Edward Snowden’s jihad

The NSA whistleblower’s battle against US surveillance fits into a modernist reading of jihad as a fight for betterment.

Edward Snowden
Whistleblower Edward Snowden worked as a contract employee at the National Security Agency [AP]

Let us assume, for the moment, that National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden is the person he’s portraying himself to be: not merely a patriot, but a humanitarian who’s given up all the trappings of a successful life to ensure that “the federation of secret law, unequal pardon and irresistible executive powers that rule the world that I love are revealed even for an instant”.

The 29-year-old Snowden, who leaked information on secret US government surveillance programmes such as PRISM and “Boundless Informantto the Guardian, is certainly right to focus on the danger posed by the Obama administration’s surveillance policies, and the “global war on terror” they serve, not merely to US democracy but to “the world” more broadly as well. The United States has been engaged in a jihad of global proportions not for the past ten years, but for well over a century. As with all empires, Islam’s included, the US jihad started small, but spread rapidly once the political and economic conditions in its core and peripheries came into proper alignment.

And as with other empires, the US jihads had their roots in the most offensive of ideologies, which justified its spread as both inevitable and good, while – not surprisingly – viewing any opposition as irrational, bad, and justly subject to suppression by any means necessary. As the 19th century Protestant preacher and arch-imperialist Josiah Strong put it, the emerging American empire was destined by God to rule the earth, everyone else must prepare for a “ready and pliant assimilation” or become “extinct”. Islam’s great conquerors tended to be a bit more generous, at least rhetorically.

Certainly, leaders in the US have always made sure to declare the best of intentions as they acquired each new territory, entrepot or sphere of influence, even as the colonised’s death toll from expanding, maintaining and defending the US empire climbed into the many millions. The lines between offensive and defensive jihad – the United States has, like most every country before it, long defined and defended its wars as defensive, divinely sanctioned and just – has always been conveniently blurred. “Converting non-believers,” whether by swords or napalm, is always inseparable from protecting the realm.

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To make sure people in the US saw their government’s foreign adventures in the proper light, it was natural to define the enemy as the opposite of everything their country stood for, and a mortal threat to their way of life and even existence.

Yet it’s also true that, as during the great Muslim empires, as during the post-war heyday of American power, life, under its imperial umbrella, often proved better than many of the alternatives – at least for allies and those in the semi-, and thus not fully exploitable, periphery.

The rise of neoliberalism

This dynamic changed, however, with the emergence of neoliberal capitalism as the dominant form of economic, political and even cultural organisation in the 1970s – not just in the so-called “third” world, but in the core countries of the “West” as well. Neoliberalism created a dynamic of neocolonisation within the US and other “mature” countries, as well as in the developing world, as capitalism – once again – became as predatory at home as it was abroad. Both saw increased economic growth at the expensive of concentrated corporate power and rapidly increasing poverty and inequality. The corporate titans who have come to dominate the US economy and celebrity obsessed culture – tech leaders and military-industrial czars – are, not surprisingly, precisely the ones who are most in bed with the programmes Snowden has revealed.

The United States’s desire to establish “full spectrum dominance” over world affairs in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet bloc became increasingly militarised after September 11, 2001. The “War on Terror” – the ultimate defensively justified offensive jihad – provided the primary justification for the quest for ever more power, a “panopticonic” as Snowden described it, picking up on Michel Foucault’s analysis of the ultimate machine for political control developed by Jeremy Bentham during the late 18th century.

Such seeming dominance, or at least the idea of it, became a core component of the entire US intelligence apparatus, producing a clear majority of the intelligence reports that would feed the daily policy-making process in the years since the projects Snowden revealed.

It’s here where the idea of jihad becomes relevant to Snowden’s story. As every doctrine of war is abused by its exponents, jihad has been abused by Muslims for as long as the concept has existed. Yet the concept has great relevance to the situation in which people such as Snowden, Bradley Manning and other present-day whistleblowers find themselves. The concept is rooted – grammatically as well as theologically – in the concept of personal and communal striving for betterment.

The government has granted itself power it is not entitled to. There is no public oversight. The result is people like myself have the latitude to go further than they are allowed to.

by - Edward Snowden

It is true that, in the classical period of Islam, its connotation was largely related directly to war, while Islamic scholars across the ages have tended to dismiss as weak claims that the Prophet Mohammed differentiated between a lesser (violent) and greater (spiritual/personal) jihad. Yet in the modern era the notion of jihad of the “tongue” or “pen”, as well as of jihad as a journey of personal and communal betterment, have become increasingly important within many strands of Muslim political discourse. This interpretation has even been used to justify and explain the Arab uprisings as they first – and relatively non-violently – emerged in Tunisia and Egypt.

Snowden’s explanation for his actions bespeak someone who has lost all faith in the system to address glaring injustices through normal democratic, legislative means. As he put it in his Guardian interview, for years he waited for political leaders to check the trend towards a potentially fatal surrender of core constitutional liberties. Eventually, he realised, “you can’t wait around for someone else to act. I had been looking for leaders, but I realised that leadership is about being the first to act”.

Like Bradley Manning, and perhaps with more sophistication, he realised that the only way to rein in a state bent on depriving its citizens of their civil liberties was, quite literally, to declare jihad on it. I use the word jihad here instead of war, because Snowden clearly did not declare war; he did not seek to use any violence against the US government. Quite the opposite, in fact. But he did completely remove himself from the order and power of the state he was quite literally sworn to serve, put himself outside its laws, and essentially declared a moral, political and ultimately ideological jihad against its most important policies. In this sense, his actions were treasonous – but only against a system which had in itself become treasonous, and which had declared war on the highest ideals for which the United States had stood.

That Snowden has waged his jihad with the pen and tongue rather than the proverbial sword fits quite nicely into the modernist/liberal reading of jihad, and puts him squarely in the camp of the avant-garde of the Arab Spring, who refused to participate in a system they had come to realise was irredeemably broken. As he put it: “The government has granted itself power it is not entitled to. There is no public oversight. The result is people like myself have the latitude to go further than they are allowed to.”

Of course, the Obama administration would say Snowden has no such right to arrogate this kind of power to himself. That is for the elected leaders of a democratic society. As everyone from the director of national intelligence to the chairs of the Senate and House Intelligence Committees are arguing, however much we might dislike these policies, they are the result of legislation passed by the legitimate representatives of the people of the United States.

This might well be true, although as Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner, the principal author of the Patriot Act (which is the primary legal justification for the surveillance Snowden has revealed) argues, this interpretation is an “abuse of the law”, and one made without the consultation of most congressional representatives. But what Snowden and Manning realised was that the system was so dangerously broken that they had to sacrifice themselves, if necessary, to try to stop it. They could not live with themselves any other way.

A few brave men

It is highly instructive that the courage of a few brave men such as Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden have done more damage to the hegemony of the well-entrenched and normally unchallenged US war racket than any number of al-Qaeda-inspired or -directed terrorist plots could have achieved. Indeed, the fact that Snowden didn’t become intoxicated by such power, but instead sought to shut it down at the source is an action of revolutionary potential, if others take up his call. It is a true inner and greater jihad.

If a couple of relatively minor intelligence workers such as Manning and Snowden could access information that upends so many of their government’s policies, and the lies and half-truths upon which they’re based, imagine what 20, or even 200 could do. They might actually get Americans off their couches and into the streets to demand the kind of political reform that the political class has thus far had little incentive to enact.

We don’t have to call it jihad, but after a dozen years of a disastrous and bloody “war on terror” with the Muslim world, there are definitely worse ways to define it. However people want to describe it, these individuals have shown their peers in the governmental, intelligence, military and corporate bureaucracies across the world that they too have a choice – that merely continuing as cogs in oppressive machines cannot be considered the legitimate, or even only, choice left to them – even if the alternative comes at a steep price.

Let us hope at least a few are inspired to follow their course.

Mark LeVine is professor of Middle Eastern history at the University of California-Irvine, and distinguished visiting professor at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden and the author of the forthcoming book about the revolutions in the Arab world, The Five Year Old Who Toppled a Pharaoh.