not understand the language of manners and principles, so we are addressing it using the language it understands.”
Al-Qaeda saw the US military presence in the region as a sign of weakness. The aim of the jihad is to fight a territorial occupying power facing a minor but futuristic global one. Afghanistan was important to the Arab world for two reasons. Firstly, Afghanistan had a global significance that the Middle East simply did not have. As Bin Laden emphasised:
“Jihad battles in Afghanistan destroyed the myth of a (superpower) in the minds of the Muslim mujahideen young men. The USSR, a superpower with the largest land army in the world, was destroyed and the remnants of its troops fled Afghanistan before the eyes of the Muslim youths and as a result of their actions.”
Second, it was in Afghanistan that the global character of this form of Islam became evident in the sheer diversity of Muslims participating in the jihad:
“It also gave young Muslim Mujahid in – Arabs, Pakistanis, Turks and Muslims from Central and East Asia – a great opportunity to get acquainted with each other on the land of Afghan jihad through their comradeship at arms against the enemies of Islam.”
Terror is not all that Bin Laden is about. Bin Laden’s “Letter to America” of November 2002 writes:
“You are a nation that exploits women like consumer products or advertising tools calling upon customers to purchase them. You use women to serve passengers[…]and strangers to increase your profit margins. You then rant that you support the liberation of women.”
Bin Laden further accuses US of attacks on Muslims, racism, support of client dictatorial regimes, theft of wealth and natural resources which are bought at negligible prices, environmental degradation deployment of weapons of mass destruction, war and human rights abuses. The reasons cited move the motives for jihad to a global plane in common with anti-globalisation and environmental groups.
Everything we know about Al-Qaeda compares favourably with Sufi or mystical brotherhoods, even if these happen to be disapproved of by members of the movement itself. There is, for instance, the very emphasis on jihad, which has historically been a characteristic of Sufi groups. Then there is the cult of martyrs, to whom are attributed supernatural powers including the ability to intercede with God for the salvation of their families, something generally frowned upon by anti-Sufi groups.
Devji’s erudite study compares Al-Qaeda with older violent movements such as the Ismaili Assassins. What Bin Laden would have made of being compared to Sufis and the Assassins we sadly do not know. However, this book is an excellent and thought-provoking study of an emotionally charged topic.