Al Qaeda: the search for identity

Course in International Politics in the Middle East

Spring 2009

The question of identity in the Middle East is closely related to the inconsistency in defining the Middle East itself.  There is no clear definition of the Middle East, as every classification remains highly dependent on the perspective of those defining it, with the set of anthropological concepts that any student wants to support by using any particular definition.  Whatever starting point you decide to build your definition upon, geographical, historical, cultural, physiological or strategic, it is ultimately irrelevant how the definition of the Middle East is decided, as long as it is clear that this part of the world has been incredibly important and influential in the development of international affairs over millennia.  Consequently, many definitions are those reflecting a western approach to the region[1].

Examining the history of statecraft in this area, it is immediately apparent that state formation and concepts of personal identity are each closely interconnected and dependent upon the other.  The development of the very idea of statehood in the region has been affected and malformed by both the new and old colonialism of western countries. To be more precise, we should say that the state itself, as the idea of a specific territorial entity separated from other ruling powers and with an identity closely related with the people living in there, is definitely a western European model, born in Europe and exported across the world[2].  This model is based on three particular aspects in the definition of ‘state’: the presence of a defined territory, the impersonal bureaucratic standard and the displacement of loyalty from one small unit (clan, tribe, family) to a larger, collective network of units (the state)[3].

The consequent process of western statecraft in the ME began with the destruction of the previous idea of social organization, particularly the replacement of bureaucratic apparatus by the colonizers (or occupiers), as happened in Iraq following the 2003 invasion.  The main difference from the European model of statehood lies in the depersonalization of the state itself, where in the Arabic concept of dawla, the state exists only in relation to the adjective assigned to it, and mainly only then in relation to whom controls the power: once the ruler disappears, the state itself disappears also[4].

The implementation of the western model to the contrary forced the state to become detached from its population, while the apparent necessary objectivity of the state remained impossible: to be able to exercise power in an effective way, the new state had to rely on a citizen-national fidelity that had not previously existed, and so it was forced to identify itself with a single subject.  The creation of the western state model in the ME has, as a consequence, been beneficial to some groups but has definitely excluded many others[5]. Under the previous system of clans, families and dynasties, the “natural” links that formed the base of the cultural loyalties between the population assured the tightening of those relationships. In this new model of statehood, there are no more natural links to a dynasty or family, but to an institution: if this same institution is not legitimized through a blood connection, or a fidelity system of ‘do ut des’ inclusion process is not in place, then the only way to build this loyalty it is to rely on a single group to lead ‘national policy’, and to force the remaining population to comply through the arbitrary exercise of power and authority[6].

The development of the concept of identity is closely related to this external intervention of the western countries in the development of the Middle East state building process. This intervention is not isolated to the era of colonialism, but remains strong and active, as the example of Iraq an Afghanistan clearly shows. The basic system of solidarity of the asabiyya incorporated mechanisms that comprise all the functions that the west attributes only to the western state model: mechanisms of conflict resolution, inclusion processes to incorporate different asabiyyas, the redistribution of resources, and especially, the definition of an inclusive identity[7].  The imposition of the idea of an impersonal state completely destroyed the root of this important developmental path. As Sherry Berman also pointed out, in her analysis of European history[8], the foreign intervention in the ME has strongly deviated and distorted the normal processes that elsewhere, especially in Europe, have been developing for centuries without external interventions.

The national state requires the construction of a national identity, and in this context I think it is useful to look at the role of Al Qaeda as a provider of a unique and exclusive identity for the Islamic world. Contrary to Lewis[9], I think that the Islamic identity is not the only perspective in the Middle East, and that political identity is not exclusively expressed through religious identity, in a perfect and immutable conception of statehood.  My point here is to show that the Islamic identity defined by Lewis, is ultimately something invented; a perverse and willful distortion of personal and cultural identities.

This idea of identity distortion comes from Leoluca Orlando[10], a former mayor of Palermo, who developed this idea in his analysis of the Italian phenomenon of the mafia[11]. Orlando spoke of each form of organized crime, based on cultural identity: he called this phenomenon “identitarian illegality” and asserted that, in order to fight against these practices, it is necessary to begin a process of cultural contrast. The main point stressed here is that no cultural or religious identities exist that hold values which harm human beings.  All cultures, however, incur the same risk to see their core values subverted and reshaped to serve the criminal intent of those who seek broad and massive consent among people.[12]

As an example of this dynamic in the process of identity building, Orlando uses the definition of ‘Satanic Verses’ to indicate the values that have been subverted to become instruments of violence, death and other violations of human rights.  This is how German Nazism managed to contrive German culture, transforming time-honored culture into a ‘Satanic Verse’, whereby traditional respect for the constituted law was transformed to allow for respect for inhuman laws; the same things happened to the value of honor, transformed by Mafia into another ‘Satanic Verse’ to be permitted to kill in the name of the this perverted sense of ‘honor’.  This happens for every nationalist and every religious ideology, when invoked to justify violence and the violation of human rights, transforming each customary practice into ‘Satanic Verses’.[13]

“Too often the right to peace is mortified in the name of the perversion of the right to identity, transformed in pretext for arrogance, racism, and violence.”[14]

This idea is not new, but I think it is particularly important to consider in the case of Al Qaeda for several reasons. First of all, the identity that Al Qaeda attempts to build is paradoxically the same that the West has been trying to impose for decades (if not longer): an identity that is easily defined and exclusive, common to all Arab people of the world, one that can support the idea of the clash of civilizations, the idea of the Arab world as simply divided between ‘radical’ and ‘moderate’ Arabs.  In addition, the power that Al Qaeda demonstrated to western countries in the 9/11 attack, I will argue, is based on circumstances created mainly by the West: the frustration and the oppression to which the Arab population around the world is subjected to is mainly a consequence of the deviant process of imposed statecraft[15].  I am not arguing that terrorism comes only from poverty and violations of human rights, as the people responsible for the 9/11 attacks were neither poor nor oppressed, but I truly believe that the earth in which the Al Qaeda movement finds nourishment to grow its roots has been made fertile by western intervention in the Middle East, both in the past and through the present.

Between the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire in 1918 and the late 1970s, from the colonial rulers to the leaders of the new states following the process of decolonization, the west was busy in the Middle East, attempting to build and develop modern nation-states with sustainable political structures mature enough to maintain friendly geopolitical and trade relations with the west.[16]

As Migdal argues, “the legacy of colonialism had a disastrous effect on the civil constellation in the Middle Eastern societies”.[17] The pre-colonial organization of civil society, such as by the clan or the extended family, were marginalized and suppressed in many cases by the necessity, first to build borders, and then to construct nationalism and patriotism, two fundamental factors that must be constructed and manipulated to allow colonial conquerors to rule[18].  This situation had enormous consequences for the population of the region, where the uprooting of people from safe social domains, represented by the family and the tribe, was not counterbalanced by the creation of a public sphere where those same people were enabled and empowered to organize their daily life, and to find a secure psychological equilibrium[19].

According to Hassan[20], in addition to the traumatic experience of colonialism, what cultivated an environment of conflict and began a vision of violence as the only possible expression of political dissent, was the emergence of despotic, centralized and corrupt governments where the “mediating role of jurists in Muslim society” was “undermined”.

The result was an assumption reached by the local population, defined by Hamdi Hassan[21] as the ‘passivity” and ‘activism’ approaches to political life: the lack of a coherent and stable mechanism of power relationships, counterbalanced only by an authoritarian political discourse full of religious-fuelled rhetoric by Islamist groups, like those observed in Egypt or in the Palestinian territories, only emphasizes the inability to resist or even question the aggressive and tyrannical tendencies of the Arab leaders.  On the other side, activism is what characterizes the behavior towards external political threats faced by the Arab world.  An internal identity being destroyed by the process of state formation and the construction of artificial nationalism can easily find a way to construct a definition of an alternative identity, an identity towards the exterior, therefore a definition of the self in accordance to the definition of the other.  The normal process of bargaining of identities, that is, the process through which we define ourselves, balancing our internal identity, slowly constructed in conjunction with ideas of the community, or the state, and the external identity, that which defines our differences from others, that which makes ‘us’, as differing

from ‘them’[22].  In the Arab world, this second process has been the only process of identity-building to survive the western-imposed statecraft.  This defining oneself by defining the ‘other’ has found too great resonance following the clear division of roles in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks and the consequent declaration of the global war on terror.

According to Hisham Sharabi[23], the failure of the reformation movements in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries led to the transformation of Islam into a symbol of identity, and a way of forming and cementing all-Arab and all-Muslim solidarity.  In this context, Islamist groups and movements have been taking the role of the political actor calling for individual and political freedom, in a process where they “function as a modality of pre-political awareness for the formation and assertion of identity in the absence of modern institutions with secular dimensions”.[24]

In the formation of this all-inclusive identity, it is possible for Al Qaeda, in the disparate and complex realm of the Islam religion in the Arab world, where the particularities are many and often overlapping, to reshape the entire Arab world as a system of concentric circles.[25]

As explained in “Al Qaeda in its own words”,[26] the widest of these circles is represented by the most popular argument that Bin Laden assumes as lait motif of his speeches: the war in Palestine, Iraq, and Afghanistan, three Arab countries occupied by the two ‘evil’ western powers, the USA and Israel.  This argument is the main basis of all Al Qaeda ideology; these are the issues that can attract and collect consent from every single Arab in the world, rich or poor, Sunni or Shi’ia, Kurd or Turk.  At the center of the system, there are the different circles that represent the sect, the nationality, the community, the clan, the family and so on.  Bin Laden is far from proposing a monolithic dogmatism when speaking to the public, instead he manages to produce particular relations and to recall different senses of belonging without ever drawing attention to the contrasting differences between individuals, groups, families, clans or tribes, but always keeping his rhetoric to a surface level of agreement between all Arabs.[27] This is particularly evident when reading the speeches and the discourse of Bin Laden and noticing that, aside from citing the Koran, there are no specific references to Shi’ia or Sunni, to the Kurds, the Iraqis or the Persians as specific different entities, or even as entities in themselves.  There is always an inclusive reference to the sense of belonging to the entire Arab world.  This is further evident when examining the demands made by Al Qaeda over the course of these years: there is always a vague reference to the ‘liberation’ of the holy places, namely Palestine and Saudi Arabia, the first occupied by the Israelis and the second deemed to have been ‘sold’ to the Americans to run the war against Iraq.[28] Following these assertions, there is no future perspective in any strategy proposed by Al Qaeda, and there are no references to the internal state’s political issues, no words about the freedom inside the Arabs states vis-à-vis liberation from foreign occupiers. Also the religious logic behind the call for jihad has been transformed to the political use: the prohibition to kill innocent people clearly stated in the Koran is circumnavigated by the statement that all people who are citizens of certain countries, if those countries are sending their army to occupy holy places, are no longer innocent.  In the same way, the concept of jihad as a defensive war to protect the holy places is transformed into an aggressive war, keeping only the rhetoric of ‘defense’.

This last concept is clearly similar to the Bush doctrine of preemptive defensive war, where to justify a war against specific countries, the US administration declared a global war against ‘terror’[29].  The semantic of this global war and the semantic of the jihad launched by Osama Bin Laden are a perfect match of ideological justifications that link themselves to supposed different identities.  My claim is that not only those identities do not exist, but their imposition on each domestic population is acting as a mutually contrasting reinforcement mechanism that will never conclude unless something external stops the process.

After the launch of the global war on terrorism, the overwhelming feeling in the Arab world has been one of being unjustifiably attacked by the West, an aggressive attitude expressed by the Italian prime minister, when he said that Western civilization was superior to Islamic culture[30], enormously compounding fears in the Middle East that America’s war on terrorism was actually a war on Islam itself.

A Qaeda’s identity building process, with a surprising lack of consideration of the particularity and specificity of each different interpretation and specific developments within the Islamic religion itself, along with the different ethnicities and idiosyncrasies within the Arab world, is again a picture that perfectly fits the ‘orientalism’[31] that characterize the western vision of the Arab world.  As Hassan pointed out:

“The issue is not religious radicalism or political Islam, but an essential conflict between competing vision of morality and ethics. From this perspective, it is hardly surprising that the terrorists do not present concrete demands, do not have specific territorial objectives and do not rush to take responsibility.[…]. The Islamist discourse identifies Islam as the exact antithesis of the West, under the guise of reclaiming the true and the real Islam.”[32]

When speaking about the process of the distortion of identity, Orlando speaks clearly[33] of the right to have an identity.  In the war against the mafia, the issue of identity was crucial, and found resonance with the emergence of organized people that created a network of civil society to stand against the mafia, re-claiming their identity as Sicilians.  The same path is needed in the Middle East, a path that is neither to be started, nor can it be reinforced, by the intervention of Western allies in their war against terror.  It is clear that the liberal rhetoric of the theory of ‘exporting democracy’ is not working.  Instead it is actually improving the definition of this distorted Muslim identity in the Arab world, as well as a distortion of collective identity in western countries.

From this point, it is necessary to consider an alternative to the dynamic of the zero sum game initiated with the war on terror.  The development of anti-democratic anti-terrorism measures in many western countries, the increase in the number of conflicts that the western-driven coalition is leading in the Middle East, and the increase in terrorist attacks against civilians, inside and outside the Middle East are a clear signal that the use of overwhelming military force is not working in this context.  The western approach has not changed since the period of colonization, and the Middle East, contrary to what says Auerswald[34], is still relevant and important to the strategy of western countries.  In this context, the inability to understand and comprehend the full consequences of the actions and strategies implemented there is surprising, especially as the long term consequences inevitably blow back into the western countries.

There is no point in arguing that there is going to be more terrorism and fundamentalism coming from the region, if the people sounding the alarm are the same that are contributing to the spread of the phenomenon.  The western countries are playing a double role: creating alliances, giving support of authoritarian and despotic regimes in order to manufacture consent for their regional strategy, and at the same time, supporting and creating an easy environment for movements like Al Qaeda to recruit in their fight against the west.  In this game, neither the West nor the Islamists are assuming their responsibility in creating the situation they claim to want to solve.  The building of democratic states in the Middle East is a matter of identity, and in this context, the political and physical strategy of regime change is not working.

To explain the situation as I see it, I will use the example of Iraq: after the total destruction of the regime, the uprooting of the political organization, the dismissal of all the bureaucratic apparatus, all done in order to ‘assist’ the Iraqi population, the USA and their allies found themselves stuck in a long, expensive war, becoming the target instead of the liberators.[35] In this situation, they can no longer decide to withdraw from the area easily, because this will mean to punish the Iraqis a second time, after the tremendous punishment already inflicted through international sanctions before the war, and the devastating impact of aerial assaults and a ground invasion in a war which has now lasted longer than the second world war.[36]

The aftermath of the invasion of Iraq is the aftermath of the sum of history of the relationship between the West and the Middle East.  The first who creates more problems with the official excuse of solving them, and the latter who remains dependent on the former in order to survive following the external intervention.  There is little room for optimism here.  If we ask ourselves what the future of Iraq might hold, we see that the decision making process has not being rebuilt in a democratic way and there is no process of creation of a common identity, once the wider sense of identity has disappeared.  Once again, the strategy of the US administration in the area fails to make the correct calculation in understanding all the consequences of the weak, undemocratic process they have used to rebuild the Iraqi government after toppling Saddam Hussein.

It is in this situation that the new US administration and their allies have to face the struggle against terrorism and Al Qaeda: they will never be able to fully understand and fight against the distortion of the Arab identity operated by Al Qaeda if they keep working in the direction of increasing the frustration, and the sense of loss, in the Middle Eastern population.  The approach to the Gaza war has been a good example of the total inefficiency of the west in calculating the consequences of these kinds of action, leading to an increase in support to radical and violent Islamic movements,[37] and the increase in the rhetorical misrepresentation of the Arab identity by those same movements.

What then is the solution?

It is every day more complicated to see what the future of the Middle East will bring, as the destiny of the region is strictly connected with the new strategies of the West in the area. I surely have not enough information to be able to propose even a draft solution, but I definitely have a suggestion.  The issue of identity is a very real and concrete problem, not only in the Middle East, but everywhere.  As Wendt[38] maintains, countries act toward other countries in a spirit which reflects the meaning that the other country holds for them, and that it is through the participation in this collective system that states acquire identities.  Those identities differ according to whom they are relating to, and the behavior involved in the relationship is shaped on the knowledge, expectation and conception of both self and others.

Terrorism is a complex phenomenon; it is not just an arbitrary use of violence against innocent people.  International terrorism is the result of the fractured relationships between states, where a large part of the global population continue respond to American unilateralism and Western hegemony with increasing anger and fear, and with the only weapon allowed in the political arena shaped by this dynamic: the weapon of violence.

The use of violence and military power to interfere in the issues of other states has shaped the relationships between other countries and their populations, and in doing this, has shaped the attitude of populations of other nations toward the West.  The total lack of respect that western powers have demonstrated for the ideas and needs of other states in the Middle East, whenever there is a question of self-interest, is constructing identities there based on total disbelief and suspicion, based on the idea that the western world is incapable of dealing with any issue in any way that stands contrary to the use of overwhelming military power and violence.

The dialogue with Islamists in this context can finally guarantee at least two goals; the first is that calling on al Qaeda to sit at a table will immediately destroy the idea of the bad, evil enemy that refuses to listen or even speak with the Arab world, the image that is now used by al Qaeda to represent the West, and used by the same al Qaeda movement to justify the use of violence against civilians.  On the other side, calling Al Qaeda to a discussion table will force the movement to develop a clear and political agenda.  This will show the inconsistency of the global Muslim identity that al Qaeda has perverted to use as its main basis for the construction of Arab identity.  Al Qaeda survives because of this misrepresentation of identity.  It is thanks to this distortion and corruption of identity; forcing al Qaeda to take responsibility and to act as a real political actor will make it much more difficult for the movement to gain consent.  This enforced disenfranchisement can only be more effective than western efforts to prolong wars for years, under the illusion that persecution and suffering can bring an end to hostility.


Auerswald, P. “The Irrelevance of the Middle East.” American Interest (2007): 22.

Berman, S. “How Democracies Emerge: Lessons from Europe.” Journal of Democracy 18.1 (2007): 28-41.

Bevy, L. J. Al-Queda: An Organization to Be Reckoned With. Nova Publishers, 2006.

Hammond, P. “The Media War on Terrorism.” Journal for Crime, Conflict and Media Culture 1.

Hassan, H. A. Al-Qaeda: The Background of the Pursuit for Global Jihad. Almqvist & Wiksell International, 2004.

Kepel, G., J. P. Milelli, and P. Ghazaleh. Al Qaeda in Its Own Words. Belknap Press, 2008.

Lewis, B. The Multiple Identities of the Middle East. Schocken, 1998.

Migdal, J. S. Strong Societies and Weak States. Princeton University Press Princeton, NJ, 1988.

Said, E. W. Orientalism: Western Conceptions of the Orient. Pantheon, 1978.

Sen, A. K. Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny. WW Norton & Co., 2006.

Sharabi, H. Palestine Guerillas: Their Credibility and Effectiveness. Georgetown University, 1970.

Wendt, A. “Anarchy Is What States Make of It: The Social Construction of Power Politics.” International Organization (1992): 391-425.

Williams, P. L. Al Qaeda: Brotherhood of Terror. Alpha Books, 2002.

[1]Class notes

[2] B. Lewis, The Multiple Identities of the Middle East (Schocken, 1998), E. W. Said, Orientalism: Western Conceptions of the Orient (Pantheon, 1978).

[3] Class notes

[4] H. A. Hassan, Al-Qaeda: The Background of the Pursuit for Global Jihad (Almqvist & Wiksell International, 2004), Lewis, The Multiple Identities of the Middle East, Said, Orientalism: Western Conceptions of the Orient. Class notes

[5] Lewis, The Multiple Identities of the Middle East, Hassan, Al-Qaeda: The Background of the Pursuit for Global Jihad.

[6] Hassan, Al-Qaeda: The Background of the Pursuit for Global Jihad.

[7] Hassan, Al-Qaeda: The Background of the Pursuit for Global Jihad, Lewis, The Multiple Identities of the Middle East. Class notes

[8] S. Berman, “How Democracies Emerge: Lessons from Europe,” Journal of Democracy 18.1 (2007).

[9] Lewis, The Multiple Identities of the Middle East.

[10] President of the Sicilian Renaissance Institute, member of the Italian Parliament, former mayor of Palermo, former member of the European and Sicilian Regional Parliaments, promoter of a worldwide net of Culture and economy of human rights, Leoluca Orlando was born in Palermo in 1947, is married and has two daughters. He is a lawyer and Professor of Regional Public Law at the University of Palermo. He studied and lived for some years in Heidelberg, in the Federal Republic of Germany and worked as international consultant for OECD in Paris. From 1978 to 1980, he was the legal advisor to Piersanti Mattarella, President of the Sicilian Region, until he was killed by the Mafia in 1980.

[11] Columbia University Seminar organized by The Center for International Conflict Resolution with Leoluca Orlando on 13 February, 2009 titled “My fight against the Mafia From Sicily To Mexico, Policy for post-conflict realities marked by endemic corruption and transnational networks of crime”.

[12] Translated by the author of this paper. To find the original in Italian go to

[13] A. Bolzoni, M. De Luca, S. Di Cristina, N.Fasullo, L. Orlando, S. Pappalardo, G. Pepi, C. Scordato, Identity, rights, economics, legality. The Sicilian experience of struggle against criminality and promotion of human rights,  La società – Saggi, pp. 96, first edition, 2003

[14] Public Speech, 3 April 2008, Palazzo Steri in Palermo, The International Forum for Peace and Disarmament in the Mediterranean. Translated by the author.

[15] Hassan, Al-Qaeda: The Background of the Pursuit for Global Jihad, Lewis, The Multiple Identities of the Middle East.

[16] Hassan, Al-Qaeda: The Background of the Pursuit for Global Jihad, L. J. Bevy, Al-Queda: An Organization to Be Reckoned With (Nova Publishers, 2006). Class Notes

[17] J. S. Migdal, Strong Societies and Weak States (Princeton University Press Princeton, NJ, 1988).

[18] Class notes

[19] P. Hammond, “The Media War on Terrorism,” Journal for Crime, Conflict and Media Culture 1, Hassan, Al-Qaeda: The Background of the Pursuit for Global Jihad.

[20] Hassan, Al-Qaeda: The Background of the Pursuit for Global Jihad.

[21] ditto

[22] A. K. Sen, Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny (WW Norton & Co., 2006).

[23] H. Sharabi, Palestine Guerillas: Their Credibility and Effectiveness (Georgetown University, 1970).

[24] Ditto, page 25

[25] P. L. Williams, Al Qaeda: Brotherhood of Terror (Alpha Books, 2002), Hassan, Al-Qaeda: The Background of the Pursuit for Global Jihad, Bevy, Al-Queda: An Organization to Be Reckoned With.

[26] G. Kepel, J. P. Milelli and P. Ghazaleh, Al Qaeda in Its Own Words (Belknap Press, 2008).

[27] Hassan, Al-Qaeda: The Background of the Pursuit for Global Jihad, Kepel, Milelli and Ghazaleh, Al Qaeda in Its Own Words.

[28] Kepel, Milelli and Ghazaleh, Al Qaeda in Its Own Words, Hammond, “The Media War on Terrorism.”


[30] Hammond, “The Media War on Terrorism.”

[31] Said, Orientalism: Western Conceptions of the Orient.

[32] Hassan, Al-Qaeda: The Background of the Pursuit for Global Jihad. Page 30

[33] Columbia University Seminar organized by The Center for International Conflict Resolution with Leoluca Orlando on 13 February, 2009 titled “My fight against the Mafia From Sicily To Mexico, Policy for post-conflict realities marked by endemic corruption and transnational networks of crime”.

[34] P. Auerswald, “The Irrelevance of the Middle East,” American Interest (2007).

[35] Class notes

[36] Class notes

[37] L. Ramirez, Israeli Assault on Gaza Galvanizes Hamas Support in West Bank, Ramallah,,11 January 2009.

[38] A. Wendt, “Anarchy Is What States Make of It: The Social Construction of Power Politics,” International Organization (1992).

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