Understanding Osama


Over at The Guardian, do read an extraordinary commentary by the former British spy Alistair Crooke on how the West must engage radical Islamists, even if it means to an extent accepting them as they are. Crooke is director of the Conflicts Forum, an organization that advocates dialogue with Islamist groups. Once you've finished, however, you'll see how Crooke has provided hefty ammunition to his foes. The reason is that he fails to properly define his subject, and throws into the same pot Muslims in general, political Islamists, and murderous Islamists.

What are the premises of Crooke's argument? That there is a "discourse" in the West holding that radical Islam is the enemy. And what is radical Islam? Crooke quotes Henry Kissinger to the effect that it is Islam practiced by those who "are not 'moderates.'" This definition, Crooke points out, "sounds no more than a projection of the Christian narrative after Westphalia, by which Christianity became a private matter of conscience, rather than an organisational principle for society."

Nothing surprising until this point, given that Crooke opened his commentary by quoting the French philosopher Michel Foucault. We're paddling around in the familiar flotsam of Edward Said here, whereby the West defines the "other" on its own terms, then uses that "discourse" to justify dominating the other. But then Crooke leaps off the interpretational cliff, and the last we see of him is a cloud of dust rising from the canyon floor.

The reason for this is that Crooke writes:

If radical Islam, with which these experts tell us we should be at war, encompasses all those who are not enamoured of secular society, and who espouse a vision of their societies grounded in the values of Islam, then these experts are advocating a war with Islam–because Islam is the vision for their future favoured by many Muslims.

Mainstream Islamists are indeed challenging western secular and materialist values, and many do believe that western thinking is flawed–that the desires and appetites of man have been reified into representing man himself. It is time to re-establish values that go beyond "desires and wants", they argue.

Many Islamists also reject the western narrative of history and its projection of inevitable "progress" towards a secular modernity; they reject the western view of power-relationships within societies and between societies; they reject individualism as the litmus of progress in society; and, above all, they reject the west's assumption that its empirical approach lends unassailability and objective rationality to its thinking–and universality to its social models.

Crooke engages here in the same dishonesty he accuses alleged opinion enforcers in the West of engaging in: He defines the problem in a conveniently erroneous way, then uses that as the basis for a flawed assertion. First of all, radical Islamists do not encompass all those "who are not enamoured of secular society, and who espouse a vision of their societies grounded in the values of Islam", so Crooke's opening thrust is a splendid dud. In fact, many Muslims who would agree with both those conditions are not radical Muslims at all. But even if that unrestrained proposition were true, then Crooke would be presenting the issue so benevolently, in fact so deceptively, as to make it laughable. After all, is not being enamored of secular Western society and advocating Islamic values anywhere near a sufficient definition of radical Islam?  

Many Muslims may indeed reject the West's "narrative of history" and its individualism (though Crooke, by making such attitudes seem pervasive, is engaging in the worst kind of "Orientalist" stereotyping here), but the only relevant definitional break-off point between most practicing Muslims, political Islamists, and murderous Islamists, at least with regard to the ambient discussion on political Islam taking place today worldwide, is their attitude toward the use of violence. And many Islamists, and an even greater number of Muslims in general, don't support resorting to violence to advance their social or political aims. They might even resent being so loosely shoehorned in with those who do.

Yet, on violence, Crooke has nothing of merit to say. The reason is that if you begin sharply differentiating between violent and non-violent Islamists, suddenly it becomes much more difficult to justify talking to those Islamists who do employ violence. By keeping the categories blurred, you can portray any dialogue with the violent Islamists–which is what Conflicts Forum does–as a dialogue with Islam.

But just when you thought that Crooke would stop cold and not pursue his logic down a blind alley of self-defeating argumentation, he's already there. That's because he goes on to endorse what a former advisor to Tony Blair, Jonathan Powell, recently said about the need to talk to Al-Qaeda.

People may, or may not, agree, but the point is that this is a dispute about ideas, about the nature of society, and about equity in an emerging global order. If western discourse cannot step beyond the enemy that it has created, these ideas cannot be heard–or addressed. This is the argument that Jonathan Powell made last week when he argued that Britain should understand the lessons of Northern Ireland: we should talk to Islamist movements, including al-Qaida. It has to be done, because the west needs to break through the fears and constraints of an over-imagined "enemy."

You might have expected that after 9/11, Crooke would remove the quote marks from the word "enemy". But there is a larger problem at work here, one transcending the legitimate protest, "And what precisely should we talk to Al-Qaeda about?" It is that those who advocate engaging Islamists over-emphasize their importance and often ignore the myriad narratives in Muslim societies opposed to those of the militant groups.

For instance, neither Hezbollah nor Hamas, groups Crooke deals with frequently, speaks for a majority of Lebanese or Palestinians on most issues of the day, let alone issues relating to Islam (even if their strictly nationalist "discourse" might appeal to many). Most Lebanese Shiites do not agree with the wilayat al-faqih doctrine of religious-political leadership advocated by Ayatollah Khomeini and embraced by Hezbollah; and it's fair to say that most Palestinians do not consider the doctrine of the Muslim Brotherhood as their reference point, though Hamas is the Palestinian branch of the Brotherhood. But Crooke pays scant attention to such nuances. He confuses the Islamists' alleged religious appeal with their political-nationalist appeal; their religious discourse with their political-nationalist discourse. But such jumps are often illegitimate.

As for Al-Qaeda, Crooke should tell us which Muslims consider the mass murder of innocent civilians a legitimate expression of Islamic values. Perhaps, once he has chatted with bin Laden we will learn that the 9/11 attacks were just a case of Osama crying out to be understood, nothing a good heart-to-heart couldn't help resolve. Meanwhile, we can thank Crooke that his commentary has just made it much easier for those who oppose dialogue with violent Islamists to insist that they are right.