Sunday, 27 March 2011

The Ideological Worldviews of Al-Qaeda and the Neoconservatives: A Theoretical Perspective

The concept of ideology is a 'false consciousness or misled Weltanschauung[1] (world view[2]), and one which posits objective conditions and “realities” in order to manipulate certain social and political situations' (Behr and Heath 2009). This ‘false consciousness’ could either be the neoconservative view of US exceptionalism or Al-Qaeda’s vision of establishing an Islamic caliphate. To highlight the transient nature of ideology means seeing it not only as the product of disillusioned world view but also the process by which that happens.  For influential classical sociologists like Karl Mannheim, ‘a process of epistemological enquiry and identity interpretation leads to the eventual formation of more than just individual views of the world, but to the world view of an entire social group (totalizing world view)’ (ibid., 329 ). This highlights two things. Firstly the individual ideology of neoconservatives such as Irving Kristol leads to world views of an entire social group like the neoconservative led Committee on the Present Danger and Project for a New American Century. Individual interpretations of Political Islam range from the writings of Qutb and Hassan al-Banna[3] to contemporary faces of the ‘idea’ called Al-Qaeda like al-Zawahiri and bin-Laden. Their individual worldviews similarly follow a process towards forming a totalizing world view. Secondly, it highlights that it can be misleading to limit the understanding of ideology to the objectives and aims of individuals or social groups. The methods of achieving these form part of the construct of that ideology. This transforms certain perceived similarities between these groups into distinguishing features. The relentless pursuit of democracy, a government for and by the people, by the neoconservatives and Al-Qaeda’s appeal with the ‘people’ against Autocratic regimes may be interpreted as a similarity between them. This is important because it suggests, for instance in Al-Qaeda’s evolution, that the transformation of the strategic approach from stirring people popular uprising to terrorism and violence is a demonstration of transient ideological worldview. Targets changed from the ‘nearby enemy’ to a ‘faraway enemy’ (Keppel 2004), from non-Muslims to include Muslim regimes seen as puppets of the West and legitimizing terrorist attacks to include civilians that support them. What is originally construed as a shared characteristic now becomes opposing views of the benefits of democracy. For Al-Qaeda a clear dividing line exists between an Islamic State based on Sharia Law and a Muslim State based on secular law and rule.
The ideological worldviews of Al-Qaeda and Neoconservatives both have origins of being birthed as twins out of the liberal dream to build a better world (Curtis 2004). In the aftermath of the cold war, both Qutb and Strauss[4], shared a common philosophy. This was a neorealist perspective that materialism, individualism and Western liberalism led to nihilism. Both shared a determination to stop this destructive liberal force, and believed religion played a role in the solution. Both groups have historically demonstrated religious overtones in rhetoric by claiming a divine purpose and assignment. Irving Kristol, the founding father of the neoconservatives, believed strongly that only religion and not secularism could change America positively.  The Neoconservatives were proponents of religion and moral values playing a major role in US politics and foreign policy. Qutb’s Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, from which the ideology of Al-Qaeda is often traced, also believed a more political Islam had a central role to play. Al-Qaeda is however unlike majority of political Islamist movements that attempt to transform peacefully their societies and polities within national boundaries (Ayoob 2008). The role of religion in political conflicts is instrumental in the creation of the Islamic umma and the caliphate, the political order of the Islamicate. Islamic fundamentalism is an “ideology which stands in the context of the oscillation in Islam between culture and politics and is related to the politicization of Islamic cultural concepts and symbols.” (Tibi 2001 in Hellmich 2005, 41). The ideological worldview of protecting the umma is not unique to Al-Qaeda (Hellmich 2005). It’s been the subject of numerous essays such as those of Qutb and Mohammed al-Ghazzali[5].
According to prominent neoconservatives[6] the time had come to restore confidence in American exceptionalism and unique destiny in global leadership i.e. the ‘myth of the nation’ (Curtis 2004). Though tempting to view neoconservatives simply as realists, more insight is gained when their contrasting views to realism are highlighted by looking at the idea of the national interest and how that influenced foreign policy during the cold war Reagan years (Kristol 2003). Kristol doesn’t see the ‘national interest’ as a geographical term when the reference nation is a great power like the US. Accordingly ‘A larger nation has more extensive interests. And large nations, whose identity is ideological, like the Soviet Union of yesteryear and the United States of today, inevitably have ideological[7] interests in addition to more material[8] concerns’ (ibid.). Kristol’s famous quip of fellow neoconservatives as ‘liberals who had been mugged by reality’ seems apt. This resonated with Qutb’s call for an elite revolutionary vanguard to resist jahilliyah[9] (Qutb 1990). An inspirational call for al-Zawahiri, bin-Laden’s mentor, to use ‘any means necessary’ to preserve the spread of liberal decadence represents the ideological roots of Al-Qaeda. Like neoconservatives, their ‘realist’ credentials are challenged as they embrace a ‘new militancy concerned neither with national states nor with international ideologies’ (Devji 2008, 5). Ideology here, less focused on the nation state, recasts the geography of Islam by replacing political references with historical ones (ibid.).
Citing the neorealist critique of liberalist values as a shared ideological worldview of the neoconservatives and Al-Qaeda is less convincing however when viewed in the context of Marxism. Neoconservatives share ideological worldviews with classic liberalisms support of capitalism as long as it’s not a derivative of nihilism. Marxist theory focuses on the essence of capitalism and economic competition. ‘Neo-conservatism’s approach to foreign policy must be understood against its broader philosophical background and in particular in the context of its engagement with the nature of politics in modernity’ (Williams 2005, 307). The neoconservative worldview on appropriate foreign policy in a need to restore faith in capitalism is evident in the economic motivations that led to the decision to go to war in Iraq. Imperialism as the highest stage of capitalism (Lenin 1996) can be linked to the ideology of the neoconservatives. In some ways this reflects the ‘venture capitalist terrorist enterprise’ model of Al-Qaeda where the leadership supports and funds independent terror organization ‘projects’ (Burke 2003). Even though others have likened Al-Qaeda’s structure to a multinational corporations reporting infrastructure (Smith 2002), in contrast to US neo-imperialist capitalism their abhorrence of the western capitalist society is clear. One area of stringent objection of Al-Qaeda to western capitalism is the strand of Neo-Marxism or World Systems Theory[10] described in the context of Iraq as US strategy to gain control of oil in the region. As a result the trend of US hegemony over other world powers with an energy dependence on oil can be sustained (Stokes 2007, Harvey 2003). It remains one major reason Al-Qaeda names the US as the enemy.
The constructivist school of thought emphasizes similarities between the neoconservatives and Al-Qaeda similarly. Constructivism is essentially concerned with the causal conceptions of how the social and political world works and recognizes ideas and ideology not just materiality. The dynamic nature of social constructs parallels the transient nature of the process and methodology of ideology. During the cold war, the neoconservatives exaggerated the Soviet threat and did the same with Al-Qaeda after 9/11. For constructivism, terrorism is a social construction. For Al-Qaeda, some scholars have highlighted its ‘metaphorical construction’ (Hülsse and Spencer 2008, 571). They mention terrorism as first constituted as war, but from 2004 onwards the principal metaphor shifting from war to crime, constructing Al-Qaeda as a criminal rather than a military organization. This shift has transformed Al-Qaeda from an external to a distorted internal threat. The turning point was Al-Qaeda gradually aligning their ideological worldview accordingly to this construct transforming them powerfully even when the reality was starkly different. Some authors have overlooked the exaggerated construction of Al-Qaeda being a highly organized and hierarchical network and gone to great lengths in assessing the dangers of illicit ‘networks’ (Eilstrup-Sangiovanni and Jones 2008). Ironically, by citing the weaknesses of networks, they arrive at the same conclusion that the ‘organization’ may not be as threatening as many think. On the other side of the fence lies a construction of Islam threatened by an aggressive west and some scholars detail the powerful imagery and symbolism used to great effect in their analysis of Al-Qaeda propaganda video and the speeches of bin-Laden (Hellmich 2005). Thus viewing through the constructivist lens the language, accentuates some similarities. The arguably similar exaggerated construction of the ‘why they hate us’ language, with underlying religious rhetoric is used by Al-Qaeda and neoconservatives alike. Whilst some may identify religion as no less than a clash of civilizations (Lewis 1990), others conclude that ‘it is not a product of deprivation, individual rage, or religiously grounded predisposition; it is a result of social forces and, much of the time self-conscious conspiracies to fuel hatred’ (Sunstein 2002, 440). This social constructivist perspective emphasizes the ideological similarities.  

[1] The German term denotes a comprehensive set of opinions about the world as the medium and exercise of human existence.
[2] Worldview can be expressed as the fundamental cognitive, affective, and evaluative presuppositions a group of people make about the nature of things, and which they use to order their lives.
[3] Classical Political Islamist and founder of the Muslim Brotherhood
[4] Recognized as the source of ideological worldviews of Al-Qaeda and the neoconservatives respectively
[5] Influential Egyptian Islamic cleric who sought to interpret the Quran in a modern light
[6] Irving Kristol, William Kristol, Paul Wolfowitz, Robert Kagan and Francis Fukuyama to name a few.
[7] Alternatively ‘Liberal’
[8] Alternatively ‘Marxist’
[9] ‘The state of ignorance of the guidance from God’ - The modern use of this term is the state of an individual not following Islam associated with Qutbs ideas of false consciousness causing an inability to rise up to overthrow the secular state and replace it with Sharia law.
[10] Geopolitically oriented theory challenging the Marxist view that capitalism promotes development everywhere arguing that societies in semi-periphery gain power but others don’t.

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