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The politics of terrorism-1: The origins of al Qaida

Documentaries, as a rule, do not have actors and fictionalized events. But they are never just a collection of facts. Like feature films, they have a narrative structure imposed on them that tries to select and order the facts into a compelling story. This always opens them to a charge of bias. But good documentaries are more like a well-reasoned argument that does not bury contradictory facts but weighs them in the balance as well.

Last Monday I went to see documentary film The rise of the politics of fear by Britain’s Adam Curtis, which was produced as a three-part series shown by the BBC in 2004. In this and the next post I will describe the message of the documentary, and in the third part I will analyze its strengths and weaknesses.

The documentary itself was fascinating and informative. (See a review of it in the Guardian.) It brought together in a coherent narrative much information that was already available in scattered form. It “connected the dots,” to use a current cliché. Although it was three hours long, it was very entertainingly put together and I did not find the time dragging, so if you get the chance to see it, I would recommend doing so.

The main point of it was that al Qaida has been deliberately overrated as a threat. It said there was little or no evidence that it had any kind of organized structure or sleeper cells worldwide or even a militia. The idea that Osama bin Laden or Ayman al Zawahiri had cadres of militants at the ready to carry out their orders was wrong. It asserted that al Qaida was basically just an idea that had had gained some adherents around the world. As such, believers in its message might carry out attacks but these would be independent of any central command and control structure. bin Laden and his few followers were portrayed as isolated and weak, with only the power to urge others to take action, but not having any actual capabilities themselves. They did not even have the name al Qaida “until early 2001, when the American government decided to prosecute Bin Laden in his absence and had to use anti-Mafia laws that required the existence of a named criminal organisation.” So the US government coined the name al Qaida and bin Laden and his followers adopted that name later.

There is some plausibility to this charge that al Qaida is not a vast organized conspiratorial network. Despite a massive and covert surveillance operation that has violated all kinds of civil liberties that we have taken for granted, it is telling that there have been no convictions of anyone for being part of an al Qaida “sleeper” cell. The few highly publicized arrests that have occurred (like the people in Lackawanna) have had the charges quietly dropped or reduced to insignificance.

So why is al Qaida perceived as such a bogeyman in the US? To answer this question, the documentary narrative traces the history of two parallel ideological movements that grew out of the late 1940s. One was an Islamic puritan movement that allied itself with Islamic fundamentalism. The other was the neoconservative movement in the US that allied itself with Christian fundamentalism. Each needed and used the other in order to grow itself.

al Qaida had its roots in the visit to the US in the period 1948-1950 of Syed Qutb, an Egyptian scholar and theorist who came here to study. What he saw of US culture dismayed him. He saw it as decadent and weak and superficial, and on his return to Egypt he saw that secular Egypt was being infiltrated with these same values from the West and also becoming decadent.

In order to combat this, he joined the Muslim Brotherhood, to create a society based on Islamic values. He felt that Islam provided the framework for creating a humane and just and moral society. But the Egyptian government of Gamal Abdel Nasser was determinedly secular and eventually Qutb was arrested and tortured from 1954-1964 for his political activities. This harsh treatment, rather than taming him, radicalized him even more, convincing him that these kinds of evils were the inevitable consequences of having a secular state, and did not dissuade him from pursuing his goals upon his release. He was soon arrested again and in 1966 was hanged.

The Muslim Brotherhood hoped that the killing of President Sadat in 1981 (who took over as Nasser’s successor following his death in 1970) by army officers who were members of the Muslim Brotherhood would be the spark the revolutionized Egyptian society and incite the people to spontaneously rise and overthrow its secular structure and embrace an Islamic theocratic state. When that did not happen, they decided that the Egyptian people had become hopelessly corrupted and had effectively ceased to be Muslims. Thus ordinary people were also now fair game for attacks. Ayman al Zawahiri, the current close associate of bin Laden, was an Egyptian doctor who was a disciple of Qutb and was arrested briefly as part of the crackdown on those who had killed Sadat. The documentary has dramatic video footage of him defiantly speaking (in English) while under arrest.

While the ideas embraced by the Muslim Brotherhood had some success initially, they were brutally crushed by governments, in Egypt and Algeria especially, and the movement became fragmented and weak. Eventually, people like al Zawahiri and bin Laden ended up in Afghanistan where they became involved in the battle against the occupying army of the Soviet Union. bin Laden was portrayed in the documentary as someone who was welcomed because he had the money to fund groups, but was also portrayed as being used by al Zawahiri, who seems to be the brains and theorist.

The attacks of September 11, 2001 was an effort by them to give the Muslim world a dramatic example of striking at the heart of the West and it was hoped that this would galvanize Muslims around the world to spontaneously rise up and seize their countries from their governments, throw out all western influences, and convert the countries into theocracies. But here too their hopes were dashed, just as they had been for the aftermath of the killing of Sadat.

Tomorrow: The rise of the neoconservative movement in the US as a mirror image of the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood.

POST SCRIPT: The closing of Abu Ghraib

The Daily Show comments on the closing of the torture factory that is Abu Ghraib.

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