Marx and Bin Laden

I came across an interesting article on Marxism and Terrorism. I recommend reading all of it. I couldn’t help but drawing parallels between the behavior of some of the 1800s European anarchists (discussed by the author in the beginning of the article) and the current Islamist Takfiri groups, especially in their justification of civilian casualties with the no-one-is-innocent approach. If you don’t have time, then just scroll down to the section on “Today’s Islamist terroristsâ€� that tackles Al-Qa3da and suicide bombings. The author argues there’s nothing unique about Islamic cultures that would produce suicide bombers, providing a secular analysis to the phenomenon.

Here are excerpts from that section:

The media and much of the left would have us believe that today’s Islamist terrorists are qualitatively worse than any in the past. Even the Irish Republicans—whose very voices were banned from the airwaves just a dozen years ago—are now presented as rational compared to them. What dominates is the image of the suicide bomber as a crazed Islamic fanatic.
But there is nothing specifically Islamist about the methods of the suicide bomb. The leading practitioners of suicide attacks as a weapon do not come from the Middle East, nor are they Muslims. They are the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, whose ideology is not religious but ‘Marxist-Leninist’ (though their cultural background is Hindu), and whose aim is the secular goal of national liberation. Robert Pape, who has closely analysed suicide attacks between 1980 and 2003, reckons they are responsible for the biggest single group of attacks—some 76 out of a total of 315. This is more than the number committed by the Palestinian group Hamas. And not all suicide bombers from ‘Islamic’ groups are Muslims. Hezbollah, which emerged in Lebanon in the 1980s, was the first modern movement to use the method (they forced US troops to withdraw after 241 Marines were killed in a single attack). Of the 41 suicide terrorists involved in attacks between 1982 and 1986, only three were Islamic fundamentalists. The rest were overwhelmingly Communists or socialists—and three were Christians!
Suicide bombing campaigns may be couched in Islamic terms. That does not mean that religious fundamentalism explains their goals. Pape concludes from the data of his survey:

There is not the close connection between suicide terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism that many people think. Rather, what all suicide terrorist campaigns have in common is a specific secular and strategic goal—to compel democracies to withdraw forces from the terrorists’ national homeland. Religion is rarely the root cause, although it is often used as a tool by terrorist organisations in recruiting and in other efforts in service of the broader strategic objective.

This assessment is backed by an analysis of Al Qaida from another source. The organisation is usually taken as the epitome of Islamic fundamentalism—the group most bent on declaring a religious war on the West, against modernity and secularism. But the question that Stephen Holmes rightly raises is whether religious belief causes an action (such as the bombing of the twin towers) or whether the action may be motivated by another cause but be expressed in religious form:

Does Osama Bin Laden want to eject the United States from Saudi Arabia because its troops were desecrating sacred soil, or is he aggrieved, like any anti-colonialist or nationalist insurgent, that the United States is plundering his country’s national resources? Does Ayman al-Zawahiri, the physician who founded Egyptian Islamic Jihad and who is usually considered Bin Laden’s closest associate, want to overthrow Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak because the latter is an apostate or because he is a tyrant?

Difficult though it may be to disentangle the religious from the non-religious, Holmes’s conclusion about the nature of Al Qaida’s ‘war’ on the US is substantially the same at Pape’s:

The vast majority of Bin Laden’s public statements provide secular, not religious, rationales for 9/11. The principal purpose of the attack was to punish the ‘unjust and tyrannical America’. The casus belli he invokes over and over again is injustice not impiety. True, he occasionally remarks that the United States has declared war on god, but such statements would carry little conviction if not seconded by claims that the United States is tyrannising and exploiting Muslim people… Bin Laden almost never justifies terrorism against the West as a means for subordinating Western unbelievers to the true faith. Instead, he almost always justifies terrorism against the West as a form of legitimate self-defence.

In other words, the goal of Al Qaida is no different from other national liberation movements—to achieve independence by forcing the imperialist power to retreat. It may express itself in religious terms, but in essence it pursues the same aim as previous secular-nationalist movements in the Middle East—the defeat of US imperialism and its allies in the region.
It is a mistake to think of the strategy of suicide bombing as betraying an irrationalism that derives from Islamic fundamentalism. There is a rationale for the adoption of this strategy that stems from the problem of defeating an enemy in conditions of extreme inequality of resources. The oppressor possesses a military might unimaginably greater than anything the oppressed have at their disposal. The oppressed cannot hope to inflict on the enemy the kind of material damage that will force the oppressor to back off. All they can hope to do is inflict psychological damage that comes from showing that the oppressed will stop at nothing—not even self-sacrifice—to terrorise the oppressor country. As Pape puts it, ‘Suicide terrorism attempts to inflict pain on the opposing society…and so induce the government to concede, or the population to revolt against the government’.
This is a ‘strategy for weak actors’ who lack the ‘normal’ military means for fighting. Suicide bombing may be a dirty, inhumane way of fighting (because it targets civilians). However, it derives from not being able to compete with the violence that the oppressor can dish out supposedly ‘cleanly’ (through high-tech operations) but which is much more extensive and devastating than anything a suicide bomber can inflict. The hope, too, is that the preparedness to use one’s body as a self-sacrificial killing machine will inspire the oppressed to give their support to the struggle.
It is a mistake to think that suicide bombers are psychologically driven by Islamic fanaticism. Rather, what motivates them to action is rage at material conditions of oppression and exploitation—which is then expressed by commitment to a religious outlook and way of behaving. Bombers are not some alien ‘other’—they are just like us, or rather just like anyone else who is moved to anger by inequality, poverty and injustice. This is what we know of the background of one of the 9/11 hijackers, Mohammed Atta:

The grievances he loudly and frequently articulated against the United States and the Muslim autocracies that the United States supports were almost entirely secular. Most of those who knew him before 1996 stress not Atta’s religious piety…but his implacable fury at the plight of the poor and the indifference of the rich… He was bitterly angry at the visible juxtaposition, in Cairo, of extravagant and frivolous luxury with mass squalor and hopelessness. E
gypt’s elite, in particular, was hypocritical, he believed. They showed a ‘democratic face’ to the West, while displaying complete indifference to the misery of ordinary people at home. They had sold their country to the West for trinkets.

Just as Henry, the French bomber of the café at the Gare St Lazare more than a century ago, saw bourgeois women and children as ‘guilty’ by association, so there are people suffering from imperialism across the world (and not just Muslims) who see the ordinary inhabitants of the oppressor nation as equally ‘guilty’ by association with what ‘their’ nation is doing. This is a terrible inversion of the argument that says that because Bush and Blair were elected their actions in unleashing war are legitimate. The terrorist logic is that the population cannot be ‘innocent’ because they voted for Bush and Blair.

This is the politics of despair. It is also the consequence of seeing the fight against injustice in non-class terms. It is the same logic that led sections of Irish Nationalists to see ordinary British people as part of the problem. David O’Connell, one of the militaristic leaders of the Republicans in the mid-1970s (before they were displaced by Gerry Adams and Martin McGuiness), argued after the Birmingham bombings:

For five years, the British government has been waging a campaign of terror…against the people of Ireland. What have we got from the British public? Total indifference. The British government and the British public must realise that they will suffer the consequences.

Apart from the lack of religious language, it is exactly the same argument that those who back Al Qaida resort to today. Socialist Worker’s comment at the time still applies:

This conclusion must be opposed by every socialist. It equates the rulers…with the people. Our whole argument rests upon the fact that society is divided into classes with opposed interests.

Just as applicable is this analysis of the politics of an organisation that embraces such a logic:

It is not, as the press and right wing politicians pretend, made up of bloodthirsty maniacs—after all, it is the right wing press and politicians who have always supported the bombing by British armed forces of innocent civilians anywhere in the world… The real point…is that its leaders see the real division in the world as that between nations, not between classes…like middle class politicians everywhere.

It is just such a logic that thinks only a tiny group of dedicated fighters can avenge the wrongs in society, that the mass of people is either corrupt or incapable of stirring into action—unless ‘exemplary’ action is taken by these dedicated fighters. And because this is the politics of despair, the greater the impotence of those caught in this spiral, the bigger the dream of destruction—the better to make an impact.
Suicide bombings are not some barbaric throwback to pre-modernity. They are a horribly distorted response to the very real horrors of imperialism and capitalism. The scale and reach of some present-day attacks is greater than any terrorist organisation has been able to carry out in the past. But the devastation and death toll are is still on a massively smaller scale than that routinely inflicted by the armed forces of ‘civilised’ states.
Never has a point made by Trotsky been more relevant. In criticising terrorist acts, he wrote, it was important not to side with ‘those bought and paid for moralists’ (Tony Blair and Jack Straw spring to mind) who ‘make solemn declarations about the “absolute value� of human life’.
The Marxist tradition has never approved of terrorism as a method of social change, and sees it as a counterproductive strategy. But we cannot join in the condemnations that pour from the lips of politicians and from the media—despite enormous pressure to do so. We cannot begin to shape our critique of terrorism meaningfully unless we start with the horrors of imperialist violence and the Islamophobic racism directed at Muslims. We shall not be able to intervene in the movement to explain why young Muslims resort to such terrible tactics. Nor will be able to offer an alternative that can offer hope to those whose despair pushes them into the dead end of terrorism
. (Full Article)

0 thoughts on “Marx and Bin Laden”

  1. i may recommend yasmina khadra’s book “Wolf Dreams” to you. i think it shows a similar point in a very compelling way.

    however. i would argue that religion is an important part of the equasion. especially in a context of very assymetric warfare ideology is a necessary tool to recruit potential fighters.


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