The post-mortem revelations of Osama bin Laden’s daily habits have confirmed the orthodox narrative about the al Qaeda chief. Rather than a traditionalist conservative Muslim, bin Laden has been caricatured as a mentally unstable fringe figure, a narcissistic megalomaniac who “highjacked” Islamic doctrine in order to prey on Muslims traumatized by a lack of economic or political opportunity. Learning that bin Laden enjoyed Coke, watched porn, and was vain about his appearance seemingly confirms that assessment. Yet this kind of thinking reveals more about our own cultural myopia, the way we reduce all human behavior to our own categories and assumptions.
Unfortunately, this mistake leads to our misunderstanding the tactics and strategy of the jihadists. A recent example of this phenomenon is Bret Stephens’ column in The Wall Street Journal about bin Laden’s references to MIT linguist and radical crank Noam Chomsky. Most of the column is an astute dissection of Chomsky’s political rants, which Stephens correctly notes function as pop-cultural commodities and fashion markers for the badly educated young with épater le bourgeois pretensions.
The problem comes with Stephens’ ruminations on why bin Laden would find Chomsky appealing. As a “wannabe philosopher,” bin Laden sought “the imprimatur of someone he supposes to be a real philosopher” who could provide him an “intellectual architecture for his hatred of the United States.” Chomsky’s academic position and celebrity “could only have sustained bin Laden in the conceit that his thinking was on a high plane.” An analysis such as this, focused as it is on bin Laden’s personal psychology and pathologies, misses how shrewdly the jihadists have taken the measure of the West and its left-wing elites, whose guilt and self-loathing make them important allies in undermining our morale.
The usefulness of leftist ideology for jihadists was obvious from the beginning in the work of Sayyid Qutb, “al Qaeda’s intellectual godfather,” according to Lee Smith. Qutb found in communism’s clichés about industrial capitalism’s alienation and dehumanization an idiom of indictment that could resonate with left-wing Western intellectuals. “Look at this capitalism with its monopolies, its usury, at this individual freedom,” Qutb wrote, “devoid of human sympathy and responsibility for relatives except under force of law; at this materialistic attitude which deadens the spirit.” So too the Iranian Islamist Ali Shari’ati, who translated into Persian Frantz Fanon’s 1963 The Wretched of the Earth, one of the most important anti-colonial, anti-Western tracts. Shari’ati and other Iranians adapted the Marxian notion of “false consciousness,” the device by which capitalism fools the proletariat into ignoring their own true interests and obscures the oppressive reality of socio-economic institutions, and called it “Westoxification,” the mind-addling allure of Western commodities and ideas that seduces Muslims from the true faith. The Ayatollah Khomeini, architect of the first Islamic state, likewise adorned his sermons and speeches with anti-colonial, anti-imperialist, and Third World revolutionary rhetoric sure to delight European Marxists like Michel Foucault, who indeed celebrated Khomeini as a revolutionary hero.
Today’s jihadists employ the same tactic, linking their theologically inspired hatred of the West to left-wing indictments of the uniquely oppressive and exploitative nature of capitalism, creating what David Horowitz calls the “unholy alliance.” Thus when bin Laden was communicating to Americans, he sounded all these old shibboleths of leftist theory. In 2002, for example, he exhorted Iraqis not to fight for “capitalists, the lords of usury, and arms and oil dealers.” That same year he chided Americans for failing to sign the Kyoto agreements “so that you can secure the profit of your greedy companies and industries,” and criticized our law as “the law of the rich and wealthy people.” In an address to American soldiers in 2003, bin Laden told our troops that they were “spilling [their] blood to swell the bank accounts of the White House gang and their fellow arms dealers and the proprietors of great companies.” And before the 2004 election, he warned Americans not to support a war begun “to give business to their [the Bush administration’s] various corporations.” All these statements are indistinguishable from those made over the years by Noam Chomsky, Michael Moore, Howard Zinn, Robert Fisk, William Blum, or thousands of college professors, pundits, and editorial writers.
That similarity is not accidental, for bin Laden, like Qutb and Khomeini, was seeking allies among an influential class of Americans who could shape public opinion and thus change U.S. policy. For when speaking to Muslims, bin Laden and his theorist Ayman al-Zawahiri focused not on these left-wing clichés, but on Islamic theology. As Raymond Ibrahim points out, bin Laden and Zawahiri “argue to Muslims that Muslims should battle the West because it is the infidel.”
Bin Laden didn’t need Chomsky or anybody else to provide him with an “intellectual architecture for his hatred of the West” or to validate his own thinking. He could find all the “architecture” and support he needed in the Koran and 14-centuries of Islamic theology and jurisprudence. His references to Chomsky and other leftist fellow-travelers of jihadism were, like the jihadists terrorist attacks, tactical, a device for advancing the long-term strategy of defeating the West by eroding our will to fight and exposing the weakness at the center of our civilization––the suicidal self-loathing and failure of nerve that, to paraphrase Lenin, will provide the jihadists with the rope they will use to hang us.