The Perfect Soldiers

By Lorenzo

LA Times journalist Terry McDermont’s study Perfect Soldiers: The 9/11 Hijackers, Who They Were, Why They Did It goes into the otherwise unremarkable lives of the 9/11 hijackers, firmly establishing that family background had nothing to do with their suicidal jihadism. Most did not come from particularly religious families; one, Ziad Jarrah from Lebanon, apparently did not realise he was a Muslim until he was 12. (His Christian nanny used to take him to Christian services on a Sunday: his deeply secular Sunni Muslim parents apparently did not object.)

The linking thread in their (short) lives was going to college. The notion that education is some solution to the problems of jihadism and Islam-derived animus towards apostates, “immodest” women, queer folk or followers of other religions is revealed to be utter nonsense by simple examination of the biographies of the 9/11 hijackers themselves, who were typically highly educated. (Mohammad Atta, the oldest, did a PhD in urban planning, for example.) Equally nonsense is the notion that poverty has any role: as you would expect from people engaging in university education, they overwhelmingly came from comfortable middle class or even wealthy backgrounds.

What made college life a common thread is that it took them away from their families and local communities. So they were confronting the “who am I?” question as isolated young men in foreign lands–they were mostly studying in the West.* Which made them excellent recruitment material for those pushing an intense Islamic identity.

Militancy, not radicalism

Including those often described as “radical imams” pushing “radical Islam”. But radical is the wrong word. Australian political scientist David Martin Jones expresses nicely the problematic nature of the “radical” moniker:

Rather than being radicalised, young Western Muslims are attracted to what a more religious age than our own recognised as enthusiasm, zealotry or fanaticism.

… any analysis of jihadism’s self-confirming zealotry suggests that those labelled “radicalised” are not really radicals at all. Ideological radicalism, properly understood, requires a clear break from traditional religion, of whatever form, in order to achieve a pluralist, secular modernity.

By contrast, a scriptural literalism based on the message of the Prophet Mohammad and the hadith of his rightly guided seventh-century successors, the Rashidun, fuels Islamic State’s thought and practice. They look to past models purified by purificatory violence today to build tomorrow’s religious utopia. … Today’s jihadi is an enthusiast as defined by the Oxford Shorter English Dictionary, namely, one who is “possessed by a god” or in “receipt of divine communication”. No matter how deluded their actions appear to modern secular sensibilities, in their minds they are directly engaged in a divine mission to re-create the caliphate.

In other words, jihadis have very little in common with the radicals of any Western tradition. They are far more like the Reformation and Counter-Reformation religious “enthusiasts” of the C16th and C17th that C18th Enlightenment folk so strongly reacted against. They have even more in common with the original Jewish Zealots: true believers homicidally enraged that human law is permitted to trump God’s law and whose murderous ire falls particularly intensely on “wickedly compromising” fellow believers. The issue is not radical Islam, it is militant Islam.

The book is clear and highly readable, as you would expect from a veteran journalist. It is also extensively footnoted.

About half way through, the link between the hijackers biographies up to that point and their suicidal mass homicides was still unclear. It was all very well to say that they sympathised with the Palestinian cause or were unhappy with the US giving up on the squabbling Afghani factions after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan (particularly as their Pakistani allies systematically undermined any secularising groups). But how does one go from being unhappy with Israel over the situation of Palestinians, or the US over its support for Israel, or the US’s disengagement from Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal, to suicidally killing thousands of random strangers?

The answer that emerges from McDermott’s narrative is very clear–intense cultivation of an Islamic identity; particularly a mainstream Sunni Islamic identity. It was that intense identification with Islam which lead them to existing jihadi networks and their mass homicide of random strangers in planes and buildings.

What is also very clear as McDermott follows the lives of the hijackers-to-be is that seeing Islamic militancy as some product of Western foreign policy is a ludicrous simplification. If anything Soviet foreign policy (the invasion of Afghanistan) and Russian foreign policy (the Chechen wars) was more important. Similarly, blaming the Iranian Revolution of 1979 on the CIA-SIS organised Shah’s 1953 coup against Mohammad Mossadegh is equally specious. Particularly as the Revolution was a joint Islamic-Leftist revolt–it was only later that Khomeini turned so successfully on his former Leftist allies. Khomeini’s triumph was a success for Islamic militancy, demonstrating that political Islam could triumph; nevertheless there was limited cross-over to Sunni Islam, precisely because intense cultivation of a Sunni Islamic identity tends to intensify the distance from Shia Islam, as events in Syria and Iraq have been demonstrating.

Nor is Islamic militancy significantly explained, or even generated, by the Israel-Palestinian dispute. On the contrary, Islamic militancy (particularly via the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood founded by Hassan al-Banna in 1928) had a great deal with making the dispute so intractable in the first place, and the outbreak of war in 1947. Certainly, the success of Israel generates a lot of resentment, and is a favourite talking point, but it has had very little to do with the development of the jihadi networks.

Even considering jihadis who have fought Israel, Hezbollah was more a product of the Lebanese Civil War; while Hamas is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, with much of its success coming from reaction against the corrupt failures of Fatah. Indeed, the failures of the socialist-nationalist push within Arab countries have been much more important in generating support for Islamic militancy than any aspect of Western foreign policies: a larger pattern within the Arab world well on display in the Algerian Civil War.

Out of Islam

McDermott follows the future hijackers through their experience of the networks organising against the Soviet-backed government of Afghanistan. This was a deeply Islamic milieu–as one would expect. Saudi Arabia and other Muslim backers provided two-thirds of the funding, Muslims provided all the fighters and even the US assistance was mainly channelled through the Pakistanis. The defeat of the Soviets in Afghanistan is seen in the Islamic world as a Muslim triumph, and for good reason.

So, why does intense identification of an Islamic identity lead to suicidally killing thousands of random strangers? First, because of Islam’s valorisation, indeed sanctification, of violence. The archetypal Muslim martyr is one who dies fighting the infidel. This is very different from the Christian concept of martyrdom–one who is killed for refusing to deny their Faith.

Second, because of Islamic supremacism: the pre-eminent cause in which such violence is sanctified. Sharia is the law and path of God, the Sovereign of the Universe, and as such rightfully applies to everyone. Sharia mandates that believers should rule, and that conversion to Islam or acceptance of Islamic dominance are the only peaceful options open to non-believers (apart from temporary truces). Otherwise, the unbelievers should be fought until either they convert, they accept Muslim rule or they die. As ibn Khaldun (1332-1406)–scholar, jurist, pioneer historical sociologist–says in his Muqaddimah:

In the Muslim community, the holy war is a religious duty, because of the universalism of the Muslim mission and (the obligation to) convert everybody to Islam by persuasion or by force. …To discuss or argue these things with them [the Christians] is not for us. It is (for them to choose between) conversion to Islam, payment of poll tax, or death (3:31).

This is standard fiqh, Islamic jurisprudence, easily replicated from any number of even more authoritative sources (pdf).

Third, because of the systematic dismissive Othering that is pervasive in Islamic doctrine. The omnipresent success of kafir societies is itself an offence to intensely cultivated Islamic sensibility: it denies the truth of Islam and its proper dominance. It is hardly accidental that jihadi targets in the West include places and gatherings with cultural significance, such as the Two Towers themselves, or a rock concert in Paris.

Cultural reaction

Reading the work of Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966)–who has been deeply influential in motivating jihadis–it is very clear that it is above all the cultural omnipresence, the cultural pollution of the West, which he feared and reacted against (including the apparently outrageous sexual licence of a dance in small town 1940s US) far more than the comings and goings of Western foreign policy. (It is useful to remember that ritual cleanliness and uncleanliness is a key aspect of pious Islamic practise.)

The logic of belief is not necessarily the logic of believers: so most Muslims just get on with their lives. But if one is young, unmarried, separated from kith and kin, and intensely cultivates an Islamic identity, the jihadi path is one that young men in particular are easily and naturally led to. Especially in mainstream Sunni Islam as (1) it has no sources of authority for religious reason other than inference from the Quran, the life of Muhammad (a ruling-and-conquering Prophet) and his sayings and acts and (2) it has the numbers to aspire to dominance.

Across Islam

McDermott includes several appendices, one of which lists key al-Qaeda personnel and connections; looking at the list it is clear that they came from across the Islamic world. The book also makes clear the Islam-spanning nature of jihadi networks and aspirations. The original notion for the 9/11 attack developed from a plan originally intended to operate out of Manila in early 1995.

The reason so many of the 9/11 hijackers were Saudis, is that they were the ones who could get visas to the US: all the Yemenis who were originally picked were knocked back by US consular officials as potential economic migrants.

The 9/11 hijackers were remarkably ordinary young men, separated from kith and kin, who intensely cultivated an Islamic identity, turning themselves into, as the title says, Perfect Soldiers for that intensely cultivated Islamic identity.

Meanwhile, Europe has taken in thousands of young Muslim men, separated from kith and kin, for whom an Islamic identity is the easiest identity to reach for. What could possibly go wrong with that?

ADDENDA The power of the book precisely comes from its recreation of the lives of the protagonists. One gets to see what impacted their lives and a sense of the milieus they were immersed in that much more fully and effectively.

[Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud.]

* Given that treating Western civilisation as a source of achievement, and any positive notion of “Western values”, is regarded as impossibly gauche by so many Western academics, the notion that young Muslims studying in the West would be encouraged to have a positive view of matters Western by their educational experience is also somewhat contra-indicated.

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