The Al Qaeda Reader
by Raymond Ibrahim
New York: Doubleday, 2007. 352 pp. $15.95, paper.
Reviewed by Zack Beauchamp
The Brown Daily Herald
There’s a tendency among many who, like me, identify on the left side of the political spectrum to treat terrorism as an issue with one fundamental cause: American foreign policy in the Middle East. According to this view, terrorist organizations are essentially resistance fighters against American imperialism and arrogance, reacting to everything from America’s support of the Shah of Iran to its contemporary close ties with Israel.
It follows from this view that the obvious solution to the problem of terrorism is to leave the Middle East alone. If we close down military bases in Saudi Arabia, pull troops out of Iraq and cease preferential support of Israel, among other things, then the terrorists’ motivation for violence will wane and eventually fade away. In Noam Chomsky’s words: “Everyone’s worried about stopping terrorism. Well, there’s a really easy way: Stop participating in it.”
This view is fundamentally wrongheaded. It is impossible to deny that the invasion of Iraq and the lack of a real resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict cause many in the Muslim world to sympathize with terrorist organizations (despite the fact that the latter is almost certainly not the fault of the United States.) However, American geopolitical maneuvering is not the primary motivation for the individuals who actually make up terrorist organizations. These terrorist organizations are committed to a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam that preaches violence not primarily as a response to American foreign policy, but because it is at the core of their beliefs that the infidel must be subordinated to Islam.
Some of the best evidence for this view comes from a recent article by Raymond Ibrahim, a scholar of Islamic history and culture who studied at Georgetown University’s Center for Contemporary Arab Studies and is now a research librarian in the Near East section of the Library of Congress. Ibrahim found that in publicly accessible texts and videos (often with English translations and/or subtitles), al-Qaida’s stated grievances fit quite neatly into the picture of the world painted by Chomsky and his ideological co-travelers. However, Ibrahim also found a wealth of untranslated works by al-Qaida members (including tracts by Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri) designed as theological treatises for both fundamentalists and the rest of the Muslim world. In these works – better indicators of al-Qaida’s motivations than videos so tailored for Western audiences as to have English subtitles scrolling on the bottom – one almost never sees references to the United States, Israel, or even the West as a whole. Instead, they are subsumed under the Arabic word “kufr,” or “infidelity,” which Ibrahim translates as contextually meaning “the regrettable state of being non-Muslim that must always be fought through ‘tongue and teeth.'”
In these newly translated documents, there are places where bin Laden explicitly contradicts the propaganda he publishes for Western ears, and states that Islamic fundamentalists hate non-Muslims not because of their foreign policy decisions, but because they are not Muslims. In response to a letter published by a number of Saudi figures claiming that Muslims have a duty to respect non-Muslims and treat them kindly, bin Laden wrote, “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 – ’til you believe in Allah alone’ … ‘Wage war against the infidels and hypocrites and be ruthless’ …Battle, animosity, and hatred – directed from the Muslim to the infidel – is the foundation of our religion.” In another work, bin Laden goes further: “The West is hostile to us on account of … offensive jihad,” a statement which flatly contradicts his propaganda’s claim that the West is assailing Islam and that al-Qaida is just a resistance movement.
Bin Laden’s newly translated texts are not the only support for this view of Islamic fundamentalism. Hassan Butt, a former recruiter for Islamic fundamentalist groups in Britain, cited by Ibrahim, has stated that “when I was still a member of (a terrorist organization) … I remember how we used to laugh in celebration whenever people on TV proclaimed that the sole cause for Islamic acts of terror … was Western foreign policy. By blaming the Government for our actions, those who pushed this ‘Blair’s bombs’ line did our propaganda work for us. More important, they also helped to draw away any critical examination from the real engine of our violence: Islamic theology.”
Fouad Hussein, a Jordanian journalist who had unprecedented access to al-Qaida’s senior officials, found that the organization’s terminal goal is the establishment of a new caliphate designed not merely to drive the West out of the Middle East, but to establish a “new world order.”
Given this evidence, it is clear that Chomskyian isolationism simply will not make terrorism go away. A truly effective counterrorism policy must take into account the real motivations and beliefs of Islamic fundamentalists, and find a way to ensure that their beliefs do not spread in the Muslim world.