Anarchism and al-Qaeda

I’m not at all an expert on Islamism, but by my limited understanding, al-Qaeda, insofar as they base themselves on the writings of Sayyid Qutb, are in a certain sense anarchists.

In a converse sense, however, they are the precise opposites of anarchists. How so?

(note that this is specifically al-Qaeda, in whatever sense it exists, that I’m speaking of, not any of the more successful and mainstream groups like Hamas or the Iranian government)

Anarchism could be defined either more broadly, as, 1, “opposition to authority and hierarchy in general”, or more narrowly, as, 2, “rejection of states” (compare socialism as “support for economic equality” vs. “rejection of private property”).

The typical anarchist would accept point 1., and therefore accept point 2. on that basis. What (at least one reading of) al-Qaeda’s ideology does is to invert this: they vigourously reject 1., and therefore accept 2. on that basis.

To be a bit more specific: in this reading of ‘Qutbism’, truly Islamic society would consist in perfect obedience to Shari’a, and because that obedience is so complete, no obedience to human rulers or institutions is either necessary or permitted. In short, the state, and any human body, is an inadequate object of obedience – to obey it for its own sake, rather than obeying Shari’a, would be idolatry.

Qutb, to give a bit of context, was an Egyptian writer, without any Islamic scholarly credentials, who wrote his main work in prison and was eventually executed in 1966 for his opposition to Egypt’s nationalist rulers, who he considered un-Islamic. I feel a certain relief at learning that he never married or had sex because he could never find a woman of sufficient “moral purity and discretion”.

It’s partly because of this sense of individual authority – or rather, individual submission to the ultimate authority, God – that those who follow his teachings (in combination with other teachings, of course) can declare 99% of the world’s muslims to be non-muslims and thus legitimate targets for murder, alongside the billions of avowed non-muslims, who are also targets for murder.

Anyway, this upside-down anarcho-Islam was interesting to me: the basic motivation is the complete opposite of anarchism, which like liberalism and other forms of socialism, is in theory essentially oriented towards freedom, towards securing everybody a life where they will be enslaved to no-one and make their own choices. Instead, Qutbism is essentially oriented towards servitude, towards securing everybody a life of complete, perfect submission.

And as a result, it has to oppose the state, because the state is part of reality, and reality is too messy and mixed for this. The object of that fervently desired submission is projected into the perfection of a divine law, and against this fantastic image, no earthly authority can compare.

We might compare it with those female religious figures of various cultures, nuns, vestal virgins, and so forth, who reject marriage to, sex with, or contact with men but in the name of a masculine God, specifically in the name of substituting His awesome hyper-manhood for the profane manhood of actuall men.

It’s another manifestation of the fact that hierarchy isn’t something merely external but a psychic reality present in each individual, needing to be understood and managed in that arena as much as in high politics.

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