Bombing Without Moonlight
The Origins of Suicidal Terrorism
Abdal-Hakim Murad © Oct 2004

1. Amnesia

Attention deficit disorder seems to flourish under conditions of late modernity. The past becomes itself more quickly. Memories, individual as well as collective, tend to be recycled and consulted only by the old. For everyone else, there are only current affairs, reaching back a few months at most. Orwell, of course, predicted this, in his dystopic prophecy that may have been only premature; but today it seems to be cemented by postmodernism (Deleuze), and also by physicists, who are now proclaiming an almost Ash‘arite scepticism about claims for the real duration of particles.

This is a condition that has an ancestry in the stirrings of the modernity which it represents. Hume anticipated it in his stunning insistence on the non-continuity of the human self: we are ‘nothing but a collection of perceptions which succeed each other with inconceivable rapidity and are in perpetual flux and movement;’ or so he thought.[1] Modern fiction may still explore or reaffirm identities (Peter Carey) and thus define human dignity as the honourable disposition of at least some aspects of an accumulated heritage. But this is giving way to the atomistic, playful, postmodern storytelling of, say, Elliot Perlman, which defines dignity - where it does so at all - in terms of freedom from all stories, even while lamenting the superficial tenor of the result. It is against the backdrop of this culture that the scientists, now far beyond Ataturk's ‘Science is the Truest Guide in Life’, raise the stakes with their occasionalism, and, for the neurologists, the increasing denial of the autonomy of the human will - a new predestinarianism that makes us always the consequence of genes and the present, not the remembered past.[2]

Our public conversations, then, seem to be the children of a marriage of convenience between two principles, neither of them religious or even particularly humanistic. The elitist mystical trope of the moment being all that is, significantly misappropriated by some New Age discourses, has become the condition of us all, albeit with the absence of God. Journalism thus becomes the privileged discourse to whose canons the public intellectual must conform, if he or she is to become a credible guide. More striking still is the observed fact that amidst our current crisis of wisdom it also seems to provide the language in which the public discussion of faith is carried on. Thus Catholicism becomes the humiliated cardinal of Boston, not St Augustine. Its morality is taken to be that which visibly clashes with the caprice of characters in Home and Away, not a severe but ultimately liberating cultivation of the virtues rooted in centuries of experience and example. Judaism, in its turn, becomes the latest land-grab of a settler rabbi, not a millennial enterprise of faith and promise. Of course, our new occasionalism does invoke the past. But it does so with reference either to scriptures, stripped of their normative exegetical armature, or to those events which remain in the consciousness of a citizenry raised on enlightenment battles with obscurantism. So again, we recall Galileo, not Eckhart; we recall the interesting hatreds of the Inquisition, not the charity of St Vincent de Paul. Otherwise, our culture is religiously amnesiac. Winston Churchill, near the end of his life, began to read the Bible. ‘This book is very well-written,’ he said. ‘Why was it not brought to my attention before?’

It is in this frankly primitive condition that we seek to discuss religious acts which, against all the predictions of our grandparents, claim to interrupt the progress of history towards a world in which there will be no continuity at all. To our perplexity, history, despite Fukuyama, does not seem to have ended. Humans do not always act for the economic or erotic now; Tamino still seeks his Sarastro. A residue of real human diversity persists. For the human soul is not yet, as Coleridge wrote,

Seraphically free,
From taint of personality.

This failed ultimacy, this sense that we, the Papageni, have to dust down the armour of an earlier generation of moral absolutes, when history was still running, when the victory of the corporations and of Hollywood was not yet assured, accounts for the maladroit condition of the world’s current argument about terrorism. The most active in seizing the moment, as they elbow impatiently past the fin de siécle multiculturalists and postmodernists, are the oddly-named American neoconservatives, who invoke Leo Strauss and roll up their sleeves to defend Washington against Oriental warriors who would defy the dialectics of history and seek to postpone the apotheosis of Anglo-Saxon consumer society, which they see as the climax of a billion years of evolution.[4] But despite such ideologised adversions to the longue durée, secularism seems to have little to offer that is not short-termist and reactive, and determined to reduce the globe to a set of variations on itself.

Traditionalists, who should be more helpful, seem paralysed. Much of the fury and hurt that currently abounds in the Christian and the Muslim worlds reveals a sense that the timetable which God has approved for history has been perverted. Christendom is not a virgin in this respect; in fact, it was first, with scholastic and Byzantine broadsides against Christian sin as invitation to Saracenic chastisement (Bernard, Gregory Palamas). Then it was the turn of Islam, when, from the seventeenth century on the illusion of the Muslims as materially and militarily God’s chosen people was dealt a series of shocking blows. Now it is, once again, the turn of Christendom (if the term be still allowed), which is currently wondering why history has not yet experienced closure, why a former rival should still be showing signs of life, either as the result of a misdiagnosis, or as a zombie-like revenant bearing only a superficial resemblance to his medieval seriousness. Certainly, the American president and his frequently evangelical team see themselves in these terms. Architects of a society which, Disney-like, appropriates the past only to emphasise the glory of the present, these zealots appeal to a prophecy-religion in which the Book of Revelation is the key to history. For them, too, the promised closure is imminent, and its frustration by the Other an outrage.

President Reagan, while less captivated by end-time visions than his successors, could offer these thoughts to Jewish lobbyists:

You know, I turn back to your ancient prophets in the Old Testament and the signs foretelling Armageddon and I find myself wondering if we’re the generation that is going to see that come about. I don’t know if you’ve noted any of these prophecies lately, but, believe me, they certainly describe the times we’re going through.[5]

The protagonists of the current conflict, then, are unusual in their confidence that history has not ended, although millennialism seems to hover in the background on both sides, helped along by the frequently Palestinian scenery. The triumph of the West, or the resurgence of an Islam interpreted by bestselling Pentecostal authors as a chastisement and a demonic challenge, signals the end of a growing worry about the religious meaninglessness of late modernity. Tragically, however, neither protagonist seems validly linked to the remnants of established religion, or shows any sign of awareness of how to connect with history. Fundamentalist disjuncture is placing us in a kind of metahistorical parenthesis, an end-time excitement in which, as for St Paul, old rules are irrelevant, and Christ and Antichrist are the only significant gladiators on the stage. Fundamentalists, as well as mystics, can insist that the moment is all that is real.

2. Sunna Contra Gentiles

In such a world of pseudo-religious reaction against the postmodern erosion of identity, it follows that if you are not ‘with us,’ you are with the devil. Or, when this has to be reformulated for the benefit of the blue-collar godless, you are a ‘cheese-eating surrender monkey’. Where religion exists to supply an identity, the world is Augustinian, if not quite Manichean. The West's ancient trope of itself as a free space, perhaps a white space, holding out against Persian or Semitic intruders, is being coupled powerfully, but hardly for the first time, with Pauline and patristic understandings of the New Israel as unique vessel of truth and salvation, threatened in the discharge of its redemptive project by the Oriental, Semitic, Ishmaelitic other. In the West, at least, the religious resources for this dualism are abundant and easily abused. Take Daniel Goldhagen, for instance, who in his most recent book suggests that the xenophobia of the Christian Bible is qualitatively greater than that of any other scripture. New Bibles, he urges, must be printed with many corrections to what he describes as this founding text of a lethal Western self-centredness.[6] Semites of several kinds would be well-advised to beware a culture raised on such a foundation.

It is remarkable that both sides, in constructing themselves against a wicked, fundamentalist rival, mobilise the ancient trope of antisemitism. The Self needs its dark Other, preferably nearby or within. That Other has standard features: in the case of Christian antisemitism it is that it stands for Letter rather than Spirit, for blind obedience rather than freedom, for an discreet but intense transnational solidarity in place of Fatherland and Church. It is sexually aberrant (hence the Nazi polemic against Freud). It hides its women (who should, instead, join the SS, or practice nacktkultur). It imposes archaic and unscientific taboos: diet, purity, circumcision. Such are the categories in which an almost dualistic West historically defines its relationship to its nearest and most irritating Other.[7]

Antisemitism is, in Richard Harries' words, a 'light sleeper'. But part of its strength is that it is not asleep at all; and never has been. As Christendom seeks its identity, the Dark Other today is now more usually Ishmael. Torched mosques, terrified asylum-seekers, bullied schoolchildren, and, we may not unreasonably add, a journalistic discourse of the type that is now being labelled ‘Islamophobic’, are less new than they seem. They represent a vicarious antisemitism. ‘Islamic law is immutable’ is a chorus in the new Horst Wessel song. ‘Circumcision is barbaric.’ ‘Their divorce laws are medieval and anti-woman.’ ‘They keep to themselves and don’t integrate.’ Such is the battle-cry of the resurgent Western right: Pim Fortuin, Jean-Marie Le Pen, Jorg Haider, Filip de Winter. It has become startlingly popular, though always volatile at the polls. Thus is the old antisemitic metabolism of Europe and its American progeny being reinvigorated by the encounter with Ishmael. Again, history has started up again, and again our amnesiac culture ignores the vast cogwheels, deep beneath the surface, which move it.

On the other side, now, crossing the Mediterranean, or the Timor Sea, we generally find not a bloc of sincere fundamentalist regimes, but an archipelago of dictatorships, Oriental despots after the letter, which are in almost every case answerable not to their own electorates - for they recognise none - but to a distant desk in the State Department.[8] These are the neo-mamluks, ex-soldiers and condottieri of a system that penalises ethics. Ranged against them we observe the puritans, iconoclasts with El Greco eyes, whose claim it is to detest the modernity of the regimes. Such puritans, led by the memory of Sayyid Qutb, have no illusions about the nature of secular rule. They see clearly that the regimes are more modern than those of the West, because more frank in their conviction that science plus commerce does not equal ethics. Where the Western journalistic eye sees retardation, the Islamist sees modernity. Hitler and Stalin were more modern than Churchill and Roosevelt, more scientific, more programmatic, more distant from the past. The future is theirs, and it is neither Christ’s millennial reign nor the triumph of small-town America. It is Alphaville.

The Islamist, then, is not the caricature of the envious, uncomprehending Third Worlder. Typically he has spent much of his life in the West, and is capable of offering an empirical analysis, or at least a diagnosis. Sayyid Qutb, in his writing on what he calls ‘the deformed birth of the American man,’ sees Americans as advanced infants; advanced because of their technology, but puerile in their ignorance of earlier stages of human development.[9] There is something of Teilhard de Chardin in his account, which inverts Tocqueville to identify an American idiot-savant mania for possession. Technology made America possible, and ultimately, America need claim nothing else. Linked to Christian fundamentalism, it is an enemy of every other story; and unlike the East, it will not remain in its place. It must send out General Custer to subdue all remnants of earlier phases of human consciousness rooted in nature, spirituality or art. Its client regimes are therefore its natural, not opportunistic, adjuncts in its programme to subdue the world. They are not a transitional phase, they are the end-game.

Antisemitism forms part of this vision too, certainly. But since, as Goldhagen confirms, this is an essentially Christian phenomenon, to be healed by correcting the views of the Evangelists, in an Islamic context which lacks a letter-spirit dichotomy it seems a hazier resource for identity construction. Qutb was influenced by the Vichy theorist Alexis Carrel (1873-1944), through his odd, vitalist tract L’Homme, cet inconnu, which remains an ultimate, though unacknowledged, source text for much modern Islamism.[10] No medieval Muslim thinker of any note wrote a book against Judaism, although homilies against Christianity were quite common. If medieval Islam had a dark Other, it was more likely to be Zoroastrianism than Judaism, which, in Samuel Goitein’s phrase by which he summed up his magisterial work A Mediterranean Society, enjoyed a close and ‘symbiotic’ relationship with Islam.[11] But today’s Qutbian Islamist purges midrashic material from Koranic commentary, and studies the Tsarist forgery The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, and, even, Mein Kampf. Nothing can be discovered, it seems, in the Islamic libraries, so that this importation into an ostensively nativist and xenophobic milieu becomes inescapable - the fundamentalist’s familiar appeal to necessity.

As he surveys the wreckage of Istanbul synagogues and Masonic lodges, the journalist, as ibn al-waqt, is oblivious to the happier past of Semitic conviviality in the Ottoman Sephardic lands. And perhaps he is right, perhaps, under our conditions, the past is another religion. But the paradox has become so burning, and so murderous, that we cannot let it pass unremarked. The Islamic world, instructed to host Israel, was historically the least inhospitable site for the diaspora. The currently almost ubiquitous myth of a desperate sibling rivalry between Isaac and Ishmael is nonsensical to historians.

Here, at the dark heart of Islam’s extremist fringe, we find what may be the beginnings of a solution. No nativist reaction can long survive proof of its own exogenous nature. And no less than its Christian analogues, Islamic ghuluww, at least in its currently terroristic forms, betrays a European etiology. It borrows its spiritual, as well as its material, armament from Western modernity. This, we may guess, marks it out for anachronism in a context where intransigence is xenophobic.[12]

This is an unpopular diagnosis; but one which is gaining ground. It cannot be without significance that outside observers, when not blinded by a xenophobic need to view terrorism as Islamically authentic, have sometimes intuited this well. Here, for instance, is the verdict of John Gray, in his book Al-Qaeda and What it Means to be Modern:

No cliche is more stupefying than that which describes Al-Qaida as a throwback to medieval times. It is a by-product of globalisation. Its most distinctive feature - projecting a privatised form of organised violence worldwide - was impossible in the past. Equally, the belief that a new world can be hastened by spectacular acts of destruction is nowhere found in medieval times. Al-Qaida’s closest precursors are the revolutionary anarchists of late nineteenth-century Europe.[13]

And Slavoj Zizek, a still more significant observer, is convinced that what we are witnessing is not ‘Jihad versus MacWorld’ – the standard leftist formulation - but rather MacWorld versus MacJihad.[14]

This implies that if ghuluww has a future, it will be because modernity has a future, not because it has roots in Islamic tradition. That tradition, indeed, it rules out of order, as it dismisses the juridical, theological and mystical intricacies of medieval Islam as so much dead wood. The solution, then, which the world is seeking, and which it is the primary responsibility of the Islamic world, not the West to provide, must be a counter-reformation, driven by our best and most cosmopolitan