Blogs > HNN > The London Bombings: Globalization's Revenge?

Jul 13, 2005 6:09 pm

The London Bombings: Globalization's Revenge?

As investigators sift through the carnage of yet another deadly terrorist attack, this time in the heart of the world's first world city, London, British subjects and citizens across Europe and the United States are anxiously demanding to know who is behind such acts and what can be done to stop them. So far, the best Western leaders can offer is a prolonged war on terror, for which yesterday's bombings can be considered al-Qa'eda's latest counter-attack.

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 as important, cultural, transformations that have both brought people into closer contact with each other than ever before, yet at the same time has 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 several issues become clear that can help us understand what the attacks represent and where they might lead. First, while those responsible will likely claim to be"al-Qa'eda," and reporters, commentators and government officials throw around terms like"al-Qa'eda and affiliated movements," the fact is that al-Qa'eda today is more of a brand than an identifiable organization with a coherent organizations structure and operationally responsible leadership (the classic example of such an organization being the PLO).

As a brand with its own"lifestyle" and image attached to it, al-Qa'eda is emulating the strategy employed by many of the biggest corporations in the global era. In the last 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 actually manufactured by others (mostly subcontractors in the developing world).

In a similar manner, since 9/11 the core al-Qa'eda leadership has been less involved in planning and orchestrating terrorist attacks than in providing the ideological leadership and motivation for self-starters (like Musab al-Zarqawi) 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 and angry recruits, and you can start your own al-Qa'eda franchise.

The second issue is the very real impact of globalization outside the United States. Most Americans today have never experienced globalization physically, materially and spiritually, as have citizens of the developing, and especially Muslim world. Massive migration for political or economic reasons, occupation of their countries, economic marginalization from coupled with intense cultural penetration by the forces of globalization--all have created a potentially poisonous brew that groups like al-Qa'eda expertly exploit to recruit new followers.

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. This is true, even if they are second or third generation residents or citizens, as seems to be the case with at least some of the London bombers. With such a feeling 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-Qa'eda 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 which 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, in which"Islamist" movements sought to create some sort of Islamic state. However problematic from a Western perspective in many areas, these movements at least had specific political goals and even used the language of contemporary politics: democracy, human rights, and free elections to advocate their goals.

Even the previous generation of terrorist movements had clear political goals (most often some sort of sovereignty) which could be understood and potentially negotiated with. But as French Islamic scholar Olivier Roy points out in his new book"Globalized Islam," as the chance for creating an Islamic state has proven frustrated again and again, a new generation of"neofundamentalist" movements--led by Osama bin Laden and epitomized in its more violent tendency by al-Qa'eda--emerged to fill the void left by the failure of political Islam. But particularly with the more extreme wing, these movements have few positive goals and are as unwilling to dialog with non-Muslim social systems as they are unwilling to accommodate Muslims who don't follow their narrow vision of Islam.

This leads to the all important question of how to compete successfully against the al-Qa'eda image in a market-place where it has the advantages of an established and instantly recognizable, if niche, presence. 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 continuous stance against the violence launched by their coreligionists. The problem here is that the more established mainstream groups have agendas (halal certification, religious schools, displaying religious symbols on state property) that do not concern the more radical neofundamentalist 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-Qa'eda 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.). On the other hand, while progressive Muslim intellectuals and lay preachers are working hard to reach out to the kinds of young people that might gravitate towards militant violence, they are often criticized by the mainstream establishment that is much more conservative in its outlook and not all that far removed from the neofundamentalists in their disdain for many aspects of the host nation's culture.

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 US 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," the difficulties involved in G-8 leaders attempts to transform their relations with Africa remind us that good intentions and even tens of billions of dollars in aid are no substitute for the kind of major structural change in the world economy that would be necessary to achieve the kind of"trade justice" without which Africa is doomed to continue 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 the"NY Times" Thomas Friedman called Islam's"death cult." Just as 20th century terrorism was a structural response to the emerging third world state system in which Palestinians, 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 could have played a positive role in taking the frustrations and economic and cultural injustice experienced by many Muslims in the West and helped to channel it cooperatively into a larger cross-cultural movement for social change. However, in the late 1990s the burgeoning movement largely ignored Muslim voices and experiences, despite the fact that their critiques of western corporations and government policies were quite similar.

It was only after September 11 and the world wide protests against the invasion of Iraq that Muslims and the peace/anti-corporate globalization movements came together. But here 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.

Ultimately it would seem that 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 in the near future, while 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 (with access, it should be remember, to a lot of disposable income).

And so, if as Rand Corporation terrorism expert Bruce Hoffman warns that the thousands of terrorist suspects apprehended world-wide 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've heard of al-Qa'eda's seemingly new European branch. Only an unprecedented coming together of Muslims and Westerners--leaders and ordinary people alike, both sides ready fundamentally to question cherished beliefs and practices--would offer the possibility of ending the war, or at least calling a truce, before thousands of more lives are lost.

An edited version of this piece appeared on, July 10, 2005.

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More Comments:

Mark A. LeVine (UC Irvine History Professor) - 7/22/2005

we could include them too. it wasn't meant to be an exhaustive list...

Sergio Ramirez - 7/16/2005

"terrorism was a structural response to the emerging third world state system in which Palestinians, 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."

Just those three groups? What about Bosnian Serbs?