Institute for the Study of Asymmetric Conflict

Al-Qaida: A vindication for constructivism?

Yael Shahar

One of the key contentions of constructivism is that considerations of military or economic power alone do not suffice to explain why states do what they do. States are also motivated by ideational factors, such as identity, core values, and historical worldview; and the international scene can be fully understood only in light of these factors. However, it has been difficult empirically to prove this contention: in the vast majority of cases studied by experts in international relations, traditional realist or liberal theories can adequately explain the observed behavior of states. In order to test constructivism as an explanatory theory, a situation would be required that defies explanation according to established realist or liberal theories, and can adequately be explained only by reference to ideational factors.

Such a situation appears to have come about with the advent of the Global Jihad, and the division of the international scene into “the West versus the Rest”. Al-Qaida, along with the Global Jihad movement in general, seems to defy explanation in either realist or liberal terms. Even realist scholar John Mearsheimer has noted that realism has very little to say about terrorism, as realism deals with relations among states, while Al-Qaida is not a state: “My theory and virtually all Realist theories don't have much to say about transnational actors.”[1] In fact, Al Qaida exists and operates in a distinctly constructivist space, where questions of persuasion, identity, social construction, and discourse take priority over questions of material power, economic rationality, or formal international institutions.

In the interview quoted above, Mearsheimer argued that while terrorism cannot be explained in realist terms, state responses to terrorism can. However, the fact that terrorism can affect the actions of powerful states proves that its ideationally-motivated actions can draw these states into its own conceptual territory—a territory where constructivists would feel right at home. To the extent that al-Qaida is able to force states to do things that they would not otherwise have any interest in doing, it achieves state-like power without any of the traditional physical or institutional assets of statehood.

Al-Qaida is very much a value-based, ideological entity, the embodiment of the idea of fundamentalist Islamic hegemony. While common knowledge, this fact has not received much attention among international-relations scholars; but Al-Qaida may well prove the ultimate test case for constructivism as an explanatory theory.

Huntington and “cultural peace theory”

One of the theories often used to explain al-Qaida’s actions and its growing influence is that of the “clash of civilizations”, made famous by Samuel Huntington.[2] Huntington laid the groundwork for a new worldview, which—while not calling itself “constructivist”—still relies on some core components of constructivism.

In essence, Huntington created a new constructivist parallel to the Democratic Peace Theory. Although he did not provide a label for this theory, it might aptly be called the “Cultural Peace Theory”. Essentially, Huntington contends that common governmental systems (e.g. democracy) and economic interdependence are the result of a much more fundamental unifying factor: a shared culture. Without this underlying factor, neither democracy nor economic ties would keep the peace.

Cultural Peace Theory thus contends that “kin cultures” do not fight each other. A corollary is that culturally-allied blocs of states are likely to go to war (or at least contend) with rival blocs. Thus, we see the West, with its liberal democratic values and free-market economics, pitted against blocs whose cultural norms are fundamentally different, such as the Muslim world and the Chinese/Asian bloc.

Huntington defined culture and civilization in very constructivist terms: “A civilization is thus the highest cultural grouping of people and the broadest level of cultural identity people have short of that which distinguishes humans from other species.” Huntington pointed out that nation-states should not be seen as the only actors on the international scene; the entire notion of the state is actually a recent development, and may already be approaching obsolescence.

Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” is driven by the expansionist nature of the rival cultural blocs. In the conflict between the West and the Global Jihad, both sides are driven by fundamentally “globalizing” ideologies. Thus, Huntington adds a constructivist element—the “balance of culture”—to the realist notion of the balance of power. Many non-Westerners are aware of this “clash of globalizations”; and thus “…the efforts of the West to promote its values of democracy and liberalism as universal values, to maintain its military predominance and to advance its economic interests engender countering responses from other civilizations.”

The Global Jihad is likewise driven by a Wahhabi-salafist “globalizing” ideology: it advocates a borderless Islamic caliphate to replace today’s nation-states, eliminate all rival religions, and convert and absorb all surviving ethnic groups. Jihadists see themselves as fighting a global war, defending pure Islam against the forces of decadent Western civilization and its puppets in the Islamic world.

Ironically, the United States government tends to see this conflict in virtually the same terms as do the Islamists. Both Global Jihadis and their Western antagonists perceive their conflict as essentially borderless, and both define it mainly in constructivist terms; the winning of hearts and minds is considered at least as important as any tangible achievement.

Al-Qaida as “norm entrepreneur”

In his 2006 paper “Al-Qaida’s Constructivist Turn”, Marc Lynch argued that after the loss of its physical bases in Afghanistan, al-Qaida became the quintessential constructivist organization. Lynch argued that neither Al-Qaida’s existence nor its success could be adequately explained in liberal or realist terms, as it is neither a state nor an institution. It seeks power primarily through non-material means, as “an idea moving across geographic boundaries carried by satellite television.”

In fact, Al-Qaida is attempting to create something that did not exist previously: a new social and cultural norm for all Muslims. The organization sees itself as an “entrepreneur of norms”. As Lynch pointed out, “Al-Qaeda’s rhetoric about a global Islamic identity aims at driving a self-fulfilling prophecy, constructing a collective identity rather than simply reflecting it.” Al-Qaida sees “world politics as a clash of civilizations in which radical Islamists such as themselves stand on an equal footing with the great powers of the state system.”

Does this prove anything?

Lynch thoroughly demonstrated that Al-Qaida’s worldview is constructivist. However, this alone does not make the constructivist worldview any more “true” than conventional realist or liberal worldviews. Al Qaida clearly believes in the power of ideas to challenge raw material power; the real question is whether this belief is correct.

Realists might argue that both the “clash of civilizations” and “the war on terror” are merely rallying cries and recruitment gimmicks to mask traditional realist motives; for example, by characterizing U.S. actions as part of a cultural war against Islam, jihadists can gain the support of disaffected Moslems and thus prevent Moslem states (and even states with Moslem minorities) from supporting the United States. Realist scholar Robert Pape takes this analytical approach to its extreme, attempting to explain al Qaida and the entire jihadi strategy in utilitarian terms. [3] However, as Lynch pointed out, “Al-Qaeda’s constructivism derives both from structural factors—absence of a territorial base, a globalized field of contention shaped by new media and information technologies—and Islamist ideas themselves… American foreign policy has witnessed a similarly constructivist turn, as the ‘war of ideas’ has been placed at the center of… the Pentagon’s 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review....”[4] If al-Qaida’s strategy is an authentic outgrowth of its interpretation of Islam, this strategy is anything but a gimmick.

To the extent that the United States is now competing with al-Qaida head-to-head in a war of ideas, the jihadi strategy of leveling the playing field has succeeded. The U.S. is definitely on the defensive in the war for hearts and minds, and yet it has reluctantly acknowledged that this is where the battle must be joined. The fact that the United States has been forced to compete at such a disadvantage can be explained only in purely constructivist terms.

While Pape argues that al-Qaida’s talk of ideology is really a cover for realist territorial ambitions, it can equally well be argued that al-Qaida’s espoused “realist” goals, such as liberating Muslim lands, are in reality just a recruiting ploy for its true ideological struggle, a tool to help create a new (or revitalized) concept of Muslim identity. Al-Qaida’s decision to take the battle so far into constructivist territory has as much to do with the organization’s worldview as it does with strategic concerns. In fact, bin Ladin has on more than one occasion belittled the entire notion of material interest as a motivator to action: the U.S., he believes, is doomed to defeat precisely because it puts its faith in material things rather than in spiritual values. Thus, al-Qaida’s decision to choose the battlefield of ideas was taken from a perceived position of strength, not weakness; it was a repudiation of realism, not a surrender to it. The decision by the American administration to fight on this battlefield, on the other hand, was very much forced by al-Qaida’s successes. Having been slow to acknowledge the fact that ideology can compete successfully against physical power, the U.S. now finds itself very much on the defensive.

To the extent that al-Qaida succeeds in its aims, then, it has proven a core belief of constructivism—that ideas can vie with material power for international influence. Al-Qaida’s ascendancy thus directly undermines the realist worldview, while the spread of its destructive ideology undermines liberalism, which believes in the triumph of worthy ideas. A good (i.e. progressive and pro-survival) idea should prevail over a bad one, and yet al-Qaida’s rather “successful” ideology is non-progressive and possibly even counter-survival.

The extent to which al-Qaida induces various countries to oppose, or even simply to abstain from supporting, U.S. policies, further proves the power of ideas; as the United States is the sole extant superpower, reducing its influence in this way is no small achievement.

The behavior of many Moslem countries today stands in stark contrast to their behavior during the Cold War, for example: when Arab states allied themselves with the Soviet Union, their decisions were purely “realist”, and their socialist rhetoric was never more than a transparent effort to rationalize the acceptance of arms and other support from a power with which they had no genuine ideological or cultural affinity. Today, however, many of these states are following (at least in part) al-Qaida’s agenda rather than the U.S. agenda, despite the fact that material considerations should motivate them to side with the powerful, wealthy, and well-armed West rather than with a non-state actor whose power is almost entirely ideational.

The extent to which al-Qaida’s strategy works proves the power of ideas. If the ideational rallying cry of “cultural jihad” has in fact been translated into material power—at least enough to provoke the United States into undertaking actions that would otherwise be against its own interest—then, clearly, ideas have power on a par with traditional military and economic might.

While the issues discussed here are not likely to settle the realist-constructivist debate, they do illustrate that constructivists make a valid point in ascribing significance to ideational factors, alongside traditional realist factors such as military or economic strength. Ideas may not fully equate to traditional power, but they can play a major role in resource allocation and in the determination of the uses to which power is put.


[1] “Interview with John Mearsheimer”. Conversation with History Series. Institute of International Studies, Berkeley University. Accessed on 7 May 2008.

[2] Huntington, Samuel P. “The Clash of Civilizations?” Foreign Affairs. Summer 1993.

[3] Pape, Robert A. “The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism”. American Political Science Review Vol. 97, No. 3 August 2003.

[4] Lynch, Marc, “Al-Qaeda’s Constructivist Turn”, Praeger Security International. May 05, 2006