In a recent address, UCLA historian James Gelvin compares Al Qaeda with historical anarchism (1880-1920) and, like some other recent writers, finds great significance in their common features. Such exercises are seldom wholly in vain, but how helpful are they for a better understanding of at least one of the sides in the comparison?
Gelvin dismisses the Islamofascism label as mere propaganda, and I do not think much of it either. But while comparisons between the jihadists on one hand and Nazi Germany and fascist Italy are indeed of little use, there are astonishing similarities between jihadists and some of the smaller fascist groups such as, for instance, the Romanian Legion of the Archangel Michael (also called the Iron Guard, Garda de Fier). This group, quite powerful at one time, was deeply religious in inspiration, populist and anti-capitalist in its politics, propagated a cult of death and suicide terrorism, and was second to none in denouncing corruption and the liberal West. If they still existed, they would be intensely anti-globalist. An in-depth study of the similarities between this group and the jihadists would be very illuminating and should be undertaken.
In the same way, similarities between Al Qaeda and certain anarchist factions could be found. A leading anarchist about to be executed announced that “there are no innocents,” just as the well-known Al Jazeera TV sheikh has done. Bakunin (and after him Nietzsche—not a card-carrying anarchist) declared that the passion for destruction was a creative passion.
However, on the whole, such comparisons do not take us very far, for two reasons.
First, anarchism was anything but monolithic. There were basic differences not only between anarchists at various times and places but also within each group. Some believed in terrorism, others were pacifists. There were extremists among them but they were not a majority.
Second, anarchists were not “nihilists” (an unfortunate term made popular by Turgenev’s famous novel). They did not negate all values but deeply believed in freedom. Whatever the fundamental beliefs and aims of the jihadists (who are not nihilists either), the struggle for the realm of freedom on earth is not among them. In view of such a basic difference in outlook, how much new light can be shed by comparisons between them and the anarchists?
There are two related distinctions which deserve to be explored. Gelvin comes close but does not pursue them. He believes that both anarchism and jihadism were essentially defensive in character. Territories formerly under Muslim rule, now lost as the result of a Western assault, had to be regained. If this were the sum of jihadist ideology, the obvious parallel would be with the Brezhnev doctrine. From the 1960s, it proclaimed that countries under communist rule must not be surrendered on any account, and that any retreat from this political order must be resisted by military force. By this time, the Soviet Union had given up dreams of world revolution, and its strategy was therefore “defensive.” Have jihadists really given up their hope that their beliefs will eventually prevail all over the globe, and their conviction that they are duty-bound to promote this aim? Their strategy seems to be rather more ambitious than the Brezhnev doctrine—but this certainly warrants further exploration.
There is a second crucial distinction. Nineteenth-century anarchism and terrorism adhered to a certain code of honor. There was a code of chivalry (treuga dei and pax dei) in European medieval warfare (and also in medieval Islam), not to attack and harm monks, women, children, elderly people and the poor in general. The targets of terrorist attacks were leading figures such as kings, ministers, generals, and police chiefs considered personally responsible for repression and crimes. Great care was taken not to hurt the innocent; if a Russian Grand Duke appeared unexpectedly together with his family, the attackers would abstain from throwing their bombs even if, by acting so, they endangered their own lives. More often than not, the attackers considered themselves sinners for taking a human life; it was unthinkable that they would boast of dancing on the graves of their victims or express the wish to drink their blood. There are no known cases of sadism among nineteenth-century anarchists. The indiscriminate murder which has become the rule in our days did occur but was rare and mostly unplanned.
In contrast, incidents of sadism have been frequently reported in our time—for instance, in the Algerian civil war, or in the case of Zarqawi, who was upbraided by some of his followers for cutting throats too quickly. The enemy not only has to be destroyed, he (or she) also has to suffer torment. The barbarisation of terrorism has not been limited to the jihadists, but they have been its most frequent practitioners by far. How do we account for these changes in the theory and practice of terrorism compared with the age of the anarchist militants? This seems to me a central issue which has yet to be addressed.