Al-Qaeda as Anarchism

Monday, January 5, 2009: 12:00 PM
Murray Hill Suite A (Hilton New York)
James L. Gelvin , University of California at Los Angeles, Los Angeles, CA
This paper typologizes al-Qaeda-type movements as anarchist movements.  Although this comparison has been made before, it is usually made within the framework of the terrorology paradigm.  Thus, al-Qaeda’s structure and activities have been compared to the decentralized structure and tactic of “propaganda of the deed,” for example, associated with earlier anarchist groups.  This paper takes a different tack by proposing an overarching definition of anarchism that encompasses the range of self-identified anarchists from Bakunin to Tolstoy to Chomsky and comparing al-Qaedists with their predecessors.  Anarchism, this paper argues, is an episodic discourse—a mode of conceptualizing the world which provides its adherents with a prescription for action and which has been consistently available to, but only sometimes adopted by, political actors in the modern world.  The discourse of anarchism is characterized by four elements.  First, like similar discourses—racial anti-Semitism, for example—anarchism makes for itself the claim of being defensive in nature.  Second, unlike those discourses, anarchism targets the very system and its agents that are, for anarchists, the wellspring of subjugation.  Third, the structure of the world constructed by anarchists requires them explicitly or implicitly to delineate some sort of  ideal “counter-community.” Finally, unlike scientific socialism, which has created for itself an enclosed, “disarticulated” domain, anarchism articulates with the cultural milieu in which anarchists are embedded.  Using speeches, fatawa, manifestos, and videotapes issued by al-Qaedists, this paper argues that al-Qaeda adheres closely to the proposed definition of anarchism: its discourse focuses on “Western” aggression against the Islamic world; attacks the nation-state system, particularly in the Middle East; proposes an (ill-defined) Islamic counter-community; and, of course, speaks in an Islamic idiom.  The paper also contrasts al-Qaeda-style jihadi organizations with organizations such as Hamas and Hizbullah, which also advocate jihad but which, unlike al-Qaeda, are not anti-systemic.
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