The Genealogy of Terrorism
by Russell Berman
Islamist terrorism is not disappearing, nor is the challenge to understand its origins. Whenever it began, it catapulted to the forefront of public attention on 9/11 and has been haunting the world ever since. The diversity of its venues makes it a global phenomenon. Successful attacks and foiled plots have taken place in Bali and Bosnia, in China and Indonesia, in Denmark and Germany, in Spain and England, in Israel and Jordan, in Algeria and Argentina, in Egypt, Iraq, Turkey, and Tunisia—demonstrating the wrongheadedness of that simplistic thinking that blamed the massacres in New York and Washington solely on U.S. policies. What we face is a worldwide threat defined by a willingness to use extreme violence against civilians while justifying it with appeals to Islam. The local pretexts vary widely, the organizational structures are loose, and the technical sophistication is uneven, ranging from hypermodern high-tech capacities to archaic decapitations, sometimes in the same event. This Islamist terrorism will remain a primary security threat in the coming decades, demonstrably able to adapt and evolve and to benefit parasitically from competition and contradictions in the international system.
As frequently noted, the designation "war on terror" avoids naming which terror. This reluctance has weakened efforts to articulate the scope of the conflict and to specify the enemy. Yet it would have been politically disastrous if the West explained its response to Islamism in a language that lent support to its misrepresentation by our enemies as a war on Islam. Still, it is Islamist terror, not terror as such, that is the enemy. There are other networks that utilize non-state violence for political goals—in the name of separatist aspirations, as with the Basques, or for idealist goals, as with some environmentalist groups. Their violence too is illegal, and the respective states attempt to combat it as criminal activity. Islamist terrorism occupies a different space, a gray zone of non-state warfare, drawing on a global vision (unlike local separatist movements), international networks, and a revolutionary-redemptive ideology. Meanwhile, its protean forms elicit multiple responses, from naïve denial—always an appealing pipe dream for those who imagine the world to be without difficulties—to an assimilation into the categories of business-as-usual policies and to a repertoire of repressive police mechanisms, which, while registering some successes, have also threatened to undermine civil libertarian norms.
Although no response to Islamist terrorism can forego a consideration of its origins, the origins discussion itself can suffer from the same kind of oversimplification that undermines the "war on terror" rhetoric. Just as that terminology refuses to name the Islamist milieu of the perpetrators, suggesting some empty abstract terror, the corollary simplification reduces Islamism to Islam, setting up a one-to-one correspondence between ancient sacred texts and modern murderous acts. Islamism has ancient roots, so goes the argument, and springs afresh from the Qur'an and the Hadith in every act of violence. It is intriguing that proponents of this Islam thesis, critical of terrorism, in effect adopt the claims of the jihadists: those who blame terrorism on Islam endorse bin Laden or Khomeini or—choose you villain—for getting Islam right. Yet their understanding of tradition is terribly simplistic, as if members of any community behaved, regardless of the vicissitudes of history, in transparent adherence to foundational texts with unambiguous and monolithic meaning. Life among signs and symbols is never that simple.
The point is that we can distinguish between the politicizing claims and dogmatic pretexts made by the terrorists—ideology in a narrow sense—and their affective attraction to terror. The latter, their commitment to the murder of civilians, to the pain they inflict and the possibility, indeed the desideratum, of their own death, the self-sacrifice of the suicide bomber—all this has other sources, not at all traditionalist or Muslim but at the very core of the modernist experience of the West. The unique character of Islamist terrorism is the asynchronous combination of an appeal to archaic materials, the Salifist dream of a return to the seventh-century Caliphate, and a psychology of terrorist violence that echoes very western contents, the modernist discontent with modernity, the aestheticist rejection of the falsity of bourgeois comfort, and the totalitarian libido of evil. The jihad of terror pretends to be a return to Islamic origins, but in fact it is acting out a lust for indiscriminate slaughter with a good European pedigree. The German example is especially instructive: the birth of terrorism out of the spirit of German violence.
Around both World Wars, it was common to believe that Germans and German cultural traditions were antithetical to democracy. This was the conservative German defense of the Kaiser, as much as it became the centerpiece of the critique of the Versailles Treaty: the claim that democracy had been imposed, like a foreign body, on Germany. Meanwhile in the West, the same image, redefined as a pejorative, of the congenitally authoritarian German became standard: as if all Germans were caricatured Prussians. This debate about the incapacity of Germans for democracy notwithstanding, Germany has become a stable, indeed in many ways exemplary, liberal democracy. That unexpected outcome is instructive in the face of claims that the Arab world, or Islamic culture, is immune to democratization or that the notion of an Arab democracy is hopelessly oxymoronic because democracy is merely a western value. Those who make that claim out of sanctimonious multiculturalism have broken solidarity with the democrats and dissidents languishing in the prisons of Egypt and Iran.
Yet before that success story of the twentieth century, the democratization of Germany, came to a happy end, the same country hosted two totalitarianisms, Nazism under Hitler and, after World War II, Communism in East Germany. Modernist culture in Germany includes a strong current of illiberal fascination with violence and sacrifice; and it was in Germany that the largest western terrorist organization, the Red Army Faction (RAF), thrived in the wake of the student movement. It is this subculture of terrorism that contributed to the formation of the suicide bomber: the mixture of ruthlessness and ideology, conspiracy and heartlessness. In some cases, the connection between German and Islamist terror is direct, as in Nazi support for the Mufti of Jerusalem or the RAF's ties to the Arab world; more generally though, the German case sheds important light on the culture of killing and the subjectivity of the perpetrators. The genealogy of Islamist terrorism leads back to German violence, which this issue of Telos explores.
Jeffrey Herf's essay provides a magisterial overview of the history of the RAF, the terrorist organization that overshadowed German political life for decades, the so-called Baader-Meinhof group. Reading the list of the murdered victims, which Herf properly includes, one cannot help but be struck by the arbitrariness: how individuals going about their everyday lives could suddenly be struck down by the violence of brutal individuals who, invoking ideological clichés and dubious political justifications, seemed primarily intent on demonstrating their own cold-bloodedness and proving their cruelty. The RAF dossier gives no evidence of anguished idealists who ever worried about the ethics of killing in the name of their principles. Such bourgeois doubts never crossed their minds. At stake instead was a performance of toughness, a disregard for sentiments, let alone legality, categories that they could vigorously surpass in the terror of the revolutionary deed. In his introduction to The Wretched of the Earth, Sartre notoriously justified anti-colonial violence: "to shoot down a European is to kill two birds with one stone, to destroy an oppressor and the man he oppresses at the same time: there remains a dead man and a free man." Sartre was wrong, and the RAF showed it: its violence only left dead victims and live murderers. Yet as Herf demonstrates, this age of murder also depended on ideology, a dogmatic communism that issued from the ossification of the New Left, amplified by assistance from the Communist regime in East Germany as well as a network of ties to other repressive regimes. (As the war in Iraq winds down, it is worth remembering that RAF fugitives found safe haven in Saddam Hussein's Baghdad, with its long history of hospitality for terrorists.) This magnetic attraction to the Soviet bloc went hand in hand with antisemitism: as the Marxist hostility to the "bourgeoisie" and its economic forms transformed into an existentialist disdain for bourgeois life, violence toward Jews became the ultimate proof of revolutionary virtue.
Terrorism pretends to pursue substantive goals, be they political or religious, but actually has little to do with either. Instead it plays out a grim existentialist drama, an animosity to normalcy, a disdain for comfort, and a contempt for human happiness. A group of essays traces the emergence of the revolutionary New Man as an agent of this cruelty out of the crucible of European modernism in its German variation, and it is this New Man who prefigures the contemporary terrorist. The conservative revolutionary hatred for the Weimar Republic, with its disdain for liberal democracy, left an affective legacy that, combined with anti-colonial ressentiment, turned into jihadist anti-Americanism. Sean McIntyre considers the engineering student Mohammed Atta in Hamburg in relation to a fictional engineer, Hans Castorp, the hero of Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain: Castorp famously encountered the temptation of terror in the figure of Naptha, modeled on the revolutionary Communist Georg Lukács. Unlike Atta, Castorp is able to resist, but the novel registers the transformation of an aestheticist sympathy with death into a desire for murderous violence and suicide. The Communist lineage then leads through the work of the East German playwright Heiner Müller, heir to Bertolt Brecht and, as Robert Buch demonstrates, a dramatist intently focused on the centrality of death and sacrifice in the logic of revolution. David Pan traces the conservative-revolutionary path through Ernst Jünger's writings by showing how he posits a new form of subjectivity, emancipated from the constraints of humanist culture. (Telos Press will soon issue a translation of Jünger's On Pain, in which he describes this transition from liberal sentiment to an ethos of detachment and placid objectivity, a psychological profile that anticipates the mentality of terrorists.) Similarly on the historical Right and at times expressing enthusiasm for the Nazis, the poet Gottfried Benn invoked a heroic subjectivity that, as Helmut Lethen shows, thrives in proximity to existential danger, the antithesis of bourgeois security. My own essay uncovers the genealogical connection between this Nazi culture, the magnetic pull to murder, and Islamism: as Matthias Küntzel has shown in Jihad and Jew Hatred, Nazi ideology opportunistically infected Arab anti-colonialism but thereby transformed it, imbuing it with an eliminationist antisemitism and a deep-seated anti-modernism, neither of which would have been necessary components of a consistent resistance to British imperialism. The "folk" of German völkisch ideology became the Ummah, the pan-Arab and then pan-Islamic collective that surpassed any national institutions in which the categories of a liberal public sphere might have developed. Andrew Bergerson provides a reply to three of the essays, in which he foregrounds an alternative category to the culture of terror: responsibility. Whatever the political pretexts of the suicide bomber may be, whatever political ideals may be invoked, the core message of the terrorist event is always the refusal of the perpetrator to take responsibility for the consequences of the deed. Heroizing the moment of the deed is an excuse for avoiding the future with its burden of mundane life: in that sense, suicide is the easy way out.
Arden Pennell reflects on the legacy of the Nazi killing-machine, the Berlin Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, and how it has been strangely integrated into the normalcy of the metropolis. Antisemitism is inextricably wrapped up with modern and postmodern terrorism. Pieter W. van der Horst's essay uncovers the ancient roots and their current ramifications. He wrote this lecture as a valedictory address on the occasion of his retirement from the University of Utrecht but faced pressure to omit the final section, included here: van der Horst explores the connections between the antiquity of the blood libel and contemporary antisemitism in the Muslim world. Antisemitism was of course always a central concern for the Frankfurt School. Kevin Amidon and Mark Worrell survey the work of A. R. L. Gurland, a lesser known member of the group, with a particular focus on the character of antisemitism in the American labor movement. The example of his work included in this issue of Telos demonstrates, methodologically, a capacity for empirical research (typically underestimated in standard histories of Critical Theory) as well as the nature of the prejudices that were present in the working class during the war years. Nonetheless, Gurland (and Paul Massing) expressed cautiously optimistic views about American attitudes, in sharp contrast to the bleak pessimism of Horkheimer and Adorno in Dialectic of Enlightenment. The lesson: prejudices and ideologies were not permanent then, nor should we assume that they are today in the milieu that generates terrorism.
In the Notes section, Christoph König contributes to the discussion of the 1968 legacy with regard to the politics of literary studies around Adorno and Peter Szondi (discussed at length in Telos 140). Finally, Jim Vernon takes a parting look at the anti-war movement and its iconic representation, reading Hegel's account of Antigone into the dramatic dialectic between Cindy Sheehan and George W. Bush. Next Telos appears after the election.
1. See Jean-Claude Paye, Global War on Liberty, trans. James H. Membrez (New York: Telos Press, 2007).
2. Jean-Paul Sartre, preface to The Wretched of the Earth, by Frantz Fanon (New York: Grove Press, 1968), p. 22.
3. For a Nietzschean critique of this death cult and hostility to life, see Jay A. Gupta, "Freedom of the Void: Hegel and Nietzsche on the Politics of Nihilism: Toward a Critical Understanding of 9/11," Telos 129 (Fall-Winter 2004): 17–39.
4. Matthias Küntzel, Jihad and Jew Hatred: Islamism, Nazism, and the Roots of 9/11, trans. Colin Meade (New York: Telos Press, 2007).