Idealistic Terrorists

A classic mistake in conflict is to underestimate your enemy. In the conflict with Osama Bin Laden and his followers, this underestimation takes the form of seeing only the violence of Islamic terrorism and not its idealism.

The warm and fuzzy associations of the word 'idealism' are a long way from the blood and body parts left by bombs in Bali, Madrid or London.

Yet when young men or women willingly sacrifice their lives in a suicide bombing, their murderous motivation includes a sense of idealism. Suicide bombers clearly believe they are serving a greater good, as perverse as that may appear to us.

Bin Laden himself cultivates an air of high-minded austerity, incorruptibility and self sacrifice. With flowing robes and beard, sitting in the wilderness, he resembles a Middle Eastern prophet as much as an anti-modern terrorist.

The association with a prophet is a clue. It is a long while since we have seen a substantial challenge by idealists and utopians in religious garb.

We shrink from seeing Bin Laden's group as idealists because we fear that if we see anything of ourselves in our enemy it will weaken our resolve to oppose them.

Another reason we cannot recognise the idealism and utopianism which are at work in Bin Laden's world view is that in countries like Australia our conception of idealism has been defined in terms of secular and Enlightenment notions of progress.

We have come define progress largely in material terms and in terms of individual rights. But this is not the only way to define progress. It can also be defined in ethical or moral terms and as collective obligations. This approach can be expressed in secular ways but is usually expressed through religious beliefs.

In his 1996 manifesto from a cave in Tora Bora, Bin Laden railed against the corrupt media which had tricked so many young Muslims into loving the 'materialistic world' of the modern West.

One of his sources of inspiration, the Egyptian writer Sayyid Kuttb, spent time in the United States in 1948-50. In his account of the period Kuttb was horrified not just by the relative sexual freedom but also by the obsession with technology and materialism and the denigration of spiritual values. Its moral paucity contrasted to its material greatness.

His critique forms a key part of radical Islamic ideology which damns the spiritual emptiness of modern industrial societies. Bin Laden's version of this ideology aspires to create a society totally suffused with religious values.

But the critique of advanced industrial societies as spiritually empty and materialistic is by no means the sole property of Bin Laden. In fact similar approaches are shared by a vast and diverse number of religious and secular critics.

In a recent article in the LA Times John Allen pointed out that the present Pope once made similar charges. As Cardinal Ratzinger he argued that 'the good and the moral no longer count, it seems, but only what one can do. The measure of a human being is what he can do, not what he is. Not what is good or bad.'

A similar but more scholarly critique came from the German sociologist Max Weber early in the 20th century. He argued that modern industrialised societies developed along a trajectory which he called 'rationalisation'. This long term historic process began with the Enlightenment and involved the triumph of rational, scientific methods of thought. A narrow kind of efficiency and instrumental logic gradually comes to dominate society and the economy. As this occurs other ways of thought and other values - largely religious -- are cast aside. Society became 'de-valued' or, to use his term, 'disenchanted' as the non-rational and spiritual side of life was progressively shrunken. Whatever else they were Christians religions in the West were the main source of ethics and values.

The author of Jihad versus McWorld , Benjamin Barber makes a similar point. He notes that the forces of 'integrative modernisation and aggressive economic and cultural globalisation' mean the trivialisation of religion and the displacement of ethics and values from the centre of life.

All of this has implications for our responses to terrorism.

The radical utopians and murderous idealists inspired by El Quaida will not be persuaded to abandon their cause by negotiations or concessions. A military and intelligence dimension to the struggle is legitimate and necessary.

But this will not defeat terrorism. The aim must be take away their false aura of moral superiority and dry up the stream of recruits. As Barber says, terrorists swim in a sea of tacit popular support. Part of the answer is ethical behaviour by Western governments and the creation of democratic global institutions. Another is to ensure that actual and potential sympathisers with Bin Ladens' group are challenged by different kinds of religious idealism. The only people able to engage in such a theological debate and be listened to are those with spiritual authority. The executive director of the Australian Muslim Public Affairs Committee, Amir Butler, makes the point that such people are mostly other kinds of fundamentalists in Islam who have long opposed the violence of Bin Laden's branch of fundamentalism. Only they can ground their arguments in Islamic law, he says.

To help this process requires the kind of sophistication which this Australian government has not displayed. In the short term it is far more politically useful to demonise Muslims and engage in catastrophic actions such as the invasion of Iraq. For these kinds of reasons the terrorists and their tacit supporters will continue to believe that they hold the moral high ground.