MUCH HAS BEEN WRITTEN about Osama bin Laden’s Islamic fundamentalism; less about the contribution of European Marxist postmodernism to bin Laden’s thinking.
This vision of the postmodernist revolution went straight from Heidegger into the french postwar Left, especially the works of Jean-Paul Sartre. Sartre’s prot g , the Algerian writer Frantz Fanon, crystallized the Third World variant of postmodernist revolution in “The Wretched of the Earth” (1961). From there, it entered the world of Middle Eastern radicals. Many of the leaders of the Shiite revolution in Iran that deposed the modernizing shah and brought the Ayatollah Khomeini to power in 1979 had studied Fanon’s brand of Marxism. ” The Iranian revolution was a synthesis of Islamic fundamentalism and European Third World socialism.
In the postmodernist leftism of these revolutionaries, the “people” supplanted Marx’s proletariat as the agent of revolution. Following Heidegger and Fanon, leaders like Lin Piao, ideologist of the Red Guards in China, and Pol Pot, student of leftist philosophy in France before becoming a founder of the Khmer Rouge, justified revolution as a therapeutic act by which non-Western peoples would regain the dignity they had lost to colonial oppressors and to American-style materialism, selfishness, and immorality. A purifying violence would purge the people of egoism and hedonism and draw them back into a primitive collective of self-sacrifice.
MANY ELEMENTS in the ideology of al Qaeda–set forth most clearly in Osama bin Laden’s 1996 “Declaration of War Against America”–derive from this same mix. Indeed, in Arab intellectual circles today, bin Laden is already being likened to an earlier icon of Third World revolution who renounced a life of privilege to head for the mountains and fight the American oppressor, Che Guevara. According to Cairo journalist Issandr Elamsani, Arab leftist intellectuals still see the world very much in 1960s terms. “They are all ex-Sorbonne, old Marxists,” he says.”
THE RELATIONSHIP between postmodernist European leftism and Islamic radicalism is a two-way street: Not only have Islamists drawn on the legacy of the European Left, but European Marxists have taken heart from Islamic terrorists who seemed close to achieving the longed-for revolution against American hegemony. Consider Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida, two leading avatars of postmodernism. Foucault was sent by the Italian daily Corriere della Sera to observe the Iranian revolution and the rise of the Ayatollah Khomeini. Like Sartre, who had rhapsodized over the Algerian revolution, Foucault was enthralled, pronouncing Khomeini “a kind of mystic saint.” The Frenchman welcomed “Islamic government” as a new form of “political spirituality” that could inspire Western radicals to combat capitalist hegemony.
Foucault was typical of postmodernist socialists in having neither concrete political aims nor the slightest interest in tangible economic grievances as motives for revolution. To him, the appeal of revolution was aesthetic and voyeuristic: “a violence, an intensity, an utterly remarkable passion.” For Foucault as for Fanon, Hezbollah, and the rest down to Osama, the purpose of violence is not to relieve poverty or adjust borders. Violence is an end in itself. Foucault exalts it as “the craving, the taste, the capacity, the possibility of an absolute sacrifice.” In this, he is at one with Osama’s followers, who claim to love death while the Americans “love Coca-Cola.”
Derrida, meanwhile, reacted to the collapse of the Soviet Union by calling for a “new international.” Whereas the old international was made up of the economically oppressed, the new one would be a grab bag of the culturally alienated, “the dispossessed and the marginalized”: students, feminists, environmentalists, gays, aboriginals, all uniting to combat American-led globalization. Islamic fundamentalists were obvious candidates for inclusion.