Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The importance of enemies: Al Qaeda's statement on Obama

Its been a while since I posted something (you know how it is, life intervened) so it's fitting that I should write about something close to my mind, if not my heart- yes, my area of academic interest: the discourse of political-violence.
ETA: Not writing for a while really shows. Sorry for the clunky text that follows (though it is International Relations so how exciting could it have been anyway?)

Al Qaeda released its first statement after the election of Barack Obama and it is not pretty. Most of the media reports have been focusing on the use of racial epiteths against Obama in the statement. I think the real story is in the way AQ has wasted little time in signaling that it is business as usual for them. Those, such as Andrew Sullivan for instance, who thought that the Obama era would make it more difficult for radical groups to rail against the USA, the statement puts an end to that sort of thinking. It shows that all that will happen is that al Qaeda and other groups will adapt their rhetoric in the service of the same position against America and try to undermine the positive feeling in the US and elsewhere.

The trope that the media has focused on is that Obama is simply a stooge of 'whites' and of the establishment. This is mildly interesting to me. I don't think being politically correct is particularly important to groups like these. What is more interesting (and alarming) to me is that the statement actively states that Obama's polices are a continuation of previous policies and that there will be no let up in the 'Islamic' movement against the US. Basically, there's no trial waiting period here folks...the statement seems designed to address voices that said that having a US President with the middle name of Hussein would seriously stymie fundamentalists. Bosh.

This should not surprise those of us who take theories of identity about the fundamental self/other relationship seriously. Simply put, actors (states, groups, people) become attached and entrenched in adversarial relationships because it is a source of fundamental stability and sense of purpose to juxtapose oneself against an 'other'. In the realm of the political, the key distinction is the 'friend/enemy' distinction as Carl Schmitt told us writing in 1927. Having a stable enemy, despite the many costs it ay bring, gives actors a better and more coherent sense of self in the political arena and this is why there was never any way that there would be any active reconsidering of the US by Al Qaeda and vice's just interesting to see it all play out so starkly. It doesn't fundamentally matter who the President is, the rhetoric would have adapted but stayed the same. So if we had had Hilary Clinton, the tropes would have been undeniably sexist and violent, if it had been McCain, the trope would have been more triumphalist and Bush-centric....but the essential stance will not change.
For those who place a premium on theories of leadership, this kind of episode once again highlights my fundamental unease with theories that place too much explanatory power on leaders. It's just a lot more complex than that.

OK IR musings done... apologies to Carl Schmitt for massacring his theory, though he was a Nazi figurehead which makes me considerably less sorry.

In the end, the only comfort this statement brings me is that it makes those people that pushed the 'pals around with terrorists' argument look pretty darn stupid...once again. But oh wait, they probably don't read the papers. Or maybe they read them all but can't name a single one.


Heather said...

welcome back light light!! we missed you!

Did anyone really think that Al Qaeda's rhetoric would change as a result of Obama getting elected? I think Sullivan and others were arguing more about the kind of appeal this predictably stable rhetoric would have amongst the masses in the "muslim world". Maybe I am not remembering properly the arguments that were made, but to me that does seem more plausible. Though that will certainly not happen overnight because I think many people around the world will adopt the kind of waiting period attitude you mentioned to see if the great promise contained in the election of this symbolic figure will produce much in the way of actual policy change. I know I am anyway...

Lightlight said...

I think you're right, Heather. That was indeed Sullivan's argument.
Yes, I think the statement is about jockeying for appeal with such masses in these uncertain times (with a new and transformative figure).
Like you, I'm also waiting but I am skeptical for how much room for adjustment anyone could have in terms of policy beyond Iraq perhaps. almost any policy change will be viewed as confirmation of some deeper plot.
But thanks for your comment (as always)- you were spot on.

Tulip said...

I second the welcome back. Yay! I defer to your wisdom on this post's topic, but wanted to say that I just had the chance to look at all of the other blogs/sites that you link to. They are all awesome! Thank you!

B. S. Prakash said...

Educative and important. The same logic applies to Prabhakaran and LTTE. But what about some one like Prachanda and the Maoists in Nepal. They had certainly the friend/foe mentality but seem to be making a transition.

Keep writing. I enjoyed the Panda one too.