Al-Qaeda and Anarchism: A Historian’s Reply to Terrorology: Response to Commentaries

Al-Qaeda and Anarchism: A Historian’s Reply to Terrorology: Response to Commentaries
James L. Gelvin
Terrorism and Political Violence, Vol.20, No.4, 2008 (606–611)

I would like to thank the editors of Terrorism and Political Violence for opening up the pages of their journal for this exchange, particularly because it enables me to engage with those I would not normally have an opportunity to engage with and to reach an audience I rarely get a chance to reach. I would particularly like to thank David C. Rapoport for his interest in and continued support for this project, despite the many differences that separate our analytical approaches.

I shall direct my remarks primarily to three of the four respondents. While I value the scholarship and observations of the fourth—John Kelsay—he and I agree on just about everything, with one reservation on his part. I have little to add to his comments, and shall speak to his reservation in the course of my remarks below.

George Esenwein and Richard Bach Jensen raise many of the same issues, so I shall address their concerns together. Both, it seems, have made the study of specific aspects of nineteenth-century anarchism their life’s work, so I am not surprised that both treat my outsider’s view of anarchism with skepticism. Fair enough. But sometimes an outsider’s view can be refreshing, particularly since, when it comes to presenting the story of those you study to a wider public, it is a well-known tendency for scholars to switch from being judges to being advocates. In a review of an earlier version of this article, for example, Walter Laqueur differentiates nineteenth-century anarchists from al-Qaedists on the basis of the fact that the former purportedly held to some ‘‘code of honor’’1—this, in spite of the acts of violence recounted by both Esenwein and Jensen in their responses against people most of us would consider ‘‘innocents.’’ So, to set the record straight and allay the fears of those who would uphold the reputation of anarchists past: I agree that al-Qaedists are a nasty, violent bunch; I also agree that only some—not all—nineteenth-century European anarchists were nasty and violent. But just as one cannot understand nineteenth-century anarchism merely by looking at acts of violence perpetrated by (some of) its adherents, one cannot understand al-Qaeda either merely by looking at acts of violence perpetrated by its adherents. The purpose of my article is to make sense of al-Qaeda—to typologize it—by locating it within one or another category familiar to social scientists. The location I found most appropriate is anarchism.

Let us start off with the problem of defining anarchism—a problem Esenwein says is not really a problem at all. Esenwein states that anarchism has a clear meaning for scholars who, like himself, toil in the vineyards of its study. (And he does more: he provides us with a reference to his formulation in a book tellingly called The New Dictionary of the History of IDEAS [caps. mine]). I am not sure whether the implication here is that anarchism has a ‘‘we-know-it-when-we-see-it’’ meaning or something more precise. It seems that it must be the former, because the formulation he proposes in his response not only strikes me as vague, but as non-exclusive (I know several libertarian Republicans who fit most of his bill) and, at the same time, too narrowly-conceived. Esenwein approaches anarchism not only solely as an intellectual tradition, but as an intellectual tradition that might be gleaned from but one moment (and geographic distribution) of anarchist history.

Both Esenwein and Jensen present us with their own list of attributes they associate with this intellectual tradition: anarchism (at least as they present its nineteenth-century European variety) is pro-freedom, pro-individual, anti-religion (although I assume both mean anti-organized religion and not religion in its more antinomian incarnations), not nearly as focused on an idealized past as contemporary jihadi movements (a statement that I doubt would hold up to scrutiny) and so on. Inasmuch as it is applied to certain nineteenth-century European anarchist movements, much of this list is fine with me, so long as we keep in mind the articulative nature of anarchism; i.e., that anarchist discourse is consistent over time and space in terms of its overall contours, even though, in terms of referents and sources and style of argumentation, every anarchist moment is bricolage (a point that makes Leonard Binder’s response to my article useful in a way he probably did not foresee when he wrote it). I thus have no problem with the idea that while many nineteenth-century European anarchists hated the Church and extolled the virtues of human freedom and individualism, twenty-first-century Islamo-anarchists hate those they define as kuffar (non-believers) and extol the virtues of—well, living in a community of virtue once it is freed from the clutches of kuffar.

Having listed the attributes he associates with anarchism, Esenwein takes his argument one step further, stating, ‘‘As an offshoot of the Enlightenment, anarchism is grounded in rationalism, and, because of this, it has little in common with the irrational and highly subjective belief system that both informs and justifies the violent actions of Al Qaeda.’’ Let us, for the moment, set aside the question of whether the urge to restore a mythologized, communitarian Gemeinschaft is more or less rational than the urge to restore a mythologized caliphate. Let us also, for the moment, set aside Leonard Binder’s and John Kelsay’s contention that it might be argued that seventh-century Kharijism can be situated within the anarchist framework (a contention with which I am not particularly comfortable, inasmuch as it ignores the differences between the pre-modern and modern social imaginary, but so be it). We still have the problem of taking nineteenth-century anarchism’s grounding in rationalism for granted (in addition to Daniel Guerin’s reference to anarchism as a ‘‘visceral revolt,’’ Terry M. Perlin defines anarchism as ‘‘a mood of perpetual rebellion’’ and Emma Goldman once called it ‘‘the last desperate struggle of outraged and exasperated human nature for breathing-space and life’’2). We also have the problem of the nineteenth-century movement’s unmistakable debt to anti-Enlightenment Romanticism (hence, the well-known story of Bakunin and Wagner together at the barricades). And there is something even more important: while Esenwein chooses to identify anarchism with a specific intellectual tradition, others (such as Guerin, Perlin, and Goldman) view it psychologistically, while still others identify it as distinctive and historically-circumscribed reaction to nineteenth=early twentieth-century events, or as a sub-category subsumed within the category of political violence or eschatology or, as I do, a distinct political phenomenon similar as a type to, say, nationalism.3 Esenwein is free to accept, amend, or reject my definition of anarchism; providing such a definition, however, is not superfluous.

And so, in my article, after a critique of the terrorology paradigm (in which I take terrorologists to task for making political violence their analytical centerpiece), I present my own five-part definition of anarchism and examine the closeness of the fit with al-Qaeda. Although I repeat this definition two more times in the article, Jensen chooses instead to work off an earlier iteration of my argument which I published elsewhere—one that I clearly mark off as a first, preliminary iteration—for my definition of anarchism. He does not address the definition I present in my article at all. There is no mention of terrorism or political violence in that definition. I am not ‘‘convinced’’ that terrorism or political violence is ‘‘one of the normative features’’ of anarchism, as Esenwein states I am. Just as nationalism can accommodate both a Milosevic and a Gandhi in its ranks, anarchism might just as easily accommodate both a Zawahiri and a Tolstoy in its. Nor, when I do discuss terrorism and political violence in my article, do I repeat the assertion that anarchists committed acts of violence for the sake of violence alone, as Jensen states I do. It should be obvious that such a claim has no place in either my current definition of anarchism or in my overall argument. As a matter of fact, I provide a laundry list of possible meanings of or reasons for anarchist—and al-Qaedist—violence. Both Esenwein and Jensen seem to regard the phrases ‘‘anarchism makes for itself the claim of being defensive in nature,’’ and ‘‘anarchism targets the very system that is, for anarchists, the wellspring of subjugation,’’ contained in point #3 of my definition, as coded references to terrorism. I can assure them they are not. And, of course, it is more than a stretch to claim I equate anarchism with anti-Semitism in any meaningful way.

There is one final point raised by Jensen that should be addressed. One of the objections Jensen raises to the equation of al-Qaeda and anarchism is the caliphate issue. Jensen assumes that a caliphate would be a hierarchically-organized ‘‘superstate’’ under the rule of a emperor-like caliph, and counterposes that notion to the ‘‘fragmentation of authority’’ he ascribes to anarchists. This is wrong on three counts. First, it misrepresents the legal and religious role historically assumed by caliphs and ascribed to them by any Islamic tradition recognized by bin Laden, Zawahiri, and others. In other words, Jensen’s vision of a caliphate more closely resembles Montesquieu’s vision of ‘‘Oriental despotism’’ than any ‘‘traditional Islamic’’ one. Second, as I state in the article, ‘‘much (probably altogether too much)’’ has been made of the caliphate issue in the West. This is probably because caliphs and caliphates reek of exoticism and medievalism. Finally, Jensen assumes that we know precisely what al-Qaedists mean when they call their countercommunity a caliphate. As I state in the article, throughout history it has been commonplace for anarchists not to define their counter-communities rigorously—if, indeed, they define them at all. Nevertheless, whatever al-Qaedists mean by the term—and in my article I examine three different ways they have used it—we can be sure of one thing: They do not envision the establishment of a superstate with the disciplinary attributes and hierarchies of a modern state.

Leonard Binder’s response to my article provides a useful counterpoint to John Kelsay’s for anyone interested in the sort of debates about textual analysis, Orientalism, and Islamic=Middle Eastern exceptionalism that have consumed scholars of Islam and=or the Middle East for more than a generation. Binder begins his response with two assertions. First, he argues that ‘‘Western political-theoretical concepts’’—by which I assume he means standard social science categories—are irrelevant when it comes to dealing with things Islamic (with the possible exception of the Kharajites). Second, he argues that one not only has to be cognizant of local traditions—what he terms the ‘‘typical Islamic conceptual schema’’—but that these traditions are impermeable and have a deterministic role when it comes to the thought processes of those subjected to them. I strongly disagree with both assertions which, since the late 1970s, have been held by a steadily declining number of scholars in the field of Middle East studies. I believe the first assertion to be patently absurd and am bemused by the fact that Binder treats so cavalierly the very principles upon which his discipline rests. The ‘‘West’’ and ‘‘Islam’’ are not, after all, hermetic categories. The second assertion assumes a single, essentialized ‘‘conceptual schema’’ to which Muslims are subject, perhaps with attributive, but not categorical, variations. This is unpersuasive, particularly because it tends to ignore the fact that the salafism about which Binder speaks—a set of strategies for the selection, analysis and application of texts—is but one such set of strategies applied to those ends, and hardly a dominant one among Muslims worldwide. That being said, I would certainly agree with the rather banal assertion that understanding the meanings ascribed by jihadis to such concepts as ‘‘takfir’’ is as important for deciphering Islamo-anarchist texts as understanding the meanings ascribed by nineteenth-century anarchists to such concepts as ‘‘general strike’’ is for deciphering eurogenic anarchist texts.

There is much, too, in the narrative part of Binder’s response with which I agree, although I would reiterate the concerns I raised in my article about the limitations of this style of intellectual history. From reading, watching, and listening to a variety of texts emanating from al-Qaeda-style jihadis and their sympathizers, I concur with Binder’s points that Zawahiri is probably the intellectually stronger member of the Zawahiri=bin Laden team; that the discourses used by Zawahiri, bin Laden, and al-Zarqawi differ in many of their particulars (as well as their sources); and that in comparing the three, al-Zarqawi stands as the odd man out. I underscore these points in my article. And while all this contributes to a more nuanced argument, it hardly refutes my principal contention about the correspondence of al-Qaeda-style jihadism with anarchism.

Three additional factors undercut Binder’s argument. First, Binder’s critique of Zawahiri is weakened by the fact that it is, apparently, based upon a single text which Binder reads outside its temporal and functional contexts. Binder, like many analysts, is, in effect, ignoring the polemical and transient features of a jihadi text and instead reading it in its entirety as a timeless rendering of abstract principles. It should be evident that Zawahiri’s discussion of past mistakes made by Egyptian Islamists in his Knights under the Prophet’s Banner is of an entirely different order from Zawahiri’s vision of caliphal restoration presented in the same text, particularly when viewed in light of the widely circulated rumor that Zawahiri had acted as a police informant. Second, Binder is mistaken when he states that bin Laden differs from Zawahiri in that he does not call for a restoration of the caliphate. Indeed, such calls have been made and can even be found in a source both he and I use (Lawrence) and which I cite in both its Arabic and English versions. Nevertheless, as I state above, how such a call should be taken and what meaning should be attributed to the terms ‘‘caliphate’’ and ‘‘caliph’’ is sometimes ambiguous, sometimes contradictory. This brings me to my final point, also made above, but worth repeating nonetheless: I would caution against the temptation to render jihadi notions of the ideal counter-community they wish to establish simply as ‘‘state,’’ with all that that term connotes, despite our terminological limitations and despite whatever way stations (‘‘amirates’’) jihadis might be forced to inhabit on their way to establishing that counter-community. As can be seen from any number of texts attributed to al-Qaeda and its supporters—many of which I cite in my article—such a rendering turns explicit condemnations of nationalism, nation-states, and the nation-state system on their heads.

As problematic as I find Binder’s response to be, I appreciate the fact that he takes the issue of typologizing al-Qaeda-style jihadism as seriously as I do (although I doubt his quest to differentiate between the discourse of Zawahiri and bin Laden in order to drive a wedge between the two will bear much fruit). So I want to conclude my remarks by addressing the issue of the policy-implications of my analysis. Recently, a blogger wrote a reply to a Chronicle of Higher Education posting on this topic, saying,

Only an academic could argue about the fine distinctions between ‘islamo-fascist’ and ‘jihadist.’ Perhaps we need to have a separate discussion to determine the appropriate term, but the distinction sure wouldn’t matter to the fanatic with the bomb.4

Point taken. Nevertheless, I agree with Binder that typologizing al-Qaeda and similar movements does have an importance that transcends the social scientist’s usual aversion to constructing categories of one. As Timothy Garton Ash recently wrote in The Guardian,

[F]inding the right words is part of stopping [terrorists]. It means we’ve correctly identified our real enemies. It also means we don’t unnecessarily create new enemies by making all Muslims feel that they’re being treated as terrorists.5

One might even go further: Viewing al-Qaeda as anarchism—a discourse whose appearance (although not wider resonance) at any given time in the modern world has everything to do with chance and nothing to do with circumstances—and (pace Binder) differentiating between vanguardist Islamo-anarchist movements, which operate autonomously from their immediate surroundings, and popular Islamonationalist movements, which are fully entwined with their immediate surroundings, point to the possibility of a more nuanced strategy toward confronting al-Qaeda and its ilk. Such a strategy would take into account (read: exploit) the variations among groups now lumped together within the category ‘‘terrorist’’—groups whose disparate goals naturally put them at odds with one another. It would also sever the highly speculative connection between eliminating the imminent threat posed by Islamo-anarchist groups and engaging in uncertain experiments aimed at transforming complex, alien political and social systems. After all—and here I am sure Jensen would agree—the glory days of anarchism (1880–1920) ended when campaigns against anarchists became more effective and populations not only became inured to the state and economic systems in which they lived, but viewed them as the norm. That was when they came to view anarchists simply as troublemakers or just plain irrelevant.


2. Terry M. Perlin, ‘‘The Recurrence of Defiance,’’ in Contemporary Anarchism, ed. Terry M. Perlin (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Books, 1979), 3; Emma Goldman, ‘‘The Psychology of Political Violence,’’ Anarchism and other Essays (Charleston, SC: BiblioBazaar, 2007), 63.
3. James Joll presents a slightly different list of categories: ‘‘One can look at the anarchist tradition in three different ways—as a doctrine; that is to say, a set of ideas about social organization and about social relations; as a movement, that is to say as a technique of revolution; and as a certain type of temperament, based on a desire to push things to extremes, to carry ideas through to a logical practical end, to overthrow society from top to bottom, a temperament which in many cases enjoys or believes in the act of revolution for its own sake, without worrying about the consequences of the revolution later.’’ Joll, ‘‘Anarchism—A Living Tradition,’’ in Anarchism Today, ed. David E. Apter and James Joll (London: MacMillan, 1970), 213.

About @ndy

I live in Melbourne, Australia. I like anarchy. I don't like nazis. I enjoy eating pizza and drinking beer. I barrack for the greatest football team on Earth: Collingwood Magpies. The 2021 premiership's a cakewalk for the good old Collingwood.
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1 Response to Al-Qaeda and Anarchism: A Historian’s Reply to Terrorology: Response to Commentaries

  1. professor rat says:

    Our glory days ended in 1920…well I’m sure Anarkismo and Libcom would heartily agree!

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