We have all, in a sense, been sifting through the rubble of lower Manhattan in the weeks since Sept. 11.
The hijackers — who were they? What would motivate young men from comfortable Middle Eastern families to commit such horrors, knowing that the destruction they unleashed would destroy themselves as well as many others?
Most commentators think that if much remains murky about the attacks, the motivation of the “suicide bombers” is clear. It's religion, they say. Isn't that obvious?
Well, no. For one thing, most orthodox forms of the three monotheistic religions — Judaism, Christianity and Islam — revere martyrs who are willing to die, rather than kill, for their faith; the three faiths have always opposed self-immolation as a form of spiritual attainment.
(Anyone who's studied the transcripts of the various communiqués attributed to terrorist suspect Osama bin Laden, or the last testament apparently penned by Mohammed Atta, leader of the World Trade Center attacks, knows that these ignorant ravings have about as much to do with normative Islam as the speeches of Waco cult leader David Koresh have to do with Christianity.)
There is another “r,” however, that has never shrunk from worshipping violence, including terror and suicide: revolution.
That perspective dawned on me nearly 20 years ago when I served as the Register's Middle East correspondent. In the course of covering stories on Muslim-Coptic tensions in Egypt and the rise of militant Islamic attitudes among Palestinian youth, I realized that the profile of the “average” Islamic radical (I had been interviewing people in Cairo and the refugee camps in the West Bank) would have matched the profile of the Arab nationalists who blew up buses of British soldiers in Mandatory Palestine in the early years of the 20th century, or their “Maoist” sons who belonged to groups like Nayef Hawatmeh's Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, of airplane hijacker fame, a generation later.
The common thread in these groups was not ideology, let alone religion. It was belief in, and commitment to, violent revolution as an agent of social change.
It's not for nothing that a form of ideological Islam has been conscripted to cover the narrow shoulders of Third World revolution today. The past century's ideological fashions — nationalism, socialism, communism — have been deep and demonstrable failures. The last gasps of Arab “secular” (read: non-Islamic) revolution breathes uneasily in Saddam Hussein's Iraq and in the Syria of Bashir Assad.
In 1925, the Egyptian school teacher Hasan al-Banna founded the Muslim Brothers, the prototype for today's militant ideological Islam, and in the wake of the collapse of the Arab world's “other” revolutions, it was, perhaps, inevitable that this unofficial, authoritarian political impulse — the creation less of clerics than of lay educators, professionals and lawyers — would have its tragic say.
The young men who get conscripted into these movements are the same young men who would have been conscripted into nationalist or communist revolutionary cells a generation or two ago. Contrary to myth, they are not, for the most part, the children of poverty, but of privilege: middle or upper-middle class youths from good families who have college degrees in engineering that have not landed them lucrative jobs or careers and, hence, the upwardly mobile marriages they envisioned. (This, by the way, accounts for the otherwise inexplicable impieties, such as visits to strip clubs, that members of these groups apparently allow themselves.)
The frustration and bitterness of such youths, then and now, are always fodder for the ideologue who can explain it all for you, especially one who will tell you that you're not to blame. Sixty years ago, such a “soldier” would have been persuaded to dedicate and possibly lose his life in order to triumph over “imperialism.” At the end of the last century, he would have been a foot soldier ready to die for the earth's oppressed.
Bin Laden's No. 2 man, Dr. Ayman alZawahiri, suspected organizer of the 1997 massacre of 67 foreign tourists in Luxor and indicted co-conspirator in the 1998 bombings of U.S. xembassies in Africa, said, during his trial following the assassination of Sadat in 1981, that he represented “the real Islamic front ... the real Islamic opposition to Zionism ... and imperialism.” This is indicative of the way militant Islam has simply taken on the vocabulary and the mindset of the older, and failed, Arab revolutionary movements.
What do they want, these unemployed engineers, who have brought their battles to our skies?
Tragically, much of what they want has nothing to do with New York or Washington, D.C., where they have left their ineradicable fingerprints. It has to do with Riyadh, Cairo, Damascus and Jerusalem, with the dreams of a century of Arab politics. In this scenario, revolution will unseat the corrupt regimes that have acquiesced, and profited from, Western designs to weaken Arab and Muslim power and exploit its divisions. Once borders and national divisions have been overcome, the Arab world, united under militant Islam, will be prepared to confront the West on its own terms, as a competing political-economic system. On these terms, militant Islam is sure, it will win.
It does not take much analysis to see the last fading traces of the Cold War in this dualist vision of competing systems, and to observe that the complex Middle East has always defied attempts, ancient and modern, to impose a single standard on its stubborn diversities.
Scholar Fouad Ajami had this pegged years ago when he dubbed militant Islam's destructive and self-deluding politics “the politics of ecstasy.” The “ecstasy” may be borrowed from Islam, he wrote, but the “politics” — with their echoes of the last century's totalitarian nightmares — is only too familiar.
Gabriel Meyer writes from Los Angeles.