PR 1/ 2002       VOLUME LXIX   NUMBER 1  
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Book Review

Jeffrey Herf

What is Old and What is New in the Terrorism of Islamic Fundamentalism?

Mass murder inspired by Islamic fundamentalism and fanaticism differs from the secular totalitarian ideologies and regimes of Europe’s twentieth century: fascism and Nazism, on the one hand, and Communism, especially in the Stalin era, on the other. Like the twentieth-century totalitarians, today’s Islamic fundamentalist fanatics are convinced that they possess absolute Truth which is immune to refutation or criticism; they despise Western modernity yet borrow its technological accomplishments in an effort to destroy it. They believe that force and terror are necessary to establish a utopia in place of the current decadent and corrupt world; and they explain history on the basis of a conspiratorial construct in which the United States, more than "international Jewry" or global capitalism, plays the central role.

Unlike the followers of the past century’s secular religions, today’s terrorists draw inspiration from an apocalyptic vision rooted in religious radicalism. Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda emerge in a global political culture in which elements of Leftist anti-globalization discourse and reruns of fascist and Nazi visions of Jewish conspiracies merge with religious passions. Because al Qaeda knows how to speak the language of leftist anti-imperialism of the past century, it suggests a mood that overlaps with secular Third-World radicalism. Yet in crucial matters, such as its view of death and suicide and its stance on rationality, it appears closer to the fascist and Nazi philosophy than to the Communist past. The stand-off with Soviet Communism could end with its peaceful implosion; as was the case with fascism and Nazism, the only way the threat of terrorism inspired by radical Islam can end is through its military defeat.

By terrorism, I mean the intentional murder or attempted murder of any person, civilian or military, man, woman, or child, old or young, who is not engaged in military combat. Civilian deaths caused by stray bombs and missiles or preemptive killings of those who are actively engaged in acts of terror, neither of which intentionally target the innocent, are not acts of terrorism in this sense. In the modern European context terrorism is rooted both in the Jacobin and Communist traditions, on the one hand, and in the fascist and Nazi movements and regimes, on the other. At all times and in all places in modern European history, terrorism’s many targets have always included a frontal attack on the institutions and principles of liberal democracy–which rests on the principle that all conflicts should be resolved by discussion, debate, and compromise. Terrorists, however, believe they are in possession of absolute Truths, and thus have the right and obligation to kill those who disagree and who stand in their way. In every instance, terrorists are persons with an ideological rationale that facilitates murdering the innocent with a clean conscience fueled by self-righteous indignation. In many cases their targets have been political leaders who sought compromise or nonviolent solutions to complex problems.

The emergence of terrorism during the French Revolution represented a regression to the normal practice of war during the wars of religion in the seventeenth century. During the Thirty Years War, Europeans did not distinguish between combatants and civilians but between believers and apostates, Protestants and Catholics. The resulting devastation led to efforts to codify rules of war that would establish such distinctions, put limits on war and political violence, and establish in the Treaty of Westphalia of 1648 the principle that peace required toleration of differing religious beliefs. The American Constitution rests in part on the bitter European recognition that civil peace required the separation of religion from the state. By inventing the new category of "enemy of the people" during the French revolution, the Jacobins again blurred the distinction of combatant and noncombatant and gave renewed justification to murder as a political weapon. Since the Jacobins, terror remained an important component of European history when Left/Right and nationalist tensions reached a boiling point.

Terrorism in modern Europe has been the practice of those who believe that reform and diplomacy are undesirable. As Georges Sorel argued in his Reflections on Violence (a work that influenced the subsequent apostle of the virtues of violence, Frantz Fanon), violence has an extra-political dimension in supposedly invigorating otherwise sleeping oppressed classes and in shattering the complacency of bourgeois society. Apologists for terrorism suggest that it is the result of conditions of social injustice. Violence in the Sorelian tradition is a response to the growing success of working-class integration in Europe and the popularity of peaceful reformism as opposed to revolutionary sentiment within the working classes. Terrorists have repeatedly attacked those who seek to find negotiated and non-catastrophic solutions to difficult problems. The assassination of the Austrian Archduke Ferdinand in June 1914 by the Serbian terrorist Gavrillo Prinzip, which was the immediate but not deeper cause of World War I, illustrates this enduring feature of terrorism. Ferdinand was among those in the Hapsburg empire who sought a negotiated solution to the dilemma of nationalism within a multinational empire. Hence, it was key to murder him to rule out all but the most radical possibilities.

Probably the single most consequential assassination of recent history was the murder of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin by a right-wing Israeli religious fundamentalist. Rabin’s murder, as well as the earlier murder of Anwar Sadat by precursors of the al Qaeda terrorists in Egypt, illustrate that the terrorist’s traditional preference for apocalypse and destruction in place of diplomacy, compromise, and reform has become a sad fixture in the Middle East as well. Through the delivery of violent and apocalyptic shocks to the world of reason and discussion, terrorists hope that it will retaliate in new waves of repression and/or simply collapse under the weight of tragedy. Should it strike out in rage, as the Austrians did in August 1914, the repression will, the terrorists hope, radicalize the masses, leading to further war and violence and the eventual overthrow of the existing order. In Western Europe and Japan in the 1970s and 1980s this terrorist tradition continued in the hopes that by revealing the "fascist" core behind the "illusions" of liberal democracy, a revolutionary apocalypse would ensue.

Terrorism’s murderous hostility to reform must be kept in mind to understand the atrocities of September 11, 2001. Like the murderers of Sadat and Rabin, the al Qaeda planners, following the policies of their counterparts in Hamas and Hezbollah, began their planning in the period in which the Labor government of Ehud Barak in Israel was making unprecedented offers of a Palestinian state to Arafat’s PLO in the context of the Oslo Peace process. A negotiated settlement to the Israeli—Palestinian conflict would have been a devastating blow to Islamic fundamentalists. It would lend Arab legitimacy to the very existence of the Jewish state in the Middle East, something which Islamic fundamentalists find intolerable. Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda propagandists claim that Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza are one source of the attacks of September 11th. Yet, like European and Middle Eastern predecessors, bin Laden and al Qaeda launched the attacks to further undermine any efforts at a negotiated peace in the Israeli—Palestinian conflict.

Another possible political rationale recalls the apocalyptic scenarios which Sorel envisaged and links the mass murder of September 11th to past terrorist practices. It is the hope that the United States would treat this indeed as a "clash of civilizations," denounce Islam in general, launch indiscriminate attacks on Arab populations, and thus generate a massive Islamic uprising in nuclear-armed Pakistan and in oil-rich Saudi Arabia. Then, with oil, nuclear arms, and ideological fanaticism, Islamic radicalism could finally emerge as a major player on the world stage to challenge and then attack the "Great Satan," the United States. Just as World War I ushered Europe’s decline and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan preceded the implosion of the Soviet Union, so a massive and monstrous attack on New York’s symbol of world capitalism, democracy, female emancipation, homosexuality, and the Jews would hopefully lead the enraged United States to strike out wildly and indiscriminately. In the short run, this expectation has met with disappointment, though clearly the prospect of instability in the region is a long-term concern. Yet along with this crazed "rationale" we should keep in mind that, as Dostoevsky understood so well in The Demons, at the core of every terrorist movement lurks the nihilistic pleasure in destruction. Bin Laden’s celebratory statements following the attacks of September 11th stand in a long line of terrorist exultation over death and destruction.

Such arguments played a key role in the development of fascism and Nazism. Both Mussolini and Hitler were able to combine respectability with brute force on the path to power. The intellectual and cultural atmosphere in which fascism and Nazism emerged in the first third of the century, one shaped by Georges Sorel’s Reflections on Violence, Friedrich Nietzsche’s denunciation of a complacent European middle- class and its rationality, Ernst Jünger’s ecstatic celebrations of the masculine male community of the trenches in World War I, as well as the violence of the Great War itself created a critical mass of angry, middle- and lower-middle-class men for whom the distinction between war and politics blurred to insignificance. Like many of the terrorists in al Qaeda, un- and underemployed "intellectuals" and youth of the professional middle-classes in post—World War I Europe were attracted to fascism and Nazism, because a violent assault on liberal democracy and bourgeois society by a new movement of hard, disciplined heroes would, in theory, replace the decadent present with a vital future.

The Holocaust stands as the ultimate act of terror of the twentieth century, the pristine case of the murder of innocents on a vast scale. In the fevered Nazi imagination, the Jews of Europe and the world were not innocents at all. Instead, they were members of a giant, global conspiracy which was always referred to as a singular noun: "international Jewry." This vast, unseen yet all-powerful group was, in their view, responsible for all of Germany’s misfortunes: the loss of World War I and the Versailles Treaty, the Great Depression, and the threat from the East of what Hitler called "Jewish Bolshevism" or "the Mongol storm." Hence, mass murder, far from constituting an unprovoked act against a defenseless civilian population, was merely one front in Germany’s fully justified war of defense and retaliation against the supposed previous acts of Jewish aggression. This was a lunatic explanation which had no relation to actual events. Nevertheless, millions of Germans came to believe it. Today, in the fevered imagination of Islamic fundamentalism, the United States and Israel, what bin Laden calls the "Zionist-Crusader alliance," have replaced this older conspiracy theory, though clearly there are elements of continuity in the lasting importance of the United States, capitalism, and the Jews as leaders of the conspiracy. As in the 1930s and 1940s, such conspiracy theories invariably lead to mass murder, for only if the powerful international conspiracy is crushed can an ideal world be brought into existence. Communism having been vanquished in 1989-90, Islamic fundamentalism now focuses its rage on old and familiar targets, capitalism and the Jews.

As noted earlier, despite the similarities of language with that of the anti-imperialist Left of the past century, Islamic fundamentalist terror today is closer to the fascist and Nazi past than it is to Communism. (Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party and the Iraqi regime have origins in French fascist ideologies of the 1930s, but that is a discussion for another time.) Twenty years ago, I described Nazism as a form of "reactionary modernism" in which a secular, fundamentalist movement embraced modern technology yet rejected Enlightenment modernity. Flying Boeing 757s loaded with fuel into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon is a terribly clear act of reactionary modernist rage. Just as fascism and Nazism were movements that emerged in societies challenged by rapid modernization and seeking to find a way to blend modernity with tradition, so Islamic fundamentalism borrows the West’s technology in order to destroy it.

A second similarity to the fascist and Nazi experience evident in Islamic fundamentalism today is contempt for women and rejection of their equality, a stance which exceeds, yet recalls, the exaggerated masculinity and backlash against female emancipation of the fascist and Nazi movements. Like the paramilitary organizations of the fascist and Nazi street fighters, the Islamic terrorist organizations are militant "brotherhoods." (Mohammed Atta, one of the hijackers who flew a plane into the World Trade Center, apparently left a request that no women attend his funeral.) Where fascism and Nazism sought to restore the position of women to their subordinate status before the advances made in the wake of World War I, the Islamic fundamentalist vision of the position of women regresses well beyond that point to that of Europe’s pre-modernity. While Communism’s economistic roots precluded an adequate understanding of the position of women in society, its declared support for women’s equality stood in complete contrast to that of radical Islam. Indeed, from the Communist point of view, radical Islam must be regarded as counter-revolutionary and reactionary in the extreme.

Third, and most importantly, Islamic fundamentalism is closer to the fascist and Nazi traditions in its celebration of values which depart from rationality. Marxism-Leninism was a doctrine whose erroneous interpretation of history, politics, and economics nevertheless contained elements of rationality and possibilities of empirical assessment. Moreover, while Communists certainly fostered a cult of martyrdom, they did not make death a virtue. The elements of rationality within Marxism-Leninism combined with the self-interest associated with possession of the huge state of the Soviet Union. As a result the Soviet leaders believed that they had more to lose than to gain by unleashing a nuclear war with the United States. Because the Communists possessed this minimum of rationality, it was possible for the West to arrive at a nuclear stalemate with Moscow for half a century. Nuclear deterrence rested on the assumption that both players preferred survival to self-destruction. Given Hitler’s fundamental contempt for rationality and his celebration of the will, combined with the paranoid structure of his interpretation of international politics, the chances that such a peaceful nuclear stalemate could have been sustained with Nazi Germany for half a century would have been far less likely. A Nazi leadership would have been far more likely to go over the brink to war, even if that meant the nuclear devastation of Nazi Germany.

However enamored Hitler and the Nazis were of an apocalyptic end, Nazism as an ideology celebrated the victory of the "master race," not its death and revival in heavenly paradise. It was a secular totalitarianism. On the other hand, terrorists inspired by Islamic fundamentalism have an attitude towards their own death which is quite different precisely because it is inspired by a religious radicalism that envisages a heavenly paradise in the next world. Radical Islam convinces its adherents that a martyr’s death is a prelude to this paradise. Their otherworldly visions clearly inspired the murderers of September 11th just as they have inspired the one hundred suicide bombers who have attacked Israel since 1993, thirty in the past year. They are visions with a profound consequence for the future of world peace and security. Should a radical Islamic group or state come to possess weapons of mass destruction (chemical, biological, or nuclear) and the means to deliver them, there is no reason to assume that the prospect of nuclear retaliation by the United States would deter war. This is so because, in their view, their own death is a prelude to certain entry to a better life in the heavenly paradise to come. For people with such belief, nuclear retaliation may be a blessing rather than a threat.

Hence, as in World War II, we are in a race against time. However complex, long-term, and multi-faceted our assault on terrorism will be, it must include, as the Bush administration has made clear, the military defeat of this network. In contrast to the response of the authoritarian Austro-Hungarian empire to the assassination of June 1914 in Sarajevo, the United States is responding to the mass murder of September 11th as it should, namely by seeking to isolate the terrorists from the rest of the Islamic world, to underscore that they have no solutions to any of the problems they mention, that the era in which they can kill others with impunity has come to an end, and that the democracies which they regard as decadent and weak are in fact capable of a judicious and powerful capacity to make a war which will end in their destruction. Terrorists in the twentieth century repeatedly made the error of assuming that liberal democracies were weak and vulnerable. Al Qaeda is making the same mistake of believing its own propaganda about our reluctance to fight and defeat them.

After World War II, European intellectuals turned away from the orgy of violence of 1914 to 1945. This is evident in Albert Camus’s The Rebel and in Jurgen Habermas’s work on the priority of discussion over force. In the late 1970s and 1980s, another generation again turned away from the romance of revolution and cults of violence of the 1960s New Left. A key question of the months and years to come will be whether and to what extent the opinion-shaping elites of the Islamic world will offer a similar liberating discourse of disillusionment with ideological fanaticism and a realistic assessment of the values of reform and compromise. As the experience of twentieth-century Europe following the defeats of Nazism and Communism suggests, sobriety and common sense may very well be the consequence rather than the cause of the defeat of the fanatics and terrorists now claiming to speak for Islam. Be that as it may, it is important that in our country, intellectuals and scholars do what they can to eliminate the last pathetic shreds of legitimacy to the terrorist tradition which contributed to the crimes of September 11th in New York and Washington.

–October 8, 2001


Editor’s Note: This essay draws on remarks delivered at a faculty-student forum on October 8, 2001, sponsored by the University of Maryland in College Park.

9 January 2002

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