July 20, 2005


It's not only about Iraq: The animating ideology of the caliphate helps explain al-Qaida actions that otherwise make no sense (Jonathan Freedland, July 20, 2005, The Guardian)

Central to its ideology is the reintroduction of the caliphate, an Islamic state governed by sharia law that would stretch across all formerly Muslim lands, taking in Spain, Morocco, north Africa, Albania, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the Middle East, as well as Pakistan, Indonesia and the Philippines. Plenty on the left tend to skim over this stuff, dismissing it as weird, obscurantist nonsense - and imagining it as somehow secondary to al-Qaida's anti-imperialist mission.

That's a big mistake. For it is this animating idea which helps to explain al-Qaida actions that otherwise make no sense. Why did the Madrid cell that staged last March's train bombings continue to plan attacks, even after Spain's new government had begun withdrawing from Iraq? Perhaps because al-Qaida wants to recapture at least part of Spain for Islamist rule. Why did it bomb a nightclub in Bali? Partly to attack western tourists, of course. (Taylor says the bombers thought the clubbers would be American, not Australian.) But its chief aim was to destabilise Indonesia, which it wants to place under Islamist rule as part of the yearned-for caliphate.

In other words, al-Qaida has a programme that predates and goes beyond Iraq. It seeks to end all western presence in those lands it deems Islamic. That's why it has, over the years, targeted France and Germany as well as the US and the UK. When Tony Blair asks "What was September 11 the reprisal for?" he should know the answer. It was for eight decades of US-led, western meddling in territory that al-Qaida believes should be Muslims' alone.

This is the ideology that defines al-Qaida and which explains why it was in business from 1993 and not just 2001 and after. Tellingly, those who monitor Islamism in Britain say the big surge in growth of extremist groups came not after 9/11 or Iraq but in the mid-1990s - with Bosnia serving as the recruiting sergeant. In the same period Chechnya, Kosovo and Israel-Palestine all came into play - again predating Iraq.

What it adds up to is a more mixed picture than either Blair or the anti-war movement has allowed. Iraq has played a key part - of course it has - in angering large numbers of young Muslims, pulling them towards an extremist message once confined to the lunatic fringe. But that message is not only about Iraq, Afghanistan or even the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza - and we delude ourselves if we think it is.

It's ultimately not much different than communism or any of the other isms.

Posted by Orrin Judd at July 20, 2005 11:54 PM

Longer, deeper history and more committed adherents than any other ism. It's a religion.

Especially you ought to see that that makes a big difference. You keep saying secularism will self-destruct.

I don't think so, but you cannot very argue that religions self-destruct.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at July 21, 2005 3:52 PM

totalitarian ones do. Totalitarianism doesn't work. You'd think Islamicists would have noted that when they were crafting their ideology in imitation of the other rationalisms, but, heck, I know folks who still think Stalinism works.

Posted by: oj at July 21, 2005 4:42 PM

While it is true that the other -isms, Marxism, Leninism, Nazism, Boxerism, Nipism, etc., were profoundly reactionary, they were no so to the profound extent of Islamacism.

Each of the other reactionary -isms perished to a large extent as a result of its own retrograde contradictions. Islamacism, as the most reactionary of them all, is therefore also the weakest. Stop and think about the fact that their only strengths are our weaknesses. These weaknesses are transient.

Posted by: Lou Gots at July 21, 2005 10:42 PM

Islam is no more totalitarian today than at any time in the past and probably less so.

Yet it's lasted a long time.

Religion really is different from irreligion.

That's why it is (or should be) important to tame it, because you'll never get rid of it.

I have been reading Peter Burke's 'Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe,' which, among other things, traces the survival of pagan religion in Europe into the early modern period.

My earlier summer reading was Laurie Lee's
'Cider with Rosie,' which traces paganism in England up to about 1930.

There is no difference among religions, except that some are more savage than others. It is really surprising how much you guys discount the power of it.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at July 22, 2005 2:38 PM

To the contrary, we expect it to trample the repaganized Europe.

Posted by: oj at July 22, 2005 2:56 PM

Your selected religion hasn't even been able to trample Israel, though not for lack of trying.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at July 22, 2005 6:44 PM

My selected religion is Judeo-Christianity, which Islam will be reformed by, not defeat.

Posted by: oj at July 22, 2005 6:50 PM

The said 'selected' religion birthed Israel. Trampling it would merely have required some benign neglect (at a few critical moments), which did not happen. Outright hostility was shown only by Jimmy Carter, James Baker, Warren Christopher, and Madeline Albright, none of whom lasted very long.

Posted by: jim hamlen at July 22, 2005 10:54 PM