Martin Amis has an important recent essay in the The Wall Street Journal about a new understanding of international terrorism that is emerging. In the course of the essay, however, Amis raises a series of vital issues that I will address over the course of several entries. The first is whether terrorism is really about religion even if its foot soldiers are almost all religious extremists? What are the different ramifications in terms of prevention and peacemaking? Even if terrorism is not essentially about religion we cannot abandon an engagement with religion because it motivates the foot soldiers.
The two most stimulating international terrorism-watchers known to me are John Gray and Philip Bobbitt. Professor Gray (“Straw Dogs,” “Al Qaeda and What It Means to Be Modern” and “Black Mass”) and Professor Bobbitt (“The Shield of Achilles” and the masterly “Terror and Consent”) are utterly unalike, except in brainpower and literary panache. Mr. Bobbitt is a proactive and muscular Atlanticist, whereas Mr. Gray is almost Taoist in his skepticism and his luminous passivity. Mr. Bobbitt is religious, and Mr. Gray is philo-religious (or, rather, wholly reconciled to the inexorability of religious belief); but neither man is an exponent of relativist politesse. And they assert, respectively, that international terrorism is “not about Islam” and has “no close connection to religion.”
Al Qaedaism, for them, is an epiphenomenon — a secondary effect. It is the dark child of globalization. It is the mimic of modernity: devolved, decentralized, privatized, outsourced and networked. According to Mr. Bobbitt, rather more doubtfully, Al Qaeda not only reflects the market state: it is a market state (“a virtual market state”). Globalization created great wealth and also great vulnerability; it created a space, or a dimension. Thus the epiphenomenon is not about religion; it is about human opportunism and the will to power.
Then what, you may be wondering, was all that talk about jihad and infidels and crusaders and madrasas and sharia and the umma and the caliphate? Why did people write whole books with titles like “A Fury for God” and “The Age of Sacred Terror” and “Holy War, Inc.”? There are several reasons for hoping that international terrorism isn’t about religion — not least of them the immense onerousness, the near-impossibility, now, of maintaining a discourse (I’ll put this simply) that makes distinctions between groups of human beings. Al Qaedaism may well evolve into not being about religion, about Islam. But one’s faculties insist that it is not not about religion yet.