In the introduction to The Modern Middle East: A History (my new textbook for Middle Eastern history this coming semester), James Gelvin argues that al-Qaeda differs from other Islamist groups like Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Taliban in that it does not have a political program other than rejecting the two most important characteristics of the modern world: the global economy and the system of nation-states. State-based Islamist groups, he argues, tend to fight for their program in one country and do not propose a different world economic system. For example, the Taliban engaged in a failed quest to have their government represented in the United Nations. Islamist movements like Hamas and Hezbollah not only have military wings but also political parties and social services. Their charitable functions have helped them to gain popularity as Middle Eastern governments’ services have declined.
Al-Qaeda, in Gelvin’s rendering, is more focused on resistance to these global trends and waging jihad than on specific political program. Gelvin places al-Qaeda in the stream of anarchist groups that have emerged in response to globalization in the last few decades, like the anarchists among the WTO protesters. He argues that three factors have led to the re-emergence of anarchism:
- The feared loss of economic and cultural independence by nation-states in the age of neoliberal free trade ideas, the IMF and WTO, and the global influence of American and, more broadly, Western culture.
- The decline of welfare states under the strains of these economic changes, including the neoliberal ideas that cut back welfare state spending. This had the effect of making some people angry that the government could not fulfill its perceived duties to its citizens.
- The fear that the United States, after the fall of the USSR, would have unfettered global power.
At the least, this explanation is a provocative way of thinking about al-Qaeda. I’m interested to see how it holds up over the course of the book. I don’t think that he’s saying that there are no connections between the different Islamist groups, but rather that al-Qaeda has a very different nature than other Islamist groups. My main question for now is how Gelvin will explain al-Qaeda’s desire to reconstitute the caliphate of the 700s.