The Al Qaeda Reader
by Raymond Ibrahim
New York: Doubleday, 2007. 352 pp. $15.95, paper.
Reviewed by Tristan Abbey
The Stanford Review
“Stop hurting us and we’ll stop hurting you.” That is the message Americans get from al Qaeda. In his fascinating new book, historian Raymond Ibrahim explains that the jihadists say one thing to CNN, and quite another to fellow Muslims.
I had the opportunity to interview Ibrahim last summer at the Library of Congress, where he is a researcher in the Near East section of the African and Middle Eastern division. Ibrahim summarized Osama’s message to Muslims: “Irrespective of what the West does and does not do, they are always the enemy for no other reason than that they won’t accept Islam.”
On what does Ibrahim base this conclusion? It turns out that while he was working his day job in the library—”perusing just for fun”—he discovered several previously un-translated documents written by Bin Laden and his associate, Ayman al-Zawahiri. These extremists argue that the world is divided into two camps: the Abode of Islam, where sharia law is enforced, and the Abode of War, everywhere else. They also argue that Muslims are permitted the follow the doctrine of taqiyya, to lie in order to live among non-believers, for whom they must have unyielding “enmity” and against whom jihad must be waged.
“These are not things he just came up with,” Ibrahim told me. “This is the classical definition of Islam’s worldview.”
So even if we were nice, al Qaeda would still hate us? “Damned if you do, damned if you don’t,” he explained.
The book features an introduction by Hoover Institution military historian Victor Davis Hanson. According to Hanson, Ibrahim’s book is “a wake-up call to an often naïve and therapeutic West that believes enemies are to be understood rather than defeated, and their threats explained away as empty rhetoric rather than braced for as the bitter truth.”
The Al Qaeda Reader is divided into two parts. The second section contains a plethora of these speeches—to the Iraqis, to the Americans, to the Europeans; grievances; historical analogies; and so forth.
The first contains the religious treatises. Hanson describes these documents as “more instructive and disturbing” than the propaganda we are more accustomed to hearing Bin Laden and his ilk spew.
In addition to the doctrines outlined above, these documents explain how al Qaeda really is opposed to democracy, how Muslims must be loyal to each other, and how defensive and offensive jihad factor in. Entreaties of peace notwithstanding, these treatises reveal that any treaty with the extremists would be a mere ceasefire until the jihad recommenced. They also explain with surprisingly sophisticated argumentation why suicide bombing is justifiable.
Ibrahim annotates each document, with careful attention paid to the treatises. He does a superb job of explaining archaic concepts and unfamiliar allusions, and his footnotes and glossaries alone are an invaluable resource.
In the preface, Ibrahim—himself a former student of Hanson—states that he wrote the book “for Americans to know and comprehend their enemy, an essential prerequisite throughout history for victory.” All Americans should know the enemy, and so all Americans should read this book.