As part of my teaching this term, I came across a very interesting book by Charles Lindholm and José Pedro Zúquete: The Struggle for the World: Liberation Movements of the 21st Century (Stanford University Press). The book ties in with the course’s broader focus on social movements, how and why they are formed, their worldview and how and why they choose to use violence.
What is refreshing about The Struggle for the World is that its authors cut a broad swath. Their case studies on liberation movements include not just al-Qaeda and its ideology (a topic no doubt of some interest to our readers) but also the Zapatistas of Mexico, the Bolívar revolution, European populist-nationalism and even the ‘slow-food‘ movement of Carlo Petrini. I recently met a member of the slow-food movement in Brooklyn and mentioned that I’d just read an interesting book where this organisation was compared to al-Qaeda. I’m not sure it went down very well. No doubt, my attempt at distilling the essence of the argument, then as now, will not do justice to the actual book.
What Charles Lindholm and José Pedro Zúquete note is that each of these movements are in their own way struggling for a new world – a world that is more authentic, more traditional and more just than the one we live in today. Each one, to varying degrees, perceives the world as threatened by an overbearing system – the evil forces of globalization, of capitalism, of neo-liberal consumerism, of commoditization, neo-colonization etc. With one foot in tradition, the ancient and often mythological, and the other in the future, representing salvation and justice, these movements struggle as heroic underdogs against a global conspiracy of greed, selfishness and apathy. Their method of doing so, of drawing the battle-lines and constructing a narrative, is in many ways similar.
In each case study, we see movements harking back to the ancestral, which in turn makes the struggle part of the longue durée of history. Myths and histories are created to give the struggle depth and foundation and to make victory seem possible – if not today, then certainly tomorrow.
In each case study, the prevailing system (the enemy) comes to be seen as part of a global conspiracy enabled by the acquiescing masses, who go along with the status quo out of ignorance, cowardice or apathy. This notion ties back to a previous post of mine on another social movement, the Weather Underground, and the tendency by militants to equate ‘silence’ with ‘violence’, or ‘non-participation’ with ‘capitulation’ . Where a movement is convinced not only of the justness of its cause but of the devastating implications of not saving the world, a sense of urgency soon follows. The ignorant masses must be awoken, made to be seen the light. This evolution is particularly clear in the al-Qaeda case study. Here the drawing of stark battle-lines legitimises violence against the innocent, for to this worldview the notion of an ‘innocent bystander’ is a contradiction in terms.
Whether or not violence is involved, the location of a dichotomy, between the small ‘us’ and the large ‘them’, involves the participant in a identity-furnishing quest to redeem the world, to fight – against the odds – for a better world. This is another strong contribution of the book: by relying on ‘archival anthropology’ (and without getting all theoretical and self-referential about it), we are provided a glimpse into the worldview of activists and militants of different movements. In so doing, it is possible for the reader to walk, well maybe not a mile, but a few yards in the shoes of both leaders and followers. Often this process is both illuminating and humanising.
One interview is with a ‘jihadi activist’ and highlights very effectively how a ‘counter-identity’ was formed, one ‘that condemns the Western values that were once longed for’. I believe it deserves to be quoted at length because it successfully shows how intense dichotomies between ‘us’ and ‘them’ can be created, on the personal level:
I wanted to conform to the image of the average Frenchman, to be like them, to make myself in their image. But at the same time I had the feeling that this was more or less impossible: they didn’t want me, even if I had citizenship and all the rest. They looked down on me, they treated me like I was nothing, they despised me. This contempt was killing me. Were we really so despicable? … I went back and forth between what I was and what I wanted to be: a little Frenchmen. Whereas I was an Algerian … Islam was my salvation. I understood what I was: a Muslim. Someone with dignity, whom the French despised because they didn’t fear me enough… Now we are respected. Hated, but respected.
The source cited for the interview, John Rosenthal’s ‘The French Path to Jihad’, itself relies on Farhad Khosrokhavar’s Quand Al-Qäida parle: Témoignages derrière les barreaux, and provides the critical continuation:
I understood that I was different, that I was not French, that I would never become French and that I had no business trying to become French either. I took it well. I was proud of my new Muslim identity. Not to be French, to be Muslim, just that: Algerian too, but, above all, Muslim. That was my reconquest of myself, my burst of lucidity, my awakening. I was rid of the malaise from which I had suffered and all of a sudden I felt good about myself: no more impossible dreams, no more desire to become part of this France that did not want me. And, above all, I started to nourish a tremendous hatred toward the Fascist regime that had rejected the vote of the Algerian people for Islamic rule.
Many of the voices cited share an urge to form a better world. In some cases these hopes are perverted by alienation and anger to produce terrorism. In the other cases, there is something honorable about the desire at least to take a stand. The absolutist terms and transformative agendas are inherently dangerous, often conflict generating, but in many instances the prise de conscience also comes across as respectable. The ambivalence is difficult but inevitable. As Leszek Kolakowski put it,
the victory of utopian dreams would lead us to a totalitarian nightmare and the utter downfall of civilization, where the unchallenged domination of the skeptical spirit would condemn us to a hopeless stagnation, to an immobility that a slight accident could easily convert into catastrophic chaos (p. 6).
Put differently, there is something faintly depressing about Francois Furet’s lament: ‘Here we are, condemned to live in a world as it is’ (p. 8)
As suspected, I have probably again failed to convey the full value of the book and am now at a length where a blog post should rightfully end. Hopefully I may have whetted the appetite of our readership to consider a closer look. You can buy the book here.