First Step or Last Gasp?

There is widespread agreement that the September 11
terrorist attacks against the United States ushered in a new stage of world
history, one distinct from the last 50 or 100 years. Secretary of State Colin
Powell has referred to the period since 9-11 as the "post-post-Cold War." New
York Times
columnist Thomas Friedman has described it as "World War III."
Many others, citing Samuel Huntington's theory, have portrayed the war as a
"clash of civilizations" that has superseded the Cold War clash of ideologies.
The war, writes political scientist Louis Rene Beres, is "a civilizational
struggle in which a resurgent medievalism now seeks to bring fear, paralysis and
death to 'unbelievers.'" Indeed, Osama bin Laden has promoted this view of his

But it's possible to support the vigorous prosecution of the war
against al-Qaeda and to reject the view that the war itself is the beginning of a
new era in world history. In fact, this war is not the first phase of a new stage
but the last phase of an old stage of world history. Al-Qaeda and bin Laden
represent the reductio ad absurdum of the anticolonial revolts that shook Asia,
Africa, and Latin America during the twentieth century. If the United States can
succeed in destroying al-Qaeda, and if the Bush administration can build on this
victory in its Mideast diplomacy, the U.S. may not see a recurrence of an
organization like al-Qaeda for decades, if ever. There will still be
terrorism--it seems to be an inevitable by-product of a new global communication
system that allows a Timothy McVeigh or bin Laden a moment of immortality. But
there will not be organized international terrorism under the banner of an
Islamic jihad.

You have to consider the two very different kinds of wars that were fought in
the twentieth century. World Wars I and II and the Cold War pitted advanced
industrial powers against one another. They were fought over differences in
ideology, but they were also what Lenin called wars of redivision, the result of
an attempt by second-rung economic powers to use their military might in order to
gain control of land, peoples, sea-lanes, and natural resources at the expense of
first-rung powers. Of course, al-Qaeda and bin Laden are not waging a world war
of redivision: They do not seek to displace the United States atop the
international division of labor.

The second kind were anticolonial wars and conflicts that pitted revolutionary
movements in Asia, Africa, and Latin America against Britain, Japan, Germany,
France, and other colonial powers. The original was, perhaps, China's Boxer
Rebellion in 1900. After World War I, these movements took heart from Woodrow
Wilson's call for national self-determination. After World War II, they were
encouraged by Soviet and Chinese support for wars of national liberation. The
French were driven from Southeast Asia and Algeria, the British from Africa and
the Mideast, the Japanese from China and Korea; U.S.-backed governments were
ousted in Cuba, South Vietnam, and Iran; the Portuguese were driven out of
Africa; and so on.

Some of the movements--such as those led by Mohammed Mossadegh in Iran and
Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala--failed, but a century later there are not many
colonies left, and most of them, like Puerto Rico, are ambivalent about their
status. In addition, the United States and Europe, with a few exceptions, have
stopped intervening to prop up client regimes threatened by their own people. Yet
there are still political movements, particularly in the Mideast, that derive
their meaning from these older anticolonial struggles. They are similar
historically to the monarchical, Catholic, and neofeudal movements (the Carlists
in Spain, for example) that haunted Europe for centuries after the transition to
liberal capitalism. Bin Laden's al-Qaeda is such a movement.

There is a direct line of progression, or regression, from the anticolonial
movements in the Mideast and Northern Africa to the post-sixties radical Islamic
movements to al-Qaeda. The post-World War II anticolonial revolutionaries of the
1950s, such as Algeria's Ahmed Ben Bella and Egypt's Gamel Abdel Nasser, were
secular-state socialists who were influenced by the Soviet model of development.
Their politics and program came to dominate Syria, Iraq, Libya, the Sudan, and
Yasir Arafat's Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). But while this blend of
Arab nationalism and state socialism scored some initial successes, it eventually
proved to be an abysmal failure. Egypt, once an agriculture exporter, came to
produce less than half of its food. In 1977, Egyptians rioted over food prices.

During the 1970s, the anticolonial left morphed into the radical Islamic right
wing. Some Nasserite leaders like Libya's Muammar Quaddafi and Sudan's Gaafar
al-Nimeiry embraced their own bizarre versions of Islam. What was more common was
the formation of Islamic political groups that challenged the older generation of
Arab leaders while adopting much of their underlying political framework. As
Olivier Roy argues in his 1994 book The Failure of Political Islam, these
Islamists adopted the Leninist theory of revolution. They blamed the failure of
their societies not on their native rulers but on Western exploitation and
imperialism--and on Israel's Jews, who were seen as representatives of Western
imperialism. Some of the Islamic leaders--such as Egyptian Labor Party General
Secretary Adel Hussein--were themselves former leftists. And the movement's
leading members were drawn from the same educated classes as the older left-wing
movements. Writes Roy: "The prototype of the Islamist cadre is an engineer, born
sometime in the 1950s in a city but whose parents were from the country."
Egyptian-born Mohammed Atta, the leader of al-Qaeda's September 11 terrorist
attacks, was an engineer. So was Kuwaiti Ramzi Yousef, who was the leader of the
World Trade Center bombing in 1993.

The new movements' program and their vision of society were different from the
older Nasserite movements, but they closely resembled those of Cambodia's Khmer
Rouge, Peru's Shining Path, and other reactionary utopian movements that claimed
the anticolonial mantle. The radical Islamists of Iran, Algeria, Egypt, and
Palestine saw themselves creating an Islamic community that would be governed by
the Sharia, the law of the Koran, and subject only to the will of Allah. The
state itself would wither away. Indeed, the radical Islamists also lacked any
common economic program. Some still backed Nasser's brand of state socialism.
Others fantasized about Islamic banks that would not charge interest. Others put
their faith in Allah. As Judith Miller recounts in God Has Ninety-Nine Names,
a young supporter of Algeria's Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) told her: "We want
an Islamic state. God will give us food and housing and money when we are guided
by Muslims. God will provide."

Over the last two decades, most of these movements and the
countries in which they have seized power have fared poorly. In spite of its oil
reserves, Iran has been beset by unemployment and is now facing a revolt from a
middle class weary of living by the Sharia. Sudan is a basket case. Afghanistan's
Taliban collapsed so quickly because it had never gained a real foothold in the
country. Radical Islamic movements in Algeria, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia have met
with severe repression and have been diverted away from politics into what Roy
calls "neofundamentalism." The only Islamic organization that has posed a
continuing political threat is Hamas, which was formed in 1988 by radical
Islamists opposed to the PLO's acceptance of a two-state solution, and which
survives on the inability of Israeli and Palestinian moderates to make good on
the promise of the 1993 Oslo Accords. But Hamas has no chance of realizing its
aim of driving the Jews from Israel.

Bin Laden founded al-Qaeda in 1989, but it didn't assume its current
form until the early 1990s, when he moved to the Sudan. Like Algeria's Armed
Islamic Group (GIA) and Egypt's Islamic Jihad, it was a relatively small
terrorist group, based on cells, that sought to intimidate its opponents into
submission. But its methods and objectives were even more delusional than theirs.
Its aim was world Islamic revolution. According to Peter Bergen in Holy War,
bin Laden drew a comparison between his move in 1996 from the Sudan (where
he was deported at the insistence of the United States) to Afghanistan and
Muhammad's Hegira from Mecca to Medina. Bin Laden believed that just as Muslims
now mark the Hegira as the beginning of Islam's spread throughout the world, they
would someday mark his journey to Afghanistan as the beginning of a new world

Bin Laden's adaptation of anticolonialism to radical Islam was similarly
nutty. He went back not just to the Balfour Declaration of 1917 but to the
twelfth-century Crusades. In 1998, bin Laden announced the formation of the
"World Islamic Front for Jihad against Jews and the Crusaders." The September 11
attacks were clearly intended to provoke a mass uprising among the Islamic
masses--to produce the clash of civilizations that Huntington predicted--but
after a few street demonstrations, enthusiasm for bin Laden seems to have waned.

Al-Qaeda's eventual defeat will probably not alter politics in Europe or the
United States, and it may not make much difference in U.S. relations with China,
but it could lead to a transformation of politics in the Mideast that would
benefit the United States. It would deal a blow to Islamic militants and give
moderate reformers a chance to focus on the region's flagging economies and to
open government to greater public participation. As one female Algerian
intellectual told Judith Miller, the choice between military dictatorship and
Islamic militants (who, if elected, would have installed an Islamic dictatorship)
had been between "the plague or cholera." With the militants weakened, the
region's middle classes might begin to demand alternatives to the military
dictatorships and monarchies that now prevail.

In Israel, peace may seem as remote as ever, but al-Qaeda's defeat may give
Arab states pause at supporting Hamas and other radical Islamic groups that
promise unending strife. Just as happened after the Gulf War, moderate Arab
states could join the United States in bringing together those Israelis and
Palestinians who believe in a two-state solution. That effort came surprisingly
close to succeeding in spite of radical Islamic and right-wing Israeli
opposition. Finally, al-Qaeda's defeat should intimidate Iraq, North Korea, and
other countries that harbor ill will toward the United States and their neighbors
but whose ambitions are regional rather than global. Without the support of
neighboring states in the Persian Gulf and the emergence of a viable opposition,
the Bush administration would risk disaster in launching a full-scale war to
unseat Iraq's Saddam Hussein. But the American success in Afghanistan should make
it easier to contain him and, perhaps, to force him to agree to a new round of
weapons inspections.

The world is certainly not entering a period of blissful cohabitation. There
is a global recession to contend with. The prospect of diminishing energy
supplies could eventually provoke new conflicts in the Mideast. The Taiwan
Straits and the Korean peninsula are still unsettled. By the same token, however,
9-11 did not, as some commentators have suggested, call forth a new dark age of
random terror and global disorder. It may, in fact, have laid the basis for the
destruction of the bin Ladens. And it may also--if the United States doesn't
blunder--lead to the creation of a more just and stable order in the Mideast.

You may also like