A Clash of Ideologies? Al Qaeda, America and Academia
Chris Brown

Seminar Introduction

imageA year has passed since the events of September 11 and much of the world is still trying to comprehend the motives of the attackers. What ideologies lay behind the atrocities, and how has the world responded to them? In the late 1960s, a clear Marxist ideology united a loose combination of forces at war with the US and its allies. From Vietnam to the IRA and the PLO, such challenges to the international order enjoyed a degree of sympathy from Western progressives, trade unionists and democratic socialists. Will the current threat to international order also gain the sympathies of the progressive left, or are the ideologies and motives at issue here too illiberal and alien?

In this seminar, Chris Brown, Professor of International Relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science, considers whether the liberal West fully grasped the exact nature of the current threat, Osama bin Laden's ideology, and asks whether it is only capable of interpreting Al Qaeda's actions in Western terms. He unpacks that ideology and the particular brand of radical Islam represented by Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda, arguing that the values espoused by Al Qaeda are inherently anti-progressive and not comparable to the revolutionary and nationalistic movements of the late twentieth century. Brown says this is a point caught by few contemporary writers of the left. Many regard the ideology of Al Qaeda as a place-holder for a much more traditional left-wing agenda about poverty and dispossession. They do not take the ideology of Al Qaeda seriously enough. Why?

Brown argues that the key is to understand that much of the West adopts a very 'ironic' approach to modernity. People are able to distance themselves from their beliefs and so recognise that there are alternatives. Al Qaeda--and similar fundamentalist authoritarian organisations historically, such as the Nazis and Fascists--have not been able to distance themselves from their beliefs. They have an 'unironic' approach: They know the truth and are acting upon it. One reason why many progressives have shown more tolerance and sympathy for Al Qaeda than they ought to have done is because they have interpreted Al Qaeda in Western terms, rather than in the terms Al Qaeda frame for themselves.

In Session 1, Brown explores the threat to international order that Al Qaeda poses and provides a brief comparison with the movements against global capitalism of the 1960s and 1970s. In Sessions 2, 3 and 4, he explores the narratives of religion, civilisation and modernity used by all parties in the current conflict, the response of the academic world to the wider issues around September 11 and the role of anti-Americanism in the responses to September 11.

  • Session 1 International Order and the Ideology of Terror
  • Session 2 The Religious Dimension of Conflict
  • Session 3 Al Qaeda and the Modern World
  • Session 4 Irony and Modernity: The Responses to September 11
Learning Objectives:
  • Explain the nature of the threat Al Qaeda poses to international order.
  • Compare the revolutionary movements of the mid-late twentieth century with the threat posed by Al Qaeda.
  • Describe the theology of Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda.
  • Explain the nature of reform within the Middle East.
  • Analyse the West's handling of the religious dimension of the crisis with reference to the concept of irony.
  • Describe Al Qaeda's relationship with the primitive and the modern.
  • List the range of responses to the events of September 11.
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