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The Protestant ethic and the spirit of jihadism – transnational religious insurgencies and the transformation of international orders


In the absence of comparisons with prior episodes of transformative change in the history of the state system, contemporary debates on the long-term significance of the 9/11 terror attacks and the ensuing war on terror are in danger of polarising around opposing caricatures of epochal change and obstinate durability. The tendency to organise transnationally, mobilise along religious lines, and employ terroristic violence for the purposes of achieving far-reaching religious and political transformation of target societies is not unique to Al-Qaeda, but can be seen also in the activities of the militant confessional networks that flourished in Reformation Europe. By comparing the global struggle against jihadist terrorism with early modern European rulers' struggles against transnational confessional militants, I demonstrate that existing accounts of jihadist terrorism's transformative potential have been seriously mis-specified and require substantial revision.

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1 This line of argument is consistent with the position articulated in Herfried Münkler, The New Wars (Cambridge: Polity, 2005).

2 On the state system's historical success in suppressing non-state violence, see for example Donald J. Puchala, ‘Of Pirates and Terrorists: What Experience and History Teach’, Contemporary Security Policy, 26:1 (2005), pp. 1–24.

3 Its anachronistic connotations notwithstanding, the term ‘transnational’ is favoured here over the more accurate but more inelegant descriptor of ‘trans-polity’ to characterise religious insurgency networks in both the historical and contemporary periods.

4 See generally Robert H. Jackson, Quasi-States: Sovereignty, International Relations, and the Third World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990).

5 On this point, see generally Bertrand Badie and Claudia Royal, The Imported State: The Westernization of the Political Order (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000).

6 Robert Rotberg, ‘Failed States in a World of Terror’, Foreign Affairs, 81:4 (2002), p. 129.

7 Francis Fukuyama, ‘The Imperative of State-Building’, Journal of Democracy, 15:2 (2004), p. 18.

8 Fiona B. Adamson, ‘Globalisation, Transnational Political Mobilisation, and Networks of Violence’, Cambridge Review of International Affairs, 18:1 (2005), p. 33.

9 Ibid.

10 The literature on the resurgence of private international violence and its implications for the changing nature of warfare is now extensive. See for example John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt (eds), Networks and Netwars: The Future of Crime, Terror, and Militancy (Santa Monica: RAND, 2001); and Andrew Latham, ‘A Braudelian Perspective on the Revolution in Military Affairs’, European Journal of International Relations, 8:2 (2002), pp. 231–66.

11 On bond-relationship targeting and its relevance in the context of asymmetric warfare, see for example Robert J. Bunker, and Matt Begert, ‘Operational Combat Analysis of the Al-Qaeda Network’, Low Intensity Conflict and Law Enforcement, 11:2–3 (2002), p. 327.

12 On jihadists' distinction between the near and far enemy, see Fawaz A. Gerges, The Far Enemy – Why the Jihad Went Global (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), p. 1.

13 On the global rise of fundamentalist forms of religiosity across the Abrahamic faiths, see Karen Armstrong, The Battle for God – Fundamentalism in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (London: HarperCollins Publishers, 2000).

14 On this point, see for example Barak Mendelsohn, ‘Sovereignty under Attack: The International Society Meets the Al-Qaeda Network’, Review of International Studies, 31:1 (2005), pp. 60–3.

15 Ibid.

16 On the ‘revolt against the West’, see generally Hedley Bull, ‘The Revolt against the West’, in Hedley Bull and Adam Watson (eds), The Expansion of International Society (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984), pp. 217–28.

17 On the distinction between state authority and control, and its relevance for assessing the import of putatively transformative trends in the international system, see Janice E. Thomson, ‘State Sovereignty in International Relations: Bridging the Gap between Theory and Empirical Research’, International Studies Quarterly, 39 (1995), pp. 222–3.

18 On the renewed importance now accorded Third World state-building as a prophylaxis against transnational security threats, see Stewart Patrick, ‘Weak States and Global Threats: Fact or Fiction?’, The Washington Quarterly, 29:2 (2006), p. 28.

19 On the role played by norms against private international violence in consolidating states' collective control over their citizenry in the nineteenth century, see Janice E. Thomson, Mercenaries, Pirates, and Sovereigns: State-Building and Extraterritorial Violence in Early Modern Europe (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994), p. 145.

20 See for example Michael Hanagan, ‘Irish Transnational Social Movements, Deterritorialized Migrants, and the State System: The Last One Hundred and Forty Years’, Mobilization: An International Journal, 3:1 (1998), pp. 107–26.

21 The concept of ‘violence interaction capacity’ is taken from Daniel H. Deudney, ‘Regrounding Realism: Anarchy, Security, and Changing Material Contexts’, Security Studies, 10:1 (2000), p. 2. On the decisive influence played by strong states in structuring the environment within which transnational flows and actors must operate, see generally Stephen Krasner, ‘Power Politics, Institutions, and Transnational Relations’, in Thomas Risse-Kappen (ed.), Bringing Transnational Relations Back In (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), pp. 257–79.

22 On the importance of sustainable pulsing, or the maintenance of swarmed attacks over time, as a feature of successful asymmetric ‘net-war’, see Brad McAllister, ‘Al-Qaeda and the Innovative Firm: Demythologizing the Network’, Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, 27:4 (2004), p. 303.

23 An argument for the limited transformative significance of private international violence and the durability of more traditional forms of inter-state conflict can be found in Colin S. Gray, ‘How Has War Changed since the End of the Cold War?’, Parameters, 35:1 (2005), pp. 22–3.

24 On transnational jihadists' marginality within the broader global jihadist movement, see Gerges, The Far Enemy, pp. 109–11.

25 On this point, see Mohammed Ayoob, ‘Deciphering Islam's Multiple Voices: Intellectual Luxury or Strategic Necessity?’, Middle East Policy, 12:3 (2005), p. 83.

26 Gerges, The Far Enemy, pp. 189–92.

27 Mack Holt, The French Wars of Religion, 1562–1629, 2nd edn. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), p. 24.

28 Ibid., p. 25.

29 Robert M. Kingdon, Geneva and the Coming of the Wars of Religion in France, 1555–1563 (Geneva: Droz, 1956), p. 93.

30 H.G. Koenigsberger, ‘The Organization of Revolutionary Parties in France and the Netherlands During the Sixteenth Century’, The Journal of Modern History, 27:4 (1955), p. 337.

31 Robert Jean Knecht, The French Wars of Religion, 1559–1598 (London: Longman, 1989), p. 14.

32 Ibid.

33 Ibid., p. 7.

34 Ibid.

35 Robert M. Kingdon, ‘The Political Resistance of the Calvinists in France and the Low Countries’, Church History, 27:3 (1958), p. 222.

36 Ibid.

37 Ibid.

38 Graeme Murdock, Beyond Calvin – the Intellectual, Political, and Cultural World of Europe's Reformed Churches (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), pp. 48–51.

39 Ibid., p. 49.

40 Koenigsberger, ‘Organization of Revolutionary Parties’, p. 346.

41 Ibid., p. 338.

42 Ibid., pp. 350–51.

43 Ibid., p 350.

44 On the cultural meaning of ritualistic mob violence and acts of desecration in France's wars of religion, see Natalie Zemon Davis, ‘The Rites of Violence: Religious Violence in Sixteenth Century France’, Past and Present, 59 (1973), pp. 51–91.

45 On this point, see Philip S. Gorski, ‘Historicizing the Secularization Debate: Church, State and Society in Late Medieval and Early Modern Europe, Ca. 1300 to 1700’, American Sociological Review, 65:1 (2000), p. 151.

46 Ibid., pp. 151–58 passim.

47 On this point, see Quentin Skinner, The Foundations of Modern Political Thought Volume Two: The Age of the Reformation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978), pp. 15–6.

48 Ibid., pp. 230–33.

49 Ibid., p. 237.

50 Ibid., p. 268.

51 Ibid., p. 301.

52 On this point, see Nannerl O. Keohane, Philosophy and the State in France – the Renaissance to the Enlightenment (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980), p. 254.

53 Koselleck, Critique and Crisis, p. 24.

54 Samuel E. Finer, ‘State and Nation-Building in Europe: The Role of the Military’, in Charles Tilly, The Formation of National States in Western Europe (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1975), pp. 84–163. See specifically pp. 87–8.

55 Philip S. Gorski, The Disciplinary Revolution – Calvinism and the Rise of the State in Early Modern Europe (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2003), pp. 158–9.

56 On this point, see generally Harold Berman, ‘Religious Foundations of Law in the West: An Historical Perspective’, Journal of Law and Religion, 1:1 (1983), pp. 3–43.

57 On the distinctive character of early modern composite monarchies, see generally J.H. Elliott, ‘A Europe of Composite Monarchies’, Past and Present, 137 (1992), pp. 48–71.

58 Daniel Philpott, Revolutions in Sovereignty: How Ideas Shaped Modern International Relations (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001), p. 148.

59 On the ‘hard-shell rimmed’ character of the Absolutist state, see John Herz, ‘Rise and Demise of the Territorial State,’ World Politics, 9:4 (1957), p. 483. On the material drivers propelling the emergence of the modern state and the modern state system, see generally Charles Tilly, Coercion, Capital, and European States, Ad 990–1992. (Cambridge, Mass.: B. Blackwell, 1992).

60 Quintan Wiktorowicz, ‘A Genealogy of Radical Islam’, Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, 28:2 (2005), p. 75.

61 Olivier Roy, Globalised Islam – the Search for a New Ummah (London: Hurst and Company, 2005), p. 265.

62 On the supreme emphasis placed on the notion of divine sovereignty (hakimiya) within Salafi thought, see Gerges, The Far Enemy, pp. 4–5.

63 The notion of a ‘modern jahiliyya’ was first introduced into Salafi thought by Mawlana Abdul A'la Mawdudi in the 1930s; see Wiktorowicz, ‘A Genealogy of Radical Islam’, p. 78.

64 On the clear distinction between Salafism and Salafi-jihadism, see ‘Indonesia Backgrounder: Why Salafism and Terrorism Mostly Don't Mix’ (Southeast Asia/Brussels: International Crisis Group, 2004), p. 1.

65 Gerges, The Far Enemy, p. 1.

66 Wiktorowicz, ‘Genealogy of Radical Islam’, p. 80.

67 Mendelsohn, ‘Sovereignty Under Attack’, pp. 62–4.

68 Marc Sageman, Understanding Terror Networks (Philadelphia: The University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004), pp. 35–7.

69 Ibid., p. 37.

70 For an overview of Al-Qaeda's origins and evolution, see for example Jason Burke, Al-Qaeda: Casting a Shadow of Terror (London: I.B. Tauris, 2003).

71 On the achievements and limitations of the Bush Administration's leadership interdiction strategy against Al-Qaeda, see Michael Kenney, ‘From Pablo to Osama: Counter-Terrorism Lessons from the War on Drugs’, Survival, 45:3 (2003), pp. 193–5.

72 Michael Mann, The Sources of Social Power, Volume 1 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), p. 22.

73 On the suitability of on-line media for the oral traditions preferred by many of Al-Qaeda's tribal constituents, see David Ronfeldt, ‘Al-Qaeda and Its Affiliates: A Global Tribe Waging Segmental Warfare?’, First Monday, 10:3 (2005), p. 10.

74 On Al-Qaeda's diverse financial resources, see McAllister, ‘Al-Qaeda and the Innovative Firm’, p. 305.

75 On the importance of the ‘Ngruki’ alumni network for Jemaah Islamiyah, see generally, ‘Al-Qaeda in Southeast Asia: The Case of the ‘Ngruki Network’ in Indonesia’, International Crisis Group Asia Briefing No. 20, 8 August 2002. The significance of pre-existing social networks for the jihadist insurgency more generally is noted in David J. Kilcullen, ‘Countering Global Insurgency’, The Journal of Strategic Studies, 28:4 (2005), pp. 600–3 passim.

76 On the deterritorialised character of Salafi-jihadism, see Roy, Globalised Islam, pp. 288–90. On the role played by Salafi-jihadism in recasting social identities in Pakistan's tribal areas along fundamentalist lines in response to the encroaching power of the Pakistani state, see Ibid., p. 284.

77 On the social networks that jointly comprise the global jihadist movement, see generally Sageman, ‘Understanding Terror Networks’, ch. 5, passim.

78 Koenigsberger, ‘Organization of Revolutionary Parties’, p. 350.

79 On this point with reference to Al-Qaeda's collective action framing activities in Southeast Asia, see David Leheny, ‘Terrorism, Social Movements, and International Security: How Al-Qaeda Affects Southeast Asia’, Japanese Journal of Political Science, 6:1 (2005), pp. 87–109.

80 On Al-Qaeda's failure to create a fundamentalist state in Bosnia for wont of local support, see E. F. Kohlmann, Al-Qaeda's Jihad in Europe – the Afghan-Bosnian Network (New York: Berg, 2004), p. 229. On tensions between indigenous Iraqi insurgents and foreign insurgents, see Sabrina Tavernise and Dexter Filkins, ‘Local Insurgents Tell of Clashes with Al-Qaeda's Forces in Iraq’, New York Times, 12 January 2006, p. 1.

81 Sageman notes that this cultural and ideological disconnect between transnational jihadists and their hosts manifested itself as earlier as the Afghan jihad in the 1980s; see Sageman, ‘Understanding Terror Networks’, pp. 59–60.

82 I explore the underlying reasons for Al-Qaeda's failures in Iraq in greater detail in Andrew Phillips, ‘How Al-Qaeda Lost Iraq’, Australian Journal of International Affairs, 63:1 (2009), pp. 64–84.

83 Roy, ‘Globalised Islam’, pp. 288–90.

84 Koenigsberger, ‘Organization of Revolutionary Parties’, p. 339.

85 Ibid.

86 Gilles Kepel, ‘The Origins and Development of the Jihadist Movement: From Anti-Communism to Terrorism’, Asian Affairs XXXIV, no. II (2003), pp. 98–100.

87 Ibid.

88 On the relationship between the rise in republican government in the nineteenth century and the delegitimation and elimination of mercenarism, see Thomson, Mercenaries, Pirates and Sovereigns, p. 148.

89 Ayoob, ‘Islam's Multiple Voices’, p. 83.

90 On this point, see for example Philip S. Gorski, ‘Calvinism and State Formation in Early Modern Europe’, in George Steinmetz (ed.), State/Culture – State-Formation after the Cultural Turn (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1999), pp. 147–81.

91 These parallels have been pursued with considerable sophistication in Ellis Goldberg, ‘Smashing Idols and the State: The Protestant Ethic and Sunni Radicalism’, Comparative Studies in Society and History, 33:1 (1991), pp. 3–35.

92 On this point, see Sheldon S. Wolin, Politics and Vision – Continuity and Innovation in Western Political Thought (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1960), p. 173.

93 On this point, see Gilles Kepel, Jihad – the Trail of Political Islam, 4th edn. (London: I.B. Taurus, 2006), pp. 229–32.

94 On this point, it is worth noting the key role played by transnationally dispersed Sufi brotherhoods in organising resistance against European imperial expansion in locales as diverse as Algeria, the Caucasus, and Java in the mid-late nineteenth century. This precedent demonstrates the role played by transnational religious networks in the Islamic world in facilitating military mobilisation well into the modern era. See John Voll, ‘Sufi Brotherhoods: Transcultural/Transstate Networks in the Muslim World', in Jerry H. Bentley, Renate Bridenthal and Anand A. Yang (eds), Interactions – Transregional Perspectives on World History (Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2005), pp. 30–47, see specifically pp. 41–43.

95 On the distinction between more and less forms of ‘mature’ anarchy in international politics, see Barry Buzan, People, States and Fear (London: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1983), pp. 175–81.

96 For a discussion of the international community's counter-terrorism measures in the wake of 9/11, see generally Andrea Bianchi, ‘Assessing the Effectiveness of the UN Security Council's Anti-Terrorism Measures: The Quest for Legitimacy and Cohesion’, The European Journal of International Law, 17:5 (2007), pp. 881–919.

On the mutually empowering character of the modern sovereignty regime, see Hendrik Spruyt, The Sovereign State and Its Competitors (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994), pp. 167–71.

97 On this point, see Paul Hirst, War and Power in the 21st Century – the State, Military Conflict, and the International System (Cambridge: Polity, 2001), pp. 129–30.

98 On Western policy-makers' increased sensitivity to the link between state failure and global threats, see Patrick, ‘Weak States and Global Threats’, p. 28.

99 The raft of uniform obligations imposed on sovereign states by the UN Security Council in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks provides suggestive early evidence of a turn towards a more demanding and more conditional sovereignty regime than existed in the immediate post-colonial period. On the nature of these obligations, which included sovereign obligations to suppress terrorist financing, deny safe haven to terrorist organisations, and reduce terrorists' mobility through the implementation of rigorous border controls, see generally Eric Rosand, ‘Security Council Resolution 1373, the Counter-Terrorism Committee, and the Fight against Terrorism’, The American Journal of International Law, 97:2 (2003), pp. 333–41.

100 This argument echoes speculation advanced by Stephen Krasner about the likely future of the sovereignty regime in the wake of a hypothetical future increase in catastrophic terrorism; see Stephen D. Krasner, ‘The Day After’, Foreign Policy, 146 (2005), pp. 68–70.

101 On the notion of responsibilities to prevent as a potentially sovereignty-compromising moral obligation of governments analogous to the responsibility to protect already being cited as a justification for humanitarian intervention, see generally Lee Feinstein, and Anne-Marie Slaughter, ‘A Duty to Prevent’, Foreign Affairs, 83:1 (2004), pp. 136–50.

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Review of International Studies
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