All Qaeda's Fantasy Ideology
August 21, 2002 3:37 PM   Subscribe

All Qaeda's Fantasy Ideology Why did Bin Laden's homies do what they did on September 11? Why did Lindh (as per the Steve Earle thread below) do what he did? Here is a cogent answer.
posted by kozad (19 comments total)
Wow, that's one ugly website. You have to wonder about people who go out of their way to use big story-book first capitals, but can't be bothered with line-spacing or fonts. Yeesh.
posted by signal at 4:10 PM on August 21, 2002

OK... website concerns aside, I'm with this guy up to a point. Yes, al Qaeda was doing what it did only because of its own dogmatic construct of the world. But if we're trying to eradicate people of this kind of thinking (namely, if I understand it, by killing al Qaeda members and keeping them out of the country if they look al Qaeda-ish) by creating our own dogmatic construct of the world (they're evildoers, we're goodguys), aren't we just creating a new disease?

Harris says the al Qaeda agenda wasn't dreamed up by poor victims of American imperialism, but by middle-class Saudis. Right. But the recruits are poor people, just like Hitler's recruits, Mussolini's recruits, etc. Is it unreasonable to say that people wouldn't buy into the "fantasy" if they had better access to education, food, etc.?
posted by phantroll at 4:22 PM on August 21, 2002

On the balance I think it's a good article; however he makes several mis-steps in an attempt to overstate his case (extending the "fantasy ideology" to other groups who are actually much closer to the Clausewitzian war that he attempts to distinguish between; in other words he tries to lump all Islamic/Arab violence together when there is a clear difference in goals, if not deeds, between various wars and movements) as well as not addressing the American governmental response deeply enough, as if he doesn't want to criticise them specifically, even as he does on a macro level. However it is a really interesting article worth reading.
posted by cell divide at 4:23 PM on August 21, 2002

It sure took the long road to making its point. Did it really take the first 8-9 pages to give us the background to understand the staggeringly complex thesis:

"The terror attack of 9-11 was not designed to make us alter our policy, but was crafted for its effect on the terrorists themselves: It was a spectacular piece of theater."

I mean, raise your hand if you thought they really did it expecting it would cause a policy shift in their favor. This is not a difficult concept. Seemed like he was simultaneously writing condescendingly simple sentences and using pretentious historical examples to make himself sound smarter. Is this guy a grad student by any chance?
posted by Hildago at 5:42 PM on August 21, 2002

It sounds like the typical kind of literary criticism people partake in- attributing meanings to things which the author never intended.
posted by insomnyuk at 5:44 PM on August 21, 2002

The plausibility of "Fantasy Ideology" seems to be very dependant upon on most, if not all of the followers suffering from this.
(Which if true, well, we kinda knew that already.)
posted by lilboo at 5:44 PM on August 21, 2002

Lots of people simply don't want to hear what doesn't suit them. The fact that someone as educated as this essayist could claim to have been cluelessly blindsided by the September attacks, just like Moctezuma, suggests to me that either they have never lived overseas or they are simply unwilling to accept the existence of antagonistic foreign viewpoints on general principle.

Doesn't matter if it's "fantasy ideology;" if religion / ideology / cult behavior is the way other people actually live their lives, we'll probably be a lot more effective in our dealings with these people by engaging with them and acknowledging the way they actually are. Writing off everyone who disagrees with us as "delusional" is a recipe for getting slammed with ongoing unpleasant surprises.
posted by sheauga at 6:22 PM on August 21, 2002

Y'know, I agree that the "kill the fuckers" slant to the article I posted may not be a good policy choice. But I'm not sure that sheauga's plan to "engage with them" is any better. I speak as a former cult member. Ted Patrick had some success in deprogramming cultists by locking them in a hotel room for a week or so, but I'm not sure we could so easily sequester those Al Queda dudes.

The salient point in this article is that religious/political fanaticism is the root cause of the 9/11 insanity, and as such is not easily got at by political/military or socioeconomic means.

That leaves us with few solutions, of course, which is why the author plumped for the kill-em-all endgame.
posted by kozad at 6:40 PM on August 21, 2002

he tries to lump all Islamic/Arab violence together when there is a clear difference in goals, if not deeds, between various wars and movements

cell divide: This was exactly my first reservation with Harris' argument. It's a very interesting essay - and an angle I've not yet seen anywhere else - but the conclusions Harris draws from his analysis fall apart somewhat unless you accept his assumption that al Qaeda exists in a vacuum in which Clausewitzian goals don't exist. Your average al Qaeda "soldier" may have fought in a civil war in Afghanistan or a guerilla insurrection in Kashmir (both of which were very much Clausewitzian wars) - and might do so again tomorrow. Does such a person leave the fantasy realm to shoot at Indian soldiers and then re-enter it to dream of toppling America?

And so I have to wonder: did Harris start with his conclusion (that the brutes all need to be exterminated) and then build his (admittedly compelling) argument?
posted by gompa at 7:49 PM on August 21, 2002

I thought about posting this article myself after finding it on aldaily.

Gompa: I'm not entirely sure that his conclusion is that these people are the ones to be exterminated. It seems to me that instead, he's saying that the ideology needs to be exterminated and that we cannot deal with these people as we would with (topical comment coming next) Iraq--that there's no reasoning with a fundamentally irrational ideology. This seems like a reasonable statement to me.

Basically bin Laden and his cohorts are saying that we defile their holy land by our presence there. While our removal from Saudi Arabia might be a political goal, it seems to be in service of a rather medieval religious ideology.

Cell divide: is he talking about all Islamic and Middle Eastern violence? I'm not so sure. I think he's talking about violence driven by what Chris Hitchens calls Islamo-fascism. An example might be groups like Hamas, who may see that their unrealistic program of driving the Jews into the sea won't help Palestinians get a better life, but don't care.

Phantroll: I think you're completely off about the recruits. As far as I can tell from news reports, the hijackers of the 9/11 planes were middle-class at least. Mohammed Atta and many of his crew had Western European educations. I agree that better education might help Middle Eastern countries, but I hardly think that Atta crashed his plane into the World Trade Center because he hadn't gotten adequate schooling.
posted by lackutrol at 8:19 PM on August 21, 2002

Remember to always watch the other hand. There are so many fires captivating audiences these days that no one can see through the smoke. As one dies off another is started.
posted by proof_nc at 8:47 PM on August 21, 2002

The author's point about the motivation of the anti-war demonstrators struck a chord. I'm pretty sure that the demonstration he is referring to was the MayDay demonstration of '71, where the motto was "If the government won't stop the war, we'll stop the government." I left that one disillusioned about the whole movement, and with the conviction that local action was more productive than mass events.

Is there something we can do that would have a similar effect on the Muslim extremists? Not that I want them blowing up my local Post Office instead.
posted by norm29 at 7:15 AM on August 22, 2002

While I'm not totally convinced that everything here is correct, I have done serious study into the making and use of fantasy and myth (my, ahem, master's thesis) and those points he makes on the aspects of fantasy creation and the use of theatrics in daily life are right on the money.

His points about the idea that different cultures negotiate their realities in oftentimes mutually exclusive ways is accurate, too.

imo, there's a lot of truth here.
posted by UncleFes at 7:49 AM on August 22, 2002

Lackutrol, a very fair point on the recruits. I guess I was thinking about all those guys locked up in Guantanamo, but they're probably more accurately described as Afghans co-opted by the Taliban, not al Qaeda. And since it's probably realistic to characterize al Qaeda as a pretty small organization, you have to think that a better-educated populace might not have let the Taliban host/sponsor/do whatever Bush has said the Taliban did for al Qaeda. Probably would not have let the Taliban rule as it did in the first place. So Afghans may not be al Qaeda recruits per se, but they may have been enablers.

Also, in the same context, Harris mentioned the Palestinian bombers, many of whom aren't as well educated as the al Qaeda dudes, unless someone wants to correct me there, too. I just can't help but thinking that bombing the crap out of people isn't going to rid anyone of these problems, while aid of some form would. It's not about making friends with deluded people -- it's about elevating people out of the state of desperation so they can make some critical decisions.
posted by phantroll at 10:07 AM on August 22, 2002

Harris makes a good point in stating that goals of the Terrorists were not 'materially' strategic. His argument is well crafted excepting what are in my opinion some rather large ideological blind spots.

Harris with the characteristic aplomb of the die-hard intellectual disregards out of hand the importance of "the good of the soul". Or what in less poetic terms could be stated as 'morale'. Obviously fully identified with his role as an intelligent member of the ruling class of this globe he fails to see the strategic importance to the downtrodden of a massive act of 'visible' resistance. An act at the very least displaying that Goliath can be scratched and does in fact bleed. In a situation where there is one major power holder who exercises a kind of relatively unchallenged hegemony in an arena, it is often the case that their power is based on somewhat of a more delicate balance than it would appear.

For instance protesters in an average North American city generally feel quite powerless physically when presented with the overwhelming physical superiority and armament of the police force which contains them. However this superiority is mostly illusionary if we broaden our perspective slightly. I live in Toronto. In Toronto there are about 3000 - 5000 (at maximum) police officers total in the entire city. The population of the GTA is over 2,000,000. It is apparent that if even 5% of the civil population rose in resistance over any issue at any one time the veil of the overwhelming power of the police force would quickly evaporate.

This is not likely to happen even in a situation in which it is well justified. I hazard that this is due not to 'strategic' considerations, as above demonstrated, but due more so to a lack social consciousness, a feeling of impotence, and an almost hypnotically induced ignorance of the immense amount of potential power naturally inherent in the population. So if I was a radical attempting to forcefully induce a change in power or policy my first strategy, if I could not strike directly, would be to raise consciousness of the potential power, provide a super potent (globe shaking) example of the vulnerability of this power, and draw social consciousness towards the issues I was concerned with. Make Goliath bleed and wake my side up.

Resistance to greater powers can be successful. It is however fueled on a, at first, emotional level. To dismiss this without examining it is foolish.

Harris: "In fact, there is no better way to grasp the full horror of the poison than to listen as a Palestinian mother offers her four-year-old son up to be yet another victim of this ghastly fantasy."

Do you suppose that she is offering up her 4-year-old child because she has simply been convinced by scholarly ideological argumentation or is it because she has lived in a 'ghastly' situation that is arguably very much due to American/Israeli foreign policy and its entrenched advantage. Further does Harris believe this ideology just magically appeared because Islamic people are inherently susceptible to poisonous ideology? Or does he see that this sometimes admittedly contorted ideology may have become misshapen due to the immense weight and pressure exerted by the US in the region. Whether Harris saw this or not I believe it would matter little to him. He easily dismissed the idea that there should be any recognition of the opposing forces grievances. I quote:

"To this school of thought ably represented by, among others, the distinguished classicist Victor Davis Hanson it is irrelevant what grievances our enemy may believe it has against us; what matters is that we have been viciously attacked and that, for the sake of our survival, we must fight back."

This fawning acceptance of Hanson's wholesale dismissal of the enemy's grievances is more or less a restating of the position 'might makes right'. Nothing more grand than that. The favored philosophy (of course) of the current power holders. It is also a curiously light dismissal of the point of view of the 'enemy' given the opening paragraph of his piece.

"Know your enemy is a well-known maxim, but one that is difficult to observe in practice."


"So perhaps it is time to retire the war metaphor and to deploy one that is more fitting: the struggle to eradicate disease. The fantasy ideologies of the twentieth century, after all, spread like a virus in susceptible populations."

It is exactly this 'susceptibility' that Harris fails to address. This renders his paper no grander than a garden-variety rationalization of the unrestrained use of US military and economic power. Why are these populations so susceptible? Are they susceptible en masse at all?

I have a question here. How do I, as person who buys into neither the ideology of the US or Al Queda, distinguish between a legitimate ideology and a 'disease'. Harris has an advantage in this respect, as he appears to have a neat little system whereby all ideologies are simply compared to the American standard, and if shown to be different or at all hostile to it, classified as diseased. As a person who doesn't accept the American ideology of Manifest Destiny, on a now global scale, (more or less the 'ideology' of a cancerous growth within a healthy body - if we are going to be throwing disease metaphors around), I have a problem making this distinction.

My sarcasm makes a point. If this question is not addressed all Harris really has to say on the subject is, 'we do not care whether it is justified or not'. We dismiss justice and admit that we are really interested only in power. I am not even saying that that is invalid. I believe people (and countries) should be straight up with themselves.

As a side note: In terms of ideology I would hasten to point out that the US itself was birthed out of a 'poisonous' ideology of resistance to a distant dominant power. A war ensued and many people died on both sides. Yes, I believe that 'this situation' on this planet can often be ghastly and poisonous.
posted by randomnfactor at 1:53 PM on August 22, 2002

Randomnfactor, you are a person who "buys into neither the ideology of the US or Al Queda [sic]" ? Do you view these things as equivalent? However much the US fails to live up to its principles as stated, are you really prepared to say that you can draw no moral distinction between the two ideologies?

I could go on and on, but I'm sure most reading the thread have dealt with these arguments enough already. Please do email me (available, through some hoops, through the user profile) if you would like to discuss further.

But I think such facile statement are foolish at best.
posted by lackutrol at 11:14 PM on August 22, 2002

Also, phantroll, thanks, I appreciate your courtesy. I think we share a belief that better educational and other oppurtunites would help out the middle east in general.
I'm just not so sure it would help Americans and Europeans to save themselves from what appears to me an entirely irrational and dangerous ideological framework. In short--education and opportunity good, but not enough in the short term.

And welcome aboard, by the way.
posted by lackutrol at 11:21 PM on August 22, 2002

Thankyou for your thoughtful responses. I in no way intended to draw an equivalence betweeen the ideology of the the US and Al Queda. What I am interested in is asking the question. How do we judge ideologies? At the least I was interested in pointing out the assumptions that Harris bases his position on. If you are ok with that level of assumption then fine. However we should both be aware that at the outset we are setting up ground rules that certain questions shouldn't be asked. If that is explicitily stated then I have no problem with it

Further I believe that any real evaluation of the ideology of current radical elements in the middle east must recognize that western powers have struck a fairly aggressive foriegn policy stance (to put it lightly) in the area. Much of the current ideology, since about the 1950s, has been formed in reaction to this pressure.

To put it simply I am in favour of the US taking a long hard look in the mirror. I have also argued just as strongly in the other direction when I heard people arguing in actually in favour of Al Queda's actions. (There is a great deal of anti-american sentiment out there). So I am certainly not in favour of their approach or politics.

However, and I sincerely ask this question, hoping for an answer: Why are all these small countries in the Middle East so interested in picking fights with the world's dominant super power?

I suppose one answer is Harris's. It is an irrational unpragmatic fantasy rebellion, not unlike that of a teenager. Immature and having none but some strange ideological basis to it. I believe that this is not the case. I think this kind of 'high handed' dismissal is a part of what got us into this problem in the first place. So I consider it legitmately dangerous. I guess that is why I take such issue with Harris's point of view.
posted by randomnfactor at 8:28 AM on August 23, 2002

I'll listen to Springsteen's latest album for my "interpretation". I had enough of this crap in grad school.
posted by {savg*pncl} at 8:48 PM on August 23, 2002

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