There is good reason for the seeming intractability of the war on terror: Post-September 11 terrorism is, sadly, part of the fabric of 21st-century globalization. It is a direct product of the global economic and cultural transformations that have brought people of different worldviews into closer contact with each other than ever before, yet at the same time marginalized or unequally incorporated large swathes of humanity--including in the Muslim majority world--into the emerging world system.
If we look at the London attacks through the prism of globalization, there is evidence of three phenomena that help us understand what the attacks represent and where they might lead.
First, while those claiming responsibility for the bombings call themselves "Al Qaeda," and reporters, commentators, and government officials throw around such terms as "Al Qaeda and affiliated movements," the fact is that Al Qaeda today is more of a brand than an identifiable organization with a coherent organizational structure and operationally responsible leadership (the classic example of such an organization being the Palestine Liberation Organization).
As a brand with its own "lifestyle" and image attached to it, Al Qaeda is using the strategy developed by many of the biggest corporations in the global era. While in the 20th century, major industrial corporations such as General Motors or General Electric actually made the products they sold in their own factories, today, global corporations such as Nike or Microsoft are primarily brand-producers, engaging in research and development of products that are manufactured by others (mostly subcontractors in the developing world).
In a similar way, since 9/11 the core Al Qaeda leadership has been less involved in planning and orchestrating terrorist attacks than in providing the ideological trappings and motivation for self-starters (for example, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian national said to be the mastermind behind the Iraqi insurgency's beheadings and car-bombings) to follow their lead more or less independently. All it takes is a few veterans of fighting in Algeria, Afghanistan, or Iraq, a bit of technical know-how available over the web, ideological commitment, and a pool of young, disaffected, angry recruits, and you can start your own Al Qaeda franchise.
What is "deterritorialization"?
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Perhaps the most important experience of globalization here is what scholars call the "deterritorialization" caused by the migration of (largely) young men from their home countries to the West, and especially Europe. These rootless young men, no longer grounded by their home cultures, have little in common with the long-established, mainstream if socially conservative Muslim communities in Europe. Most of these communities are in the midst of intensive efforts to become legally integrated, if not socially assimilated, into their host societies.
The economic prospects of these migrants in Europe are often quite narrow, as are those of the majority of second- or even third-generation children of the previous waves of Muslim immigration (which includes "shoe bomber" Richard Reid ). If the European Muslim scholar Tariq Ramadan and others have called for the creation of a "Euro-Islam" that combines the best of both cultures, this group of Muslims, often economically marginalized yet constantly tempted by a hyper-secular and consumerist culture that is as difficult to afford as it is to resist, creates a "ghetto Islam" that is disconnected from the surrounding societies.
The inhabitants of these ghettos (which are as much a state of mind as a specific neighborhood) naturally feel their presence in the host country to be transitory. It is not surprising that unlike their more established religious counterparts, they have no stake in their host societies, and so feel little sympathy with or concern for its citizens. It is from these dynamics that an "Al Qaeda in Europe," the name of the previously unknown group that has claimed responsibility for the attacks, arises.
This process is evidence of a third phenomenon associated with globalized Islam that signals an important transformation in the nature of "radical Islam" epitomized by 9/11. From the Iranian Revolution of 1978 through the early 1990s, the dominant expression of Muslim activism was explicitly political: Islamist movements sought to create some sort of Islamic state. However problematic those movements were from a Western perspective, they had specific political goals and even used the language of contemporary politics--democracy, human rights, and free elections--to articulate their goals.
Even the terrorist movements of that era had clear political goals (most often some sort of sovereignty) that could be understood and potentially become the basis for negotiation. But as French Islamic scholar Olivier Roy points out in his new book, "Globalized Islam," as the chance for creating an Islamic state has been frustrated repeatedly, a new generation of "neofundamentalist" movements--led by Osama bin Laden and epitomized in its more violent tendency by Al Qaeda--emerged to fill the void left by the failure of political Islam. But these movements have few positive goals and are as unwilling to dialog with non-Muslim social systems as they are to accommodate Muslims who don't follow their narrow vision of Islam.
Who can successfully oppose Al Qaeda?
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There are three groups that can play such a role. The first is the larger Muslim communities in the societies in which the potential terrorists live. Certainly, Muslims world-wide must take a vocal and unflinching stand against the violence launched by their coreligionists. Yet the more established mainstream groups are often operating in a different universe of discourse and influence from their radical brethren. They have agendas and priorities (halal certification, religious schools, displaying religious symbols on state property) that do not concern the more radical neo-fundamentalist groups. Indeed, these groups are highly critical of, and in some ways emerged precisely as a challenge to, their increasingly "establishment" counterparts.
Moreover, the Al Qaeda brand of universalistic Islamist ideology is at odds with the existing communalist, ethnic, sectarian, or nationally based Muslim communities (such as Pakistanis in Britain, Turks in Germany, etc.). And ironically, while progressive Muslim intellectuals and lay preachers are working hard to reach out to the kinds of young people who might gravitate toward militant violence, their sometimes unorthodox approaches draw criticism from the Muslim establishment that is much more conservative in its outlook and not all that far removed from the neo-fundamentalists in their disdain for many aspects of the host nation's culture.
Second, Western governments could play a positive role in reducing the appeal of Muslim extremists by, as President Bush suggests, promoting "freedom and democracy" across the Muslim world. But however laudable their goals, the inconstistencies and contradictions in U.S. and European policies toward the region have won them few friends among the groups actively involved in challenging the political status quo. And even where rhetoric is matched by an effort to "walk the talk"--such as the G-8 leaders' current attempts to transform the industrialized world's relations with impoverished African nations--the complexities of the political process remind us that good intentions and even tens of billions of dollars in aid are no substitute for the major structural change in the world economy required to lift Africa out of its cycle of poverty, war, and debt.
The roots of contemporary Muslim extremism also lie as much in the structures of the world economy as in what New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman has called Islam's "jihadist death cult." Just as 20th-century terrorism was a structural response to the emerging third-world state system in which the Palestinians, the Kurds, or the Irish were left without sovereignty, contemporary terrorism is a structural part of the globalized world system in which huge numbers of people are left without a viable future.
Finally, the global peace and justice movement has the potential to play a positive role in taking the frustrations and economic and cultural injustice experienced by many Muslims in the West and to help to channel it into a larger cross-cultural movement for social change. However, as I wrote almost five years ago in an article for Beliefnet, throughout the late 1990s the burgeoning movement largely ignored Muslim voices and experiences, despite the fact that the two groups' critiques of Western corporations and government policies were quite similar.
It was only after September 11 and the worldwide protests against the invasion of Iraq that Muslims and the peace/anti-corporate globalization movements joined forces. But it was often the more politically and ideologically extreme representatives of both sides that came together, which produced little in the way of a holistic, systematic plan for positive change in their respective societies.
As long as we have a global system in which wealth is concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, billions of people live on $2 a day or less, and real democracy is a distant dream most of the world's poor, there is little likelihood that terrorism will end. Terrorist "marketers" and franchisers will deftly use the opportunities presented by globalization to spread their brand of violently destructive religion to a small but willing group of consumers.
And so, if as Rand Corporation terrorism expert Bruce Hoffman warns, the thousands of terrorist suspects apprehended worldwide since September 11 "are being replaced as fast as we can kill or capture them," the horrible attacks in London will not be the last we'll see of Al Qaeda's European branch. Only an unprecedented coalition of Muslims and Westerners-leaders and ordinary people alike, both sides ready to question cherished beliefs and practices-would offer the possibility of ending the war, or at least calling a truce, before thousands more lives are lost.