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Reflections on Jihad: Looking at Islamist terrorism through Sorel’s lens

Reflections on Jihad: Looking at Islamist terrorism through Sorel’s lens

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A century ago, Georges Sorel’s Reflections on Violence proposed the creation of a myth to mobilise the proletariat masses to violent action. His glorification of violence bears an uncanny resemblance to Islamist terrorism today. Although operating in very different settings, the bonds between myth and violence exposed by Sorel offer valuable insights when compared to the Islamist narrative of destruction.
A century ago, Georges Sorel’s Reflections on Violence proposed the creation of a myth to mobilise the proletariat masses to violent action. His glorification of violence bears an uncanny resemblance to Islamist terrorism today. Although operating in very different settings, the bonds between myth and violence exposed by Sorel offer valuable insights when compared to the Islamist narrative of destruction.

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Published by: Undergraduate Awards on Sep 01, 2012
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05/13/2014

 
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Reflections on Jihad:
 Looking at Islamist terrorism through Sorel’s lens
One hundred years ago, Georges Sorel’s
 Reflections on Violence
proposed thecreation of a myth to mobilise the proletariat masses to violent action. Sporadic violencewould be the means of overthrowing the existing order and bringing about a
 
renewal of human history, civilisation and values. Sorel, first and foremost a moralist, detested thedecadence of modern society and sought to restore ethical integrity in the place of bourgeoismediocrity. Today, this vision of deliverance, this revolt against democracy, thisglorification of violence, all bear an uncanny resemblance to Islamist terrorism. And yet,Sorel was coming from a different era: he was a modernist that many would argue to beoutdated in this postmodern time. His focus was on early twentieth century France andEurope, far from the complexities of the present-day Middle East. Most of all, Sorel was asocialist, not a believer in any religion.
 Religious
fundamentalism is, after all, the hallmark of the terrorism that the modern world now faces.In spite of these differences, are there lessons to be learned from Sorel about thenature of Islamist terrorism today? And, if Islamic fundamentalists are now realising violenceand a form of myth that Sorel could only propose on paper, can it shed more light on
 Reflections on Violence
as a text? Although much scholarship has focused on the links – direct and indirect – between Sorel and the totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century,
 Reflections on Violence
could be an extremely useful tool in the investigation of modernterrorism in the name of 
 jihad 
. Firstly, investigating any underlying bonds between myth andviolence may allow us to pierce the veil of mystery surrounding the Islamist narrative of destruction. On the other hand, re-assessing Sorel’s text in light of the terrorist acts of todayenables a reflection on this narrative of violence and its role as an idea in history. Bycomparing and contrasting the motivations, aims and methods proposed in
 Reflections on
 
2
Violence
and realised in the attacks of September 11
th
2001, we can investigate therelationship between the two, and shed light on both.
The Complaint: Modernity and its Enlightenment values
While celebrating the destruction of the World Trade Center, Osama bin Ladenreferred to his target as “those awesome symbolic towers that speak of liberty, human rights,and humanity.”
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If the emblematic target reveals the motives behind the attack, the scale of the attack, which killed thousands of innocent civilians, seems to reveal the strength of Islamist hatred for modern western society and everything it stands for. In essence, theterrorist attacks of 9/11 were a form of “reactionary modernist rage.”
2
And yet “modernist” isa word that we would also attribute to Georges Sorel. In 1906, Sorel viewed the state of hisworld in a similar way: modernization had led to the dominance of the bourgeoisie in society,and decadence and corruption had followed. For Sorel, this “frivolous society,” whichsacrificed morals for money, necessitated “an irrevocable overthrow”
3
.While many 19
th
century critics of modernity could acknowledge both its positive andits negative aspects – the infinite possibilities that the sweeping away of tradition implied,along with the hollowness of values that it left in its wake – Sorel held a view more commonin the 20
th
century:
Modernity is either embraced with a blind and uncritical enthusiasm, or else condemned with aneo-Olympian remoteness and contempt; in either case, it is conceived as a closed monolith,incapable of being shaped or changed by modern men.
4
 
Just as Sorel did not believe that the monolith could be shaped or changed from within thecorrupted modern system, and thus advocated its overthrow, Islamic fundamentalists are
1
Osama Bin Laden in interview with Tayseer Alouni of al-Jazeera television network in October 2001. Cited in:Boroumand, Ladan; Boroumand, Roya: “Terror, Islam and Democracy”
 Journal of Democracy
, Vol. 13, No. 2,April 2002, pp.13.
2
Herf, Jeffrey: “What is Old an What is New in the Terrorism of Islamic Fundamentalism?”
 Partisan Review
,Vol. LXIX, No. 1, 2002. pp. 29
3
Sorel, Georges:
 Reflections on Violence
. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1999. pp. 281
4
Berman, Marshall:
 All That is Solid Melts Into Air 
. Verso, New York, 1983. pp. 24
 
 
3 powerful representatives of these “flat totalizations”
5
in the 21
st
century. While they may borrow the technological accomplishments of western modernization to bring down their targets, their rejection of western values – essentially the values of modernity – is completeand unequivocal.Globalization has brought the challenges of modernity to Muslim societies at a muchfaster rate of transformation than occurred in the West. Furthermore, these challenges may pose a more profound sense of threat, as the ideas of modernity and modes of modernizationoften appear to be forced upon them from “outside” (often referred to as neo-imperialism)rather than being developed within the context of local history. Islamic fundamentalists claimto be the objects of western domination and refuse to be subjugated to the inexorablecapitalistic, bureaucratic and democratized order that it represents. Thus, Fouad Ali Saleh,mastermind of the 1985-86 Paris bombings, quoted long passages from Julius Evola’s book 
 Revolt Against the Modern World 
during his trial.
6
In Osama bin Laden’s 1998
 Declarationof Jihad 
, the United States was perceived not only as an occupier of the lands of Arabia, butwas further labelled as an exploiter, “plundering its riches, overwhelming its rulers,humiliating its people, threatening its neighbours.”
7
 Sorel similarly declared the proletariat the objects of bourgeois domination, and the bourgeois values to which Sorel refers are fundamentally the same as those that al Qaedadespises: the values of the Enlightenment, rationality and democracy. For both, the call toarms is a call for agency over subjugation in a world increasingly dominated by this one setof values.
5
Ibd.
6
Bouramond; Bouramond, 2002. pp. 7
7
Excerpt from Osama bin Ladin’s 1998 Declaration of Jihad in: Lewis, Bernard: “License to kill: Usama binLadin’s declaration of Jihad.”
 Foreign Affairs
, 77, 6, Nov/Dec 1998. pp. 14

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