Al-Qaeda and Sacrifice is a pioneering critical intervention into the study of terrorism. Challenging the commonly held idea that ‘suicide-bombings’ are motivated by a nihilistic hatred of life, Melissa Finn argues that it is more honest and helpful to examine such violent agency through the concept of ‘sacrifice’. The book provides a unique look at the way ‘sacrifice’ is used in the Arabic language and in the writings of Islamists and jihadis.
Finn offers penetrating insights into jihadi thought on its own terms, arguing that it constitutes a political theory which can be usefully compared and related to western political theorists, from Machiavelli and von Clausewitz to Hannah Arendt, Julia Kristeva and Judith Butler. She critically examines the strategy of ‘sacrifice’ in martyrdom operations and ultimately concludes that the heedless certainty of such violence undermines attempts to redress political grievances.
Al-Qaeda and Sacrifice is a unique contribution which goes beyond simplistic or apologetic explanations of terrorism and allows the authentic jihadi voice to speak for itself.
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About the Author
Melissa Finn is a lecturer in the Department of Political Science and the Department of Global Studies at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Canada. She is the co-editor of a special edition of Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East, entitled 'Veiled Constellations: The Veil, Critical Theory, Politics, and Contemporary Society' (Spring 2012).
Read an Excerpt
In a world where the circulation of known "facts" about the entity al-Qaeda is at an all-time high, a number of critical points remain significantly understated. The first point has to do with the paradoxical hold "al-Qaeda" has over the western imagination. The fear and interest that this terrorist movement invokes is not entirely commensurate with the extent of its various activities and its membership base, which are exceedingly low even among generous estimates. A good example of the incommensurability between "fact" and reality on al-Qaeda is the disjunct between recent statements by Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper that "Islamic terrorism" represents the greatest security threat to Canada and the actual instances of terrorist activity in Canada. Not a single act of terrorism by Muslims in the forms of remote detonated bombings, martyrdom operations, hijackings and kidnappings, for example, have ever been conducted on Canadian soil or over Canadian airspace, and where Canadians have been implicated in "Islamic terrorism" it is most notably for acts of war abroad. What is more troubling than the dearth of evidence in support of this proposition is the distraction it causes from other more salient security threats to life in Canada such as the environmental contamination caused by the oil sands in Alberta, the melting of the Arctic ice caps, and the marginalised and vulnerable position of Canada's indigenous communities.
The incommensurate nature of the perception of this threat to reality is clear in the grip the "al-Qaeda problem" has over the judgment and opinions of the policy world's movers and shakers, and in the amount of energy devoted to addressing it. Military and security apparatuses are on high alert, all the time. Billions of taxpayer dollars are spent throughout the western world on defense through the War on Terrorism. The income generated from drawing millions of barrels of oil from foreign lands is being re-invested for defense measures, yet mostly in the western world. Thousands of hours have been devoted in media discourse to the threat of terrorism and the reasons for political violence. When people talk of al-Qaeda, they get an audience. And yet, despite all of the debate and discussions, and despite the relative simplicity and accessibility of the central doctrines of al-Qaeda, policy analysts and government officials have a remarkably limited understanding of their threat or lack the wherewithal for serious self-accountability in addressing and reversing the kinds of state policies that exacerbate grievances. In the end, all of this attention is exactly what many in al-Qaeda want to see generated from their activism.
We are invariably faced with the fact that the threat of al-Qaeda-style terrorism has taken on near-mythic proportions in the minds of the lay public and elites, and a complicit media perpetuates these exaggerations. There are three central issues with the mainstream discourse on al-Qaeda. First, the credibility of the evidence in this discourse that corroborates al-Qaeda's status as the greatest security threat is highly under-examined and worthy of suspicion and questioning. Second, al-Qaeda is an adaptive political entity, which no doubt ensures its mystification; however, all attempts should be made to avoid giving this network of individuals more status than is due. Third, in seeking to understand terrorism, the shift of this discourse must move from attempting to "know" al-Qaeda to attempting to understand it. For it to be any other way, the War on Terrorism, as itself a cycle of violence, and the tit-for-tat responses from al-Qaeda, as cycles of violence, will continue unabated.
In light of the fact that terrorism by Muslims does occur in the world, one must never lose sight of the fact that such events are less frequent than many imagine or as portrayed on the news, and not nearly as threatening to life as the worldview that treats such action as if it occurs in a vacuum, without any cause or substantive explanation. It is truly inexplicable how the (elite) worldview that evacuates causes from explanations can be regarded as re-assuring. Where and when it does occur, however limited it is politically, terrorism by Muslims is not nihilistic. Terrorism has a purpose, like the War on Terrorism (one must not be beguiled into thinking that violence is purposeless), and it is to purposes, means and end-goals that one must examine if the threat of non-state and state violence is ever going to have an end. When the jihadi speaks, he tells us that he comes into being through terrorism exacted in the War on Terrorism, and through state occupation and meddling. Instead of listening, the policy-makers behind the War on Terrorism act as if picking off terrorist suspects methodically one-by-one will make the ideas that underpin such activism go away and in so thinking, issue directives like drone assassinations and "surgical strikes" on terrorists and their "known" infrastructure, killing scores of civilians in the process. To the dead, it matters little if they died by the good intentions of a non-state or state actor; they are still dead. There is a political story to tell in this apparently clean and efficient method of "eradicating" individual jihadis. Behind the story is the simple truth that any gains won are short term. Over the long run, state violence is counterproductive in stemming the unending supply of impassioned young men and women who precisely use these "smart power" initiatives to out-smart and out-endure their adversaries. As former CIA counterterrorism chief Robert Grenier put it: "[o]ne wonders how many Yemenis may be moved in future to violent extremism in reaction to carelessly targeted missile strikes, and how many Yemeni militants with strictly local agendas will become dedicated enemies of the West in response to US military actions against them."
The one-sided analysis that reduces al-Qaeda to a security threat without examining causes or altering policies that leave whole nations grieved, while simultaneously treating the entire Muslim community as if it was inclined to war with the state, is built profoundly on the 9/11 experience, spearheaded by a very particular geopolitical imagination. And yet 9/11 is an event that has not been replicated to the same extent and magnitude anywhere else in the world in the ensuing ten years. Some argue that tightened security has deterred or prevented the replication of 9/11, however, much discourse in jihadi circles suggests that large-scale attacks on the US in particular are no longer necessary or advantageous because American forces are now spread all over "home" territory. Syed Saleem Shahzad, for example, suggested that the US-NATO war in Afghanistan was indispensable for al-Qaeda's goal of polarising the Muslim world. Thus, many security analysts are not sure if it is the post-9/11 security policies of targeted assassinations, interrogation, torture, rendition, indefinite detention and heightened border security that are working to prevent another 9/11, or the fact that al-Qaeda affiliates themselves have changed their strategy. Advancing an alternative theory, Charles Kurzman argues that large-scale attacks are less and less likely because the excess in al-Qaeda's violence has thwarted its campaigns for recruitment and mobilisation. Terrorism needs social support to survive and, in Kurzman's view, the al-Qaeda threat is stunted by a lack of widespread Muslim support. Thus, al-Qaeda's threat must be kept in perspective.
Numerous theories abound about al-Qaeda's central motivations, modus operandi, strategies and long-term plans. Yet despite the corpus of research papers, policy briefs and commission reports, relatively few theorists and policy-makers publicly recognise that al-Qaeda is composed of people who act to mitigate specific grievances which are plainly stated, and that such people have less reason to act violently when their grievances are properly accounted for and addressed. When viewed as a problem, the immediate response is to band-aid terrorism in all kinds of fancy policy prescriptions. When viewed from the perspective of accountability and responsibility, the obvious response is to dig deep and address the structural issues (e.g., economic, political and social factors) that motivate terrorists, and so seek to understand. If understanding al-Qaeda was truly the goal, after ten years of existential re-examination since September 2001, the al-Qaeda worldview would be patently obvious to policy-makers who would immediately recognise the counter-productive nature of violent counter-terrorism policies. Such people would recognise that regime changes, extended wars abroad and the eradication of select leaders do not make ideas go away, but in fact vindicate them and make them all the more compelling. State violence lends credibility to the claims of terrorist groups and can encourage domestic and local support for such groups, even in the face of repressive measures used by terrorists. It is clear that state violence and the occupation of Muslim countries perpetuates al-Qaeda's grievances and aggression because most transnational jihadi recruits look to fight the far enemy (western states) preferably nearby in locales of occupation like Iraq and Afghanistan, and al-Qaeda has never attacked non-interventionist states like Sweden, as bin Laden once aptly reminded the United States.
Another infrequently discussed issue about al-Qaeda is the increasing evidence that the movement and its ideas are not going away. Perceiving al-Qaeda's permanence may have led westerners to over-inflate al-Qaeda as a threat. The entrenchment of a group, even its permanence, however, does not translate necessarily into large-scale action, as evinced from the fact that some decades old terrorist organisations and domestic militias in the world conduct sporadic operations and are often found leaving violence for politics. In addition, the permanence of a terrorist movement is much less significant than changes in membership over time. When causes of terrorism are not properly addressed, an increase in membership of one group may indicate the improved determination of that group to see its mandate carried out; but, equally as likely, a decrease in membership of one group may indicate the rise of a new movement seeking to fill the void of its activism. Thus, there is no guarantee in the hypothetical destruction of al-Qaeda that its ideas (since al-Qaeda is itself a cause to adopt) will not be picked up by others, and thus, it is to the reasons behind its violent ideologies one must attend to with great care and attention.
There are a number of reasons al-Qaeda's ideas are intractable and a fixture for contemporary life, albeit a relatively small one compared with other global security threats. Such ideas must be dealt with systematically and directly, as Yasir Qadhi argues. Violence against these groups is not going to work, and here is why: to begin, the al-Qaeda network, or, what Christina Hellmich compellingly argues, the al-Qaeda brand, is extremely amorphous: its membership, or the allegiance of people to al-Qaeda affiliated ideas, is highly diffused across geographical space even while contingent or dependent on the realities and limits of various geopolitical spaces (e.g., political contexts on the ground). Second, the various al-Qaeda ideologies and the people who espouse them are resilient and dogged. In some cases, aspects of al-Qaeda thinking have been in development for decades and appear to be cementing. This is in part because state violence erodes support for people seeking political self-determination through non-violent means. Third, the transnational jihadi movement has proven itself highly capable of re-invention after major setbacks and is now configured in multiple groups that have divergent, sometimes localised, but not entirely competing purposes. For example, there is speculation, at the time of writing, that al-Qaeda fighters from Iraq have plainly or covertly joined the resistance fighters in Syria. The coordinated martyrdom operations in Damascus on 10 May, 2012 bore all of the hallmarks of al-Qaeda in Iraq's style of targeted attacks on government infrastructure amid civilian life with the express purpose of causing chaos. Al-Qaeda's Ayman al-Zawahiri also recently announced that the militia Harakat al-Shabaab al-mujahideen (al-shabaab) – conducting a localised battle for control of Somalia – has officially joined al-Qaeda. To what extent al-shabaab is interested in adopting al-Qaeda's trademark war against the "West" in a globalised war remains to be clarified. Chris Anzalone notes that it is more likely that al-shabaab seeks to derive benefit from the al-Qaeda affiliation than funnel its limited resources in the global jihad. He writes that
al-Shabab is most accurately seen as a type of "glocal" militant movement, a mainly localized militant movement that uses transnational rhetoric and maintains an operational capability to carry out attacks outside of its home base inside Somalia, primarily but not necessarily limited to regional countries in East Africa ... Of the two groups, [al-Qaeda Central; AQC] arguably has the most to gain from formalizing its relationship with al-Shabab, which continues to control vast swaths of territory in central and southern Somalia ... The control and governance of territory has long been a transnational jihadi dream and al-Shabab's exercise of governing authority, however basic, over large parts of southern and central Somalia is thus something that AQC leaders and transnational jihadis online have long heralded as one of the best examples of what a "jihadi state" can accomplish.
The fact that terrorism scholars have identified the ways that transnational jihadi ideas can be used for global or local ends signals not their diminishment, but rather their entrenchment. The fact that transnational jihadi ideas are directly controlling a quasi-governance structure over a geographical region (e.g., in parts of Somalia, Yemen and Afghanistan) is not evidence that such ideas are faltering, but rather that they are being re-packaged and re-deployed in new ways that may not have been intended or predicted by the initial founders of such ideas.
Fourth, al-Qaeda operatives employ the internet as an open space for information exchange and have continued to show determination in overcoming state censorship of their ideas. It is likely, however, that with this medium of activism, al-Qaeda will continue to struggle with keeping would-be recruits on a global jihadi path because many recruits find the local struggle more compelling. Democratised internet spaces are working for al-Qaeda affiliates, against al-Qaeda leaders and undermining core principles of al-Qaeda. The improved ability of any jihadi to post messages online is a challenge to the charismatic authority of well-known al-Qaeda leaders; this has altered the ability of lay-jihadis to direct the course of al-Qaeda-style violence in the individual's favour. Many commentators have noted that it may not be to the western government's advantage for this charismatic authority to be eroded. Without central guiding authority to put limits on jihadi activity, the range of discussions permitted and the types of operations that could be planned increase exorbitantly. The apparent "anything goes" approach of current jihadi activities appears to signal the reduced influence of these authorities. Additionally and somewhat ironically to the detriment of its ideas, while deeply antagonistic towards democracy, an individual jihadis' ability to voice his/her ideas is indebted to the model of the Greek agora upon which democratic spaces are in many ways modelled, and not to the model of elite consultation, or even student–teacher consultation in the Islamic paradigm. Fifth, transnational jihadism, despite counterterrorism efforts to freeze financial assets of known terrorists, close bank accounts, or control bank transfers, continues to have access to funding sufficient for covering the expense of its activities. Sixth, al-Qaeda operatives still frequently employ operations that require the self-death or self-immolation of fighters and thus, there is no flagging commitment among recruits in the willingness to die for the cause, even if lists of willing volunteers are themselves flagging at times. Often, when martyrdom operations appear to be in decline it is not the result of a movement's reduced determination, but rather due to changes in its military strategy and/or loss of popular support for such acts. Given these arguments, it is helpful to recognise that al-Qaeda, whether set of ideas, cause, or movement, cannot be defeated through violent counter-terrorism and since it is likely a permanent fixture of life for the immediate future, there are compelling reasons to find alternative strategies for ending grievance-induced political violence.
Excerpted from "Al-Qaeda and Sacrifice"
Copyright © 2012 Melissa Finn.
Excerpted by permission of Pluto Press.
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Table of Contents
1 From the Vantage Point of Sacrificial Violence: Al-Qaeda’s Worldview in Context
2 The Meanings of Sacrifice in Islam
3 Etymological Reflections on Sacrifice
4 Comparative Political Thought on War, Sacrifices, and Politics
5 The Limits of Sacrificial Subjectivity for Politics
6 Conclusion: Sacrificial Subjectivity for Acephalic Politics