To this new enemy, image is everything

Landscapes of the Jihad - Losing Arab Hearts and Minds
January 5, 2007

Richard Holbrook, the plain-speaking US diplomat who brokered the peace settlement for Bosnia and Herzegovina signed in Dayton, Ohio, posed the following question in relation to the War on Terror: "How can a man in a cave out-communicate the world's leading communications society?" The two books under review complement each other in that both address different dimensions of this question.

Faisal Devji's remarkable Landscapes of the Jihad shows that militant Islam is not a premodern tribal movement controlled by a man in a cave in the Tora Bora mountains. Rather, he argues, it is a network of contingent relations that has had transformative effects on the West and on traditional structures of Muslim authority. The lesson of America's wars in Vietnam and now Iraq is that the consequence of misunderstanding the enemy is humiliation and defeat.

If they want a more complete picture of the enemy they face, the architects of the West's response to the rise of Islamist militancy should read Landscapes of the Jihad . To begin with, they would see that jihadists cannot be traced back to an authentic and unifying religious doctrine. If this is a "new kind of war", as neoconservatives in Washington and London claim, it is because this enemy is different. It has no territorial base, no shared history and little in the way of shared beliefs - other than a hatred of the US and its allies.

Landscapes of the Jihad is not the first scholarly work to emphasise the postmodern character of al-Qaeda. Oliver Roy's influential Globalised Islam pointed out how today's jihadis are products of the very processes of globalisation that they claim to resist. Devji applies this thinking to the spectacle of suicide bombings. "Martyrdom achieves meaning," he argues, "only by being witnessed in the mass media."

Steve Tatham's Losing Arab Hearts and Minds reveals how the management of the mass media has become a significant and integrated component of US military planning. Why, then, were the US and its allies in the 2003 Iraq War out-communicated by Arab TV channels such as al-Jazeera? Given his role as the Royal Navy's spokesman on the coalition operation, Tatham was well placed to monitor the media war. His detailed analysis highlights a number of tactical errors of judgment. One such error was the belief that there was a "singular" body politic, referred to as the "Arab street", that slavishly followed the message disseminated by al-Jazeera. Another was the exclusion of Arab journalists from coalition briefings during the war. In the light of these factors, one begins to doubt whether any media strategy could have prevented the "loss" of Arab hearts and minds - even if one overlooks the presumption that Western powers had ever had them in the first place.

The cycle of mutual distrust and hatred needs to be situated in the bipolar thinking embodied in the "with us or against us" declaration issued by President George W. Bush immediately after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Intriguingly, the leadership of al-Qaeda also views the world through bipolar lenses: in Osama bin Laden's words, it is "global crusaderism" versus global jihadism. What distinguishes this era of bipolarity from the Cold War is that the enemy is not a geographical entity - it is not even necessarily foreign. Devji cleverly borrows from Jacques Derrida to contextualise the impossibility of defeating jihadism. Militant Islam works inside the West and its framing ideas of democracy and capitalism, and it does so "with the geographical, financial and technological mobility that defines globalisation itself".

Illustrations of the complex internal dynamics of the conflict can be found in Tatham's book on the media. The practice of showing footage of dead and captured coalition solidiers in the Arab media was denounced by The Sun newspaper as "sickening"; yet, in Britain, Sky News broke the taboo by carrying the images as well. The internal character of the conflict can also be seen in the contradictions of martyrdom. In one videotape, a martyr is seen kissing his beloved goodbye through her veil, an act that owes as much to Hollywood as it does to any Muslim tradition.

Another feature of the altered landscape of our post-9/11 world is the direct intervention of both sets of protagonists in each other's polities.

Both bin Laden and his right-hand man, Ayman al-Zawahiri, regularly speak directly to the American people, even to the extent of intervening in the electoral process. Four days before the 2004 presidential election, al-Jazeera broadcast a videotape in which America's most wanted man told the American people that their leaders were to blame for 9/11. "It never occurred to us," bin Laden explained to the camera, that the President would leave the people to face the horrors alone "because he thought listening to a child discussing her goat and its ramming was more important than the planes and their ramming of the skyscrapers".

By reinterpreting the West as a "metaphysical" rather than a geographical entity, Devji is able to effectively grasp the retreat to authoritarianism.

America can respond to the threat only by attacking itself, undermining its civil liberties and impeding the very mobility - of people, finance and capital - on which its economic might has been built: "In doing so, America paradoxically takes on the role of its erstwhile foe, the Soviet Union, as if an act of mourning for the passing of the Cold War."

Devji's representation of al-Qaeda as an ideologically fragmented yet thoroughly globalised force is compelling. Less so is his claim that the disappearance of territoriality is accompanied by the disappearance of politics as a goal-oriented activity. In support of this argument, he runs together a series of bin Laden's accusations, which he characterises as "a stereotyped litany of global wrongs more ethical than political in nature".

That some of these are shared by other anti-globalisation movements leads Devji to draw the counterintuitive conclusion that such claims to universal justice "put al-Qaeda squarely in the ranks of global movements like environmentalism".

A great deal more substantive argumentation is required before Devji can sustain the argument that jihadism is just another global protest movement.

But even when the book is at its least convincing, it reminds the reader that it is sometimes better to be interesting and wrong than boring and right.

Tim Dunne is head of politics, Exeter University.

Landscapes of the Jihad: Militancy, Morality, Modernity

Author - Faisal Devji
Publisher - Hurst
Pages - 184
Price - £15.95
ISBN - 1 85065 775 0

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