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Al Qaeda and ISIS: From Revolution to Apocalypse

Audrey Borowski briefs us on the very different ideologies of two superficially similar terrorist organisations.

The past fifteen years have witnessed the spectacular resurgence of global terrorism, notably under the shape of Al Qaeda, and more recently, the Islamic State. While superficially similar, these two movements diverge radically in their aims and outlooks.

The Redemption Ideology of Al Qaeda

Al Qaeda draws the legitimacy for its attacks from the oppression and humiliation it claims the Ummah (the global Islamic community) is subjected to. It conceives its use of violence primarily as reactive and retributive; as a bid to reclaim humanity for the downtrodden and refound civilisation through sacrificial acts. Its thinking is firmly entrenched in the here and now, operating within globalized modernity, whose codes and concepts it has re-appropriated. The Islamist utopia promoted by established Islamic states has been sidelined in favour of a humanitarian narrative that Al Qaeda has reclaimed for itself. Rather than seeking to overthrow this world, it seeks to transform it from within. To do so Al Qaeda has subverted the West’s human rights discourse, recasting the Ummah as pure and authentic humanity, oppressed and terrorized by an arrogant and inhumane West. For example, in his speeches, Osama Bin Laden often denounced the hypocrisy and double standards perceived to be practiced by the West:

“It is not acceptable in such a struggle as this that he [the Crusader] should attack and enter my land and holy sanctuaries, and plunder Muslims’ oil, and then when he encounters any resistance from Muslims, to label them terrorists.” (‘Depose the Tyrants’, 16 December 2004, Messages to the World: the Statements of Osama Bin Laden).

In its co-opting of human rights and humanitarian narratives, Al Qaeda is holding up a mirror to the West’s hypocrisy and inscribing on the bodies of its victims the West’s failure to live up to its promises. This appears to be more a rallying cry for a counter system than the rebirth of politico-theological aspirations. By claiming to avenge the oppressed and redeem mankind as a whole, Al Qaeda hopes to establish itself as the new global revolutionary vanguard. Traditional leftist anti-imperialism has been recast in Islamist terms. Accordingly, Al Qaeda’s fighters see themselves as wielding the arm of Justice and acting as “the avenger that completes the task of liberation in the name of generations of the downtrodden” as Walter Benjamin wrote in 1940 in his Theses on the Philosophy of History. Ironically, Al Qaeda’s approach often seems consonant with Martin Heidegger’s and Herbert Marcuse’s diagnoses of the loss of authentic humanity in Western society.

In his preface to Franz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth (1961), Jean-Paul Sartre argued that the ‘wretched’ could reclaim their humanity through violence. Through “irrepressible violence” and “mad fury” they would recreate themselves and “become men” anew, he wrote. More recently, in his 2004 memoir Revolutionary Islam, imprisoned terrorist Carlos the Jackal celebrated the rise of a “new category of revolutionaries.” Radical Islam, he said, will help turn the tables on the morally bankrupt West once and for all, and will alone be able to “lead the struggle and deliver humanity from its empire of falsehood” and its “morbid senility”. In this light, terrorism emerges as “a sort of hymn to humanity because it replaces man of skin and blood at the centre of the struggle.” Human bombs surpassed any tract in their ability to shatter the “thick sleep of those obese consciences, slumped in the comfort of the most stupid selfishness.” In the 1970s, the members of the Baader Meinhof gang in Germany had also hoped to “throw bombs in the consciousness” of one-dimensional man, so as to wrest him from his apathy and alienation.

Within this violent globally redemptive framework, Jihad (Defence of the Faith) has been configured as the quintessential ethical practice, each act of terror acquiring a sacred dimension, as resistance to evil. Indeed, the terrorists no longer necessarily see themselves as acting in the name of a specific religion, but as performing sacrifices in an attempt to redeem humanity. Thus, Al Qaeda is driven less by religious claims or by an overarching metaphysical ideology than by a doctrine of reciprocity, in which mankind will finally be ‘equalized’ and unified. Bin Laden’s speeches were often imbued with a rhetoric of such reciprocity:

“In what creed are your dead considered innocent but ours worthless? By what logic does your blood count as real and ours as no more than water? Reciprocal treatment is part of justice, and he who commences hostilities is the unjust one.”
(‘To the Peoples of Europe’, 15 April 2004, Messages to the World.)

The tone of reproach cannot fail to resonate with Shylock’s famous soliloquy in Act III, scene I of Merchant of Venice:

“If you prick us, do we not bleed?
If you tickle us, do we not laugh?
If you poison us, do we not die?
And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?”

This rhetoric dictates the need for a response from the oppressed, binding oppressor and victim together in a perverse form of brotherhood. As Faisal Devji writes in his book Landscapes of the Jihad (2005), within this rhetoric of intimacy and reciprocity, both foe and victim “coalesce in a community of martyrdom” (p.96). Furthermore, for Al Qaeda, “martyrdom neither represents an idea nor is it in any way instrumental, but constitutes rather the moment of absolute humanity, responsibility and freedom as a self-contained act shorn of all teleology” (p.120). So martyrdom here becomes an end-in-itself.

Apocalypse Now and Then

Reconquest of Andalucia
Christians and Muslims battle for Andalusia

ISIS [also known as Islamic State, ISIL, and Daesh] presents us with a somewhat different, apocalyptical, narrative.

The concept of apocalypse is nothing new in Islam. Indeed, one of the Prophet Muhammad’s earliest hadith (sayings) locates the fateful showdown between Christians and Muslims that heralds the apocalypse in the city of Dabiq in Syria, “The Hour will not be established until the Romans [Christians] land at Dabiq,” the hadith says. “Then an army from Medina of the best people on the earth at that time will leave for them… So they will fight them. Then one third of [the fighters] will flee; Allah will never forgive them. One third will be killed; they will be the best martyrs with Allah. And one third will conquer them; they will never be afflicted with sorrow. Then they will conquer Constantinople.”

From street bookstalls, to luxury malls in the Gulf, apocalyptic literature has enjoyed a long-standing popularity in the Arab world. It freely incorporates non-Islamic elements from a broad array of sources, ranging from Christian evangelical views of Armageddon, to UFOs, the Bermuda triangle, Nostradamus, and even the Ninja Turtles. As Jean-Pierre Filiu has pointedly remarked in Apocalypse in Islam (2012), in contexts of crisis and decline, the apocalyptic narrative delivers a “paranoid vision of the world where Islam’s enduring weakness becomes the sure sign of its ultimate triumph.”

Although the apocalyptic dimension is firmly rooted in Islamic tradition, it has also been reformulated over time, acquiring a particular sense of urgency at critical historical junctures, including the Christian reconquest of Andalusia (to 14th Century), the Crusades in the Levant (11th-13th Centuries), and the Mongol invasions in Central Asia (13th Century). The concept has recently undergone a spectacular efflorescence in the wake of September 11th, the US invasion of Iraq, and the Arab Spring, with its attendant political vacuum: the ‘Signs of the Hour’ have multiplied, each bringing us one step closer to the moment of ultimate revelation. The Islamic State movement has thus arisen out of a particular set of historical circumstances, capitalizing on these apocalyptic expectations for its growth and expansion. In this sense, it evinces more subtlety than the mere resumption of a reactionary medievalism. It has also ushered in a particularly harsh reinterpretation of the religious corpus, one which explicitly embraces extreme barbarity, even making a few contributions of its own, including an obligation to emigrate to the Caliphate, the excommunication of those Muslims who refuse to pledge allegiance to the movement, the adoption of an uncompromising attitude towards Shia, and the restoration of the sexual trade of women.

The Blood of Martyrs, and of Their Victims

While Al Qaeda operates through a geographically diffuse network of autonomous cells, ISIS is dedicated to bringing about God’s government on Earth under the guise of a Caliphate, or Holy Empire. In her poems, the poet Ahlam al-Nasr frequently embroiders on the theme of an Islamist utopia, often depicting the Islamic State as an island of unadulterated purity amidst a sea of falsehood and corruption, which she heralds as a place of new beginnings:

Ask Mosul, city of Islam, about the lions –
how their fierce struggle brought liberation.
The land of glory has shed its humiliation and defeat
and put on the raiment of splendour.

Jihad is here placed in the service of the triumphant vision of a new Islamic dawn, which will ultimately prevail over the unbelievers:

My nation, dawn has arrived, await the clear victory.
The Islamic State has risen by the blood of the righteous,
The Islamic State has risen by the jihad of the virtuous,
Those who truly sacrificed their lives, with steadfastness and utter faith,
To instate the faith in which the Sharia of the Lord of the Worlds shall prevail.
My nation, take heart, do not despair. Victory is nigh,
The Islamic State has risen, wondrous glory has appeared.
It has risen and it is penning its glory. The era of decline has ended,
With loyal men who do not fear war,
Who have forged an eternal glory that shall not end or fade.
My nation, Allah is our Lord, so give of your blood.
Victory shall not be regained but through the blood of the martyrs,
Those who have gained [martyrdom], asking their Lord to attain the Hall of the Prophets…
…We marched en masse to exalt the ancient glory,
To bring back light, faith and lofty honour,
With men who renounced life but gained eternal life,
While reviving the nation of glories and certain victory.

In this light, ISIS militants view their endeavour as an attempt to resurrect a Golden Age. So with Islamic State, Al Qaeda’s rallying cry of global dissent has mutated into a political theology holding out the promise of a return to what is essentially – and ironically – an invented past. The language of intimacy, equivalence and reciprocity of Al Qaeda’s narrative has given way to overt aggression (in his May 2015 sermon ‘March Forth Whether Heavy or Light’, ISIS leader Al Baghdadi left no doubt about his view that “Islam was never a religion of peace. Islam is the religion of fighting.”); unity to conflict; powerlessness to conquest; transformation to annihilation; revolution to apocalypse. Violence no longer serves a sacrificial, redemptive aim, but a purifying one, bent ultimately on precipitating a cosmic struggle and the End of Times. The ideology has thus morphed into a perverse celebration of nihilism, often exalting the most barbaric excesses. The militants revel in the radical banalization of what their audiences hold as most abhorrent: on social media feeds, decapitated heads are casually juxtaposed with pictures of kittens, and of selfies with freshly baked cakes. Beyond shock value, this makes for an unsettling confusion of genres, further blurring the distinction between reality and fantasy, and between barbarity and comedy. Savagery is meted out almost mechanically in its fulfilment of a historical law that steamrolls everything in its trail. Chillingly, this nihilistic impulse – this desire to make a blank slate of humanity’s past – is underscored by little more than a superficial and self-referential jargon of sincerity. It is the incarnation of an intellectual wasteland lacking any ideological depth or conceptual heritage. Beneath its saturation of the media with executions lies surprisingly little intellectual inquiry. While Al Qaeda militants self-professedly seek to uphold humanity, Islamic State militants seem to have relinquished theirs, turning instead into dead-eyed automata churning out slogans.

Modernist Myth-Making

The curious and rather unsettling admixture of atavism and modernity emblematic of the Islamic State movement is not a new phenomenon. In the Twenties, German thinker Ernst Cassirer had already addressed the central cultural paradox of our time: that mythology can take root at the heart of modernity. In his book, The Myth of the State (1946), notably in the section entitled ‘The Technique of the Modern Political Myth’, he elaborated on the rational and technological manufacture of myth. The new political myths, Cassirer explained, “do not grow up freely; they are not wild fruits of an exuberant imagination. They are artificial things fabricated by very skilful and cunning artisans.” Henceforth myths could be “manufactured in the same sense and according to the same methods as any other modern weapon – as machine guns or airplanes.” The modern political leader served as “the priest of a new, entirely irrational and mysterious religion; on the other hand, when he has to defend and propagate this religion, he proceeds very methodically” (pp.281-282).

In this light, the Islamic State’s self-myth-making, its drive towards ‘sincerity’ and ‘transparency’, its obsession with falsehood and hypocrisy, as well as its attendant practices of public unmasking, cannot fail to evoke totalitarianism. In The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), Hannah Arendt elaborated on the particular type of totalitarian methodology that has in fact been adopted by ISIS: “It is quite prepared to sacrifice everybody’s vital immediate interests to the execution of what it assumes to be the law of History or the law of Nature. Its defiance of positive laws claims to be a higher form of legitimacy… Totalitarian lawfulness pretends to have found a way to establish the rule of justice on earth – something which the legality of positive law could never attain” (p.160).

Summarising the Narratives

Both Al Qaeda and the Islamic State are reconstructed forms of Islam, marking radical ruptures from the past, stripped of cultural referents, and divorced from traditional institutions and hierarchies. Both are technologically and media savvy. However, neither’s narrative is the outcome of elaborate and meticulous deliberations: both can be whittled down to a few catchy straplines and symbolic gestures which can be adhered to instantaneously from behind a computer screen, and which promise leading roles to wannabe new age romantic heroes – a blend of Islamic fundamentalism, Nike and Twitter. The high number of converts these movements attract is particularly illuminating in this regard.

Crucially, both narratives seek to reconnect with a more ‘authentic’ way of life, and to reassert human agency and meaning in an increasingly fleeting and meaningless world. In this sense, either version is symptomatic of a broader civilizational existential and metaphysical malaise, in which much of the world seems currently stuck.

© Audrey Borowski 2015

After graduating from Oxford University with an MSt in Islamic Studies, Audrey Borowski is now doing a PhD in the History of Ideas at the University of London.

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