Chris Goodman revisits Waller R. Newell important 2001 article Postmodern Jihad: What Osama bin Laden learned from the Left and looks at from where the Islamists really draw their inspiration
It is noticeable that when followers of Osama bin Laden film themselves cutting off the heads of non-combatants, they seek to extinguish the still small voice of their conscience by shouting out the name of God [‘Allah’]. Either they believe Allah to be Satan or they do not believe that God – in the sense of objective goodness – exists. An act of moral goodness does not require you to blank out your conscience.
You could argue that they exist in such a primitive state of mind that they view the taking of life as worship. Indeed you do not have to go back very far in European history before you find people being burnt as offerings, and it is possible that they view exploding a bomb in a crowded night club, market, or bank as an act of devotion, possible but unlikely.
The people who decided to murder over 3,000 citizens of the world in New York came from the most educated strata of their societies. To seek to comprehend their actions with reference to a medieval religion is to neglect the extent to which they are a product of modernity.
The ideology that motivates the followers of Osama bin Laden is derived more from European Romantic Nihilism than it is in Islamic conceptions of God. I think that Waller R. Newell explains it well in an article that is available on the internet called Post-Modern Jihad: What Osama Bin Laden learnt from the Left which I have just read. Waller R. Newell claims that to understand Osama Bin Laden we ought to remind ourselves of the work of Heidegger, a Nazi who inspired several generations of European leftists. Heidegger is part of a tradition of nihilistic romanticism that can be trace via Nietzsche and Marx and Fichte all the way back to Rousseau. A key theme is the total destruction of existing bourgeois societies and their replacement by a new authentic social order. Heidegger influenced French post-war Left apologists for Stalin and Mao such as Sartre, and via the Algerian writer Frantz Fanon whose book on the Third World The Wretched of the Earth (1961) it influenced Middle Eastern radicals.
Many of the leaders of the Shiite revolution in Iran that deposed the Shah had studied Fanon’s brand of Marxism. The Sorbonne educated Ali Shari’at – who many consider to be the intellectual father of the Shiite revolution – translated “The Wretched of the Earth” and Sartre’s “Being and Nothingness into Persian.” Inspired by Fanon, such figures as Lin Piao, ideologist of the Red Guards in China, and Pol Pot, justified revolution as a therapeutic act by non-Western peoples. Violence exposes the egoism and hedonism of bourgeois societies, and facilitates the creation of a new world based upon collective self-sacrifice. By destroying existing power structures they will regain the dignity lost due to Western oppression and materialism, selfishness, and immorality.
Many elements in the ideology of al Qaeda – see the 1996 Declaration of War Against America by Bin Laden – rely upon the same analysis. While Pol Pot sought to return Cambodia back to Year Zero, Osama bin Laden dreams of returning to the supposed purity of Seventh Century Islam.
Osama bin Laden is poorly educated in Islamic theology. A wealthy playboy in his youth, he fell under the influence of radical Arab intellectuals who blended calls for Marxist revolution with calls for a pure Islamic state. Many, such as Sayyid Qutb in Egypt, a key figure in Islamic fundamentalism, were executed. His followers compared the coming Islamic revolution to the French and Russian revolutions. The influence of Sayyid Qutb‘s Signposts on the Road (1964) is clearly traceable in pronouncements by Islamic Jihad. The tract by Yasser Arafat’s terrorist organization Al Fatah The Revolution and Violence, the Road to Victory has been called “a selective précis of ‘The Wretched of the Earth.’
While Al Fatah still used the language of class struggle, the increasingly radical groups that succeeded it blended Fanon with the revolutionary desire to impose an Islamic social order. While Qutb sought internal revolutions, the focus shifted to attacking the external American ‘hegemony’. “We declare,” says the Shiite terrorist group Hezbollah in its “Open Letter to the Downtrodden in Lebanon and the World” (1985) “that we are a nation that fears only God” and will not accept “humiliation from America and its allies and the Zionist entity that has usurped the sacred Islamic land.”
Waller R. Newell notes that some French intellectuals have been inspired by Islamic terrorists, because they have sought to realise the longed for revolution against American ‘hegemony’. He cites the example of Foucault and Derrida, two leading avatars of post-modernism.
Michael Foucault was sent by the Italian daily Corriere della Sera to observe the Iranian revolution and the rise of the Ayatollah Khomeini. Like Sartre, who had rhapsodized over the Algerian revolution, Foucault was enthralled, pronouncing Khomeini “a kind of mystic saint.” The Frenchman welcomed “Islamic government” as a new form of “political spirituality” that could inspire Western radicals to combat capitalist ‘hegemony’.
For Foucault as for Fanon, Hezbollah, and Osama bin Laden, the purpose of violence is not to relieve poverty or adjust borders. Violence is an end in itself. It is exalted by Foucault as “the craving, the taste, the capacity, the possibility of an absolute sacrifice.”
Derrida reacted to the collapse of the Soviet Union by calling for a “new international.” Whereas the old international was made up of the economically oppressed, a new alliance of “the dispossessed and the marginalized” would unite to combat American led globalization.
Newell notes that Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri in their recent potboiler Empire depict an American dominated global order as the contemporary version of the bourgeoisie, with Islamist terrorism the spearhead of “the post-modern revolution” against “the new imperial order.” Why? Because of “its refusal of modernity as a weapon of Euro-American hegemony.”
What the terrorists have in common with that strand of European nihilism, whose consequences in Europe in the C20th were millions of deaths, is belief in the primacy of the radical will, unrestrained by any existing moral teachings. This is the reason why Al Qaeda finds it easy to ignore the teachings of mainstream Islam, which prohibits the deliberate killing of non-combatants; they not only hate their [former] selves, they not only hate the [contemporary] world, their religion is based upon hatred of God.