Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Al Qaeda Increasingly Reliant on Media

"This is an open-ended war, and they use media as part of their jihad against Western and Arab regimes."

Al Qaeda Increasingly Reliant on Media
Published: September 30, 2006 (New York Times)

In the West virtually every social scientist I know is reluctant to give Samuel P. Huntington his due, to recognize his claim that the emerging world will entail the clash of "civilizations": Western, Islamic,"Sinic", Hindu, Japanese, etc. We have recently noted how a thousand copies of his book were snapped up by the Revolutionary Guards in Iran in 1998, and how the leader of one of the most violent of the Islamist groups in Pakistan, Lashkar-e Taiba, has declared his agreement with Huntington. His book, "The Clash of Civilizations," resonates with some Muslims. Most of us would prefer to talk about the specific interactive contexts in which people make claims about their interests through the use of symbolic forms - that is, by specifying more precisely the mechanisms by which cultural forms are constructed, deployed, propagated, for practical purposes. An article by Hassan M. Fattah in the New York Times [9/30/06],on the way the internet is being used to enable activist Muslims to connect up and coordinate their activities helps me to understand how the moral frames of reference Huntington talked about are being promoted and propagated. Fattah mentions a young man who through the internet has been inspired by Osama Bin Laden's call for jihad. This young man is "part of a growing army of young men who may not seek to take violent action, but who help spread jihadist philosophy, shape its message and hope to inspire others to their cause." According to Fattah this suits Al Qaeda's agendas, because it is transforming itself into "an ideological umbrella that encourages local movements." The web provides frustrated, alienated young men - of which there is a growing number, owing to the shortage of employment - with a means of connecting up. A video in which Ayman Zawahri, "number two" in Al Qaeda, threatens attacks "on Israel and the Persian Gulf" gets passed around to friends. Al Qaeda is providing on the web "a video library featuring everything from taped suicide messages by the Sept. 11 hijackers to images of gun battles and bombings spearheaded by Al Qaeda and others." In fact, more such recordings are available than ever. Fattah says Al Qaeda is now preoccupied with "putting out disinformation". Disinformation is being produced on all sides. And the consequence of their work is the gradual commitment of young men, like those described in the article, to "jihadist" ideology. Here at least is something of how information is getting distributed. What is most interesting is the reason for this young man's commitment to Al Qaeda: What led him to the movement was his "anger over the death of his father, a fighter with the Palestinian faction Fatah when Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982." The real reasons for commitment to a movement that aims at establishing a new social order, that will correct the "humiliations" of the last "more than eighty years," are local and personal. He no longer trusts television news, seeks to get the latest information on the web. He goes to an Internet cafe several times a week. And even though Jordan's Internet cafes have begun taking increased security measures, he still can find a "sympathetic cafe owners" who will allow him to surf anonymously. To keep out of sight he "never uses his own computer to search for jihadi content," he stays on line only a short time, changes his e-mail address frequently, and "carries software that can delete details of his actions from a computer." It is tempting to regard young men like this one as relatively harmless; he is, like many of us have been, merely seeking to find a cause worth giving his life to. But the internet is a late equivalent of the cassette tapes that carried the sermons of Ruhollah Khomeini in the late 1970s to the people of Iran. It has tremendous potential as device for mobilizing the moral imagination of a collectivity. The Iranian Revolution was born of such practical systems of information distribution. Cassettes enabled Khomeini's articulate attacks against the Shah to become the voice of a nation that was fed up with the terrifying brutality of SAVAK. Could the internet become the vehicle of the mobilization of the imagination of young men throughout the Middle East who are angry because of abuses to people they care about? Even if the motivations for joining holy war are individual, many individuals can be brought into connection and a collective sense of "community" through modern devices of communication. But in the end, systems of communication have a life of their own, and the social consequences of any movement can exceed everyone's imagination. The internet is, as we well know, creating a new world - or perhaps several new worlds. What they will become, however, lies beyond everyone's horizon.

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