Emblematic of the feeble condition of Western political thought these days are the indications that there is more agreement about the evil of terrorism than there is about the value of democracy.
Witness an observation made recently by Patrick Cockburn, a British journalist admired by many on the Left, who wrote in The Independent:
The “war on terror” has failed because it did not target the jihadi movement as a whole and, above all, was not aimed at Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, the two countries that had fostered jihadism as a creed and a movement.
For those who want to distance themselves from the crude lexicon of Bush and Cheney, jihadism is supposedly a word with less charge, signalling that the term’s user is not on a crusade. Yet under this veneer of objectivity there is sometimes a surprising concordance with the neoconservative perspective.
Over a decade ago, I wrote:
Richard Perle, in quasi-theological terms, posits a “unity of terror.” In the same spirit, an editorial in Sunday’s Jerusalem Post, in reference to the terrorists who killed three Americans in Gaza this week, goes so far as to say:
Whether it was Hamas, Islamic Jihad, or perhaps even al-Qaida itself matters little and in fact tends to distract from what the West knows but often does not like to admit: The tentacles all belong to the same enemy.
Within this conception of terrorism, a phenomenon that is scattered across the globe has been turned into a beast of mythological proportions. The explicit connection is militant Islam, but whether the “tentacles” linking Islamic terrorists amount to concrete connections through finance and organization, or whether we are looking at bonds that have no more substance than a common cause or simply the common use of particular techniques of terrorism, these are all distinctions that the unitarians dismiss as distractions.
Cockburn now writes:
These days, there is a decreasing difference in the beliefs of jihadis, regardless of whether or not they are formally linked to al-Qa’ida central, now headed by Ayman al-Zawahiri. An observer in southern Turkey discussing 9/11 with a range of Syrian jihadi rebels earlier this year found that “without exception they all expressed enthusiasm for the 9/11 attacks and hoped the same thing would happen in Europe as well as the US”.
When a veteran reporter makes this kind of observation, even though he does not identify his source in any way at all, there will be many readers who treat Cockburn’s word (and thus that of an unidentified “observer”) as definitive. In so doing, they ignore the fact that this characterization of the Assad regime’s opponents perfectly mirrors the regime’s own propaganda.
One can treat Assad’s claim that he is fighting terrorists as a statement of fact. Or, one can treat it as a cynical and effective piece of political messaging — messaging one of whose purposes is to corral some sympathy from those in the West who, paradoxically, both vehemently reject the military adventurism that the neoconservatives initiated after 9/11 and yet also fully embrace a neoconservative view of unified terrorism.
When labels like jihadist and terrorist get used with sufficient frequency, the mere fact that the terms are used so frequently solidifies the sense that we know what they mean.
Any label applied to a person, however, calls out for a corrective: the voice of that person — a voice which may reinforce or undermine the stereotypes that repetition has created.
When it comes to the jihadists in Syria, we rarely hear what they have to say about themselves and if Cockburn is to be believed there’s little reason why we should be interested in hearing such individuals speak, since they all think alike and are all enemies of the West.
Earlier this year, a rare glimpse of foreign jihadists in Syria came in the form of an interview with a Dutch jihadist. Speaking in English, he provided a more nuanced picture of what has led young men like him to leave their families and join the fight against the Assad regime. Indeed, he spoke at length characterizing this more as a fight for Syrians than as one against their government.
His is just one voice. To what extent he can be taken as representative of others is open to question. Young men can easily be blinded by their own convictions or become servants of the agendas of others.
But while it’s perfectly reasonable to view with skepticism anyone’s claim that Islamic law would provide the panacea that can heal all of Syria’s wounds, the account that this former Dutch soldier gives of himself suggests to me that he knows his own mind.
He’s the kind of jihadist that both Patrick Cockburn and Bashar al-Assad would have you believe does not exist.