Categories Of An Imagined Past

Explaining the terrorism of Anders Breivik: the emergence of a global arena, argues Faisal Devji, has led to the paradoxical internalization of new conflicts within old political structures.


IN THE AFTERMATH of 9/11 it became clear that al Qaeda’s novelty was twofold. On the one hand it sought to occupy a global arena that does not yet possess any political institutions of its own. Militants therefore sidestepped the international order and its institutions, which are all grounded in nation-states, to invoke a planetary Muslim community lacking political form. On the other hand al Qaeda’s very evasion of the international order made its violence into a domestic concern for a variety of states, with the absence of an institutional politics at the global level turning militancy itself into a decentralized and even individual practice that emerged not from some remote place or foreign ideology but rather from western societies themselves. So it is evident that however dispersed it was geographically, al Qaeda never posed an existential threat to any nation state but instead, and very tellingly, created the possibility of internal strife within each one.

The Global War on Terror attempted to externalize this new kind of conflict in a conventional way by territorializing it in places like Afghanistan and Iraq, but was unable to prevent the domestic strife that it produced in the West. In its initial phase such conflict was manifested in the extraordinarily divisive politics of Left and Right that marked the War on Terror.  And now that the threat of al Qaeda appears to have receded without this war itself having been won, civil strife seems to be taking the form of a “clash of civilizations” between majority populations in Western Europe or North America and their Muslim minorities. In other words we see a global understanding of antagonism playing itself out in the domestic arena, as indeed had the politics of race or class in the past.

Unlike al Qaeda, however, which tried to sidestep the international order, the anti-Muslim activism so well represented in the realm of ideology by the Norwegian terrorist Mr. Breivik, is still connected to the old politics whose institutions it nevertheless rejects. For his lengthy testament is conceived as a declaration of European independence, referring in this way to the still ambiguous political status of a union that possesses a divided sovereignty at best. So while it is common for journalists and indeed analysts of all kinds to account for anti-Muslim feeling by looking at Muslim immigration and (non) integration, the emergence of a global arena and the formation of new political institutions like the European Union might well provide such views with their true context.

When the “mass” immigration of Muslims (and others from Africa and Asia) was actually occurring during the 1960s and 1970s, it was race and not religion that constituted the language of conflict in Europe, with Islam only coming to dominate it by the end of the 1980s at the earliest. But while the polity to be defended against racial or even cultural difference in the past was still the nation state, Islam’s antagonist today can only be a global actor like Europe, the West or even the non-Muslim world -- none of which possess any conventional political reality. In fact they are mirror images of categories like the planetary Muslim ummah, which has  -- at best -- only an intermittent reality in events like the global mobilizations over insults occasionally said to be delivered Muhammad in books, newspapers or speeches.

Precisely because the global arena possesses no political reality, the language of those who fear or would occupy it must turn to the imagined past for its categories. And interesting about the categories deployed by al Qaeda’s militants as much as anti-Muslim activists is the fact that their provenance is almost entirely confined to the days of European colonialism. So pan-Islamism and theories about a revived caliphate date from this period, when they were factors in the politics of imperialism. Curious about the language of anti-Muslim feeling, however, is the fact that it invokes the very fears that formerly colonized peoples once had about Europeans. This includes the threat of conversion and cultural annihilation whose most prominent historical examples, of course, are to be found in the fate of indigenous societies in the Americas and Australasia.

Whatever the accuracy of the historical references that both Muslim and anti-Muslim activists make to the distant past of the Islamic conquests or Crusades, it is the unnamed presence of the much more recent colonial past that animates their rhetoric. This suggests that imperialism remains an unresolved issue, not least because its complexity reduces to dust all the dualistic oppositions between Islam and the West that are so popular among polemicists on all sides. How would Mr. Breivik, for instance, account for the fact that large numbers of Muslims fought to liberate Europe in both World Wars, mostly as part of volunteer armies without which allied victory would have been inconceivable? The unnamed colonial past, then, is important here not because it represents the origin of any conflict between Muslims and Christians, natives and migrants, but instead because it breaks with such conflict, constituting a false historical link between a complex past and a yet unknown future.

The emergence of a global arena, I have argued, has led to the paradoxical internalization of new conflicts within old political structures. This is as true of “home-grown” Muslim terrorists as it is of anti-Muslim ones like Mr. Breivik, whose attack on fellow Norwegians and hatred of Leftists and multiculturalists does nothing but demonstrate that visions of planetary antagonism cannot be territorialized or held at national borders. They are in fact to be found at the very heart of modern societies. The effort to confine the danger of militancy to Muslim bodies and populations either at home or abroad has failed, since Islam is after all nothing but a cipher for new kinds of conflict that threaten to remake if they do not quite unmake the ethnic and other identities of Europe’s nation states.