The Al Qaeda Reader
by Raymond Ibrahim
New York: Doubleday, 2007. 352 pp. $15.95, paper.
Reviewed by Steven Simon
The Washington Post
For the strong silent type, Osama bin Laden has actually talked a lot. One expects this from his tediously didactic counselor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, but somehow not from the abstemious Emir himself. Yet in dozens of statements disseminated as letters, videos and audiotapes since at least 1994, bin Laden has expressed an evolving view of the world. This brew of rumination, analysis and exhortation has emanated from Sudan, Afghanistan and Pakistan, his three bases over the past decade or more. His audience has been twofold: Muslims whom he seeks to mobilize in a war against Western aggression as well as Western publics themselves. On occasion, as when he has proffered a truce to European governments, bin Laden speaks to both audiences at once. In that case, the message to his Muslim audience was that he was the equal of European prime ministers.
Raymond Ibrahim, an archivist at the Library of Congress, has cobbled together the third anthology of bin Laden’s pronouncements of which I’m aware. It largely overlaps the others, but usefully includes the editor’s translations of al-Zawahiri’s manifestos, in addition to bin Laden’s. The organization of the book is thematic, rather than chronological, which is also useful, but which will make it hard for readers interested in the development of jihadist thought to discern its trajectory. For this, readers should turn to Bruce Lawrence’sMessages to the World (2005).
Ibrahim has found a place in the neocon blogosphere, where he deploys his familiarity with al-Zawahiri’s scribblings and bin Laden’s utterances to show that the religion of Islam lends itself to violence. As the son of an immigrant family from Egypt and a Coptic Christian, he might be forgiven for taking this position. Fundamentalists of al-Zawahiri’s ilk have tried to make a misery of Coptic life in Egypt. And to Ibrahim’s credit, his annotations generally note where the jihadists’ militant reasoning deviates from more conventional readings of traditional Muslim texts.
For those who haven’t paid attention to what al-Qaeda’s leadership has been saying, anthologies like this one are instructive because the contents, on the whole, place so little emphasis on explicitly Islamic themes. Much of the material interweaves anti-American and anti-Semitic motifs that have circulated in Europe and the Middle East for over a century, and were further stoked by Nazi and Soviet attempts to extend their influence in the region. Against the background of foreign domination and the rise of Zionism, it’s scarcely surprising that these notions got traction. With the United States having replaced Great Britain as the evil hegemon and Zionism having triumphed, the old anti-colonial critique has kept its appeal. America, in particular, was believed to embody all the faults that German and Soviet propaganda attributed to it: a mongrel culture, self-absorbed, prone to violence, worshiping the almighty buck. And run by the Jews.
Bin Laden repackages these canards while adding others: American society degrades women, is preoccupied with pornography, manifests a titanic hypocrisy, fosters the despoliation of the environment through its disproportionate consumption of oil. According to bin Laden’s sociology of America, 9/11 ripped the mask off the face of the beast. The world could now see it for what it was: the destroyer not only of other countries, but of the very rights formerly enjoyed by its own citizens. I confess that some of this stimulates a glowing nostalgia for the loopy leftism of my college years at Columbia in the early 1970s. His sarcastic references to Bill Clinton’s intern episode, however, remind me more of Fox news in the late 1990s.
Yet there is also an Islamic dimension to his — and al-Zawahiri’s — writings. Bin Laden’s use of religious texts is pervasive. He has either a vast library of classical commentary in his cave or phenomenal powers of recall. These quotations, moreover, are generally apt and woven skillfully into the fabric of his overall argument. It is commonplace to deride bin Laden’s lack of clerical credentials, yet he is a man very much in command of relevant documentary sources.
As John Kelsay, an astute scholar of Muslim laws of war, has argued, bin Laden is engaged in an implicit dialogue with other Muslim thinkers about the permissibility of killing civilians in battle. Bin Laden’s responsibility for the slaughter of thousands makes it hard to see him as a thoughtful interlocutor in a monkish disputation, but that effort of imagination is essential to understanding that there is, in fact, a debate. Moreover, it is a debate in which American actions play a large role, even if bin Laden manipulates the record to strengthen his case. In this grim dialogue, bin Laden justifies the killing of innocents by citing familiar doctrines of reciprocity and necessity, that is, doing what you have to do to defeat a ruthless aggressor. Crucially, however, he tries to extend Muslim doctrine to cast all those who live in a democracy as complicit in what their elected governments do, thereby shrinking the category of noncombatant.
Ibrahim’s inclusion of al-Zawahiri’s adaptation of “Loyalty and Enmity,” an old Salafi chestnut, was a good move. This is an exhortation to confine one’s friendship to Muslims and to hate non-Muslims as well as Muslims who stray from the fold. As Salafism, or a Saudi-inflected hard Islam, becomes more popular globally, the implications of this doctrine are unsettling, particularly for Western Europe, where the integration of a large Muslim minority has turned into a troubled, even deadly, process.
The usefulness of anthologies such as this one is generally thought to lie in the importance of better knowing the enemy. But winning a war of ideas also requires understanding how others see us — and why it resonates with so many whose hearts and minds we are battling for. I’m reminded of a Hellenistic tombstone from Egypt that depicts a reclining skeleton and the phrase gnothe seauton: “know thyself.” That’s part of the challenge bin Laden poses to us. *
Steven Simon is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and co-author of “The Age of Sacred Terror” and “The Next Attack.”