Chimpanzee Politics: Power and Sex among Apes is a classic popular text of ethology, or the scientific study of animal behavior. The author, Frans de Waal, spent thousands of hours observing the world's largest captive colony of chimpanzees in the Netherlands’ Arnhem Zoo. He kept a detailed diary of his observations of the colony which became the foundation for his later research and writing. De Waal introduced qualitative methods to the study of primates and in turn opened the field of primatology to the study of human behavior in the early 80s. You can describe his work as a kind of ethnography for chimpanzees where he talks about them as individuals in a society with a political order.
But monkeys studying other monkeys is not without uncertainty. To illustrate, de Waal uses the anecdote of a young school teacher who came with his students to see the chimpanzees. Several apes were sitting on various tall drums of different heights. The teacher saw the instructive value of this arrangement and told his pupils that the ape sitting on the highest drum was the leader of the pack. Below the leader sat his lieutenants, then just below were their subordinates, and below them on the ground were the "lowliest" of the apes.
De Waal, being at this point the foremost expert on the colony, knew this to be complete nonsense: he knew the apes individually and intimately. The most dominant chimp was actually sitting on the ground. De Waal even instinctively knew that this chimp was about to have a raging temper tantrum that would disturb the whole area, chimps and humans alike. And the dominant chimp did exactly that—completely upending the seating arrangement the teacher was talking about. Though de Waal thought he knew why the chimp had this tantrum, he admits that he cannot be absolutely sure of his own interpretation even after years of careful study. De Waal says, "To study animal behavior is to interpret, but with a constant gnawing feeling that the interpretation may not be the right one." Regardless of their respective levels of knowledge, both de Waal and the school teacher might be fundamentally wrong about the situation at hand.
In a very real sense, both de Waal and the school teacher are experts. De Waal’s interpretation is based on the difficult work of study and reflection within a scientific disciplinary framework. Even before Darwin, scientists have been trying hard to figure out the complex systems of life through trial and error. Uncertainty is a built-in feature of the scientific method. But school teachers, like other expert practitioners in the “real” world, have other jobs to do. They certainly don’t want to be wrong but they need more definite interpretations to do their work. It can be the Bible or Darwin, that part doesn’t matter, but there needs to be right or wrong answers for the test. De Waal’s automatic answer for most questions, like any good academic, is — “it’s complicated.” And rightly so, because life is complicated.
Something similar can be said about the interpretation of dramatic displays of political violence since 2001. Let me be explicit here: I mean specifically the ways in which radical political violence is studied and discussed—the big apes wearing suits studying other big apes wearing checkered headscarves. Before you get angry—incidentally, a perfectly normal primate reaction—hear me out. I am in my person both these apes at the same time. I am an Arab Muslim male who was in his 20s when 9/11 happened and I’ve been prodded and probed ever since. I also have five degrees, each in a different discipline. Every one of them is focused on this complicated issue, often to the great dismay of my former academic advisors. I was born with the headscarf and against many odds earned my often ill-fitting suit.
The expert practitioners busying themselves with the problem of radical violence can be found in think tanks and within the highest chambers of power. The scientists are almost exclusively lost in the hallways of the ivory tower. Within this all-so-complicated world of academia, it is quite often a zoo that mistakes itself for the jungle. Personally, it is often easier for me to interact with a radical Imam than to speak frankly with my former doctoral advisor. To use ethology as a framework for studying radical Muslims would be (and should be) controversial in insolation. But what I am talking about is the meta-study of radical political violence and the role it plays among practitioners in the conflict, from school teachers to policy-makers. And here political ideology seems to be the strongest driving factor—right after fear.
On both sides of the ideological spectrum, people are often more afraid that an act of violence is connected with Islam than they are afraid of the violence itself. As is often repeated, you are far more likely to be killed by your furniture than by Islamic terror. It is either because people in the west fear the rise of Islam (largely on the right) or they are afraid for the fate of non-radical Muslims (largely from the left). When something violent happens in the world today, the first thought unnervingly is: "did this happen in the name of Islam?" Ignorance here is rampant. For example, whenever there is a gruesome shooting, cable news broadcasters start speculating if this might be an act of Islamic terrorism. Almost immediately another talking head will say “this has nothing to do with Islam.” I believe there is a fundamentally wrong approach with how we discuss political radicalism in the current conflict, and these errors actually feed the conflict. Understanding that fear is actually far more important than understanding Islam.
Let’s go back to the de Waal example. Bin Laden was the chimpanzee who sat on the highest drum just prior to when a group of rather unthoughtful experts decided that Al-Qaeda should be the focus of world attention. Al-Qaeda's name in Arabic in the 1980s was actually longer, it was "the base of operations for the jihad in Afghanistan.” This was the primary bureaucracy of the Muslim fighters fighting against the Soviets in America's proxy war in Afghanistan. This bureaucracy was literally where the fighters went to collect their pay, receive logistical and material support, and to receive information about training camps. People connected with this bureaucracy turned against the Americans sometime after the Gulf War of 1990 and began directing attacks against American targets. The American term "Al-Qaeda" - which was never referred to in Arabic prior to its use in American policy circles in the mid-90s - is a truncation of the official name to the word in Arabic for “the Base.”
I want to make a parallel at the moment to explain my point. Imagine you lived in a fictional society isolated from western civilization, let's call it Otherland. One day you were attacked viciously by 19 US Navy SEALs. You wake up to the news that thousands of your fellow citizens were killed in a brazen attack. It is somehow connected to the west, and you have some idea what western civilization is. You know perhaps where America is on the map, and have some idea that its different from Canada and Mexico though not exactly how. But the people of Otherland really don't know much else. Then, due to the network of journalists, experts, and analysts of Otherland, they inform you that a shadowy organization called Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) was responsible. JSOC is the highest bureaucracy of America's special forces, the closest parallel to what Al-Qaeda was during the Afghan jihad. The Otherlanders immediately just call it "the Joint" because its easier for them to remember and nuance is not seen as necessary at the moment.
The state of Otherland next announces that they are at war against the Joint and what it stands for. They start a whole media campaign informing other people about the Joint. They trace Joint ideology all the way back to one Benjamin Franklin from the 1700s, and how his thought corrupted the true teachings of democracy. There is a big public debate about this. Then imagine the US government and the west itself denies all connections with the Joint, completely disowns it, and actually joins the coalition in the fight. Now the guys associated with the Joint have to deal with being attacked from all sides, even former allies and sources of support. The US Navy stands firm that those Joints were not really Navy at all, but they might be Marines. The Marines say "no, no, those guys are SEALs, and they are different and weird." Suddenly, everyone needs to have an opinion about the teachings of Benjamin Franklin.
As for the SEALs, though highly trained killers, don't stand a chance against a united front combating them. And its not just the SEALs, but a bunch of people who are still associated with the Joint (the Rangers, Delta Force) get caught up in this war against fictional idiocy. And then there was a huge demographic who really hated Otherland and everything it stands for. They immediately pick up the call to arms, and join the Joint in their struggle against Otherness. The Joint actually becomes a thing because of this. Hopefully now you get the picture. This is what happened with Al-Qaeda.
This example is of course facetious, but it has a point. Those 19 men who did the attacks in September 2001? We still have no idea why they did it. Or specifically, a detailed description of the decision making process starting with Bin Laden, through his lieutenants, all the way down to the 20 year old holding the box cutter against a pilot's neck. As a trained expert of this particular colony I strongly doubt there is such a description. The one person who perhaps had all the answers, the biggest Al-Qaeda VIP at Guantanamo Bay—Khalid Sheikh Muhammad? Well, a so-called civilized society waterboarded him at least 183 times. He might have been the most dominant figure in the attack but now we will never know for sure. The democratic security infrastructure definitely made him the lowliest member of our species.
Deviant behaviors such as criminality or political violence is often seen as being a threat to the workings of civilized society. But what if these deviant behaviors are extreme demonstrations that something is actually very wrong in our current society? We can imagine why a starving child would steal an apple to feed themselves. We even sympathize with them and feel like something is fundamentally wrong. We probably also sympathize with Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian who set himself on fire in protest and started the Arab revolts across the region—the so-called “Arab Spring”. But as for the 19 hijackers of 9/11, most of them in their early twenties, most of them from an isolated area in Saudi Arabia, we still have no idea what really drove them. There’s a lot of obfuscation, about how ‘they’ hate Western values and how ‘they’ are the embodiment of evil. Who are ‘they’ anyway? The west just let fear and ignorance control them, and the experts knew exactly where to direct their fears—towards wars of revenge in Afghanistan and Iraq, and if the experts had their way, even to Iran.
This "Errorism" (a term I completely hijacked from the punk-rock band NOFX) has serious consequences. The term refers to an advanced version of "monkey see, monkey do," where younger, better trained experts followed suit, and now we can only see these behaviors in a particular way. It is a world where you need an egomaniacal Bin Laden as the chief executive of Islamic Terrorism, with a hierarchical network called Al-Qaeda. And because they are evil we do not need to completely understand that organization’s motives. When experts started verbalizing what they think Al-Qaeda wanted, "the rise of the Caliphate" and the real "literal" application of Islamic law, the world got that and it came in the form of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria... And guess what? Al-Qaeda was staunchly against it!
The existence of ISIS owes a lot more to the erroneous American imaginary of Al-Qaeda than it does to the people who constituted the Arab mujahiddīn that fought the Soviets in Afghanistan. The base of operations for that war was not a friendly, fuzzy, peace-loving place. Neither is the joint special forces command of the most powerful military in the world. These are not the true sources of the greater conflict we live in today--that is a much more complicated eco-system we are only beginning to understand.
One of the big problems of Errorism is the deeply held belief that radical political violence can be “solved” through military intervention in so-called failed states. Not only through the massive land invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, where the Americans learned the hard way. But now also through drone strikes and commando raids in those countries and also in Syria, Pakistan, Yemen, and a handful of others on the African continent. The other problematic and deeply held belief of Errorism is that increased policing of Muslims would result in less political violence.
This is the first in a series of articles that attempts to understand the evolution of political radicalism in Islam. Like de Waal, I have an interpretation for why the colony I study goes through periods of rage, for political violence that uses an Islamic justification. From Al-Qaeda to the fall of the territorial Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, I will try to follow recent developments to better inform readers about the future of Islam in their world today. From central Saudi Arabia, to Western China, the horn of Africa to the suburbs and streets of Paris, Detroit, London, Brussels, New York, Berlin - the recent experience of errorism had real consequences to normal, non-radical Muslims. Then there is the intra-Islamic geopolitical struggle between Sunnis and the Shias, represented by Saudi Arabia and Iran, with bloody consequences in Yemen, Iraq, Syria and beyond. That’s where we start next - an argument that began with the death of the Prophet of Islam, Muhammad.