Can You Do Business with Al Qaeda Terrorists?
Mr. Livingston teaches at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey. The arguments of this piece are drawn from his new book, The World Turned Inside Out: American Thought and Culture at the End of the 20th Century (Rowman & LIttlefield, 2009). Next year he will be a fellow at the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers of the New York Public Library, working on a biography of Horace Kallen.
The terrorists of the very late-20th century were quite different from their predecessors among, say, the Irgun, the Zionist group led by Menachim Begin in the 1940s, or its mirror image, the Palestine Liberation Organization, led by Yasir Arafat from the 1960s until his death in 2004. Both of these groups targeted civilians in the hope of removing them and their armed representatives from territory they claimed as their ancestral homeland. Even so, neither would have considered, let alone undertaken, the annihilation of an entire city by means of chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons. The new terrorist movements of the very late-20th century did consider such a project. That is the big difference between, say, the Irish Republican Army and al Qaeda—the latter, for example, killed almost as many innocent civilians in one day, September 11, 2001, as the IRA had in thirty years of trying.
Philip Bobbitt, the most important contemporary analyst of terrorism, illustrates the difference with a hypothetical scenario comparing the IRA, the PLO, and al Qaeda. “Fearing popular revulsion, international disapproval, local repression, and threats to their own cohesion, and facing active dissuasion by those states that monopolized WMD even when they were willing to arm terrorists with other weapons, [the IRA and the PLO] turned away from such acquisitions If someone had said to either Gerry Adams or Yasir Arafat, ‘I can get you a ten-kiloton nuclear weapon,’ one can imagine the reaction. A cautious gasp, a quick turning away—reflecting the apprehension that one has met an agent provocateur. But suppose such an offer were made to bin Laden? He would say, ‘What will it cost?’ ”
The difference of scale between the old and the new terrorism is often explained by the ideological cohesion of the latter—the order-of-magnitude increase in the carnage caused by terrorist groups is an index of their religious intensity, many analysts say. They typically go on to say that this intensity magnifies an anti-Western, post-liberal attitude toward the evidence of modernity. The special contribution of al Qaeda, in these terms, has been its graft of a renewed Islamic doctrine, on the one hand, and a variety of political grievances already forged by Muslims’ resistance to western imperialism—by Afghans, Iranians, Lebanese, and Palestinians—on the other.
Western observers often complain that Muslims never experienced a Reformation akin to the European upheaval that produced a separation of church and state, and so allowed the emergence of political movements that required no religious support or justification. What these observers forget is that neither Luther nor Calvin, the Reformation’s founding fathers, favored such a separation: the statutory distance between the sacred and the secular took three centuries to establish, and its measurement still changes as the result of political debate and judicial review. The intellectual renewal of Islam in the late-20th century through the restatement and revision of original texts—particularly but not only the Koran—has, in fact, amounted to a reformation, but, like the Christian precursor, it reinstates the refusal of a separation between holy writ and statutory law. Its inventors have insisted that the rules and prohibitions we can derive from the Koran (and of course from its acknowledged antecedents in the Old and New Testament) are sufficient to the demands of modern governance.
Now we may ridicule this position as an anti-modern deviation from the secular example of the West. We may want, accordingly, to prescribe more economic development as the treatment needed to wake these backward fundamentalists from their benighted dream of a global Caliphate ruled from Mecca. But look more closely. There is nothing notably anti-modern about either the religious fervor that would reintegrate the sacred and the secular—transcendent truth and mundane reality—or the political opposition to the liberal distinction between state and society. Indeed all the successful revolutionary movements of the 20th century, which occasionally used terrorism as an adjunct to their guerilla wars, tried to dismantle this liberal distinction, on the grounds that it no longer made a difference. These movements, from fascism to communism, were uniformly anti-capitalist and anti-liberal, but they were also committed to the most strenuous versions of industrialized modernity. So we can say that the intellectual renewal of Islam carried out by the spiritual leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1950s (among them, Sayyid Qutb) and appropriated by al Qaeda in the 1990s does urge the erasure of the liberal distinction between state and society; but we should not conclude—as do Paul Berman from the Left and Norman Podhoretz from the Right—that this urge is the symptom of a nihilist sensibility which requires the obliteration of western civilization.
If we do reach that conclusion, we will continue to mistake a post-liberal doctrine for an anti-modern ideology, and we will, as a result, continue to ignore the specific political grievances al Qaeda files on behalf of Muslims everywhere. We will continue, accordingly, to say that “they [the terrorists] hate us not because of what we do, but for the way we live,” or that they are the moral equivalent of the Nazis. President Bush put it this way nine days after the towers fell: “They’re the heirs of all the murderous ideologies of the 20th century. By sacrificing human life to serve their radical visions, by abandoning every value except the will to power, they follow in the path of fascism, Nazism, and totalitarianism.” Thus we will understand that there can be no political discussion or compromise with such brutes—we will realize that we must wage a borderless, endless “war on terror,” with all that implies for the militarization of US foreign policy as such.
Bush and the liberal intellectuals who gathered under the banner of a “war on terror” were emphatic in claiming that the enemy has no political agenda except a “cult of death and irrationality” which somehow entails the end of the world as we know it. Here is Bush on October 6, 2005: “In fact, we’re not facing a set of grievances that can be soothed [sic] and addressed. We’re facing a radical ideology with unalterable objectives: to enslave whole nations and intimidate the world. No act of ours invited the rage of the killers—and no concession, bribe or act of appeasement would change or limit their plans for murder.” Here is Berman at an even more delirious, and incomprehensible, pitch of prophetic dread, in Terror and Liberalism (2003): “The successes of the Islamist revolution were going to take place on the plane of the dead, or nowhere. Lived experience pronounced that sentence on the Islamist revolution—the lived experience of Europe, where each of the totalitarian movements [fascism and communism] proposed a total renovation of life, and each was driven to create the total renovation in death.”
But in fact, al Qaeda, like every other terrorist movement before it, has a legible political agenda that flows directly from its specific grievances against the West—especially against the US, the exemplar of western, liberal, imperialist capitalism. To be sure, this agenda is often animated by the religious vernacular that shapes public discourse in Muslim countries; but in essence it is a set of political goals which has little room for the imagery of Armageddon. Osama bin Laden insisted in 2003, for example, that the American way of life was neither his.personal concern nor the object of Islamic jihad: “their leader, who is a fool whom all obey, was claiming that we were jealous of their way of life, while the truth—which the Pharaoh of our generation conceals—is that we strike at them because of the way they oppress us in the Muslim world, especially in Palestine and Iraq.” Before and after the US invasion of Iraq, moreover, he consistently listed three examples of such “oppression”: the American military presence in the Arabian Peninsula; the US-sponsored economic sanctions imposed by the UN on Iraq after the first Gulf War (which, according to a UNICEF report, killed 500,000 Iraqi children under the age of five between 1991 and 1998); and the unwavering American support for Israel during its ill-fated invasion of Lebanon and during its ongoing settlement of Palestinian territory.
Now we may say that each of these three strategic positions was, or is, an important element in the national security of the United States, and with it the global order over which it presides. But in doing so, we must understand that none is a permanent or even long-standing fixture of US foreign policy—for all date from the very late 20th century (the consummation and militarization of the US-Israel relation, for example, dates from Reagan’s second term). We must also understand that each was, and is, a matter of choice by policy-makers; alternatives to all three positions were, and are, presumably available, especially in view of the Soviet Union’s defeat in Afghanistan and its subsequent dissolution, both of which reduced Russian power in the Middle East. Finally, we must understand that the adoption of alternatives to these strategic positions does not entail any disruption in the American way of life.
So, regardless of what we think about, say, Israel’s treatment of Palestinian claims—whether we think it is just or unjust—we can acknowledge that what we do (and support) in the Muslim precincts of the Middle East is far more significant than the way we live in North America. By the same token, we can acknowledge that what we do in that world elsewhere is subject to reconsideration and revision. Once we have made these acknowledgments, we can see that our approach to al Qaeda and related threats need not take the form of a borderless, endless “war on terror.” We can see that this approach might well take the form of diplomacy, perhaps even changes in US strategic positions. At least we can conclude that the militarization of American foreign policy is not the inevitable result of the terrorist threat to peaceful economic development on a global scale.
To boil this conclusion down to its essentials, let us ask an impertinent question. What if it had informed the US response to the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon? What if the story told soon after 9/11 had portrayed these men as rationally using the principal weapon of the weak in seeking to redress specific political grievances and to change recent American foreign policy? Clearly, war would not have been the only actionable answer, the only conceivable consequence. Changes in the relevant strategic positions would not necessarily have been the appropriate response, either. But we would have known that the American way of life was not at stake in responding to the attacks of 9/11, that maintaining the distinction between law and strategy was necessary, and that bargaining with the enemy was therefore possible. The consequence of this narrative, this knowledge, would be a very different world than the one we now inhabit; at any rate we can be sure that it would not be on a permanent war footing, and that the Middle East would not still be the site of desperate armed struggle.
But it is notoriously difficult to prove a negative—that is why historians are not supposed to ask “what if” questions. Fortunately, there is another way to prove that, if our purpose is to explain, address, and contain the new terrorism, war is not the answer. It takes us to Iraq in the fourth year of the American-led invasion, when the so-called surge placed 30,000 additional troops in Baghdad. On the face of it the “surge” of 2007 was a military solution to a military problem, the lack of security. And on the face of it, the “surge” worked by reducing violence and improving security. In these terms, war was the answer to the rise of terrorist movements of resistance in Iraq, particularly Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia. But in fact, the so-called surge did not work as a military solution. It worked instead as a counter-terrorist strategy that acknowledged the primacy, and the legitimacy, of specific political grievances (most of which pertained to perceived inequities of proportionate power within postwar Iraq), and that accorded Iran significant influence over Shi’ite militias in Baghdad.
In sum, a war of position worked where a war of maneuver had failed. Or rather, war as such was not the answer in stabilizing Iraq, or, in a larger sense, when fighting terrorism. The militarization of US foreign policy is not, then, the inevitable result of containing the new terrorism.
comments powered by Disqus
omar ibrahim baker - 4/4/2009
To the best of my knowledge the seemingly endless US (standing for the West)/Arab-Moslem confrontation that sporadically erupts unto open violent acts of hostility and threatens worse to come was seldom, if ever, as well diagnosed and defined here at HNN as Professor Livingston did with this remarkably erudite, pro America and prejudices free article .
The patently ridiculous, BUT alarmingly quite well spread, perception of Islamism as coveting global domination by an Islamist Caliphate has been quite often discounted by the more reasonable of Western politicians and public opinion makers and is on the wane particularly in Europe!.
However what the West, particularly the USA, still fails to perceive is that at the bottom of this conflict lays several substantial grievances that if equitably resolved will inevitably lead to the end of that conflict and the virtual disappearance of present or future lunatic fringe organizations heralding endless/eternal confrontation.
I can NOT put it better than Professor Livingston did :
"But in fact, al Qaeda, like every other terrorist movement before it, has a legible political agenda that flows directly from its specific grievances against the West—especially against the US, the exemplar of western, liberal, imperialist capitalism. To be sure, this agenda is often animated by the religious vernacular that shapes public discourse in Muslim countries; but in essence it is a set of political goals which has little room for the imagery of Armageddon. Osama bin Laden insisted in 2003, for example, that the American way of life was neither his.personal concern nor the object of Islamic jihad: “their leader, who is a fool whom all obey, was claiming that we were jealous of their way of life, while the truth—which the Pharaoh of our generation conceals—is that we strike at them because of the way they oppress us in the Muslim world, especially in Palestine and Iraq.” Before and after the US invasion of Iraq, moreover, he consistently listed three examples of such “oppression”: the American military presence in the Arabian Peninsula; the US-sponsored economic sanctions imposed by the UN on Iraq after the first Gulf War (which, according to a UNICEF report, killed 500,000 Iraqi children under the age of five between 1991 and 1998); and the unwavering American support for Israel during its ill-fated invasion of Lebanon and during its ongoing settlement of Palestinian territory.
Now we may say that each of these three strategic positions was, or is, an important element in the national security of the United States, and with it the global order over which it presides. But in doing so, we must understand that none is a permanent or even long-standing fixture of US foreign policy—for all date from the very late 20th century (the consummation and militarization of the US-Israel relation, for example, dates from Reagan’s second term). We must also understand that each was, and is, a matter of choice by policy-makers; alternatives to all three positions were, and are, presumably available, especially in view of the Soviet Union’s defeat in Afghanistan and its subsequent dissolution, both of which reduced Russian power in the Middle East. Finally, we must understand that the adoption of alternatives to these strategic positions does not entail any disruption in the American way of life.”
Out of the three major grievances adopted by al Qaeda, which for once in this particular instance al Qaeda DOES reflect a quasi majoritarian general Arab /Moslem attitude, two: American military presence in the Arabian Peninsula and the conquest and occupation Of Iraq seem to be reasonably “resolvable “ within a reasonable time frame.
Despite the patent fact that the latter, the Iraq conquest issue , will have grievous far reaching geopolitical consequences for the region and the USA mainly with the US enabled Iranian entry into Iraq and immense Iraqi internal problems for Iraq; despite that fact it is one issue in which what was DONE cannot be easily UNDONE and the USA via its withdrawal from Iraq will be heading in the right direction if it, contrary to earlier declared intentions, it abandons totally all plans and designs of permanent military bases in Iraq.
That would leave the Arab/Israeli-American conflict as the long standing and ever festering issue.
USA semi declared but irrefutably de facto total identification , verging on subservience, with Israeli, and by extension Zionist, plans is, though a very grave internal American problem that should be resolved internally before it makes its mark on all American internal and external policies , as it is bound to if not unmistakably forcefully restrained, is the area where the USA can unilaterally take the initiatives and undertake the changes in its ME policy that would bring to a substantial end the seemingly endless and ever worsening Arab/Moslem –American relations that gave birth, more than any other single factor, to al Qaeda in the first place.
Raul A Garcia - 4/3/2009
Bin Laden I believe, is a Yemeni. What is hardly ever discussed is the debate withing the Arab and non-Arab Muslim countries, regarding the role of Al Qaeda and its visions as it relates to the different polities. The various Middle Eastern countries are too often fused together in a simplistic analysis. However much there is a concordance among Muslims there is a real spectrum of views about the state and religion. I would like to read more by different non-western authors about their auto-analyses on their own cultures and politics. This does not get fair play in the West.
N. Friedman - 4/2/2009
Professor Livingston can read what he wants. On the other hand, if anyone opines on a subject and ignores entirely an important source of information, that person is open to rational criticism.
N. Friedman - 4/2/2009
You have not addressed my comment. Instead, you have called me names. That is pretty pathetic of you.
omar ibrahim baker - 4/1/2009
Your immunity to anything but your biases, total resistance to open mindedness and singular devotion to your own pathologically overriding aggressive and usurping racism, Zionism, never fail to elicit a typical reflexive and subconscious rejection to and of any attempt to see things in any other light than your own .
That I have come to expect from you and side kick.
No explanation or justification is called for nor will be worthy of consideration coming from such a source.
omar ibrahim baker - 4/1/2009
The multi awarded Professor is the self appointed, and Friedman supported, final arbitrator of what any writer should read before putting pen to paper.
Failing to read his “must read" list automatically downgrades any writer's effort.
The inescapable corollary: an inevitable, and soon to come, list of "must NOT read" would , so to speak, complete the "Must read and MUST not read" epistle from the final arbiter of scholarship .
The good news is that epistle will constrain itself to matters relating to Islam, Arabs and Zionism.
Another award in the offing??
N. Friedman - 4/1/2009
My problem with Mr. Livingston's article is that it does not address well-known (at least at this point) evidence that contradicts his theory. And, in particular, Raymond Ibrahim's book, The Al-Qaeda Reader, is a collection of translated documents by radical Islamists (e.g. by Ayman al-Zawahiri) - documents that he uncovered and that were not otherwise generally known, if known at all, to scholars in the field. That means that Ibrahim's documents are invaluable - whether one agrees with his interpretation of them or not - to understanding what the radical Islamists are about.
One might, after read Mr. Ibrahim's book, reach the conclusion that he places too much emphasis on what radical Islamist write when they write to each other. After all, such writing might be propaganda to people who already know what the grievances all are and thus do not need to be reminded of them - but, instead, to be reminded about Islam's meaning and a Muslim's obligations (as understood by the radicals). But, to ignore such first hand evidence entirely - evidence central to the argument against there being only finite grievances - is a serious blunder, in my humble view.
So, you may not like our skepticism about Professor Livingston's article, but, speaking for myself, I think that such skepticism has good reason.
omar ibrahim baker - 4/1/2009
An exceptionally open minded review of Islamist political movements going, to make its point, to the most extreme among it: Al Qaeda.
An extremely important point, and truly decisive for future Moslem American relations is also made here by the author.
HIS point is NOT explicitly stated though strongly implied: that neither “reformation” nor "modernity" in Islamist thinking, need be according to Western models, as in western historical precedents, to amount to genuine “reformation” and “modernity”.
(That is not particular to Islamism for, in a way, it also reflects the political divide separating the USA from, say, China.)
The underlying thought forming divide between the West, as flagrantly impersonated by the USA, and the rest is the outgrowth of two perceptions, of unequal weight, of world affairs:
-The primary perceptions is that non Western nations believe that they can develop from within their own cultural heritages “models” for progress that will include both “reformation” and “modernity” that would not only suit them better but will actually be, or at least can be, if not the equal then the better than Western models.
Another cause, though less far reaching is that:
-In more ways than one Western models can not fail but reflect the West’s colonialist and imperialist legacy and the generally held belief that the West’s overriding objective is to resume its plunder of others by camouflaging intrinsic elements of both its colonialist and imperialist tendencies in the form of the models it advocates and the means to attain them.
(Here the US conquest and destruction of Iraq stands as an irrefutable demonstration/corroboration of the truth of that belief.)
Professor Livingston ultimate message here , as I understand it from this short but pith full article, is to try to make the West understand others, taking the Islamists as the case for his study, as they perceive themselves to be and as they truly are and not as filtered through its own Western standards , models, biases, prejudices and interests.
His ulterior objective is an inter cultural rapprochement leading to better mutual understanding and appreciation .
That call and advocacy, is bound to raise the rage of all movements, nations, ideologies living , with some thriving, on the absence of such an inter cultural rapprochement leading to better mutual understanding.
Foremost among these are disciples of neo-conservatism, the modern heir to imperialism and of Zionism: the outstanding manifestation of contemporary colonialism.
Hence the annoyance and patent frustrations of the Friedmans and Ecksteins of this blog.
art eckstein - 4/1/2009
Are you actually saying that you did NOT read "The Al-Qaeda Reader" before writing this article?
N. Friedman - 3/31/2009
What I am saying is that you are confusing propaganda directed at the West for what Islamist radicals really seek to do.
In my humble view, the issue with the Islamists is not one so much of grievances but, instead, of seeking to advance an anachronistic agenda to remake Muslim lands into a world-dominating theocracy and to expand the geographical scope of that powerful theocracy as far as is practically possible.
Their agenda arises from the conditions of their upbringing, where they are taught that Muslims, not secular Westerners, ought to control the fate of the world. Rather than Muslims controlling the world, they, to borrow a word used by Iranian mullahs - a different group of Islamist radicals, to be sure -, see their own societies suffering from "Westoxification." By contrast, in their idea of a just universe, things should be the other way around, with Muslims dominating all - Islam über alles.
James Livingston - 3/31/2009
All knowledge is incomplete. Our reading is never done. What else is new? If you're trying to say I'm wrong and you're right, go ahead, but don't fall back on this kind of silliness. The quantity of the data, or the length of the reading list, has nothing to do with the cogency of the argument.
N. Friedman - 3/30/2009
I would urge Professor Livingston to read Raymond Ibrahim's book, The Al-Qaeda Reader. The Islamist radicals say one thing to the West and very different things to their fellow Muslims. They raise different issues and different grievances.
Which is to say, I think the author should do some more reading before he posts opinions based on very incomplete knowledge.
- New Hampshire professors at odds with library over discarded books
- Troubled history fuels Japan-China tension
- Independent Scotland's last gasp forgotten in Panama jungle
- LBJ was the ‘most-threatened president in American history’
- New exhibit at the World War I Museum ... Over by Christmas: August-December 1914
- Ken Burns on Colbert to promote his new documentary, "The Address"
- UC Santa Barbara History Department featuring a series on the Great Society at 50
- Historians are trying to recover censored texts from World War I poets
- Diane Ravitch blasts the NYT for failing to understand the controversy over Common Core
- Mormon history professors debate atheists in bid to foster greater understanding