The Al Qaeda Reader
by Raymond Ibrahim
New York: Doubleday, 2007. 352 pp. $15.95, paper.
Reviewed by James Buchan
The New York Observer
This volume, a collection of essays and broadcasts by Ayman Zawahiri and Osama bin Laden, does the Al Qaeda leaders no favors. Whatever their capacities as terrorists, Dr. Zawahiri tends toward the wordy and Mr. bin Laden is inordinately proud of his military exploits. As he refights Tora Bora for the nth time deploying the salt cellar and the humidor, we might be in some soporiferous midtown gentlemen’s club.
Raymond Ibrahim has assembled his material from odd corners of the press and the Internet. The writings, interviews and broadcasts by the two men date from about 1991 to the present. While it’s not wholly clear where all these bits and pieces come from, Mr. Ibrahim’s translations seem to be accurate.
He divides the writings into two sections, under the headings “Theology” and “Propaganda,” and he does so for a particular didactic purpose. For all of Al Qaeda’s claims that it’s merely resisting the aggression of the United States and its allies in the historical lands of Islam, Mr. bin Laden and Dr. Zawahiri also happen to want to subjugate the world.
Because there is no papacy or episcopate in Islam, any Tom, Dick or Ali can pronounce himself a jurisprudent and give law to the world. What’s striking about Al Qaeda theology is not, as some Americans think, that it’s based on the Koran or the anecdotes of the Prophet’s talk and conduct, known in Arabic as the sunna. What’s striking is that Al Qaeda rests on such a one-sided reading of them.
Osama bin Laden and Ayman Zawahiri have built their movement on a handful of Koranic verses—which are treated not as objects of contemplation but as talismans of battle—and above all on a single verse (9:5) that calls for unconditional war on Christians and Jews and, by analogy, any Muslim who rubs you up the wrong way. For centuries, this so-called Sword Verse has been deployed by extremists to abrogate the merciful and transcendental teaching of the Koran and to justify the murder and enslaving of nonbelievers.
Now, jihad, whatever it really means, has good authority in scripture. Not so the Al Qaeda-style of jihad, with its suicide bombings and indiscriminate slaughter. Suicide is a deadly sin in Islam but is here justified by a single dubious anecdote of the Prophet. The slaughter of innocents as a strategic goal appears to have no justification in any Islamic source at all. Still, I guess nobody with an interest in longevity is about to debate with Dr. Zawahiri these knotty theological points.
Both Dr. Zawahiri and Mr. Bin Laden subscribe to a doctrine known in Arabic as taqiya, which holds that it’s legal to lie and deceive for tactical purposes. When Mr. bin Laden claims only to seek the return of Palestinian lands and the withdrawal of Western armies from Arab soil, or offers a truce, is he sincere? Or are those mere tactics on the road to world domination?
Much Al Qaeda ideology is not even Muslim in origin. The mujahedin are a revolutionary vanguard whose lineage stretches back through the European terrorists of the 1970’s to the Bolsheviks and the Jacobins of the French Revolution. The contention that wicked Jews control the levers of the modern state goes back toThe Protocols of the Elders of Zion and the anti-Dreyfusards.
Mr. Ibrahim compares The Al Qaeda Reader to Mein Kampf, and that is not a mere insult. In their brutality and candor, their fulminations against democracy and loose morals, their obsession with territory, their finicky racism and absolute disdain for the material needs of the public, these documents are a strange echo of Hitler’s writings from prison.
The odd thing is that there’s nothing particularly odd about Al Qaeda. Islamic history is littered with movements of violent jihad, which have thrown up all manner of governments and states, from the temporary (the Sudanese Mahdiya, the Taliban emirate) to the long-lived (the Saudi kingdom). Will these folks succeed in creating some paradise of gore in Iraq or the Pamirs? Or will they, as seems more likely, come under the control and patronage of some all-too-earthly Arab regime?
James Buchan is a former Middle East correspondent for the Financial Times.