Religion and Realism After 9/11

Six years after 9/11, pundits and policymakers still don’t have a good grasp on terrorism's religious dimension.

In 1996, halfway through America's "holiday from history", terrorism expert Magnus Ranstorp published an article warning of a surge in religious fanaticism that would manifest itself in "spectacular acts of terrorism across the globe." This wave that would be "unprecedented, not only in its scope and selection of targets, but also in its lethality and indiscriminate character." Ranstorp concluded on a pessimistic note:

It is imperative . . . to seek to understand the inner logic of these individual groups and the mechanisms that produce terrorism in order to undermine their breeding ground and strength, as they are here to stay. At present, it is doubtful that the United States or any Western government is adequately prepared to meet this challenge.

Two developments at the end of last week underscore just how poorly the nature of the terrorists' challenge to both the security of the nation-state and the structure of the international system is understood, even by many realists.

In the wake of the foiled plot to launch massive attacks on American installations in Germany-and the revelation that two of the conspirators were ethnic Germans-Bavarian Interior Minister Günther Beckstein suggested that "Germans converting to Islam should be watched because they show particular fanaticism in order to prove worthy of their new religion." Whether or not such surveillance would be an efficient use of police resources, the firestorm caused by Beckstein clearly showed that public acknowledgement of religious linkages to terrorism remains verboten, at least in among European opinion leaders.

With few exceptions, the clichéd reactions to the release of Osama bin Laden's new video on the weekend news talk shows were also disappointing. The only thing that distinguished the current batch of "analyses" from those produced the last time new footage of the Al-Qaeda leader surfaced was the puerile fixation on Bin Laden's apparent use of dye for his beard. While most news reports mentioned in passing Bin Laden's invitation to Americans to "embrace Islam"-among the more alluring arguments he adduced was a pledge that there would be "no taxes but rather a limited zakat [alms] totaling 2.5 percent"-none of them even ventured to disentangle the profoundly religious discourse. Although the religious discussion constituted more than half of the "Message of Sheikh Osama bin Laden to the American People", pundits opted to focus on Bin Laden's mentions of the Iraq War and taunts at congressional Democrats.

Above all, the fight between the United States and its allies and Al-Qaeda, likeminded terrorist groups, and their state and non-state enablers is an ideological contest. It has little in common with the mainstays of realist analysis-alliances and polarity, anarchy and security, states and power-and much to do with the an element that most Western analysts have great difficulty grasping: religion. (To be fair, liberal internationalism from Kant onwards suffers from the same blind spot.)

Not that Bin Laden's rant is representative of the broad spectrum of Islamic theology in the world today-much less its intellectual monuments across time. Nonetheless, there is no denying that Bin Laden's political critique is religious in nature: "Our rulers in general abandoned Islam many decades ago, but our forefathers were the leaders and pioneers of the world for many centuries, when they held firmly to Islam." The argument is that the even sharia-enforcing states like Saudi Arabia are illegitimate because they tacitly accept and operate within the largely secularized international system that has prevailed in the West since the Peace of Westphalia. Therefore, in Bin Laden's view, these states reduce themselves to jahiliyyah, the ignorance of divine guidance, which prevailed before Muhammad.

This ideology derives from Egyptian radical Sayyid Qutb's innovative application of takfir, declaring Muslims who obeyed human governments as apostates for allegedly violating the first of Islam's Five Pillars, the profession of the absolute oneness of God. In Qutb's vision, which Al-Qaeda has adopted as its own, the secular international order must be replaced by a divine order: the nation-state with a caliphate, democracy with Muslim political space (mamlakat al-islam), human legislation with sharia. This radicalism challenges not just the international order but the basic tools that most realist policymakers and academics rely upon to understand and engage with the world. John McCain succinctly captured the dilemma last Saturday in a speechto the California Republican convention:

The world Ronald Reagan faced was a dangerous one, but more stable than the world today. It was a world where we confronted a massive, organized threat to our security. Our enemy was evil, but not irrational. …[Today] we also face a threat, and a long war to defeat it, that is as difficult and in many respects more destabilizing than any challenge we have ever faced. We confront an enemy that so despises us and modernity itself that they would use any means, unleash any terror, cause the most unimaginable suffering to harm us, and to destroy the world we have tried throughout our history to build.

Similarly, in his essayin the current issue of Foreign Affairs, Rudy Giuliani defied political correctness to actually name the threat: