August 10, 2002

DO YOU BELIEVE IN MAGIC?

Al Qaeda's Fantasy Ideology (Lee Harris, August & September 2002, Policy Review)
The fact that we are involved with an enemy who is not engaged in Clausewitzian warfare has serious repercussions on our policy. For we are fighting an enemy who has no strategic purpose in anything he does - whose actions have significance only in terms of his own fantasy ideology. It means, in a strange sense, that while we are at war with them, they are not at war with us - and, indeed, it would be an enormous improvement if they were. If they were at war with us, they would be compelled to start thinking realistically, in terms of objective factors such as overall strategic goals, war aims, and so forth. They would have to make a realistic, and not a fantasy-induced, assessment of the relative strength of us versus them. But because they are operating in terms of their fantasy ideology, such a realistic assessment is impossible for them. It matters not how much stronger or more powerful we are than they - what matters is that God will bring them victory.

This must be emphasized, for if the fantasy ideology of Italian fascism was a form of political make-believe, the fantasy ideology of radical Islam goes even one step further: It is, in a sense, more akin to a form of magical thinking. While the Sorelian myth does aim, finally, at transforming the real world, it is almost as if the "real" world no longer matters in terms of the fantasy ideology of radical Islam. Our "real" world, after all, is utterly secular, a concatenation of an endless series of cause and effect, with all events occurring on a single ontological plane. But the "real" world of radical Islam is different - its fantasy ideology reflects the same philosophical occasionalism that pervades so much of Islamic theology: That is to say, event B does not happen because it is caused by a previous event A. Instead, event A is simply the occasion for God to cause event B, so that the genuine cause of all events occurring on our ontological plane of existence is nothing else but God. But if this is so, then the "real" world that we take for granted simply vanishes, and all becomes determined by the will of God; and in this manner the line between realist and magical thinking dissolves. This is why the mere fact that there is no "realistic" hope of al Qaeda destroying the United States - and indeed the West as a whole - is not of the slightest consequence. After all, if God is willing, the United States and the West could collapse at any moment.

This element of magical thinking does not make al Qaeda any less dangerous, however. For it is likely that in al Qaeda's collective fantasy there may exist the notion of an ultimate terror act, a magic bullet capable of bringing down the United States at a single stroke - and, paradoxically, nothing comes closer to fulfilling this magical role than the detonation of a very unmagical nuclear device. That this would not destroy our society in one fell swoop is obvious to us; but it is not to our enemies, in whose eyes an act of this nature assumes a fantasy significance in addition to its sufficiently terrifying reality - the fantasy significance of providing al Qaeda with a vision of ultimate and decisive victory over the West.


Mike Daley and David Cohen both recommended this month's Policy Review, and this story in particular. It's an interesting look at the ramifications of trying to fight a war against an enemy who isn't waging a classic war against us but is instead pursuing a fantasy. One thought that may not be adequately dealt with in the essay is : aren't the same kind of decisive victories that win wars likely to ultimately break the grip of the radical fantasy on the Muslim mind? After all, the al Qaeda types have, quite rightly, understood the past thirty years or so (say since the first oil crisis) to have been a time of rising Arab power and Western decline (in intellectual terms, not necessarily military). But match the aggressive pro-Western rhetoric of George W. Bush with a series of regime changes--from radical to more moderate--in the Middle East and mustn't it become harder to cling to the delusion that Islam will triumph over the West? Posted by Orrin Judd at August 10, 2002 6:37 AM
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