Monday, October 01, 2007

Two Faces of Al Qaeda

Al Qaeda Reader
Raymond Ibrahim
(Image from

A recent article by Raymond Ibrahim in The Chronicle of Higher Education on "The Two Faces of Al Qaeda" (September 21, 2008) looks instructive for those of us striving to understand 9/11.

Ibrahim, a scholar of Arabic studies who worked in the Near East Section of the African and Middle Eastern Division of the Library of Congress, came into contact with "thousands of new books, serials, and microfilms [that] arrive yearly from the Arab world," among which were a large number of texts dealing with Al Qaeda, and Ibrahim noticed something interesting and worth reporting upon:
Numerous Arabic books dealing with Al Qaeda passed through my hands in this privileged position. A good number contained not only excerpts or quotes by Al Qaeda but entire treatises written by its members. Surprisingly, I came to discover that most of these had never been translated into English. Most significantly, however, the documents struck me as markedly different from the messages directed to the West, in both tone and (especially) content.

It soon became clear why these particular documents had not been directed to the West. They were theological treatises, revolving around what Islam commands Muslims to do vis-à-vis non-Muslims. The documents rarely made mention of all those things -- Zionism, Bush's "Crusade," malnourished Iraqi children -- that formed the core of Al Qaeda's messages to the West. Instead, they were filled with countless Koranic verses, hadiths (traditions attributed to the Prophet Muhammad), and the consensus and verdicts of Islam's most authoritative voices. The temporal and emotive language directed at the West was exchanged for the eternal language of Islam when directed at Muslims. Or, put another way, the language of "reciprocity" was exchanged for that of intolerant religious fanaticism. There was, in fact, scant mention of the words "West," "U.S.," or "Israel." All of those were encompassed by that one Arabic-Islamic word, "kufr" -- "infidelity" -- the regrettable state of being non-Muslim that must always be fought through "tongue and teeth."
Ibrahim gives an example from Bin Laden himself. Ibrahim notes that not long after 9/11, some influential Saudi Arabians wrote an open letter to Americans to explain that "The heart of the relationship between Muslims and non-Muslims is justice, kindness, and charity." To this, Bin Laden wrote a rejoinder:
As to the relationship between Muslims and infidels, this is summarized by the Most High's Word: "We renounce you. Enmity and hate shall forever reign between us -- till you believe in Allah alone." So there is an enmity, evidenced by fierce hostility from the heart. And this fierce hostility -- that is, battle -- ceases only if the infidel submits to the authority of Islam, or if his blood is forbidden from being shed, or if Muslims are at that point in time weak and incapable. But if the hate at any time extinguishes from the heart, this is great apostasy! Allah Almighty's Word to his Prophet recounts in summation the true relationship: "O Prophet! Wage war against the infidels and hypocrites and be ruthless. Their abode is hell -- an evil fate!" Such, then, is the basis and foundation of the relationship between the infidel and the Muslim. Battle, animosity, and hatred -- directed from the Muslim to the infidel -- is the foundation of our religion. And we consider this a justice and kindness to them.
I find this interesting because it confirms a suspicion that I had at the time of 9/11, namely, that Al Qaeda was doing more than merely reacting to American foreign policy, that Al Qaeda was an active agent on the world stage with a long-term aim. As I wrote for a paper presented on September 11, 2002 at the Humanities Research Institute of Hanshin University, "Striving to Understand 9/11: Some Religious Dimensions of the Attack," published in the Hanshin Journal of Humanities (Volume 3, December 2002):
My thinking ... recognizes that we have to acknowledge the specific historical context of the attacks. However, fully grasping what happened encompasses more than just trying to understand the expressed grievances behind the attacks. The flaw in an approach limited to this sort of analysis is that it makes the actions of the other purely reactive, as if Newton's third law of motion applied to political or religious movements, as if the other were not an active agent in world history.[25] As I told my wife, "Al-Qaeda didn't order the Taliban to destroy the Bamyan Buddhist statues because they hate America."[26] In fact, they hate everybody who is not Muslim (and probably everybody who is not specifically their kind of Muslim).[27] To understand radical Islamists like those of Al-Qaeda, we have to investigate not just their stated grievances but also how they make use of their cultural background, namely, their use of their Islamic heritage,[28] to condone and legitimate acts of extreme violence in the name of, and for the sake of, religion.
To this, I added:
Specifically, I mean to suggest the larger, arguably religiously inspired imperial motivations that, at least in principle, characterize the Islamic world as an expansive, active agent over the long duration of historical time, for the authoritative religious texts expounding these motivations are the sources within Muslim tradition that modern militant Islamic groups such as Al-Qaeda appeal to for justification and, very probably, even draw upon for inspiration.[31]
Generally, I draw an analytical distinction between "Islam" and "Islamism" but leave unclear just where this line is to be placed, for I'm not sure that the line can be clearly drawn anyway. Islamist seek to impose Islamic law wherever they come to power, and they generally support military jihad against nonbelievers, as Islam itself has often done throughout history.

This doesn't mean that all Muslims everywhere and at all times have been implacably hostile to non-Muslims, nor does Ibrahim himself seem to mean this.

What it does mean is that we cannot ignore the religious motivation for the violence, nor the authoritative Islamic texts that the Islamists draw upon to justify their motives.

Drawing attention to these religious arguments will be a long-term task, one beyond my linguistic expertise, but I'll be paying attention.


[25] Moreover, as argued by Bernard Lewis, "The Roots of Muslim Rage: Why so many Muslims deeply resent the West, and why their bitterness will not easily be mollified," The Atlantic Monthly, Volume 266, Number 3, September 1990, 47-60, the usual explanations of radical Islamic antipathy to America -- as reactions to American racism, imperialism, or foreign policy -- are less than satisfactory (Link). This article is well worth reading, but I will not attempt to summarize it here.

[26] According to a report by Douglas Frantz and David Rohde, "How Bin Laden and Taliban Forged Jihad Ties," New York Times, November 22, 2001, "[B]in Laden and his associates . . . persuad[ed] . . . the Taliban to destroy the giant statues of Buddha in Bamyan Province, which were among the most revered monuments in the Buddhist world" (Link).

[27] These Al-Qaeda views are reflected in the statements of some Wahabi Muslims in Saudi Arabia. According Niel MacFahrquhar, "A Few Saudis Defy a Rigid Islam to Debate Their Own Intolerance," The New York Times, International Section, "Bookshops in the holy cities of Mecca and Medina . . . sell a 1,265-page souvenir tome that is . . . . strewn with rulings on shunning non-Muslims: don’t smile at them, don’t wish them well on their holidays, don’t address them as 'friend.'" One professor of Islamic law states: "Well, of course I hate you because you are Christian," before adding the very reassuring words, "but that doesn’t mean I want to kill you" (Link). Note that 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi Muslims, that Bin Laden is (was?) a Saudi Muslim, and that the Taliban were funded largely by money from Saudi Muslims. The Wahabi role in pushing Muslims toward extremist forms of Islam needs to be thoroughly investigated. Many moderate Muslims, for instance, have complained of Wahabi intolerance. A Google advanced search of the terms "moderate," "Wahabi," and "intolerance" will locate a number of online documents. See, for example, Karim Raslan, "The Threat To Islam: Asia's moderate Muslim nations must put their own houses in order if they want to stop the rise of militant fundamentalists in their midst,", September 28, 2001 (Link).

[28] Read this with stress upon "how they make use of their cultural background," for we need to recognize the selective choosing and interpreting of Islamic tradition carried out by radical Islamists. As David Bidney, Theoretical Anthropology (New York: Schocken Books, 1953), 27, correctly notes: "[T]he essential feature [of culture] is the combination of invention and acquisition." The text of the hijackers' letter is an excellent example of how the Al-Qaeda attackers made use of their Islamic heritage. It is also about as strong a piece of evidence that one would need to demonstrate that the attack was a religious act, indeed a religious act intended as a specifically Islamic deed of military jihad. For the text, which emphasizes maintaining a state of purity during the attack and treats the attack itself in a way that suggests a sacramental ritual, see "Suicide Note: Translation of the Hijackers' Note (Originally Written in Arabic),", September 28, 2001 (Link). See also Rebecca Raphael, "Religion from the Point of View of the Damned," Religious Studies News: AAR Edition, May 2002, Volume 17, Number 3, page 19, column 2, who also notes that "[t]he events of September 11 demand religious categories if they are to be understood: the concepts of purity and pollution . . . [and] the self-sacrifice of the hijackers."

[31] I stress the religious dimension in this article because I think that we have to recognize religion's importance as a motivating force behind militant Islam. In this, I agree with such scholars as Daniel Pipes, "God and Mammon: Does Poverty Cause Militant Islam?" The National Interest, Winter 2002, who argues that "[b]y . . . appreciating the religious, cultural and political dimensions [of the Islamists], we may actually begin to understand what causes militant Islam" (emphasis mine) (Link). It will also help us to understand why radical Islamists' exultation at the success of the 9/11 attack found such a large degree of resonance within the larger Muslim world. For a summary of the reactions of many Muslims, see also Pipes, "A New Round of Anger and Humiliation," Our Brave New World: Essays on the Impact of September 11, edited by Wladyslaw Pleszczynski (Link). I realize that the substance of my article will bring me into territory occupied by scholars whose expertise is directly proportional to my own lack of expertise. I will try to keep my focus as narrow as possible while still, I hope, doing justice to the matter being analyzed. I also hope to avoid any condescending tendencies of the sort critiqued by both Edward Said in his influential Orientalism (New York: Random House, 1979) and Esposito in his many writings on Islam. However, because I am attempting to understand an act of extreme violence, my article will necessarily focus upon a dark aspect of Islamic tradition. One should also note that according to some scholars, such as Martin Kramer, Ivory Towers on Sand: The Failure of Middle Eastern Studies in America (Washington: Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 2001), the mainstream American scholarship's honorable intention of avoiding Western condescension toward Islam has resulted in a practice of ignoring the broad influence and contemporary threat of the sort of militant Islam espoused by radical Islamists. Said himself, in the 1994 edition of his book, has noted the threat posed by Islamists and has stated that the use of his Orientalism argument by Islamists was "the one aspect of the book's reception that I most regret" (see: Orientalism [Vintage Books, 1994], 330).

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At 6:48 AM, Blogger Hathor said...

The religious dimension of Al Qaeda doesn't satisfy our political goals in waging war. Our enemy has to "hate our freedom" American can not imagine an enemy who is not Christian or pagan(the Japanese and Vietnamese). The enemy has to be less intelligent, without culture and have a lesser religion.

I could not understand why the religious in this country who think this is a Christian nation and would like all of our laws to reflect that; cannot see the religious resolve of those that practice Islam.

At 7:09 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

It's certainly difficult to see Islam as a form of paganism, but just what sort of religion it is poses a puzzle for the West since it is a religion that does not distinguish between the religious realm and the political realm, for the latter is subsumed under the former as an expression of religious piety in Islam.

Many Muslim actions seem to invite a political response, yet the Muslim may have been acting out of what we would call religious motives. This can be very confusing unless one understands more about Islam.

In my opinion, by the way, Islamists do hate a lot of our Western political concepts, including the Western concept of freedom, but that's a big, contentious issue.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 1:38 PM, Blogger gordsellar said...

In my opinion, by the way, Islamists do hate a lot of our Western political concepts, including the Western concept of freedom, but that's a big, contentious issue.

Oh, it's quite understandable, though. I get the feeling many Christian extremists in the West hate those political concepts, too, insofar as they defend our rights not to follow (or obey) their particular religion(s).

Not that they're the same, of course. I'm not equating the psycho church down the road with the Taliban. But I sense a certain hostility to the kind of freedoms I value on the part of extreme Christians.

At 4:48 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Fortunately, we have separation of church and state in most of the West, so we need not worry about Christians forcing people to convert.

By the way, Gord, I don't know if you got my message, which I left at your blog some weeks back, but this fall's Medieval conference is scheduled for November 9th and 10th.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 1:03 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

So I can't claim this as my own, but speaks to some of the posts here.
"So here are the differences between myself and the Taliban.
The Taliban allowed no freedom of expression, no rights for women, no freedom of religion and destroyed anything and everyone that did not abide by their version of Islam. They destroyed the famous Buddhist statues of Bamiyan because the felt they were un-Islamic graven images. The wiped out entire peoples and villages (such as the Hazara) because they were not Islamic enough. They would think nothing of executing an entire village if one family converted to Christianity. They cut the ears, eyes, tongues and noses off people for “infractions against Islam.” They turned schools into horse stables. They planted bombs and mines in children’s play fields. They torched newly built girls schools. They stoned women to death who had been raped for “adultery.” They allowed the training of terrorist groups to export their version of Islam to the world. They looked at the world as two spheres – One that has been conquered by Islam and one that will be conquered by Islam through war. They would think nothing of raping your wife and children and making you a slave or corpse. It is what you and your family, or any non-Islamic person, deserves for being an infidel. They would not allow women (and girls) to go to school, have a job or even leave their home (unless accompanied by a male relative). Oh, and let us not forget forced female circumcision. The Taliban ruled by fear and intimidation. They remind me of the Nazis and Communists.
What do the so called religious conservatives in this country want? Here is the super secret list: Economic Opportunity and Personal Liberty.
Things like: Taxes we can afford; A reverence for the US Constitution as the Founding Fathers wrote it; An appreciation for the values and traditions that made this country the finest in the history of the world; A respect for all opinion, not just what is the PC flavor of the month; An understanding that people should “not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character;” And respect for life (no matter how vulnerable or powerless).
The differences are slight, but there they are. I hope this clears up any misunderstandings."
Sorry if this is a double post-

At 4:36 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Gotmoose, it's an interesting passage but would be more interesting if we knew the speaker, who seems to speak from close familiarity with the Taliban.

I did a Google search and found the site with the passage that you cited, which was written by a Special Forces Team Commander who fought in Afghanistan.

Thanks for alerting me to this, even if only obliquely, but it's generally better to summarize a passage or to quote a central statement briefly and link to the original.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 7:46 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mr. Hodges,
Yes, I found that article, pasted it into a document to save it, and never footnoted it. I did find it useful.
Interesting page, Thanks

At 8:38 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks to you for alerting me to it.

Jeffery Hodges

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