Cathy Nugent reviews Al-Qaeda: the true story of Radical Islam by Jason Burke (Penguin, £7.99)
Despite its tabloidesque sub-title, Burke’s book is an extremely lucid, balanced and useful account. It is especially useful because it brings together summaries of most of the events, myriad roots of, and religious and political background to the rise of Al-Qaeda and groups like it.
It would have been easy to write the “true” account, which sets out to scotch the myths of the bourgeois press about the war on terror. But this book is much more than that.
A few aspects of what is a hugely convoluted and complex story stood out for me.
The picture of how these most Salafist of groups are situated in older 20th-century traditions of political Islam. Salafist means literally those who follow the ways of the first Muslim communities; but it can also be short-hand for “neo-traditional” or for strands of thinking and groups who pay obsessive attention to the detailed rituals and rules of religious observance. And crucially want to police other Muslims and eradicate “ignorance” (non-Muslims and insufficiently religious Muslims). Hence the parallels with fascism.
What I hadn’t grasped so clearly before is how many of these, the most extreme individuals and groups, found their way from groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and the Pakistani Jamaat Islami, through splits, under the pressure of events.
In other words, the process of development of groups like al-Qaeda has been over a much longer period than the last 25 years, the end of the Cold War, or even the collapse of Arab nationalism.
In this picture the activities of the Saudi Arabian and Pakistani states also loom.
Burke describes how Saudi Arabia — for a long time, but now no more, the west’s most effective ally in the region — undertook an “industrial scale export” of money to build religious schools and universities in the Middle East. This project was to a large extent undertaken to ward off Islamist opposition inside the Kingdom which took off after the Gulf War. At those universities the Islamist “militants” were educated, met each other, formed lasting alliances.
Burke’s conclusion is that while the physical base for al-Qaeda (in the Afghan training camps) has been destroyed, and the hardcore of that network has been scattered, much of what it stood for is very much alive.
The general ideology, that is, its extreme millennarian message, which takes what it requires from Islam and mixes it up with “anti-imperialist” rhetoric, remains popular.
Preached so often by self-proclaimed religious reactionaries rather than the “educated”, it has a populist, “democratic” edge.
And Burke thinks that as such, in the future, the people who plant the bombs will come out of nowhere. No longer will it be those who joined the mujahadeen in Afghanistan. Now they are like the Bali bombers: “young men who had no previous involvement in terrorism. They were not ‘recruited’ by bin Laden or anyone close to him but came together of their own accord and appear to have decided to go ahead with a campaign of violence… despite the opposition of more moderate senior figures within Jemaa Islamiyya.”
Chilling. Such accounts also provide plenty of evidence, if such were needed, why the left cannot give an inch to any shade of political Islam.