James M. Arlandson
Although Usama bin Ladin is the terrorist who masterminded the most heinous attack ever on US soil, he may be effectively out of the picture in the planning of future attacks. But we should never forget him. It is important to revisit bin Ladin's ideology, not only because terrorism today still largely conforms to it, but also because of the confusion that still pervades our national dialogue.
At least a few scholars since 9/11 still assert that at the heart of bin Ladin's motives lie the Middle East conflict,* economic exploitation of oil,** or (macho) US foreign policy.*** Those may be small factors or mere fabrications, as we shall see, but none is even close to identifying the root of terrorism. If we cannot identify the root, then we cannot pull it out like a rotten tooth.
In light of this confusion, we examine the specific and major causes-without picking and choosing-that bin Ladin himself advanced in 1998 to justify his attack. Each one, though, can be easily revealed as false, groundless, or so irrational that we must not take any of them seriously, except the root one that confirms his irrationality.
John Miller, then of ABC News, now a consultant on terrorism for Los Angeles, interviewed bin Ladin in May 1998. Also, his own followers interviewed him in his mountain camp in southern Afghanistan at the same time. Here are some excerpts, plus an analysis.
1. The US and Israel plan to annex the Saudi Arabian Peninsula:
Their [the US] presence [in Saudi Arabia] has no meaning save one and that is to offer support to the Jews in Palestine who are in need of their Christian brothers to achieve full control over the Arabian Peninsula which they intend to make an important part of the so-called Greater Israel.
Analysis: It is a fact that In 1982 Israelis gave back the Sinai Peninsula that they won in a war they never started (1967), so why would they conquer and annex the Arabian Peninsula? His pathology towards "the Jews" reveals paranoia, which is at the heart of his perceptions of the world. His delusions mean that his other claims, especially about Israel, cannot be trusted or taken seriously. But we continue with our analysis.
2. The US is the aggressor against Muslims everywhere, and the US and Israel are the aggressors against Muslims in Palestine.
America heads the list of aggressors against Muslims. The resurgence of aggression against Muslims everywhere is proof enough. For over half a century, Muslims in Palestine have been slaughtered and assaulted and robbed of their dignity and of their property . . . [A]ny act on their [the Muslims'] part to avenge themselves or to lift the injustice befalling them causes great agitation in the United Nations . . . .
Bin Ladin goes on to say how the UN persecutes the Palestinians, when they seek only to retaliate and come out from under Israeli oppression.
Analysis: US aggression against Muslims everywhere? He does not get specific here, though throughout other interviews and fatwas (legal decrees), he speaks about The Gulf War, Americans living in Saudi Arabia, starving children in Iraq, and so on. But none of these speaks of real aggression, only perceived aggression. It is a fact that Saddam provoked the Gulf War and let children starve in Iraq as he built many palaces. And as to Saudi Arabia, it is a fact that on April 29 The US decided to pull out its military from the Prince Sultan Air Base (though not at any terrorists' behest). However, this good-faith gesture can never be sufficient in bin Ladin's mental world, for the moment even one infidel steps foot on Islamic sacred land, then apparently that is aggression. "Our religion is under attack," he says with deep paranoia throughout the interview.
As to the UN persecuting the Palestinians when they strike back (or strike first), the UN constantly passes resolutions against Israel, but never against the Palestinians. Bin Ladin does not know the facts about the UN. Clearly, his paranoia overrides facts.
Finally, bin Ladin claims that Palestinians have been "slaughtered" and "robbed" of land. Facts say differently. In 1948 Israel became a legitimate nation where none existed before. Palestine was never an independent nation. Shortly after Israel's birth, five Arab armies embarked on a war against the new-born state (1948-1949). After terrible loss of Jewish life, Israel pushed back the aggressors. Arabs also launched aggressive wars in 1967 and 1973. It never occurs to bin Ladin (and numerous Muslims, even moderates, for that matter) that Muslims can be the aggressors. Their logic runs as follows:
(1) Every act of any Muslims that appears aggressive is really defensive.(2) Those acts of war against Israel appear aggressive.(3) Therefore, those acts of war are really defensive.
Thus, bin Ladin and other terrorists reveal their unassailable beliefs. Can they commit any fault?
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict still goes on, and self-styled mini-dictators like bin Ladin should stay out and let negotiations proceed without attacking US civilians with jets.
3. Mankind robs Saudi Arabia of its wealth and oil and hurts Arab feelings.
They [mankind] rip us of our wealth and our resources and of our oil . . . governments are bent on stealing our wealth and on hurting our feelings.
Analysis: Bin Ladin and others like him are confused over simple business. It is a fact that the US, Europe, Japan and others actually pay for Saudi oil at fair market value. In his other fatwas and declarations, he complains of the wealth of the royal family in Saudi Arabia. So mankind does not actually "steal" or "rip" it, unless he is referring to his own Saudi government's exploitation of its people; in that case his gripe is with that government, not with the US. But as for "mankind," his complaint is as irrational as his others. (And it sounds too much like the far Left in this country.) Apparently, in bin Ladin's world, a free-flowing international economy should not exist for mankind.
Then he mentions "resources" other than oil. Again, he is not specific. We can only hope that Islamic nations will produce other things besides oil and that they export them, besides the product that comes from poppy flowers, which Afghanistan exports, as Gen. Tommy Franks (ret.) noted on the David Letterman show on August 6.
The phrase "Hurting our feelings" goes to the culture of Arab terrorists, which is imbued with the value of shame and honor. Their rationale is not often logically sound or entirely intellectual. If this emotional reason mixes with evil theology (#7 and #8, below), then the two can become deadly.
4. Arab enmity against Jews runs deep.
The enmity between us and the Jews goes far back in time and is deep rooted. There is no question that war between the two of us is inevitable. For this reason, it is not in the interest of Western governments to expose the interests of their people to all kinds of retaliation for almost nothing.
Analysis: Bin Ladin is correct, despite his pathology against "the Jews": the enmity goes far back in time and it goes deep. As noted, Muhammad had 600 or so male Jews of the Qurayzah clan executed for apparently intriguing with the Meccan enemy after the Battle of the Trench in March 627.
It is a sad fact that a French ambassador said that the West should not start conflicts over that "s--y" nation Israel. Revealingly, he did not refer to other nations in the Middle East with such language. Instead, he chose the only liberal and free nation in the entire region. He is playing into the bloody hands of bin Ladin, because he exhorts Western governments not to expose their people to "all kinds of retaliation for almost nothing." The last two words refer to "the Jews" and Israel. It seems, then, that the French ambassador has a lower opinion of Israel than bin Ladin does, because the terrorist never used vulgarity to refer to Israel.
5. Americans must be driven out of all Islamic countries.
I am one of the servants of Allah and I obey his orders. Among those is the order to fight . . . until the Americans are driven out of all the Islamic countries.
Analysis: Bin Ladin does not believe in free trade or the free exchange of cultures. In 1998 was the US in "all" Islamic countries? Clearly, religion dictates his agenda, so no infidel can step foot in any land he deems holy, not even to conduct legitimate business. It is a fact that in today's global economy it is simply unrealistic to avoid stepping on this or that holy land. Free trade brings prosperity, and prosperity brings satisfied citizens, and happy citizens cannot be controlled by the evildoers. We can only hope for more free trade.
6. The US military was perceived as weak, so this cleared the way for further aggression.
[O]ur boys were stunned by the low morale of the American soldier [in Somalia], and they realized that the American soldier was just a paper tiger. He was unable to endure the strikes that were dealt to his army, so he fled . . . .
Analysis: This is one of the most important reasons for the growing acts of terrorism for the last two decades, culminating in 9/11. Terrorists think like schoolyard bullies. If you are weak, they will keep picking on you. Now, though, with strong leadership, the American soldier is not a "paper tiger" (he never was, but support from the previous Administration was lacking). President Bush has said more than once: "War is what they asked for, war is what they got." Terrorists respect language like that, and it is good that the President uses it.
7. Islamic religion, not personal economics, calls bin Ladin and comrades to fight.
Miller said this to bin Ladin: You come from a background of wealth and comfort to end up fighting on the front lines. Many Americans find that unusual.
Bin Ladin's answer, though long, must be read carefully because it goes to the root:
This is difficult to understand, especially for him who does not understand the religion of Islam. In our religion, we believe that Allah has created us for the purpose of worshipping [H]im. He is the one who created us and who has favored us with this religion. Allah has ordered us to make holy wars and to fight to see to it that His word is the highest and the uppermost and that of the unbelievers the lowermost. We believe that this call we have to answer regardless of our financial capabilities. This too answers the claims of the West and secular people in the Arab world. They claim that his blessed awakening and the people reverting [turning back] to Islam are due to economic factors. This is not so. It is rather a grace from Allah, a desire to embrace the religion of Allah . . . .
Analysis: Bin Ladin, in a lucid moment, clarifies two facts that should no longer be debated by intellectuals in the West: First, he will fight until Allah's word is the uppermost, and that of the unbelievers the lowermost. So his deepest motive is theological. Second, he explicitly disavows the Western and secular canard that economic factors trigger terrorism. Economics may be a small factor for a few terrorists (but not for bin Ladin), but as we have already seen, he does not understand free trade and the legitimate purchase of oil from his homeland. If economic exploitation and poverty trigger terrorism, then we should expect to see oppressed people, say, from Rwanda and Bangladesh committing similar violence against the US for the past two decades, culminating in a 9/11. But we do not see this; therefore, economic exploitation and poverty is not the trigger.
8. Islam must dominate the whole world-the root of terrorism.
I am one of the servants of Allah. We do our duty of fighting for the sake of the religion of Allah. It is also our duty to send a call to all people of the world to enjoy this great light and to embrace Islam and experience the happiness in Islam. Our primary mission is nothing but the furthering of this religion.
Analysis: Speaking from his dark hideout, Bin Ladin is so deceived that he thinks terrorism will draw more people to the true religion, which fosters the enjoyment of "great light" and "happiness." In his 1996 Fatwa, he accuses the Saudi royal family of abandoning Shari'ah (Islamic law) and installing civil law. For this betrayal of the true religion, he says, the royal family must be driven out as the Shah was driven out of Iran.
It is a fact, however, that Arabia is one of the most restrictive lands in the Islamic world-women cannot even drive cars-so if society in Arabia is unholy, one shudders to imagine what kind of religion bin Ladin would impose there and on the world. Therefore, temporarily propping up the royal family with oil purchases may be distasteful, but the world could do a lot worse if some other religiously radical regime took over. Bin Ladin proves that. And Al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian terrorist stalking Iraq and beheading innocents, agrees with bin Ladin: Islam must dominate the world.
Bin Ladin believes he is following his Prophet, because in other speeches he cites many verses from the Qur'an and the Hadith (later traditions about Muhammad) about fighting infidels (2:278-279; 5:44; 4:65). Of course, bin Ladin takes things to extremes. However, as noted elsewhere, the moment a Founder of a religion picks up a sword, ambiguities or seeds of conflict are planted in it, and later (mis)interpretations can grow up.
His "primary mission" agrees with his numerous assertions in the interview that the US is a Crusader, which implies the expansion of Christianity. That is the deepest motive for bin Ladin and other terrorists. They are afraid of the regression of Islam in the face of the Christian West's progression. I argue in an earlier article that a logic derived from twisted theology motivates them the most deeply, which goes as follows:
(1) If A, then B. If God endorses Islam, then it should expand endlessly.(2) A obtains (in the terrorists' view). God does indeed endorse Islam.(3) Therefore, B. Therefore, it should be expanding endlessly.
However, here is the denial of their logic, which terrorizes them, so in turn they terrorize the US, which, for them, represents the negation, the not-B.
(4) If A, then B. If God endorses Islam, then it should be expanding endlessly.(5) Not-B. But it is not expanding endlessly (due to the US).(6) Therefore, not-A. Therefore, God does not endorse Islam.
Terrorists are the ones who initiated the belief in (1)-(3), and its denial, (4)-(6), scares them deeply. In their twisted mind, they must stop the crusading US (and its Zionist ally) not only to purge Islamic holy lands (i.e. the Greater Middle East, and all the way to Indonesia, and anywhere else they decree), but also to "further" Islam to the detriment of Christianity.
The Middle East conflict is a factor in bin Ladin's mind, and he may exploit it to recruit young radicals who are equally deceived. However, his irrationality on this topic must be ignored, for Israel has no plans to annex Saudi Arabia. Besides, what is a solution he would like? Abandon Israel and its right to exist? Balanced treatment for Palestinians and Israelis? That assumes the perceived imbalance has been deliberate or motivated by the "Jewish" control over the media (of which bin Ladin often complains, again irrationally). Perhaps if the Palestinians would stop the homicide bombers, acknowledge Jewish Israel's right to exist, drop Arafat, become a true democracy, and improve economic conditions internally (as Israel is prosperous), the perceived imbalance would vanish. Therefore, no Middle East policy should be developed on the basis of the misguided perceptions and "hurt feelings" of bin Ladin and other terrorists.
And scholars today who exploit 9/11 and bin Ladin's irrationality-as if it should be taken seriously in the first place-to further their own political agenda in the Middle East should be discounted. The two should never be linked, which would legitimize bin Ladin.
Economic exploitation, rationally considered, is not a factor, except in the mental world of bin Ladin. He has advanced no sufficient reason to stop buying oil from the Greater Middle East or to promote fair trade once the nations there produce other things in great quantity besides oil. We should neither withdraw from the global economy, nor avoid numerous Usama-proclaimed holy lands. Bin Ladin, not the world, must change.
Therefore, despite all of the chatter, in the mind of bin Ladin and other terrorists, the trigger of terrorism is theological. The observation that terrorism is a (one-way) clash of religions, and therefore of civilizations, is a sound one. That is the root of terrorism.
If we cannot identify this root, then we on the outside of Islam can never look for or encourage the longest-lasting solution to terrorism, reform of Islam from within, and those on the inside will never see the need to reform.
*Waleed El-Ansary, "The Economics of Terrorism: How Bin Ladin Is Changing the Rules of the Game," in Islam, Fundamentalism, and the Betrayal of Tradition, ed. J.E.B. Lumbard, (Bloomington: World Wisdom, 2004), pp. 191-235.
**Omid Safi, "Being Muslim, Being American after 9/11," in Taking Back Islam: American Muslims Reclaim their Faith, ed. Michael Wolfe et al., (Rodale, 2002), pp. 67-75.
***Farid Esack, "The Muslim Vanguard," in ibid., pp. 15-24.
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