The Orphans of Modernity and the Clash of Civilisations

Global Dialogue, Vol 4, No 2, Spring 2002, pp. 1-16


Several years ago, I remember seeing a picture of Osama bin Laden that ominously foretold the tragedy that would come on 11 September. The picture showed bin Laden, with his typical slothful and even indifferent look, sitting while gripping his Kalashnikov with neatly organised and impressive looking books filling the background. What caught my attention in this picture were the titles of these books. With the help of a magnifying glass, I was able to figure out the titles, and to my surprise, and dismay, these were the same titles that I have in my own personal library. I could just as easily have been looking at a section of my own library where I keep books on classical Islamic jurisprudence.

There they were-the texts that represent the cream and kernel of the intellectual tradition of Islamic civilisation. With very few exceptions, bin Laden's library contained no works by modern writers. Nearly all of his books were heavy-duty profound works on pre-modern Islamic law and legal theory. Bin Laden is not a Muslim jurist, and he does not have the training that would enable him to read or understand these classical texts. In fact, much of what is actually in these books would condemn everything bin Laden represents, but he was making a symbolic point. The point was not simply to claim Islamic authenticity. With his paltry and rustic furniture, Kalashnikov and tradition-oriented library, bin Laden symbolised a rebellion against the prevailing paradigms of post-colonialism and the culture of modernity. His displayed books co-opted the image of the Islamic tradition-as if the Islamic tradition was poised there in the background ready to assert itself and claim its rightful place. However, while the Kalashnikov in his hands appeared to stand guard over the tradition and protect it, in reality, the Kalashnikov threatened to marginalise and even completely obscure the books. The Kalashnikov looked rugged, scratched and used, as if it had been fired and reloaded time after time. The books looked clean, well organised, new and most certainly unused. They seemed to be there for largely symbolic, and superficial, purposes. They were there to legitimate and sanctify, but otherwise the voice of the books was silent and muted. The only real power, and true voice, was that of the gun in bin Laden's hands.

Bin Laden's Nihilism

The image portrayed in this picture serves to illustrate some of the mythologies and symbolic constructs prevalent in the current war against terrorism. This conflict is plagued with claims about tradition, authenticity, values, culture and civilisation. Every conflict has its mythologies based on variant narratives of history and justice, but not every conflict necessarily becomes one about culture and the making or unmaking of civilisation. Not every conflict becomes one about alternative versions of the good or moral life, or about absolutist claims of good versus evil. But the war against terrorism has become, for many commentators, as if it were a code expression for a portentous showdown between civilisations, in which one vision of the good life must defeat or subdue another such vision. Yet it is doubtful that bin Laden and his supporters have any particular vision of civilisation or the good life. In fact, one can say that bin Laden has consistently exhibited a distinct sense of amoral nihilism.

Unlike Muslim revolutionaries of the past, such as Hasan al-Banna or Mawdudi, bin Laden has shown no great facility with the written word. Neither has he shown much interest in systematic thought, even of the revolutionary type. He does not evince much familiarity with the constructs or methodologies of Islamic jurisprudence. In fact, bin Laden considers the vast majority of the Islamic intellectual tradition to be a bid'a-a deviant and heretical innovation from the true and uncorrupted religion.

Moreover, unlike the national liberation movement leaders of the 1950s and 1960s, bin Laden is not interested in publicly claiming responsibility, or in his view taking credit, for his attacks. He has consistently refused to acknowledge his responsibility for the 11 September atrocities. He has praised them and praised those who carried them out, but has never clearly confessed the responsibility of his group. Again, he has cited a whole host of grievances, including the US military presence in the Persian Gulf, Israel's treatment of the Palestinians, the embargo imposed against Iraq, the spread of Western culture and consumerism in Muslim countries, American support of autocratic and non-Islamic governments in the Middle East, the alleged Shi'ite and Jewish conspiracy to destroy Islam, and the Western exploitation of Muslim wealth and natural resources. But, unlike the Palestinian Hamas or Lebanese Hizbollah, for instance, he does not make a list of demands or articulate specific objectives whose fulfilment would bring an end to his attacks. Bin Laden's violence has a global and apoplectic quality to it; it seeks to do nothing less than alter the power structures of the world. (In the statements broadcast on the al-Jazeera satellite television channel, bin Laden claimed that a few more strikes like that which took place on 11 September would cause the economic power of the United States to collapse.)

Unlike Islamic revolutionaries of the past, bin Laden is not focused on overthrowing particular Muslim governments, restoring the caliphate, or even implementing the rule of shari'a (Islamic law) in particular states. Rather, he and his followers are the orphaned children of post-colonialism. He employs the technological instruments of modernity; for instance, in many of his pictures he appears smiling with a cell phone in hand. But bin Laden and his followers do not see themselves as partners in the culture of modernity. It is as if the modern world has imposed a fate upon them that is evil, and this fate must be resisted, even if the resistance is suicidal or utterly self-destructive. In what way were the 11 September attacks on the United States supposed to shift the balance of power in the modern world? In what ways were these attacks supposed to contribute to destabilising, undermining or overthrowing the corrupt regimes in power in the Middle East? I think there are no coherent or even rational responses to these questions and, in part, this is why I describe bin Laden's thought as nihilistic. The point of the attacks was to protest against modernity by destroying its symbols, to deconstruct what exists without much thought for what can be constructed in its place, and to draw attention, in the most negative way, to the plight of Muslims in the post-colonial age.

Some commentators, most notably the students of Samuel Huntington, have argued that 11 September represented an episode in the long and protracted struggle between two different and distinct civilisations-the Western and the Islamic. Some have even confused civilisational supremacy and superiority, arguing that Western civilisation is credible and influential in the modern age because it is superior to Islamic civilisation. These commentators treat civilisational paradigms and conflicts like beauty competitions, in which we engage in the presumptuous act of crowning those of superior beauty. In this article, I will argue that contrary to such assertions, 11 September is not a symptom of a clash of civilisations, and that the very paradigm of the clash of civilisations is fraught with methodological errors which make it a particularly unhelpful way of understanding the current conflict.

US Policy and Civilisational Conflict

In many ways, the concept of clashing civilisations is one that cannot be explicitly endorsed by political forces in the United States. President George W. Bush has emphasised that his administration is not launching a war against Islam, because Islam is a religion of peace. But quite aside from the graceful declarations of the US administration intended to maintain the appearance of religious impartiality and political propriety, various governmental policies and discourses easily feed into the paradigm of the clash of civilisations. Aspects of US counter-terrorism measures either reveal the influence of this paradigm upon American politicians or lend support to its proponents.

Since the terrorist attacks of 11 September, President Bush and his administration have consistently claimed that they are engaged in a battle between good and evil. Although such language is employed to galvanise political support, the symbolism is significant. In the political symbolisms of President Bush, the good is to be equated with civilisation and, naturally, the evil is not. President Bush invited the world to choose sides: one had either to join the forces of good in the world, the upholders of civilisation and civility, or conversely, be counted among the evildoers, the dwellers in the darkness of barbarity. Having adopted this dichotomous worldview, the logical next step was to sort through the nations of the world and categorise them accordingly. Bush was perpetuating an old and well-established colonial habit. Colonialism divided the world into the civilised and the uncivilised, and declared that the white man's burden was to civilise the world, by force if necessary. It projected the exact same paradigm upon Islam. Accordingly, orientalists, who were often in the service of colonial powers, claimed that Islam divided the world into two abodes. They presumed that Muslims wished to convert the whole world, by force if necessary, to Islam. In reality, it was the coloniser, and not the colonised, that had adopted a missionary or crusading attitude vis-a-vis the other.

The fact that Bush issues repeated assurances of his good will towards the Muslim world is unremarkable. One does not have to go far back in history to find similar assurances by colonising powers as they proceeded to dismantle traditional Islamic institutions and challenge Islamic epistemologies. Again, orientalists typically insisted that the Islamic tradition was generally decent, but that it lacked essential features necessary for rational modernisation. It is not so much that orientalists deprecated Islam as a religion; rather, they cast serious doubts on the ability of what might be called "active" or "dynamic" Islam to deal with rational modernity. Politically, the attempt to privatise and marginalise religious values and institutions was driven by practical and immediate interests in combating Islamic resistance to colonialism. Therefore, anti-colonial Islamists were typically branded as zealots, militants or fanatics.

Successive American administrations have tended to be suspicious of politically active Islam. And the current administration's foreign and domestic policies do evince a discriminatory and unbalanced approach towards Muslims. At the most basic domestic level, consecutive American administrations have consistently categorised Jewish and Christian fundamentalist movements and white supremacist terrorist groups as a low law enforcement and surveillance priority compared to Islamic fundamentalist or pro-Palestinian groups functioning in the United States. A powerful point in case is the anthrax attacks that occurred in the weeks after 11 September. Once it became clear that neither Muslims nor Arabs were responsible for these attacks, media interest practically all but vanished and the governmental resources dedicated to apprehending the culprits were cut by more than half.

Furthermore, the Bush administration passed into law the "Patriot Act", which targeted Arabs and Muslims in particular, instituted mass detentions of them without charge, and froze the assets of many Muslim civil organisations simply on the basis of speculation that they aided terrorist attacks against Israelis or because they provided humanitarian supplies to orphaned children in Palestine. Even when a Christian fundamentalist, Pastor Jerry Vines, accused the Prophet Mohammad of being "a demon-possessed paedophile" and Islam of being a terroristic religion, President Bush reacted by merely noting his disagreement, instead of expressing outrage or condemning this type of religious bigotry. Compounding the problem, John Ashcroft, Bush's attorney-general and the person responsible for implementing the anti-terrorism laws against Muslims, made the rather ignorant assertion that the difference between Christianity and Islam is that in Christianity, God sent his son to die for humankind, but in Islam, God demands that humans send their sons to die for him. To date, when asked to explain the basis for this claim, Ashcroft has refused to apologise or even to admit his limited knowledge of Islamic theology or law.

Double Standards

If one examines the overall context of American policies, it is difficult to make sense of the morality behind Bush's language of good versus evil. The United States, for instance, has not taken great exception to the Hindu fundamentalist government in India and its offensive human rights record in Kashmir. Neither have we exhibited much concern over the role of Jewish and Christian fundamentalist organisations in aggravating the violence in the Middle East. Nevertheless, in what appeared to many Arabs as a remarkably hypocritical stance, Bush condemned Yasser Arafat's autocratic administration and declared that a proper Palestinian democracy is a prerequisite for peace with Israel. Yet Israel, despite its consistent and systematic brutal mistreatment of the Palestinians, continues to enjoy unabated American support. The absurdity of our policies vis-a-vis Arabs and Muslims was underscored when Bush saw fit to call men strongly suspected of committing war crimes, such as Israel's prime minister, Ariel Sharon, and Major-General Amos Yaron, director-general of the Israeli defence ministry, "men of peace".

This kind of attitude was again echoed when the United States refused to support, and in fact obstructed, international efforts at investigating Palestinian allegations of massacres committed by Israeli troops in the Jenin refugee camp and elsewhere.1 George Galloway, the British Labour member of Parliament, captured the sentiment felt by many Arabs and Muslims when he told the House of Commons:

People being crushed by falling masonry and steel or incinerated by fire from an aerial attack, look, sound, and smell exactly the same whether they are in Beirut, the West Bank, Baghdad, or Manhattan. Arabs and Muslims believe, and they are right to believe, that we do not consider their blood as valuable as our own-as our policy in decades of our history makes abundantly clear.2

In order to understand the basis of this belief, we do not have to go far back in history. The humanitarian tragedy caused by the US-led sanctions against Iraq is staggering. The results of the sanctions, which include the deaths of one million Iraqi children, have been described as genocidal, yet various British and American administrations have shown only extremely guarded concern. The problem is further compounded by the complicity of Washington's client states, such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain. The not entirely indefensible perception of people such as bin Laden is that these client states are not sovereign. They seem to play the role of British and American dependencies from the colonial age, being led by obscenely wealthy, insulated and autocratic elites who are well-protected by the US military.

The United States has reportedly transported dozens of individuals suspected of having connections with Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda terrorist organisation to countries such as Egypt and Jordan for the explicit purpose of having them tortured in order to extract information. This practice, known as "rendition", is a violation of all civilised international treaties and conventions, not to mention all norms of morality and decency. It is impossible to overstate the impact of reports such as this on the credibility of the United States in the Middle East, especially when Washington insists on the language of good against evil as a justification for its policies. Reports regarding the conditions under which prisoners are being held at the US military base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, are similarly detrimental to the standing of the United States.

Closer to the issue of the clash of civilisations, the Bush administration appears to have entered into a symbiotic relationship with so-called experts on the "Islamic threat". The culture of these experts evinces a clear suspicion of any manifestations of an active socio-political Islam. It also tends to be uncritically supportive of any party that might be ideologically opposed to the Islamists, such as Israel. The writings of these experts are plagued by anxieties about such things as a Muslim "fifth column" in the West, sleeping Muslim terrorist cells, and a volatile, yet at times dormant, system of belief that they call political Islam. After 11 September, these so-called experts have suddenly been propelled into prominence, where they repeatedly address Senate hearings, attend White House meetings, and appear on virtually every major television or radio programme. Their tracts fill the chambers of senators and representatives, and the offices of the intelligence community in the United States.

Reportedly acting upon the advice of such experts, President Bush has demanded that Muslim countries revise their educational curriculums, and especially the way Islamic theology and law are taught so as to combat bigotry and hate and make the world safe from terrorism. For all practical purposes, Bush also called for the abolition of the madrassa (Islamic school) system in the Muslim world. But considering everything that the Bush administration has said about the madrassas and their role, what is shocking is the ignorance of American politicians and their terrorism experts about the historical and sociological function of the madrassas. For what it is worth, as someone who spent a good part of his life receiving instruction in the madrassas of Egypt, I can attest that the American administration's proclamations on this subject are, to say the least, overbroad generalisations that are factually incorrect.

But besides the issue of accuracy, the Bush administration's statements in this regard are awfully reminiscent of the systematic effort by colonial powers to dismantle traditional Islamic educational institutions in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as part of their "civilising mission" in the Muslim world. Significantly, colonial powers focused their critical gaze upon the perceived deficiencies of Muslim society while consistently overlooking their own domestic social failures, such as the disenfranchisement and subjugation of women. As an ex-governor of Texas, Bush must be well aware of the type of racism and bigotry that plagues our own educational systems, so it is odd that his administration should focus on the production of hate in the Muslim world instead of focusing on racism, which arguably has become an endemic American ailment, or on dealing with the prejudiced and inaccurate way that Islam is taught in US public schools.

War against Islam?

President Bush's colourful language about the "axis of evil" and the "crusade" against terrorists has highlighted the markedly absolutist character of American conceptions of the "other". The absolutist and polarising policies of the US administration post-11 September have led some commentators to speak of a "clash of fundamentalisms"-the fundamentalism of bin Laden against that of Bush.3 They hold that the current war against terrorism is being waged by two equally reactionary and fanatical forces, each labouring under a dogmatic and essentialised worldview. This argument, however, is flawed because it is inaccurate to equate the morality of bin Laden's and Bush's worldviews. Regardless of how some aspects of the war against terrorism might be reminiscent of colonialism, the type of theology that drives bin Laden is founded on a total disregard of any standards of civility or principles of humanity. Nevertheless, in some important respects, the rhetoric we employ in the war against terrorism, when coupled with a paradigm of clashing civilisations, does have the effect of perpetuating religious bigotry and of dehumanising the "other", however that "other" is defined.

Following 11 September, there has been a virtual avalanche of publications expressing unrestrained animosity to Islam as a religion and Muslims as a people. Two particularly sinister works that attempt to demonise all politically active Muslim individuals or organisations are Steven Emerson's American Jihad: The Terrorists among Us (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2002), and Daniel Pipes's Militant Islam Reaches America (New York: W. W. Norton, 2002). Both these works brand all American Muslims who are critical of Israeli policies as potential terrorist threats.

I have no qualms in describing what took place on 11 September as the undoing of all that is civilised or decent. By any legal or moral measure, what took place was an act of immoral barbarism that exhibited a suicidal and destructive psychosis. The issue that concerns me here, however, is not the assessment of the immorality of the 11 September attacks; rather, I am interested in assessing the morality and civility of our discourse in response to the attacks.

There are several aspects of our anti-terrorism policies that contribute to a symbolic leap from a declared "war against terrorism" to a "war against Islam". Initially, it is important to keep in mind that the moment we intimate that we in the West are civilised and Islam is barbaric, we effectively equate Islam and terrorism. The civilised West and uncivilised "other" is a frame of mind that is inherent in the very idea of the clash of civilisations because no one, not even Huntington and his supporters, truly believes the claim that the purportedly "clashing civilisations" are equal in moral merit or ethical value. Logically, it is possible for the good to clash with the good, but the socially constructed imagination will find this a theoretical possibility difficult to accept. If two civilisations are clashing, the natural assumption will be that one is good and the other is bad, and that we, whoever the "we" might be, are necessarily the good. In social psychology, this is often referred to as the binary instinct of "us" versus "them".

In the current conflict, this is especially pertinent because the US administration has solidified a dichotomous view of the world by intimating that the world can be divided into good or evil, without nuances or in-betweens. Since the US administration has asserted our goodness, then, by definition, whomever we clash with must necessarily be evil.4 This is all the more so when we adopt paradigms such as the axis of evil or rhetorical concepts such as "rogue states". Such terms run counter to the idea of specific and individual liability and fault, and significantly contribute to the idea of collective and generalisable fault. Effectively, what this type of language connotes is that there are bad nations of people, and not just guilty individuals. Again, at the symbolic and emotive level, this type of language contributes to an environment in which bigotry and prejudice thrive. At the heart of bigotry and prejudice is the willingness to generalise about a people and to consider these generalisations incontrovertible and unassailable. When our leadership presumes itself capable of generalising about whole nations, branding them as evil, we set a normative example that supports the creation of binary categories and, in short, the flourishing of hate literature of the type we have witnessed recently.

If our response to criminal behaviour is less than principled, all we accomplish is to contribute to the diluting of the standards of justice and morality. Such dilution, in turn, contributes to the thriving of unprincipled and opportunistic hateful discourses on Islam in which the paradigm of the clash of civilisations is exploited. Hate speech, like terrorism, is a form of barbarism, and we do not make a very convincing case for the civility of our culture if we respond to the barbarism of terror with the primitiveness of binary categories.

Methodological Problems My argument thus far has focused on the social and political impact that the paradigm of the clash of civilisations could have when considered in the context of our current policies towards Muslims and of the history of colonialism. Nevertheless, the fact that this paradigm might have unfavourable implications or have been exploited by some does not address the coherence of the theory itself. Regardless of its implications, the theory could be historically grounded in facts that, unpleasant as they may be, must be acknowledged. There is already a large body of literature on the historical validity of this paradigm, and I am not going analyse this literature here. But there several methodological difficulties that ought to be considered when thinking about cultural values and the role they purportedly play. The first point pertains to what I will call "claims of lineage", the second pertains to "claims about the other", the third relates to "the enterprise of meaning" and the fourth addresses what I call "competence".

Claims of lineage. Proponents of the notion of the clash of civilisations seem to rely on an unfounded claim about the specificity and purity of particular values. Accordingly, they are willing to classify particular values as squarely Judaeo-Christian while others are Islamic. It is as if values have a genealogy that can be clearly and precisely ascertained, which then can be utilised in classifying what properly belongs to the West and what belongs to the Islamic "other". But the origin and lineage of values are as much a socio-historical construct as are claims about racial genealogical purity. Considering the numerous cultural interactions and cross-intellectual transmissions between the Muslim world and Europe, it highly likely that every significant Western value has a measure of Muslim blood in it. Like racial categories, civilisational categories ought to be recognised as artificial political constructs that do not necessarily fit comfortably with socio-historical realities.

Claims about the "other". Often the attempt to identify one's own civilisation and distinguish it from the "other" has much more to do with one's own aspirations than the reality of the "other". Put differently, descriptions of the "other", whoever the "other" may be, often tell us much more about the author of the description than the subject of the description.5 For instance, when Westerners attempt to describe Islamic civilisation and what it represents, there is a real risk that the constructed image of the civilisation will only reflect the aspirations and anxieties of those Westerners. Thus, if those Westerners aspire, for example, to achieve a greater degree of democracy, or are anxious about their own shortcomings vis-a-vis women's rights, it is likely that they will invent an image of the Muslim "other" as the exact antithesis of their own aspirations. By constructing the other as the exact antithesis, one is then able to be more satisfied and secure about one's own cultural achievements. The colonial images of the orient-its exoticness, mystique and harems-had much more to do with the anxieties and fantasies of the Western coloniser than they did with the sociological reality of the orient.

The enterprise of meaning. There is a further problem with approaches that focus on civilisational paradigms and conflicts. Values, and their meaning in culture, are not constant or stable. They are continually shifting, evolving and mutating in response to a variety of influences and motivators. For instance, concepts such as shura (government by consultation), the caliphate, or enjoining the good and forbidding the evil have had very different meanings and connotations from one century to another and one culture to another in Islamic history. Even when one is considering divinely revealed values, such values acquire meaning only within evolving and shifting contexts. When one speaks of Islamic justice, for instance, one is really speaking of various interpretive enterprises that existed at different times in Islamic history, which gave the notion of justice in Islam a variety of imports and connotations.6 And when commentators speak of a civilisational conflict between the West and Islam, there is a further creative and inventive process engaged in by the commentators themselves. Since meaning is the product of cumulative enterprises that generate communities of meaning, a student of Huntington, for instance, cannot speak in terms of an Islamic notion of justice or an Islamic notion of human liberty. The most that this student can do is to speak of prevailing meanings within specific communities of interpretation. Thus, the student would have to speak in terms of a Mu'tazali notion of justice or an Ash'ari notion of justice, for example.

Competence. Put simply, who is competent to say which of the competing communities of meaning becomes the legitimate and credible representative of the values of a civilisation? Here, I am not interested in the problem of the dynamics of power and authority within a particular system of thought. Rather, my concern now takes us back to the question of the invention and construction of the "other". It is imperative to keep in mind that when students of Huntington claim that Islamic civilisation stands for a particular proposition, they are effectively endowing a certain interpretive community with the power of representation. They are engaging in choice-making by selecting what, in their minds, is the community that best represents Islamic civilisation. For example, the interpretive community to which someone like Mohammad 'Abdduh belongs may assert "y". Meanwhile, bin Laden and his interpretive community may assert "x". By claiming that Islamic civilisation stands for "x" but not "y", Huntington's students are making a choice about representation. Again, this choice might have much more to do with the choice-makers, i.e., Huntington's students, than with the actual dynamics of Islamic societies.

These various cautionary points are intended to emphasise that claims of civilisational conflict are fraught with conceptual pitfalls. Such claims must necessarily reduce complex social and historical dynamics into essentialised and artificially coherent categories. They are also likely to degenerate into powerful vehicles for the expression of prejudice. As such, they tend to promote misunderstandings and conflict. It is no wonder that when one examines the arguments of Western proponents of the clash of civilisations, one finds that these proponents invariably ascribe most of what they perceive to be good and desirable to the West, and most what of they find distasteful or objectionable to Islam or Islamic civilisation. As a means of maintaining an air of impartiality and objectivity, these proponents often condescendingly assert that the values of the "other", foreign and unacceptable as they might be for Westerners, ought to be respected. What for Westerners might be considered egregious violations of human rights must be considered bearable for Muslims because Muslims have a distinctly different set of social and cultural expectations from the Judaeo-Christian West. (In my view, this is the gist of Huntington's argument about the wrongfulness of believing in universal Western values. See his Clash of Civilizations, pp. 308-12.)

The effect of the doctrinal commitment to the paradigm of clashing civilisations only serves to obfuscate the real dynamics that are, in fact, taking place in Islam. There are significant tensions within contemporary Islam that are bound to impact materially upon the world today. Bin Laden's terrorism is not simply the product of a system of thought that he single-handedly invented. Rather, his violence is an integral part of the struggle between interpretive communities over who gets to speak for Islam and how.

Despite the practice of waving the banner of Islamic authenticity and legitimacy, Muslims such as the Taliban and bin Laden are far more anti-Western than they are pro-Islamic. Their primary concern is not to explore or investigate the parameters of Islamic values or the historical experience of Islamic civilisation, but to oppose the West. As such, Islam is simply the symbolic universe in which they function. Their protest is framed in Islamic terms because they are Muslim, but it is not the case that they protest because they are Muslims. Bin Laden emerged from what can appropriately be described as a state of civilisational dissonance-a state of social schizophrenia in which the challenge of modernity and alienation from Islamic historical experience play the predominant roles.

A Siege Mentality

The real challenge that confronts Muslim intellectuals is that political interests have come to dominate public discourse to the point that moral investigation and thinking have been marginalised in modern Islam. In the age of post-colonialism, Muslims have become preoccupied with the attempt to remedy a collective feeling of powerlessness and a frustrating sense of political defeat, often by engaging in sensational acts of power symbolism. The normative imperatives and intellectual subtleties of the Islamic moral tradition are not treated with the analytic and critical rigour they rightly deserve, but are rendered subservient to political expedience and symbolic displays of power. Elsewhere, I have described this contemporary doctrinal dynamic as the predominance of the theology of power in modern Islam, and it is this theology that is a direct contributor to the emergence of highly radicalised Islamic groups such as the Taliban or al-Qaeda.7 Far from being authentic expressions of inherited Islamic paradigms, or a natural outgrowth of the classical tradition, these are thoroughly a by-product of colonialism and modernity. Such groups ignore the Islamic civilisational experience, with all its richness and diversity, and reduce Islam to a single dynamic-that of power. They tend to define Islam as an ideology of nationalistic defiance of the other, a rather vulgar form of obstructionism vis-a-vis the hegemony of the Western world. Therefore, instead of Islam being a moral vision given to humanity, it becomes constructed into the antithesis of the West. In the world constructed by these groups, there is no Islam; there is only opposition to the West.

This type of Islam that the radicalised groups offer is akin to a perpetual state of emergency in which expedience trumps principle, and illegitimate means are consistently justified by invoking higher ends. In essence, what prevails is an aggravated siege mentality that suspends the moral principles of the religion in pursuit of the vindications of political power. In this siege mentality, there is no room for analytical or critical thought, and there is no room for seriously engaging the Islamic intellectual heritage. There is only room for bombastic dogma and a stark functionalism that ultimately impoverishes the Islamic heritage.

While national liberation movements such as that of the Palestinian or Algerian resistance resorted to guerrilla or non-conventional warfare, modern-day terrorism of the variety promoted by bin Laden is rooted in a different ideological paradigm, a theology that can be described as puritan, supremacist and thoroughly opportunistic in nature. This theology is the by-product of the emergence and eventual primacy of a syncretistic orientation that unites Wahhabism and Salafism in modern Islam.


The foundations of Wahhabi theology were set in place by the eighteenth-century evangelist Mohammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (d. 1792). With a puritanical zeal, Abd al-Wahhab sought to rid Islam of all the corruptions that he believed had crept into the religion-corruptions that included mysticism and rationalism. Wahhabism resisted the indeterminacy of the modern age by escaping to a strict literalism in which the text became the sole source of legitimacy. Wahhabism exhibited extreme hostility to all forms of intellectualism, mysticism and sectarianism within Islam. The Wahhabi creed also considered any form of moral thought that was not entirely dependent on the text a form of self-idolatry, and treated humanistic fields of knowledge, especially philosophy, as "the sciences of the devil".

According to the Wahhabi creed, it was imperative to return to a presumed pristine, simple and straightforward Islam, which was believed to be entirely reclaimable by a literal implementation of the commands and precedents of the Prophet, and by a strict adherence to correct ritual practice. Wahhabism also rejected any attempt to interpret the divine law from a historical, contextual perspective; in fact, it treated the vast majority of Islamic history as a corruption of, or aberration from, true and authentic Islam. The dialectical and indeterminate hermeneutics of the classical jurisprudential tradition were considered corruptions of the purity of the faith and law. Furthermore, Wahhabism became very intolerant of the long-established Islamic practice of considering a variety of schools of thought to be equally orthodox, and attempted to narrow considerably the range of issues upon which Muslims may legitimately disagree. Orthodoxy was narrowly defined and Abd al-Wahhab himself was fond of creating long lists of beliefs and acts which he considered hypocritical and whose adoption or commission would immediately render a Muslim an unbeliever.

Wahhabi ideology was resuscitated in the early twentieth century under the leadership of Abd al-Azis ibn Sa'ud, who adopted the puritanical theology of the Wahhabis and allied himself with the tribes of Najd, thereby establishing the nascent beginnings of what would become Saudi Arabia. Importantly, the Wahhabi rebellions of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were very bloody because the Wahhabis indiscriminately slaughtered Muslims, especially those belonging to the Shi'ite sect. This led several mainstream jurists to describe the Wahhabis as a fanatic fringe group. Interestingly, the Wahhabis introduced practices into Islam that were quite unprecedented and which considerably expanded the intrusive powers of the state. For instance, the Wahhabis introduced the first reported precedent of taking roll call at prayers. They prepared lists of the inhabitants of a city and called off the names during the five daily prayers in the mosque. Anyone absent without a sufficient excuse was flogged. Perhaps the most extreme form of Wahhabi fanaticism took place recently, on 11 March 2002, when the mutawwa'in (religious police) prevented schoolgirls from exiting a burning school in Mecca, or from being rescued by their parents or firemen, because they were not "properly covered". At least fifteen girls are reported to have burned to death as a result.8

Saudi Arabia aggressively promoted Wahhabi thought around the Muslim world, especially after 1975, with the sharp rise in oil prices. In the 1950s and 60s, Saudi Arabia was coming under considerable pressure from republican and Arab nationalist regimes, which tended to consider the Saudi system archaic and reactionary. In the 1970s, Saudi Arabia finally possessed the financial means to address its legitimacy concerns. The Wahhabis either had to alter their own system of belief to make it more consistent with the convictions of other Muslims, or they had to spread aggressively their convictions to the rest of the Muslim world. They chose the latter option.


Wahhabism, however, did not spread in the modern Muslim world under its own banner, but under that of Salafism. It is important to note that even the term "Wahhabism" is considered derogatory to the followers of Abd al-Wahhab since Wahhabis prefer to see themselves as the representatives of Islamic orthodoxy. According to its adherents, Wahhabism is not a school of thought within Islam, but is Islam itself, and the only possible Islam. The fact that Wahhabism rejected the use of a school label gave it a rather diffuse quality and made many of its doctrines and methodologies eminently transferable. Salafism was a far more credible paradigm in Islam than Wahhabism; in many ways, it was an ideal vehicle for Wahhabism. Therefore, in their literature, Wahhabi clerics have consistently described themselves as Salafis (adherents of Salafism), and not Wahhabis.

Salafism is a creed founded in the late nineteenth century by Muslim reformers such as Mohammad Abduh, al-Afghani, al-Shawkani, al-San'ani and Rashid Rida. Salafism appealed to a very basic and fundamental concept in Islam, namely, that Muslims ought to follow the rightly guided precedent of the Prophet and his companions (al-salaf al-salih). Methodologically, Salafism was nearly identical to Wahhabism except that Wahhabism is far less tolerant of diversity and differences of opinions. In many ways, Salafism was intuitively undeniable, partly because of its epistemological premise. The founders of Salafism maintained that on all issues Muslims ought to return to the original textual sources of the Qur'an and the sunnah (precedent) of the Prophet. In doing so, Muslims ought to reinterpret the original sources in light of modern needs and demands without being slavishly bound to the interpretive precedents of earlier Muslim generations.

As originally conceived, Salafism was not necessarily anti-intellectual, but like Wahhabism it did tend to be uninterested in history. By emphasising a presumed golden age in Islam, the adherents of Salafism idealised the time of the Prophet and his companions, and ignored or demonised the balance of Islamic history. Furthermore, by rejecting juristic precedents and undervaluing tradition as a source of authoritativeness, Salafism adopted a form of egalitarianism that contributed to a real vacuum of authority in contemporary Islam. According to Salafism, effectively anyone was considered qualified to return to the original sources and speak for the divine will. However, unlike Wahhabism, Salafism was not hostile to the juristic tradition or the practice of various competing schools of thought. In addition, Salafism was not hostile to mysticism or Sufism.

Importantly, Salafism was largely founded by Muslim nationalists who were eager to read the values of modernity into the original sources of Islam. Hence, Salafism was not necessarily anti-Western. In fact, its founders strove to project contemporary institutions such as democracy, constitutionalism or socialism onto the foundational texts and to justify the paradigm of the modern nation-state within Islam. In this sense, Salafism, as originally conceived, betrayed a degree of opportunism. Its proponents tended to be more interested in the end results than in maintaining the integrity or coherence of the juristic method.

By the mid-twentieth century, it had become clear that Salafism had drifted into stifling apologetics. Salafist apologists responded to the intellectual challenges of modernity by adopting pietistic fictions about the Islamic traditions; such fictions eschewed any critical evaluation of Islamic doctrines and celebrated the presumed perfection of Islam. A common apologetical device was to argue that any meritorious or worthwhile modern institution was first invented and realised by Muslims. Thus, Islam liberated women, created a democracy, endorsed pluralism, protected human rights and guaranteed social security long before these institutions ever existed in the West. The main effect of apologetics was to contribute to a sense of intellectual self-sufficiency that often descended into moral arrogance, producing a culture that eschewed self-critical and introspective insight, and embraced the projection of blame and a fantasy-like level of confidence.


Wahhabism proceeded to co-opt the language and symbolisms of Salafism in the 1970s until the two had become practically indistinguishable. Both theologies imagined a golden age in Islam; this entailed belief in a historical utopia that is entirely retrievable and reproducible in contemporary Islam. Both remained uninterested in critical historical inquiry and responded to the challenge of modernity by escaping to the secure haven of the text. And both advocated a form of egalitarianism and anti-elitism to the point that they came to consider intellectualism and rational moral insight to be inaccessible, and thus corruptions of the purity of the Islamic message. These similarities facilitated the Wahhabi co-optation of Salafism. Wahhabism, from its very inception, and Salafism, especially after it entered its apologetic phase, were infested with a kind of supremacist thinking that prevails until today. To simplify matters, I will call this unity of Wahhabism with the worst that is in Salafism, "Salafabism".

Salafabism took things to their logical extreme. The bonding of the theologies of Wahhabism and Salafism produced a contemporary orientation that is anchored in profound feelings of defeatism and frustration. The syncretistic product of these two theologies is one of profound alienation, not only from the institutions of power in the modern world, but also from the Islamic heritage and tradition. The consistent characteristic of Salafabism is a supremacist puritanism that compensates for feelings of defeatism, disempowerment and alienation with a distinct sense of self-righteous arrogance vis-a-vis the nondescript "other"-whether the "other" is the West, non-believers in general, or even Muslim women. Instead of simple apologetics, Salafabism responds to the feelings of powerlessness and defeat with uncompromising and arrogant symbolic displays of power, not only against non-Muslims, but even more so against fellow Muslims.

Salafabism anchored itself in the confident security of texts. But so far from respecting the integrity of the text, Salafabism is abusive of it. As a hermeneutic orientation, it empowers its adherents to project their socio-political frustrations and insecurities onto the text. Elsewhere, I have described the dynamics of Salafabism vis-a-vis the text as thoroughly despotic and authoritarian. Religious texts consistently become as whips to be exploited by a select class of readers in order to affirm reactionary power dynamics in society.9

The adherents of Salafabism, unlike the apologists, no longer concerned themselves with co-opting or claiming Western institutions as their own. Under the guise of reclaiming the true and real Islam, they proceeded to define Islam as the exact antithesis of the West. Apologetic attempts at proving Islam's compatibility with the West were dismissed as inherently defeatist.

Salafabists argued that colonialism had ingrained into Muslims a lack of self-pride or dignity, convincing them of the inferiority of their religion. This has trapped Muslims into an endless and futile race to appease the West by proving Islam's worthiness. According to this model, there are only two paths in life: the path of God (the straight path) and the path of Satan (the crooked path). In attempting to integrate and co-opt Western ideas such as feminism, democracy or human rights, Muslims have fallen prey to the temptations of Satan by accepting ungodly innovations (bida', sing. bid'a). Islam is the only straight path in life, and must be pursued regardless of what others think and of how it impacts on their rights and wellbeing.

Salafabists insist that only the mechanics and technicalities of Islamic law define morality. This legalistic way of life is considered inherently superior to all others, and the followers of any other way are regarded as infidels (kuffar), hypocrites (munafiqun) or iniquitous (fasiqun). Lives that are lived outside the divine law are inherently unlawful and therefore an offence against God that must be actively fought or punished.

Osama bin Laden

Bin Laden, like most extremist Muslims, belongs to the orientation I have called Salafabist. Although raised in a Wahhabi environment, bin Laden is not strictly speaking part of that creed. Wahhabism is distinctly introverted: it primarily asserts power over other Muslims. This reflects its obsession with orthodoxy and correct ritualistic practice. Militant puritan groups, however, are both introverted and extroverted: they attempt to assert power over both Muslims and non-Muslims. As populist movements, they are a reaction to the disempowerment most Muslims have suffered in the modern age at the hands of harshly despotic governments and interventionist foreign powers. Fuelled by the supremacist and puritan creed of Salafabism, these groups' symbolic acts of power become uncompromisingly fanatical and violent.

The existence of this puritan orientation in Islam is hardly surprising. All religious systems have suffered at one time or another from absolutist extremism, and Islam is no exception. There were extremists such as the Qaramites and Assassins, for example, whose terror became their very raison d'etre, and who earned unmitigated infamy in the writings of Muslim historians, theologians and jurists. After centuries of bloodshed, these two groups learned moderation, and they continue to exist in small numbers in North Africa and Iraq. The essential lesson taught by Islamic history is that extremist groups are ejected from the mainstream of Islam; they are marginalised and eventually treated as a heretical aberration from the Islamic message.

The problem, however, is that the traditional institutions of Islam that historically acted to marginalise extremist creeds no longer exist. This is what makes the events of 11 September so significant for the future of Islam. Those events symbolise the culmination of a process that has been in the making for the past two centuries, in the same way Salafabism has become the culmination of Salafism, Wahhabism, apologetics and Islamic nationalism.

It would be inaccurate to contend that the fanatic supremacist groups fill the vacuum of authority in contemporary Islam. Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, despite their ability to commit highly visible acts of violence, are a sociological and intellectual marginality in Islam. However, such groups are in fact extreme manifestations of more prevalent intellectual and theological currents in modern Islam, chiefly Salafabism. It is true that bin Laden is the quintessential example of a Muslim created, shaped and motivated by post-colonial experience. But bin Laden is also representative of prevailing realities in contemporary Islam. Much of what constitutes Islam today was shaped as a defensive reaction to the post-colonial experience, a reaction in the form either of uncritical cheerleading on behalf of what was presumed to be the Islamic tradition, or of an obstinate rejectionism of what was presumed to be the Western tradition. As such, bin Laden is the child of a profound dissonance and dysfunctionalism experienced vis-a-vis both the Islamic heritage and modernity. In my view, bin Laden, like the whole of the Salafabist movement, is an orphan of modernity, but his claim to an authentic lineage in Islamic civilisation is tenuous at best.

After 11 September and the bloodletting that followed, the question is: Now that we have witnessed the sheer amount of senseless destruction that the children of this orientation are capable of producing and the type of world they are capable of instigating, will Muslims be able to marginalise Salafabism and render it, like many of the arrogant movements that preceded it, a historical curiosity? In this regard, the paradigm of the clash of civilisations helps neither Muslims nor non-Muslims in understanding the modern Islamic experience. Moreover, to the extent that this paradigm invents an Islamic authenticity at odds with the West, it simply aggravates the siege mentality and defensive orientations in the Muslim world. In past decades, when Muslim intellectuals attempted a critical engagement with their tradition and a search for the moral and humanistic aspects of their heritage, they were invariably confronted by the spectre of post-colonialism; their efforts were evaluated purely in terms of whether they appeased or displeased the West, and accepted or rejected by many Muslims accordingly. The fact is that the paradigm of the clash of civilisations, by promoting an essentialised and binary view of the Islamic and Western historical experiences, serves only to empower puritan orientations within modern Islam, such as that of the Salafabists and their child, bin Laden.


1. For evidence of the occurrence of war crimes in Jenin and other Palestinian refugee camps, see "Physicians for Human Rights Forensic Team Preliminary Assessment: Jenin, April 21-23, 2002", report by Physicians for Human Rights (Boston and Washington, D.C.), available at [].

2. "MP Warns of Creating '10,000 Bin Ladens'", Guardian (London), 14 September 2001.

3. See, for example, Tariq Ali, The Clash of Fundamentalisms: Crusades, Jihads and Modernity (London: Verso Press, 2002).

4. Huntington's claim that his clash of civilisations paradigm is a value-neutral, objective fact of history is disingenuous. Of course it is not value-neutral, and it has a powerful emotional impact that results in the delegitimising of the other.

5. For an analysis of this process of projection and construction of an image of Islamic law, see Khaled Abou El Fadl, "Islamic Law and Ambivalent Scholarship", Michigan Law Review (forthcoming, 2002).

6. For a detailed study of the role of authorial enterprise, communities of interpretation, and Islamic law, see Khaled Abou El Fadl, Speaking in God's Name: Authority, Islamic Law, and Women (Oxford: Oneworld Press, 2001).

7. Khaled Abou El Fadl, "Islam and the Theology of Power", Middle East Report 221 (winter 2001), pp. 28-33.

8. See "Saudi Police 'Stopped' Fire Rescue", BBC news report, 15 March 2002 [ ]. I confirmed this incident in a conversation with the father of one of the girls who was killed. Saudi Arabia initially said it would investigate, but a day later it denied that the incident had occurred.

9. My two books, And God Knows the Soldiers: The Authoritative and Authoritarian in Islamic Discourses (Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 2001), and Speaking in God's Name, are primarily concerned with this phenomenon.

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