Word on the Street
What Osama bin Laden and George W. Bush get wrong about Muslims.
Al Qaeda In Its Own Words Edited By Gilles Kepel and Jean-Pierre Millelli; Translated by Pascale Ghazaleh • Harvard University Press • 2008 • 348 pages • $27.95
After September 11, 2001 two questions dominated America’s public debate: Why do Muslims hate us so much? And where are the Muslim moderates? On the first question, commentators supplied easy, simplistic answers that appealed to the country’s wounded egos and prejudices, not critical faculties and common sense. We were told that “they” (Muslims in general, not just the tiny militant minority) hated our freedoms and way of life; that they were jealous of our economic success, political influence, and international prestige. We had nothing to do with their twisted misperceptions of our country and foreign policy. In short, the root causes of anti-Americanism, asserted pundits, reveal more about the moral and political decay of Muslim societies than about American actions.
And, for many Americans, the answer to the second question was that there aren’t any moderates–that Osama bin Laden and the radicals were the exclusive representatives of Islam. We are hated because of who we are, not because of what we did–that was the received wisdom after September 11, 2001.
But seven years later, embroiled in two wars in Muslim countries and deeply invested in political conflicts from Morocco to Indonesia, it is worth pausing to ask whether this received wisdom is entirely correct. Of course, the landscape has changed; Iraq, in particular, has become a new source of radicalization and a reason to hate American foreign policy. But the broader questions about what the world’s one billion-plus Muslims think remain, and in many ways are even more pertinent today than ever. Because to understand Islam today, one must understand what Muslims actually think and how that compares both to what we believe and what Al Qaeda believes to be true.
The first question–where are the Muslim moderates?–was based on a fundamental misreading of Islam 101. Unlike, say, the Catholic Church, there exists no organized, hierarchical clerical establishment in Islam. There is no intermediary–church or priest–between the believer and God. Religious scholars and leaders, then, derive their authority mainly by interpreting Islamic texts and jurisprudence. That authority is even contested with multiple interpretations and counter-interpretations. To be sure, Muslim puritans and radicals–and some of their Western counterparts–want us to believe that Islam is a monolith, with a timeless essence. But it is a mistake to take their claims at face value, because the Muslim world is complex and fragmented, divided along ethnic, nationalist, and socioeconomic lines.
Unfortunately, many U.S. commentators bought the totalizing rhetoric of Osama bin Laden and his right-hand man, Ayman al-Zawahiri, who anointed themselves spokesmen for Islam and Muslims. They lost sight of the social and political turmoil shaking Muslim societies to their very foundation. Indeed, bin Laden represents not a new, dominant Islam but a revolt inside it, directed as much against the clerical establishment as against the ruling elite. Bin Laden and Zawahiri aim at filling the vacuum of legitimate political authority in the Muslim world and challenging the unholy alliance between Muslim rulers and clerics. In other words, Muslims, not Americans, were to be the primary audience of September 11. It’s not a clash of civilizations, but the clash within a particular civilization, that matters here.
The ensuing clash was momentous–and completely ignored in the United States. Less than two weeks after September 11, I traveled to the Middle East and was pleasantly surprised by the almost universal rejection–from taxi drivers and bank tellers to fruit vendors and high school teachers–of Al Qaeda’s terrorism. Everyone I met expressed genuine empathy with the American victims, even while highly critical of U.S. foreign policy. And, if the “terrorism experts” had listened closely, they would have found that, far from condoning September 11, leading mainstream and, yes, radical clerics–such as Hassan al-Turabi, head of the People’s Congress in Sudan (who, in the early 1990s, hosted bin Laden) and Sayyid Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, the spiritual founding father of Lebanon’s Hezbollah–condemned the 9/11 attacks as harmful to Islam and Muslims. Yusuf al-Qaradawi, an influential Egyptian-born conservative cleric now based in Qatar, even issued a fatwa denouncing Al Qaeda’s “illegal jihad” and expressed sorrow and empathy with the American victims: “Our hearts bleed,” he wrote on his website just after the September 11 attacks. Nothing could justify the attacks, he wrote, including “the American biased policy toward Israel on the military, political, and economic fronts.” That may be cold comfort to the victims, but it was also a significant challenge to bin Laden.
To be fair, most political religious leaders did not criticize Al Qaeda’s political ideology, only its terrorist methods. And indeed, bin Laden may occasionally revert to religious rhetoric, but it is his political and ideological rhetoric that truly resonates among Muslims of all persuasions and ranks, who blame the United States for sustaining Israeli military occupation of Palestinian territories as well as oppressive Arab autocrats. As countless polls show, and as I have found in my own research, the efficacy of Al Qaeda’s anti-American (and anti-Western) message stems from politics and foreign policy, not culture and religion.
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