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Al-Qaeda a virtual network

07 Aug

Zawahiri is not saying much that is new. The only real difference with what has gone before is the explicit focus on Britain. This does not indicate any direct link with the London bombs.

Whenever there has been an attack there has been a knee-jerk search for overseas links or for some kind of overall mastermind. No investigations into the London bombs have revealed any such connections.

Instead, we need to face up to the simple truth that bin Laden, Zawahiri et al do not need to organise attacks directly. They merely wait for the message they have spread around the world to inspire others. Al-Qaeda is now an idea, not an organisation. We now have a situation where autonomous cells carry out attacks on targets and at times of their own choosing, which are then applauded by al-Qaeda leaders of global infamy but limited practical ability to execute or organise strikes. This is exactly as Zawahiri and bin Laden had hoped. This is a virtual terrorist network, not a real one.

There may have been no mass uprising in the Islamic world, perhaps due to the sense and humanity of most of the world’s 1.3 billion Muslims rather than any counter-terrorist strategy pursued by the West, but an increasing number of angry people have answered the call.

Zawahiri portrayed himself as a warrior and a statesman in the video broadcast on Thursday. He did not need any props to demonstrate his extraordinary gift for media manipulation.

This seems to me a very sensible article. Rather than seeing Al Qaeda as an organisation that can be dealt with in a military manner, Jason Burke, in a piece first published in The Guardian, sees it as a very 21st century phenomenon in its methods if not in its ideology. As to the latter, it is Islamic medievalism gone mad and post-colonialism gone to seed. It is the opposite of modernity, the Enlightenment, and just about everything else that has lifted humanity just a little above the realms of superstition, bigotry and tyranny, being profoundly aggressive, intolerant, and antidemocratic. Terms such as Islamofascism are quite appropriate to it.

In November 2003 The Salt Mine’s Islamic Students’ Society had the first of their “Open Seminars” at the school. The Mufti of Watson’s Bay was one of the speakers, and later on he complained bitterly that someone had distributed sample bags of “total crap” to the assembled students. No-one quite knows where these bags came from, but I know I got one and read the contents, a mixed swag of kind-of-reasonable political analysis of a sort of leftist post-colonial nature, and much rampant bigotry. The students who organised the seminar had not brought the bags. I now recognise them as coming from Hizb ut-Tahrir (aka 1924.org) which has now been banned in Britain. They do claim not to be violent, and if so they are possibly no more or less scary than Drew Fraser at Macquarie Uni, and many another person who espouses extreme and/or unfortunate views, but they are certainly Islamist (as distinct from broadly Muslim.) But this experience does show the group was proselytising among students two years ago here in Sydney.

There is an excellent article on this theme in last week’s Spectator by Patrick Sookhdeo , but unfortunately it is locked away for subscribers only. If The Spectator was serious about having a role in the struggle, they should make the article freely available forthwith. It begins thus:

The funeral of British suicide bomber Shehzad Tanweer was held in absentia in his family’s ancestral village, near Lahore, Pakistan. Thousands of people attended, as they did again the following day when a qul ceremony was held for Tanweer. During qul, the Koran is recited to speed the deceased’s journey to paradise, though in Tanweer’s case this was hardly necessary. Being a shahid (martyr), he is deemed to have gone straight to paradise. The 22-year-old from Leeds, whose bomb at Aldgate station killed seven people, was hailed by the crowd as ‘a hero of Islam’…

And yes, that is sick-making. The article is not the standard rant, however, as it locates the issues Islam have that really are significant generators of this mindset, which some Muslims are willing to explore and reform. But the problem is in the foundation of the religion, and not just in Islam but also in Christianity (where the problem has been generally neutered by fearless scholarship since the Enlightenment) and in Judaism: God’s Holy Book. That is the problem, especially when the book is contradictory and can justify almost anything. It is, for example, possible to look at the Old Testament, to take my own background, and justify the practices of executing witches, excluding men with damaged testicles from public worship, acquiring slaves, and engaging in genocide. Read Leviticus, Joshua and Judges some time. But of course no sane person follows the Bible down this track these days, except when it comes to homosexuality in some cases. But even that is not especially sane, is it? The point is that increasingly we have learned to see the Bible as a text among texts, a text produced by humans in historical circumstances, and not binding for all time in every little detail. This attitude is sadly not universal in Christianity, but has nonetheless been very influential.

Islam has a tradition similar to this, but it has been weak. The irony is that when the Bible falls into place as a result of historical and critical studies, so does the Qu’ran, which (with no disrespect intended in regard to its many virtues) is parasitic on the Bible — Muslims prefer to think “fulfils the Bible”. See Higher criticism and radical criticism (Wikipedia). Revisit Bill Moyers interviewing Karen Armstrong on PBS in 2002: “Fundamentalists are not friends of democracy. And that includes your fundamentalists in the United States. Every fundamentalist movement I’ve studied in Judaism, Christianity and Islam is convinced at some gut, visceral level that secular liberal society wants to wipe out religion.”

Sookhdeo is a Christian himself, however. His article is in some respects a Christian apologetic, but it is nonetheless correct to say, with him, that we need at least to take seriously what the “martyrs” themselves say about their religious motivation. You may read more of Sookhdeo’s ideas here.

The Islamic world is in a precarious position. Any of their leaders supporting the anti-terrorist coalition are doing so without the full support of their people. If the war goes badly, we could see severe problems within the Islamic world as Muslim peoples rise up against their leaders. Furthermore one can see severe problems concerning Westerners, Western interests and anything related to the West in a Muslim context.

There is also the problem of the church. The church is perceived as pro-Western and there are those who are saying there will be a major church-burning effort. We have already had that these past few weeks: we have had several hundred Christians killed in Cairo; we have had five hundred killed in Nigeria; churches have been burned in Kenya. This is going to increase. So if the problems are not settled soon in Afghanistan then I see major issues arising.

I personally believe that the West, for whatever reason, has chosen a policy which could lead them into greater conflict. Simply defining this as a conflict against Bin Laden is not going to be sufficient, because even if we deal with Bin Laden, we will not be dealing with the multiplicity of terrorist networks at work in the world. And more than that, we now have Islamic communities in the West which still have a theology of power, and violence is a part of that.

I do not then take all that much comfort from the Sun Herald’s lead stories today:

…Mr Ruddock’s department is looking at the complexity of issues that surround the stripping of citizenship rights from people who had been accepted into Australia. Revoking or denying citizenship to people considered a threat to Australia would be an aggressive new step in the fight to keep Australia free of attack. The tough multi-pronged attack against outspoken clerics is sparking concern in senior Government ranks, with one senior MP yesterday warning the Government needed to strike a balance between human rights and security.

Minister for Ageing Julie Bishop said yesterday that one of the great underlying values in Australia was freedom of speech.

“In all things that we’re facing in terms of the security issues, terrorism concerns, we have to strike the right balance and not lose the values that make this country the great place that it is,” she said.

Shadow attorney-general Nicola Roxon echoed those concerns, saying balancing personal freedom and security was difficult but laws needed to take both into account. “The freedom of speech in debating ideas and issues is quite different to encouraging people to commit acts of terrorism or other violence and, if our laws aren’t adequate, then it does need to be addressed,” she said.

Treasurer Peter Costello bluntly said on Friday that the fight against terrorism would demand more curbs on civil liberties.

There really is a slippery slide we could find ourselves on here, and it may or may not actually do anything either to protect us from terrorism or to address the reasons for terrorism. Which is not to say I know the answer.

I do know one thing though: the answer to hate is never more hate.

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