The Al Qaeda Reader
by Raymond Ibrahim
New York: Doubleday, 2007. 352 pp. $15.95, paper.
Reviewed by Rob Eshman
The most important magazine article you’ve never read this year appeared Sep. 21 in The Chronicle Review, a publication of The Chronicle of Higher Education.
It’s about a librarian. Really.
The author, Raymond Ibrahim, describes how it is he came to translate the internal communiques and theological statements of the leaders of al-Qaeda, and what those leaders really say. Here’s a hint: It’s not what Israel’s new batch of best-selling critics say they say.
Ibrahim explains that prior to Sept. 11 he was sitting amid the stacks at California State Fresno, where he was researching his master’s thesis on an obscure seventh century battle between Christiandom and Islam.
After Sept. 11, Ibrahim, a fluent Arab speaker whose parents are Coptic Christians from Egypt, eventually landed a job as a researcher at the Near East Section of the African and Middle East Division of the Library of Congress. There he developed an intense fascination with the many Arabic books, articles and communiques dealing with al-Qaeda. And what Ibrahim noticed was that Osama bin Laden and the other leaders of al-Qaeda say one thing to the West, and another to themselves and their followers.
In their videotapes and communiques to the West, the leaders cite a laundry list of grievances as the reason for their “martydom operations:” United States support for Israel, U.S. military bases in Saudi Arabia, the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq and President George Bush’s refusal to sign the Kyoto Accords on global warming (really).
But Ibrahim discovered, or proved, that these reasons are strictly for Western consumption. They are, in short, lies.
What really motivates al-Qaeda is a narrow religious theology that cannot abide coexistence with non-Muslims. As Ibrahim writes: “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-a-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 Quranic 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 collected these writings and compiled them into a book, “The Al-Qaeda Reader,” which was published by Broadway Books in 2006.
Now, if the Jews really controlled the media — and at times like these, boy I wish they did — a book like Ibrahim’s would get all the attention and rake in all the sales that instead went to Jimmy Carter’s book on Israel or Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer’s “The Israel Lobby.”
In the latter book, the authors repeatedly cite Bin Laden’s own words in blaming Israel and America’s support for Israel for the attack on the Twin Towers. Either because they assume the Muslim mind is not sufficiently complex enough to say one thing and mean another, or because they don’t believe reading first-hand source material is enlightening, or because they are on a tear against the Jewish state, Walt and Mearsheimer never reference Ibrahim’s by-now widely disseminated work.
But here is what Ibrahim told New Yorker writer Lawrence Wright in a C-SPAN interview:
Wright: How important is Israel to the theology of al-Qaeda?Ibrahim: Even if Israel ceased to exist, based solely on theology, the Jews are still enemies. They have to be attacked until they are dhimmis, second-class citizens.
One is temporal, the other transcends time and space. It is a fixed commandment from God…. When al-Qaeda states it has a grievance because of Israel, and a lot of Muslims and non-Muslims would agree with that, does that mean that once Israel disappears, that that’s going to bring peace between a group like al-Qaeda radicals and the West? [Bin Laden] would imply yes, but these writings show otherwise.
Ibrahim’s book received positive reviews from two unusual sources — the left and the right. He has been a fixture on Fox News, where the idea of duplicitous evil Muslims is as welcome as a cup of joe on a foggy morning. But the book has also been lauded by Reza Aslan and by Wright, who references Ibrahim in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book on Sept. 11, “The Looming Towers.”
Opposing sides can disagree over our response to al-Qaeda’s attacks, over our approach to the numerous terrorist groups and governments out there — al-Qaeda is not the only or even central address — but it is hard to refute the evidence of Ibrahim’s translation.
All this doesn’t mean Israel and the West shouldn’t take note of and act on legitimate grievances in the Muslim world. There is no good reason to add to the pool of angry or disenfranchised Muslims willing to fall for bin Laden’s hellfire and brimstone.
But Ibrahim’s solid research should serve as a corrective to those demagogues who would have the world believe that terrorism begins and ends with Israel.