Part Five – Axis of Honour: Dislocation, Family, and Terror

You probably remember the refrain, during the Bush years, that the Islamists objected to our freedoms and our way of life – that this is why America was attacked on September 11.

This is not exactly in the realms of profound analysis, and belonged with Bush’s ill advised response soon after the attacks, that America was about to embark on a “crusade” against the perpetrators.

All of a sudden, it seemed that Samuel Huntington was something of a prophet. His “Clash of Civilizations” thesis (that civilisational conflict is inevitable), seemed eerily prescient. Indeed, it seemed that in its propaganda, al Qaeda borrowed from Huntington’s terminology – whether this was intentional is difficult to know.

Unfortunately, there’s not enough space to devote to picking apart Huntington’s arguments thoroughly, but a couple of general observations are important:

1)     Too many wars have been fought over the last 20 years within “civilisations” (as defined by Huntington) for his thesis to stand up.

2)     Huntington’s definitions of civilisation are relatively arbitrary and wouldn’t pass muster in areas of study such as anthropology or linguistics.

It was extraordinarily near-sighted for the Bush administration to frame its conflict with al Qaeda as purely a battle over liberal democracy. Islamists have targeted some very undemocratic regimes with enough vigour and frequency, that the civilisational view, appropriated by both Bush and bin Laden, is quite useless.

***

Islamists, almost by definition abhor any form of modernisation that threatens a certain class of social structure. While, they are willing to make use of technology and modernist political theory from the West, this can only be in the service of a restoration of an imagined past – a communalist utopia.

The Arab honour code which radical Islamists (including non-Arabs) wish to restore was originally the product of a tribal society, in which individual sheikhs ruled on disputes, and universal laws did not exist.

Similarly, the head of a family, or someone’s guardian, had carte blanche to discipline anyone in his care or under his authority. This extended to the right to take that person’s life.

Customs varied amongst different Arab groups, however. For example, honour killings tended to be far more prevalent in the Said region of Egypt than in the north of the country.

The Islamist movement began in the 1970s largely as a response to concerted efforts on the part of various Arab (as well as Iranian and Turkish) regimes to implement a secularist programme of modernisation.

In order for the modern Egyptian state to consolidate its authority, it attempted to appropriate honour from communalist structures in order to transfer it to the state. So instead of the old structures that supported the honour code, the state attempted to create a form of national honour.

The danger that the secularising leaders of various Islamic states did not anticipate, was what might happen if, for whatever reason, the citizens perceived that the state has lost legitimacy.

The secularisers never imagined that the outcome of aggressive modernisation (without accompanying liberalisation) would be those a form of rebellion among certain sectors: that they would revert to communalism in seeking legitimate authority.

Such reversion was always going to result in conflict between the state and those looking for alternative legitimacy.

This goes some way to explaining why an Egyptian Islamist movement would dedicate itself to attacking Egyptian targets.

***

After Egypt’s 1952 nationalist revolution, the central government did not involve itself too much in the structures of the southern, and much less developed, Said region. The state preferred to leave in tact existing social structures and relied on high status Saidis to maintain order.

This was compounded by the neglect of the Said region in government development programmes, which only served to entrench the old structures more firmly.

At the same time, it was considered shameful for Saidis to seek government or police intervention in any problems that arose.

Even today, in contrast with Egypt’s north, the Said  has avoided many aspects of modernity. There are still strict distinctions in status between the Ashraf (self-proclaimed descendents of the prophet), and the Fallahin (the lowest rung – native Egyptians and darker non-natives). It was from the Fallahin and other of lower rankedc groups that Egyptian Jamaa Islamiya drew its members.

The nature of Saidi semi-autonomy resulted in the entrenchment of the lower classes’ disadvantage. For example, the majority of police officers came from high ranking Saidi families and often mistreated the Fallahin.

During Nasser’s reign, the Fallahin did have access to free education and many migrated to urban areas after their schooling. They found it difficult, however, to find employment as jobs were usually allocated according to family connections.

This geographic and economic dislocation was the primary factor impelling people to join Egyptian JI.

Beginning as a student movement in the 1970s, JI members wanted to reorient power from the centre to the periphery, stymie government policies of western style economic liberalisation, and assuage the humiliation of losing the 1967 war with Israel.

At the same time, it is important to note that the Saidi lower classes were not entirely impoverished or dispossessed.

Nasser’s education policies meant that many attained tertiary degrees, and many went to work in the Gulf countries, returning relatively well off.

They, in turn, purchased land from higher ranking tribal members, and proceeded to upset the old social order, as they were now landed, prosperous, but without the necessary hereditary status to attain the honour they believed was their due.

Their increasing education also afforded them access to the Quran and they began to reinterpret the tenets away from the old tribal readings that justified class divisions, towards a doctrine emphasising equality.

The newly wealthy Saidis, however, were not the entirety of their population. Many lived in cramped conditions, often in shanty towns in Cairo, far from their ancestral homes. In these conditions, it was not difficult for JI members to fill the social welfare void left by family separation, and a poorly run state.

The JI terrorism of 1990s Egypt specifically targeted tourists on a number of occasions. Many tourist sites are located in the Said, allowing JI to operate on its home territory.

Nearly 100 tourists were killed in such attacks between 1992 and 1997. The conventional explanations for these attacks include JI’s hostility to Egypt’s pre-Islamic past, and revulsion at the encroaching Western values of immodest dress and behaviour.

Although these explanations are credible, they seem to deal only in proximate, rather than ultimate causation.

From the Saidi experience detailed above, it is arguable that to JI members, the influx of Western tourists was the final insult: the erosion of the last vestiges of their communalist structures.

It was also evidence that their government was complicit in the de-Islamification and de-communalisation of their region.

***

The JI example involves an issue of local Islamist conflict – a  struggle between terrorists and their government. JI, however, is also involved in attacks outside Egypt.

They and other transnational Jihadis share a set of amorphous grievances, and a similar confluence of dislocation and dishonour.

Scott Atran asserts that “80 percent of known jihadis currently live in Diaspora communities, which are often marginalized from the host society and physically disconnected from each other,” and that such people find panaceas for their dislocation among small groups of friends from similar backgrounds and on the internet.

Such groups are often highly dependent on a unifying and galvanising religious leader. He is a representative of the communalist order. He is magnetic and provides the illusion that modernity’s insults are reversible.

The leader constructs a narrative explaining that the current state of Muslim dishonour is due to outsider perfidy. This narrative therefore legitimises killing the enemy (the out group) without any affront to morality.

Indeed, murder of members of an out group becomes a sacred duty.

It is arguable that such leaders become father figures in an honourable reconstruction of the communalist family ideal.

Where modernity has encroached on the traditional structures (including the family), the Islamist leader is able to reinvent not only an idealised past, but an idealised family in which the father’s authority is unassailable.

The result is a complete fusion of the interests of the individual with those of the group, mimicking, in many ways, the nature of the family within the communalist society. The success of the group and the individual are indivisible.

The publicity and esteem the group receives reflects directly on the individual. Not only does the terrorist group become a surrogate family, but also a surrogate society: a creation of an imagined ideal.

Constructing this ideal is the result not only of dislocations, but of a perceived loss of honour, perhaps through unfavourable comparisons with the West’s wealth and development. The failure of development policies of secular governments and the relegation of Islam to an oppositional force, and of course, the Zionist victories, compound the insults.

In the formation of this collective, a crucial weapon in the leader’s arsenal is the ability to externalise blame. This makes convincing disciples that their “in group” is under threat far easier and helps to fuse the individual to the collective, removing all traces of individual identity.

The archetypal externalising leader was the Egyptian, Syed Qutb, one of radical Islam’s progenitors. He rejected the very concept of the nation state as a Western construct, and wrote of Jewish malevolence and the Zionist attempts to undermine Islam.

Hamas, an off-shoot of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, echoed Qutb, and declared that the Jews had dishonoured Muslims and therefore, extreme action was necessary.

***

The next, and final post in this series will examine the nature of Palestinian Islamism. While it is certainly distinct from both al Qaeda and Egyptian JI in its ethno-nationalist motivations, it shares the same processes of radicalisation.

The conclusion will argue that even if we focus on three Islamist examples of suicide terrorism, if we remove ideology from our examination, we are actually able to discern that Islam and Muslims in general are not sufficient criteria for profiling radicalisation.

In doing this, I also hope to demonstrate that (contrary to the Lexicon of Terror folly) we must be able to talk of religion, ethnicity, and terrorism freely – without bowing to political correctness – in  order that our inquiry might actually be of some use.

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Related posts:

  1. Part Two – The Axis of Honour: Honour, Communalism, and Islamist Suicide Terrorism
  2. Part Six – Axis of Honour Final: Palestinian Suicide Terrorism
  3. Part Four – The Axis of Honour: Honour, Modernity, and al Qaeda
  4. The Axis of Honour: Honour, Communalism, and Islamist Suicide Terrorism – Introduction
  5. Part Three – The Axis of Honour: Honour and Shame

11 Responses to “Part Five – Axis of Honour: Dislocation, Family, and Terror”

  1. Phill O'Semetic says:

    I hope our government is getting analysis as good as this?

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  2. TheSadducee says:

    SJ

    I have to disagree with your (admittedly) brief dismissal of Huntington’s CoC theory. My admittedly brief response and thoughts:

    1. The theory does not preclude the possibility of conflict occuring within civilisation groups and indeed suggests that at the global level, civilisational conflict is inevitable rather than at the local level where it can occur for a number of reasons (often related to conflict within the civilisation itself i.e. alternative identities within the civilisation seeking to push the civilisation in a particular direction amongst other ideas).

    Incidentally, I would suggest Huntington was clearly writing from a western perspective – and the theory holds in that regard – armed conflict has not broken out within the western civilisation group but rather it with other groupings. (Conflict however has broken out internally in it with regards to its direction eg. Iraq war support).

    I would be curious to consider what examples you were thinking of in your original objection?

    2. I’m loathe to comment as I’m neither an anthropologist or linguist however Huntington’s definition of a civilisation are very broad and include languages, culture, religion and a host of other factors. I’m not sure that this is a very strong criticism of the theory because within these (and other disciplines) there are varying schools of thought which could both agree and disagree with his definition.

    I’m not sure that even if AQ hold a civilisational model in mind when conducting their activities why their attacks on undemocratic regimes invalidates this? As noted in 1. it could be that they are seeking to define or direct their civilisation group through this violence. Their ultimate goal would still be to deteriorate the superior position of the western civilisation grouping, preferably with the resources of their own grouping at their disposal rather than as a small transnational group.

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  3. TheSadducee says:

    As the Huntington bit was a small part of the post I don’t particularly want to derail the comments with an inordinate amount of discussion about his work.

    I would suggest however that you reconsider your example of Yugoslavia precisely because, as Huntington has pointed out, it has actually split along civilisational lines (Western – Croatia/Slovenia, Slavic/Orthodox – Serbia/Macedonia, Islamic – Bosnia/Kosovo) with each section being backed by forces from its own civilisation grouping.

    Otherwise, on that particular part of the topic we will have to respectfully agree to disagree. :)

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  4. TheSadducee says:

    SJ

    I think Huntington is suggesting that the primary source of the division in the case of Yugoslavia’s component states relates to cultural differences based on religion. Historically, this is a result of the Theodosian division and later historical events (the Ottoman occupation) come to mind immediately.

    The Albanians were/are classified as part of the Islamic civilisation grouping – primarily as a result of their mass conversion during the Ottoman period.

    The conflict, which ran in phases, seems to support the concept that civilisational groupings will back their own elements – the Europeans backed the independence of Slovenia/Croatia. As you note, Russia was sympathetic to the Serbs. Albania and the broader Islamic world backed the Bosnians/Kosovars (including one Australian convert who felt compelled to cross half the world to back his Muslim brothers/sisters in a conflict that had nothing to do with his native country and later ended up in G-Bay).

    US involvement was motivated by humanitarian concerns – they didn’t like the fact that ethnic cleansing/genocide was being actively conducted. Similarly, the acted against another civilisational grouping (Orthodox/Slavic eg. Serbs) in favour of another. This sort of activity is not ruled out in the theory.

    Additionally, I’d posit that conflicts within the western grouping eg. N. Ireland, Basques/ETA etc are primarily as a result of those groups seeking to define themselves within the civilisational grouping. If the Basques were to get independence they would certainly fit right into the grouping and would not continue armed conflict against other groups – the same is seen with N. Ireland and the current peace developments.

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  5. TheSadducee says:

    Just a quick couple of thoughts in no particular order. Hope you don’t mind the diversion! :)

    US humanitarian concerns and their involvement in the conflict would be understood as a result of the cultural values of their civilisational grouping – the western grouping has a strong interest in individual human rights and associated issues – their leader (the US) was offended by the ethnic cleansing and acted because they had the immediate capability to do so (NATO). There may also have been political benefits for the grouping i.e. building bridges with the Islamic grouping, humbling the Slavic grouping etc.

    I would suggest that the involvement of other civilisational groupings in the conflict is more involved than you suggest. There was significant involvement of Muslim foreign fighters in Kosovo and charity/political support from Islamic nations (particularly Albania and Saudi Arabia – who have been pushing for OIC recognition of Kosovo for a while). The fact that the western grouping assisted a potentially enemy grouping does not invalidate the idea – they can build/break alliances or act in their own interests on behalf of others.

    The Christian Albanians are a clear minority and are perforce subjugated to the will of the majority and have accomodated themselves to this fact. Because they have been part of this minority since the 16th C it could be argued that they comply with the cultural norms of the majority and hence wouldn’t be considered differently from the Islamic grouping. The same could be said for any minority in a grouping. (My understanding of this)

    The last bit about ETA etc – the western grouping has a cultural premium of individuality and diversity. Ethnic minorities or factions within the grouping seek to have their own identity recognised – because this is in line with the cultural values/norms of that society. I suspect that if they were to achieve independence as recognised elements of the grouping then they would cease violence and live in peace within the grouping. (This is again my personal understanding of this and may not be necessarily coherent with the theory).

    I’m not a specialist on Huntington and only seem inclined to support the basic framework of his theory, however I do enjoy discussing this sort of thing with other individuals. I also like the fact that we can agree to disagree without harsh feelings. :)

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  6. sensiblejew says:

    Good morning, Phil.

    Thank you very much for the compliment!

    Love the name, by the way.

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  7. sensiblejew says:

    Sadducee, you always ask such amazing (and difficult) questions!

    I’ll be answering all terrorism related questions tonight when I have the free time to give them my full attention.

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  8. sensiblejew says:

    Hi Sadducee.

    I have to disagree with your (admittedly) brief dismissal of Huntington’s CoC theory. My admittedly brief response and thoughts:

    Honestly, I din’t want to get into Huntington at all. The series is already too large for a blog. But to omit mention of Huntington would have neglected a key figure in the broader debate. In short, I tried to have a buck each way, jamming “Clash” into 25 words or less….

    1. The theory does not preclude the possibility of conflict occuring within civilisation groups and indeed suggests that at the global level, civilisational conflict is inevitable rather than at the local level where it can occur for a number of reasons (often related to conflict within the civilisation itself i.e. alternative identities within the civilisation seeking to push the civilisation in a particular direction amongst other ideas).

    Huntington’s focus on inter-civilisational conflict necessarily relegates intra-civilisational conflict to a place of far less importance than it truly deserves. More to the point, the entire inter- intra- dichotomy is false.

    Incidentally, I would suggest Huntington was clearly writing from a western perspective – and the theory holds in that regard – armed conflict has not broken out within the western civilisation group but rather it with other groupings. (Conflict however has broken out internally in it with regards to its direction eg. Iraq war support).

    Northern Ireland, Former Yugoslavia, and the various colour revolutions and responses to them do not paint this picture.

    I would be curious to consider what examples you were thinking of in your original objection?

    In what sense? I object on a number of levels. Certainly some examples of these objections appear in this comment.

    2. I’m loathe to comment as I’m neither an anthropologist or linguist however Huntington’s definition of a civilisation are very broad and include languages, culture, religion and a host of other factors. I’m not sure that this is a very strong criticism of the theory because within these (and other disciplines) there are varying schools of thought which could both agree and disagree with his definition.

    We might have to agree to disagree on this one. It is indeed the most crucial flaw in his thesis. He looks at regions and peoples with a thoroughly inexpert eye and groups them together in an almost primitive way. The overlap between his, “civilisations” and the fractures within them (along political, linguistic, ethnic, religious, national lines) render his categories nearly meaningless.

    I’m not sure that even if AQ hold a civilisational model in mind when conducting their activities why their attacks on undemocratic regimes invalidates this?

    Actually, they do.

    As noted in 1. it could be that they are seeking to define or direct their civilisation group through this violence. Their ultimate goal would still be to deteriorate the superior position of the western civilisation grouping, preferably with the resources of their own grouping at their disposal rather than as a small transnational group.

    Simply because al Qaeda and Huntington share a view on what constitutes a “civilisation,” does not necessarily make it useful for us as an analytical tool or framework. It is only interesting inasmuch as what it reveals about Huntington and AQ.

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  9. sensiblejew says:

    Ooh, Sadduccee… forgot about that blasted Theodosian line. Still… it’s a quibble… because Serbs and Croats went each other pretty fiercely – and the Albanians don’t speak a Slavonic language, so to which civilisation do they belong?

    Is Huntington using the Theodosian line as a civilisational cut-off point, or is he using Slavonic languages to mark things out? I genuinely forget and don’t have the time to look it up.

    So it was either a civilisational conflict (line), or intra-civilisational that somehow managed to drag Western Europe and eventually the US in (with Russia screaming bloody murder on the sidelines).

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  10. sensiblejew says:

    Hi Sadduce,

    I think Huntington is suggesting that the primary source of the division in the case of Yugoslavia’s component states relates to cultural differences based on religion. Historically, this is a result of the Theodosian division and later historical events (the Ottoman occupation) come to mind immediately.

    This is exactly where Huntington falls over. The difference between Orthodox and Catholic is only a tiny component of the broader cultural landscape of FY. Indeed, there were many cities with very high intermarriage rates between Serbs and Croats. That they are the same ethnically and speak the same language really argues against this being “civilisational.” The whole conflict was a bizarre hyper-nationalist construct courtesy of Tudjman and Millosevic that was based on little other than religious difference. How is that civilisational?

    The Albanians were/are classified as part of the Islamic civilisation grouping – primarily as a result of their mass conversion during the Ottoman period.

    Again, this just doesn’t work: are the Christian Albanians of Albania part of a different civilisation from their Muslim countrymen in Kosovo? Because if they are, again, the only criterion for Huntingtonian civilisation is religion – not language, not ethnicity, not even national affiliation.

    The conflict, which ran in phases, seems to support the concept that civilisational groupings will back their own elements – the Europeans backed the independence of Slovenia/Croatia. As you note, Russia was sympathetic to the Serbs. Albania and the broader Islamic world backed the Bosnians/Kosovars (including one Australian convert who felt compelled to cross half the world to back his Muslim brothers/sisters in a conflict that had nothing to do with his native country and later ended up in G-Bay).

    While this is all certainly true (regarding support), does this in any way back Huntington’s theisis? The West Europeans were not fighting the Russians, and the Muslim world also stayed out of things. The West only got involved during Kosovo: the Christian West came to the aid of Muslims who are supposedly in the enemy civilisational camp.

    US involvement was motivated by humanitarian concerns – they didn’t like the fact that ethnic cleansing/genocide was being actively conducted. Similarly, the acted against another civilisational grouping (Orthodox/Slavic eg. Serbs) in favour of another. This sort of activity is not ruled out in the theory.

    How are the humanitarian concerns of the US relevant here? They weighed in and defended an enemy civilisation. Indeed, Huntington’s theory really doesn’t make room for humanitarian intervention. The on ly reason such activity is not explicitly ruled out is because it is not dealt with at all.

    Additionally, I’d posit that conflicts within the western grouping eg. N. Ireland, Basques/ETA etc are primarily as a result of those groups seeking to define themselves within the civilisational grouping. If the Basques were to get independence they would certainly fit right into the grouping and would not continue armed conflict against other groups – the same is seen with N. Ireland and the current peace developments.

    I’m sorry, Sadducee. This just doesn’t make sense to me. It is in direct contradiction to Huntington’s central argument.

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  11. sensiblejew says:

    Sadduccee, how could anyone have harsh feelings about someone who writes so intelligently and without vitriol?

    I consider myself fortunate to be forced to rethink Huntington in this way, because in the academic world, whenever I shit-talked him, everyone was always in agreement. Group think is never conducive to intellectual development.

    I do like a lot of what you just wrote about Huntington. Nicely argued.

    My biggest problem right now is that I haven’t read him in years – mainly because I haven’t had to. I know I’ll always object to his lack of rigour concerning civilisational groupings, but there’s probably no escaping a re-read of Clash before I can continue our debate.

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