“In October last year, an item appeared on an authoritative Russian studies website that soon had the science-fiction community buzzing with speculative excitement. It asserted that Isaac Asimov’s 1951 classic Foundation was translated into Arabic under the title “al-Qaida”. And it seemed to have the evidence to back up its claims.
“This peculiar coincidence would be of little interest if not for abundant parallels between the plot of Asimov’s book and the events unfolding now,” wrote Dmitri Gusev, the scientist who posted the article. He was referring to apparent similarities between the plot of Foundation and the pursuit of the organisation we have come to know, perhaps erroneously, as al-Qaida.
“On the surface, the most improbable explanation of the name is that Bin Laden was somehow inspired by a Russian-born writer who lived most of his life in the US and was once the world’s most prolific sci-fi novelist (born in 1920 in Smolensk, Asimov died in New York in 1992). But the deeper you dig, the more plausible it seems that al-Qaida’s founders may have borrowed some rhetoric from Foundation and its successors (it became a series) and possibly from other science fiction material.
“As Nick Mamatas argued in an article on sci-fi fans in Gadfly magazine, “even the terror of September 11th had science fictional overtones: it was both an attack on New York from a tin-plated overlord with delusions of grandeur and a single cataclysmic event that seemingly changed everything, for ever”.
“Science fiction has often featured “evil empires” against which are set utopian ideas whose survival must be fought for against the odds by a small but resourceful band of men. Such empires often turn out to be amazingly fragile when faced by intelligent idealists. Intelligent idealists who are also psychopaths might find comfort in a fictional role model – especially one created by a novelist famous for castigating that “amiable dunce” Ronald Reagan: the president who prosecuted the CIA’s secret war in Afghanistan.
“The Empire portrayed in Asimov’s novels is in turmoil – he cited Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire as an influence. Beset by overconsumption, corruption and inefficiency, “it had been falling for centuries before one man really became aware of that fall. That man was Hari Seldon, the man who represented the one spark of creative effort left among the gathering decay. He developed and brought to its highest pitch the science of psycho-history.”
“Seldon is a scientist and prophet who predicts the Empire’s fall. He sets up his Foundation in a remote corner of the galaxy, hoping to build a new civilisation from the ruins of the old. The Empire attacks the Foundation with all its military arsenal and tries to crush it. Seldon uses a religion (based on scientific illusionism) to further his aims. These are tracked by the novel and its sequels across a vast tract of time. For the most part, his predictions come true.
“Seldon, like Bin Laden, transmits videotaped messages for his followers, recorded in advance. There is also some similarity in geopolitical strategy. Seldon’s vision seems oddly like the way Bin Laden has conceived his campaign. “Psycho-history” is the statistical treatment of the actions of large populations across epochal periods – the science of mobs as Asimov calls it. “Hari Seldon plotted the social and economic trends of the time, sighted along curves and foresaw the continuing and accelerating fall of civilisation.”
“So did Bin Laden use Foundation as a kind of imaginative sounding-board for the creation of al-Qaida? Perhaps reading the book in his pampered youth, and later on seeing his destiny in terms of the ruthless manipulation of historical forces? Did he realise much earlier than anyone else that the march of globalisation would provide opportunities for those who wanted to rouse and exploit the dispossessed?”