We drift through words: evil ideology, hate, freedom, jihad, islam, community, quagmire. Words that, in turn, become keys to narratives: War on Terror, Islam is Evil, Islam means Peace, Clash of Civilizations. Britain announced that they will start monitoring Muslims community by community. The Muslim community; a silent yet deadly collective to be found in op-ed columns and special reports around the Western hemisphere. There is a bit of cognitive dissonance involved here: the logic of the war on terror demands that there exist a cohesive ‘them’ while the premise of the jihadist narrative is the disintegration and dispossession of ‘us’.
It is, after all, the issue of the community that started this rambling monologue. The community of British Pakistanis and the susceptibility of teenagers to the jihadist narrative remains the central question for me. Other instances of social violence, like Columbine, are instructive as models of questions that should be asked from the communities within which they occur. The pat response of politicians to blame violence on tv is clearly insufficient to us but the pat response to terrorism isn’t getting much attention.
Let’s unpack this a little. One word that you hear again and again is Caliphate. Said Blair after the London bombings: Neither is it true that they have no demands. They do. It is just that no sane person would negotiate on them. They demand the elimination of Israel; the withdrawal of all westerners from Muslim countries, irrespective of the wishes of people and Government; the establishment of effectively Taleban states and Sharia law in the Arab world en route to one Caliphate of all Muslim nations.
That, gentle readers, is the hegemonic narrative about the jihadists in the current WoT. Caliphate, obviously, puts the burden straight on Islamic history and theology. Why not call it a religious conflict if one expressed goal of the enemy is a religious empire? Yet no one, it appears, wants to stop and question for a moment: Do the jihadists really want a return of the Caliphate? Do they know that the contenders for the caliphate will be the Hashemite King of Jordan or the House of Saud or some linear descendant of the Fatimids found in a derelict bookstore in Cairo or a Turkish National Assembly recruit. The point is that it won’t be anyone that they would ever want to endorse. And they surely know that. So, this whole talk* of Caliphate this and Caliphate that is plain old macguffin, if you will [please refrain from pasting 10,000 speeches from UBL calling for the Caliphate – I have read them], that the WoT completely falls for. Hence, the Blair claim that the jihadists want an Islamic Empire. No, they do not. They won’t be in charge of any Empire. Nihilism doesn’t harbor dreams of empires. And if they do know this, then why insist on a Caliphate? What role is this particular claim playing in the jihadist narrative?
If the assertion that jihadists have political aspirations is correct, than we have to explain the usage of Caliphate. If we actually attempt to engage with the jihadist narrative to uncode it, we can begin the process of knowing why some British kids of Pakistani descent found hatred and murder a viable option. It is not Caliphate but ummah that drives the jihadist narrative. The idea of the ummah is that the Believers are a community of equals- unified, uni-directional, a force of history – with a titular Caliph as the God’s regents. Ummah became a chimera from the very first moment of conflict among the Believers – the fitna. This illusory community stretches from Cairo to Kashmir in the jihadist imagination, suffering continuously for centuries under imperialisms both local and foreign. The cultivation of this narrative emerged in the response to colonialism by ideologues such as Jamaluddin Afghani, Syed Ahmed Khan, Hali and Muhammad Abduh. Yet, this wasn’t an invention either. They drew upon centuries of commentaries to resistance available in Sunni, Shi’a and Kharajite corpora. The important fact here is that the authors I list varied in their individual philosphies – in great opposition to one another, in fact. Revivalists, reformists, or revolutionaries, they were concerned, first and foremost, with a political problem: Colonialism. Their intellectual campaigns were directed to resisting it and helping their particular nations – the formulation of an ummah being one prescription.
The jihadist aim is not to bring back some artifact of the Muslim past but to shape the Muslim present on their terms. It is a twisted notion of the ummah that constitutes a fulcrum upon which jihadists construct the worldview persuading a Muslim in Lahore to bear arms for a political cause in Palestine, eg. It is one particular sense of belonging and outrage that the jihadist narrative seeks to emphasize in its propoganda. It may be as broad as the Muslims all over the world or as narrow as the racism-tinged reality of Leeds. To convince a teenager to give his or her life up to avenge wrongs that s/he never experienced is not a task easily accomplished. The appeal of the ummah is that like any other imagined community – say, nationalism – it is far more maleable and powerful than a mere membership in the Super Secret Organization of al-Qaeda Subsidiary, Leeds Branch. The ummah becomes one more tool to give sense to their feelings of dispossession, alienation and uprootedness. Seen this way, what we are talking about is not Islamic theology but social constructions – community, prejudice, fear, belonging. As I mentioned earlier, the language of religion is incidental to this narrative. It is incidental but not irrelevant. Jihadists employ it as cryptic transmitters of their own, twisted worldview. That it gets accepted into the WoT narrative is hardly surprising. That it doesn’t get questioned or examined is frustrating.
There is no superstring theory of terrorism. And I am not proposing any, please. Neither am I checklisting who is a terrorist and who is a freedom fighter and who is a Muslim and who is Eric Rudolph. All I am arguing for is an attempt to engage with the jihadist narrative; to de-mystify it; to strip it bare of its potency to attract troubled youth. Because there is a reason why every dispossessed Muslim is not strapping on a bomb: the jihadist narrative is not the only one around. The Leeds kids did have other alternatives to help them make sense of their realities – hundreds of strains of Sufism, various sects of religious practice, progressives etc. Not to mention The Cure or Alistair Crowley, which are always available for troubled teens. They chose the jihadists and now we have to figure out why. The details may be in their biography or in the socio-cultural milieu in which they grew up or in their immediate families. All of those things must be examined. Only finding causes for suicide bombings in Islamic theology is just as helpful as only finding causes for Columbine in GTA III. It makes perfect and valid sense to some, it is completely reductive to others.
My concern, here, is neither to dismiss the jihadist narrative nor to legitimize it. It is morally imperative that we condemn it and it is intellectually imperative that we understand it. It is also not to claim that “Islam has nothing to do with terrorism”. Obviously, the jihadists proclaim their religious affiliations loud and clear and the faiths of the bombers is in no doubt. Islam, in fact, does not need me to defend it. Neither do I care to do so. The recent scholarship that highlights Islam as hijacked religion is comforting to religionists and liberals alike. I do not put much stock in it. Islam is a living tradition and fourteen centuries of history, politics and theology cannot and should not be “explained” away. To put it bluntly, I am frustrated that four years later, we still haven’t left the knee-jerk reactionary mode. We still haven’t started to pay attention to details. I am not a “Terrorism Expert” and I do not offer any great insights. But. I do call myself a historian and I do think that narratives matter. All I ask is that we pay attention to them.