Prepared by: Abdelaziz Abouelhoda
Lecturer: Dr. Rahul Rao
Tutor: Mr. Gonzalo Pozo-Martin
It is often said that there is a fine line between friends and enemies. The relationship between Al-Qaeda and the Neo-conservatives is no exception to this simple and generalized rule. At first glance, one can dismiss this view recalling the events of the past decade, particularly the war on terror and rise in Islamic Fundamentalism, along with the criticisms directed to each side. Hence, it is simple to perceive and outline the initial contrasts of both ideologies and how they view the world. However, a deeper look into the foundation and reasoning behind both ideological narratives in fact allows us to conceptualize the comparisons between the two viewpoints.
So could the men Ronald Reagan called “the moral equivalents of our founding fathers” indeed have considerable similarities in line with the American outlook of the world? (Mamdani, 2004, p. 143). This essay attempts to outline the differences and similarities between the ideological worldviews of Al-Qaeda and the Neo-conservatives. Few academic observations have attempted focusing on this subject. Hence, the essay shall depend on the traditional analysis of each ideology separately, notably by Christina Hellmich and Francis Fukuyama whose analysis, among others, shall be used to identify themes of similarities and differences. The paper will begin by outlining the theme with most differences: initial principles. The discussion will then conclude by examining the remaining themes which contain more similarities: critique of society and the individual, propaganda, manifest destiny, and realpolitik. The themes are by no means clear cut into similarities and differences, and so the analysis will target crucial themes and may include a clarification of contradictions within each theme. Following the examination of the literature, one can propose that the Neo-conservatives and Al-Qaeda have conflicting aims regarding how the current state of the international system should operate, yet they share some basic narratives, methods, and critiques which have allowed both ideological worldviews to develop in the first place.
Before outlining the themes of differences and similarities between Al-Qaeda and the Neo-conservatives, one should highlight the difficulties of this analysis beginning with finding a clear description of both ideologies. Faisal Devji highlights that militant organizations like Al- Qaeda are unable to have an ideology simply because “ideologies have classically focused on the nation state” (Devji, 2008, pp. 3-4). Outside the traditional understanding of ideology, we are hence left with “lines of thinking rather than a system of thought” (Devji, 2008, p. 4). The claim is probable considering that Al-Qaeda even rejects the term ‘ideology’ to be nothing but a Western construct and category which should not be borrowed considering it is ‘Haram’ or ‘Prohibited’ (Roy, 2004, p. 245).
Even when academics agree on simple and abstract principles, we are then faced with the gap between ideology and practice in each group. For example, Al-Qaeda calls for the return to authentic Islam, yet in practice a lot of Al-Qaeda’s funding has been earned via the drug trade (Devji, 2008). It is slightly easier linking the Neo-conservative ideology to its practice. However, Francis Fukuyama explains that “the principles of neo-conservatism are coherent but they could be interpreted in a variety of ways” (Fukuyama, 2006, p. ix). Yet, to attempt making the analysis more structured, I shall begin by highlighting the contrasts of the initial perceived principles of both ideologies and then come to explain the themes of comparison.
It is argued that different sets of principles exist for Al-Qaeda simply because there are numerous ‘Al-Qaeda’s’ in existence (Burke, 2003, p. 207). These different Al-Qaeda’s, while autonomous at times, still depend on other militants around the world and the networks all these groups provide. This is coupled with the existence of many ‘Islams’ based on the wide variety of interpretations available which further complicates the role of academics (Haynes, 2005, p. 186). Al-Qaeda only seemed to have concrete and contemporary views after Bin Laden’s Fatwa (Declaration) of “Jihad against the Jews and Crusaders” (Haynes, 2005, p. 184). Additional common factors can be identified starting with the agreement of all militant groups that Islam is the ideal social system with the potential to solve the setback witnessed by Muslims for decades (Haynes, 2005, p. 189). Arguably, Muslims are only able to achieve this ideal social system with the implementation of strict rules and principles.
In simplistic terms, Al-Qaeda calls for the return to a “pure and authentic Islam” which had been practiced by the Prophet Muhammad and the Salaf (his companions) in the seventh century (Haynes, 2005, p. 182). The objective can be achieved by the next principle of overthrowing regimes Al-Qaeda considers as ‘non-Islamic’ particularly in the Middle East. Followed by what we can assume is the ethnic cleansing of Westerners, non-Muslims, and apostate Muslims from the region, particularly Saudi Arabia (Haynes, 2005, p. 182). Only then, is Al-Qaeda able to achieve its primary goal to re-establish the Islamic Caliphate with strict implementation of Sharia and the abolition of man-made secular laws which are the heart of Western civilization.
From the brief analysis above we are able to list the crucial contrasts with the Neo- conservative ideology. While it also contains fundamental principles, it is also best to think of Neo-conservatism as a practical ideology which changes according to surrounding events (Love, 2009, p. 443). The change desired by Neo-conservatives heavily depends on powerful traditions such as religious belief and family values, social order, and political authority (Love, 2009, p.443). This is coupled by concerns for the export of democracy, human liberty, and more importantly the right of the U.S to help achieve this goal (Fukuyama, 2006, p. 4). Al-Qaeda on the other hand clearly opposes this considering American goals are Western concepts which are prohibited; secondly these concepts are created through regimes and institutions which Al-Qaeda condemns as unlawful (Roy, 2004, p. 247). The concept of Human rights also opposes the right of Al-Qaeda to judge and punish humans who are worshipping falsely by means of Jihad (Haynes, 2005, p. 182).
This now brings us to a crucial difference, namely the view on regimes. The Neo- conservative ideology focuses immensely on regimes for several reasons, mainly because through regimes, the Neo-conservatives are brought into power by the domestic electorate (Clarke & Halper, 2004, p. 206). Hence, national politics is crucial to the Neo-conservative ideology whereas Al-Qaeda is transnational and not limited to the certain national aspirations (Hellmich, 2008, p. 113). This allows Al-Qaeda not to have a decisive or coherent plan whereas the Neo-conservatives are compelled to outline how to achieve their aim of regime in plans like the ‘Project for the New American Century’ (Devji, 2005, p. 4).
Regimes are also crucial because Neo-conservatives believe that regimes “are not just formal institutions and authority structures, they shape and are shaped by societies underlying them” and that regime change could lead to new societies to develop (Fukuyama, 2006, p. 30). This idea is then clearly opposed to Al-Qaeda which seeks to operate and eradicate existing global structures which are based on man’s need and interpretation rather than being based on the Holy Scripture.
But there are contradictions within this theme which is worth highlighting. Specifically, the desire of both ideologies to return to authentic principles based on values and morals. Regime change is then an important component of Neo-conservatism but one could argue that Al-Qaeda is also in pursuit of regime change in the Middle East. The argument can also extend to the Caliphate which Al-Qaeda seeks to impose which is, in theory, a form of outdated regime with its own concepts and traditions. Human rights are another conflicting position considering that Neo-conservatism in practice does not exclude aggression (Adib-Moghaddam, 2007, p. 639). Adib-Moghaddam makes reference to the Neo-conservative investment to make war a rational policy to legitimize action on countries such as Iraq where numerous human rights abuses were committed in the name of liberating the Iraqi people (Adib-Moghaddam, 2007, p. 639).
Globalization is a theme which seems to be implicitly proposed by both ideologies. In fact, globalization seems to be the main way to achieving the aims of Al-Qaeda and the Neo- conservatives. Starting with Al-Qaeda, their initial principles include the rejection of the state and regimes along with it. Instead, what is Al-Qaeda seeks to create is a “de-territorialized” version of Islam which is “universalistic and can be a source of identity within the context of the modern, globalized, multicultural world” (Fukuyama, 2006, p. 72). This Islam also no longer differentiates between “Dar Al-Salam” (Realm of Peace) and “Dar Al-Harb” (Realm of War) because Muslims now reside all over the globe (Roy, 2004, p. 234). Additionally, the “de- territorialization” is coupled with “de-culturation” of Islam, considering that Al-Qaeda calls on militants worldwide for assistance in building the Ummah (Roy, 2004, p. 258).
The Neo-conservative principles portray the need for globalization in order to achieve the desired regime change. While not identical to Al-Qaeda, the Neo-conservatives seek to export an idea of change which will ultimately change the world into the desired end product. Successfully globalizing their aims allows the Neo-conservatives to have more impact on their domestic electorate. The crucial difference to recall at this point is that the Neo-conservatives act for domestic purposes even though they also aim to establish alliances with similar regimes. Al- Qaeda on the other hand taps into domestic factors everywhere and uses Globalization because it is its source of survival and audience (Haynes, 2005, p. 181). Hence, it is possible to argue that Al-Qaeda is more of a ‘worldview’ because it is better adapted to globalization (Devji, 2008, p. 9).
Critique of Society and the Individual
One of the core similarities between both ideologies lies in the critique of society and focus on the role of the individual. Both Al-Qaeda and the Neo-conservatives heavily critique society for the abandonment of traditional and authentic principles or values for the commercial and individualistic centered life offered by secular liberalism (Love, 2009, p. 443). For Al- Qaeda, the focus on engaging the individual in the ideology is essential to mobilize the whole society. But focusing on the individual also severed another purpose, which was to appeal and “re-Islamize” Western bred Muslims who adapted to the individualistic and secular liberal lifestyle of ‘corruption and decadence’ (Roy, 2004, p. 295). Once the individual is successfully restructured around authentic Islamic principles, the community as a whole will be restructured (Roy, 2004, p. 267).
We can recall a similar technique from the Neo-conservative ideology on regime change. But once again, the focus on the individual is essential on the national level first to establish political authority and legitimacy for the U.S to implement its Foreign Policy. Clarke and Halper explain how Neo-conservatives have a vision of a more engaged America in world affairs which cannot be achieved if individualism in the U.S was maintained (Clarke & Halper, 2004, p. 206). Instead what is needed is the return to Neo-conservative values and the belief in the U.S’s role in exporting these ideals. Like Al-Qaeda, Nancy Love highlights the Neo-conservative blame of secular liberalism for the “moral bankruptcy” of American society which diverts attention away from America’s global role (Love, 2009, p. 445). Then focus and critique outside the U.S occurs as it did with Iraq and regime change is sought in order to change society and the individual (Love, 2009, p. 449). Although, it should be made clear that unlike Al-Qaeda, the Neo- conservatives are not seeking to re-establish a form of ‘Ummah’ through regime change.
One could argue that this is the theme containing most comparison between both ideologies. Propaganda or the importance of the media has been essential into shaping how both ideologies react and the media has been crucial for both ideologies to carry out their mission in indoctrinating the individual. Additionally, in theory, “propaganda is central to any ideological struggle” because it is used to convince those uncommitted which ideology is better and it helps reaffirm the belief of followers (Payne, 2009, p. 110). This is all accomplished by communicating a narrative which references and highlights crucial details for your selected audience. To Adib-Moghaddam, the narrative includes a “construction of reality” where facts and terminology are fabricated and made simplistic to reduce the story to simple ‘good’ and ‘evil’ (Adib-Moghaddam, 2007, p. 635). More importantly, it is important to highlight that through the media, both ideologies are able to appear coherent with simple and concrete views.
Coming back to Al-Qaeda and the Neo-conservatives, I’ll be assessing three categories. The first category looks at the use of historical reference by both ideologies, followed by the careful selection of language and terminology. Last of all, an assessment shall be made of how both ideologies aim to convince their audience. Generally, both aim in different ways to artfully present their policy to build a reality and gain public support and build community cohesion (Clarke & Halper, 2004, p. 203). In the case of Al-Qaeda, Kenneth Payne emphasizes that their “greatest achievement has been to grasp the potential of media” (Payne, 2009, p. 114). This has been done by establishing their own video productions company, in addition to joining other social networks which again include many individuals worldwide (Payne, 2009). Through these capabilities, Al-Qaeda is able to integrate Muslims in the West. As mentioned previously, “de- culturation” is used in propaganda in order to avoid ethnic, racial, and linguistic barriers (Roy, 2004, p. 262). This works particularly in targeting those uncertain about their faith and identity.
The use of historical reference is considerably parallel between Al-Qaeda and the Neo- conservatives. More precisely this is reference to historical experiences and the careful which had an impact on a global scale and can be identified with the average individual. Al-Qaeda for example references geographical areas with their historical names for example Mesopotamia for Iraq and Khurasan for Afghanistan (Devji, 2008, p. 5). This serves the purpose to identify Muslims with the era Al-Qaeda seeks to establish, an era which according to Al-Qaeda and Muslims was a golden age for Islam. The Neo-conservatives on the other hand reference the threat of communism as the equivalent to Al-Qaeda which now threatens American existence and values (Fukuyama, 2006, p. 62).
Language and terminology are also at crossroads between both ideologies. Generally, the language is fluid and generalized particularly revolving around the fight for ‘good’ vs. ‘evil’ (Devji, 2005, p. 16). Al-Qaeda specifically uses terminology which arouses most feelings in the Muslims community such as “Godless” or “Zionist Crusaders”. Christina Hellmich explains this as a method to “evoke bitter memories of past conflicts and conjure emotions long suppressed” (Hellmich, 2005, p. 52). These emotions are then exacerbated with George W. Bush’s reference of the war on terror as a crusade (Haynes, 2005, p. 189). Additionally, the Neo-conservatives supplement these terms with labels such as “Axis of evil”, “Terrorists” which today have been successfully embedded in the minds of numerous audiences particularly in the West (Adib- Moghaddam, 2007, p. 650). The relevant success of these terms hence proves the ability of both AL-Qaeda and the Neo-conservatives in selecting terms with serious connotations, historical meaning, and emotion (Hellmich, 2005, p. 53).
Convincing the audience is assessed simply because both Al-Qaeda and the Neo- conservatives present their arguments in a similar fashion. Beginning with Jeffrey Haynes’s argument, both Al-Qaeda and the Neo-conservatives sought to use the war in Iraq as an advertisement for their ideology (Haynes, 2005, p. 181). The same argument can also be extended to Al-Qaeda’s attack on the U.S on 9/11 which Haynes says targeted the “mass of downtrodden ordinary Sunni Muslims” to gain recruitment (Haynes, 2005, p. 181). Additionally, 9/11 served to prove to Muslims worldwide that Al-Qaeda with was able to penetrate the heartland of the West with a trivial amount of resources and people (Devji, 2008, pp. 1-2).
To the Neo-conservatives, mobilizing the nation was successful particularly following the rhetoric after 9/11. The “war on terror” mirrored Al-Qaeda’s Jihad on the “Zionist Christians”.
Similarly both these rhetoric’s marked the polarization of the international community as it had done during the Cold War with statements such as “You are either with us or against us” by George W. Bush’s or Osama Bin Laden’s “No compromise with the Zionist Crusaders” (Payne, 2009, p. 118), (Roy, 2004, p. 244). Clarke and Halper emphasize that at that point, enemies were morphed into the same category for both sides in order for the international community to choose which side of the battle they were on. The U.S was no longer just the U.S; it was the West as a whole and its supporters in the Middle East, followed by the entire East to the Neo-conservatives (Clarke & Halper, 2004, p. 212).
Convincing individuals and the community further involved the ‘dehumanization’ of the enemy or simply creating the ‘other’. Love’s insight highlights the success of the Neo- conservatives in constructing the “opposing and profoundly threatening ‘other’ that is presented as the uncivilized savage” (Love, 2009, pp. 446-453). Al-Qaeda follows the same pattern ‘dehumanizing’ the West using images from Afghanistan and more frequently, pictures from the Abu Ghraib scandal (Payne, 2009, p. 118). The use of the word ‘Crusade’ by George W. Bush to identify the Afghan campaign served to alienate the West to the status of the ‘Other’ which was only interested in pillaging and humiliating Muslim countries (Davidson, 2005, p. 160).To rationalize the ‘Other’, both the Al-Qaeda and the Neo-conservatives then apply different techniques which however serve the same purpose. To the Neo-conservatives, the above explained language, terminology, and imagery is applied followed by questions to the audience like “why do they hate us” or “they seek to threaten our democracy” (Adib-Moghaddam, 2007, p. 650).
Al-Qaeda on the other hand uses a more convincing and appealing technique which gives them the upper hand in establishing a connection with their audience. The vital instrument, the Koran, in addition to the use of the ‘Hadith’ is almost always the subject revolving around the Bin Laden’s discussions (Hellmich, 2008). Bin Laden begins with the recitation of Holy Scripture which to all Muslims establishes a fact by the divine. This is followed by Bin Laden directly giving his own interpretation of how the scripture relates to the current situation or how it should be (Hellmich, 2005, p. 46). Despite claims of Bin Laden distorting the language of the Koran or misinterpreting it for the current situation is insignificant because the Scripture Bin Laden uses is open to interpretation. For example, when Bin Laden cites scripture calling on the need to wage Jihad on ‘those who fight’, this is followed by images of Muslim suffering in Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan and coupled with references similar to those by George W. Bush (Mamdani, 2004). Hence, at that point, Hellmich explains that Muslims are left unable to reject the claims made by Bin Laden because that would then entail rejecting the scripture cited and falling out of the fold of Islam (Hellmich, 2005, p. 44).
These techniques posed by Al-Qaeda and the Neo-conservatives then leaves the viewer with no ability to criticize what is presented to them which establishes their authority over the viewer (Hellmich, 2005, p. 47). Aside from these techniques, it is useful to highlight the role of the media itself in allowing people to take a position with either ideology. The media coupled with widespread literacy at present has made every individual an interpreter and possible executer for what they see (Devji, 2008). Coming back to the individual, the individual now feels increasing responsibility to take a position. Al-Qaeda also has a distinct advantage over the Neo- conservatives, it preaches an admired religion with over one billion followers’ worldwide (Fukuyama, 2006). Fukuyama adds that these followers are also readily available worldwide in mosques and madrasa’s which already teach Islamic traditions and the concept of martyrdom (Fukuyama, 2006, pp. 70-71). Additionally, this is followed by the appeal of the new ‘de- territorialized’ Ummah which through the media, does not impose on the life of the individual because the community is imagined (Roy, 2004, p. 276). On the other hand, an important contradiction worth mention is that Al-Qaeda, unlike the Neo-conservatives, used violence on their own people as well to intimidate the indifferent masses (Mamdani, 2004, p. 166).
There is no doubt that ideology of Al-Qaeda and the Neo-conservatives radiates a sense of exceptionalism or promise to fulfill some destined prophecy. Like certain other religious and messianic prophecies, Al-Qaeda and the Neo-conservative manifest destiny share themes which focus on ending injustice and inequality (Haynes, 2005, p. 187). Looking at Al-Qaeda in a different light, Faisal Devji explains how Al-Qaeda tries to represent itself as the contemporary representative for man’s suffering (Devji, 2008, p. 6). This helps create a sense of community amongst Muslims who now, like other religions at one point, suffer from discrimination and humiliation following the collapse of the Caliphate. This argument also directs Muslim blame onto the West for failing to implement the standards and ideals of Human Rights and Equality when Islamists failed to overthrow Western backed Middle Eastern regimes (Haynes, 2005, p.178).
Neo-conservative Manifest Destiny largely revolves around the way the U.S as a nation is perceived by its people. Fukuyama supports this view stating that there is in fact an “idea of American exceptionalism, and that the U.S has the right and duty to take care of problems” (Fukuyama, 2006, p. 2). This is understood considering the history revolving around the U.S’s conception as a nation for the freedom of worship, rights, and speech which every American cites as the core values. Having achieved what is to the Americans the ‘Perfect system’, it is arguable that the American, specifically the Neo-conservatives, feel the responsibility, for moral purposes, to export this perfect system on the global scale (Love, 2009).As Fukuyama mentions again, the “policy of national greatness” is hence manifested into foreign policy which becomes a new national project (Fukuyama, 2006, p. 42). Like the effect of Al-Qaeda, this narrative helps build cohesion amongst the American community and gives a sense of purpose to the foreign policy by the Neo-conservatives.
A different interpretation of Manifest Destiny may lead us to assess that it is another means to achieving or legitimizing national politics. While Al-Qaeda is not a national group, there is no doubt amongst scholars that their role, in addition to the Neo-conservatives, is purely political. It is noteworthy to draw attention to the Cold War period where the U.S and Al-Qaeda were allies against the Communist system. The point to be made here is that both groups were at an alliance despite knowledge of each others initial ideals and principles. Here we should return to Bin Laden’s quote “no compromise” which if it were true would not have led to an alliance with the U.S (Payne, 2009, p. 118). Lawrence Davidson offers insight into the U.S alliance explaining that the Neo-conservatives were likely using Al-Qaeda as a means to a more important end, the end of communism (Davidson, 2005, p. 162). As mentioned previously, one should think of Neo-conservatism as an ideology which changes according to its situation and the neo-conservatives believe that they have a duty to shape the world in terms of their own interest (Davidson, 2005, p. 166).
Furthermore, the pursuit of political aspirations is apparent from the themes assessed above. Beginning with the role of both ideologies in the media, particularly the use of propaganda, terminology and language to mobilize and polarize on the national and international scale. Additionally, the distortion of Al-Qaeda to Holy Scripture and the presentation of Bin Laden’s opinion can only be viewed as a method of indoctrination for further recruits. As mentioned previously, the role of Al-Qaeda and the U.S in the drug trade in Afghanistan, also the accounts of theft in Al-Qaeda camps, seldom represents true authentic and religious principles around morality and freedom (Mamdani, 2004). Hence it is possible to argue that the ideology of Al-Qaeda and the Neo-conservatives are only ideals that seek to justify the advancement of policies.
In conclusion, having attempted to compare and contrast the ideological worldviews of Al-Qaeda and the Neo-conservatives, it is possible to assess that both ideologies have many parallel methods to achieve their goals. Both ideologies in theory seek a world with justice and equality, but how that is achieved is addressed differently by each group. Additionally, considering that politics is not separated from ideology, it is possible to add that both groups have diverged from the actual ideology they preach or global politics itself and a very general ideology allowed both groups to diverge considerably to understand their ideology in a new light.
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