The myth of al-Qaida's omnipotence
I have been and remain convinced that for all the noise it continues to make and the vast volumes of commentary its exhibitionist actions continue to generate, al-Qaida is only a passing phenomenon, a wave of tension and burning rage that rises only to recede again.
For, in truth, al-Qaida is incapable of furnishing any real or serious answers to the intensely complex reality of Muslim societies. Particularly in the Middle East, these are marked by a high level of sectarian, religious and ethnic diversity, which was recognised and preserved when the region came under Muslim rule in the early decades of the seventh century. With its extreme puritanism and eradicationism, al-Qaida is ill-equipped to deal with this state of pluralism, which it dismisses as an aberration to be rectified through acts of brutality.
On the home front, its holy battles are waged against Shia Muslims, Christians, infidels, hypocrites, to name a few in an ever-growing list of targets. While the Muslim world is in dire need of a unifying, complex, and balanced vision that mends its cracked walls and bridges its rifts, al-Qaida seeks to arouse its sleeping tensions and deepen its contradictions, fracturing its structure and desecrating its fabric.
Would the group be capable of governing a country such as Iraq, with its Sunni, Shia, Christians, Yazidis, Sabians and scores of sects and denominations? The truth is that its small ideology of the elect few is a blueprint for endless civil war, each begetting another. Iraq's tragedy is such that al-Qaida's vision has coincided with the American project, which destroyed all bases of national consensus, instead remoulding the country along sectarian and ethnic lines in the provisional authority set up to govern it a month after its invasion and occupation in March 2003.
Neither is al-Qaida able to deal with the great challenges posed by modernity in the Islamic hemisphere. Since coming under western colonial rule, Muslim societies have been confronted with a range of questions relating to identity and "authenticity" which they have grappled with for the last two centuries. Answers ranged from wholesale acceptance to wholesale rejection of western modernity. But the approach that won the day was that of reconciliation endorsed by 19th-century Islamic reformers headed by Jamal al-Din Afghani and Muhammad Abdu. The result has been a unique combination of Muslim societies' internal rhythms and deeply entrenched cultural heritage on the one hand, and those aspects of modernity that forced themselves on them since Napoleon's Egypt expedition in 1798, on the other.
Al-Qaida's intense puritanism, radical absolutism and violent tendencies render it quite powerless to cope with the intricate synthesis of "tradition" and "modernity" which characterises present-day Muslim society. It is neither a continuation of internal Islamic heritage, nor an expression of modernity, but a deformed child of the two, a sick identity and sick modernity in one (al-Qaida's reliance on the media and decentralised structure are best described as postmodern).
Excelling in grand spectacles of carnage and brutality, al-Qaida has succeeded in focusing the spotlight on itself. But it has won the west's attention for another reason, which most would find difficult to acknowledge. It happens to confirm existing stereotypes and deep-seated prejudices about Islam and Muslim as emotive, violent, irrational, and fanatical. These images have dominated Christian consciousness of Islam since medieval times and have remained stubbornly ingrained even in the age of secularisation.
Its terms have changed, stripped of their transcendental connotations. The Muslim is no longer referred to as the "ass of the desert", the "Ishmaelite" cast outside Abraham's covenant, the godless Hagarene, or heretical Saracen. But the content has remained very much the same. In this sense, al-Qaida has helped disfigure an already disfigured outlook. Backward, stagnant, closed, cruel, intolerant Islam became concentrated in al-Qaida. In al-Qaida, the ghoul seemed to find a face and a name.
The truth however, is that the Muslim scene is much too broad and colourful to be reduced to al-Qaida and its holy warriors. Neither do its ideologues offer a reliable window on the religious resurgence Muslim societies have been experiencing for the last three decades, or the vast phenomenon known as "political Islam", with its widely divergent representations encountered from Tangier to Jakarta. But are we prepared to cast our broken lenses aside and attempt to view things as they stand on the ground, unpleasant as we may find them?
To be continued...