The Terrorists' Zealotry  is Political Not Religious

Sunday, September 30, 2001 - 12:00

This commentary ran in the Washington Post on Sunday, September 30, 2001.

The men who perpetrated the carnage on Sept. 11 left a trail of clues about how they accomplished their mission, but virtually nothing about why. They left behind no suicide notes explaining what motivated them to kill thousands and die in the process, only the vaguest exhortations to be steadfast in the quest of paradise. But if they were indeed inspired by Osama bin Laden and his supporters, as the Bush administration promises to demonstrate, then they probably died for no more than an idea, the idea of jihad.

This term invokes for many in the West the notion of a holy war conducted by zealots in the name of their God with the aim of imposing their beliefs on recalcitrant unbelievers. Since Sept. 11, we have heard this idea repeated by public officials. In his address to Congress, President Bush described the goal of al Qaeda as "remaking the world and imposing its radical beliefs on people everywhere."

Yet it would be a mistake to view the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center as the latest phase of an Islamic holy war to convert or subjugate unbelievers. Based on the most illuminating of the few available statements of its mission, al Qaeda's goals appear to be far more mundane than religious, more political than theological. What's more, the organization's tactics bore all the characteristics of a guerrilla attack, in which the infiltrators blended into the society they were attempting to terrorize, including, we are told, some of them spending one of their last nights drinking in a bar -- hardly what could be expected of holy warriors.

The stated grievances of the bin Laden network fit a pattern familiar to students of Islamic activism over the past two centuries. In a fatwa released in February 1998 (and echoed last week by the Taliban), bin Laden and leaders of extremist groups in Egypt, Pakistan and Bangladesh specified that their war was a defensive struggle against Americans and their allies who had declared war "on God, his messenger, and Muslims." The "crimes and sins" perpetrated by the United States were threefold. First, it had "stormed" the Arabian peninsula during the Gulf War and continued "occupying the lands of Islam in the holiest of places" (i.e., Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia); second, it continued a war of annihilation against Iraq; and third, it supported the state of Israel and its continued occupation of Jerusalem.

The only appropriate Muslim response, according to the statement, was a defensive jihad to repulse the aggressor. According to virtually all classical and modern scholars, such a war -- unlike the expansionist jihad -- is a moral obligation incumbent upon all true Muslims.

This list of grievances is certainly not unique to bin Laden's group. The general complaint that the West is attacking Muslim countries has been heard repeatedly before, as has the goal of fighting the aggressors to compel their "armies to move out of all the lands of Islam, defeated and unable to threaten any Muslim." The notion of jihad involved here is not the one formed during the period of Arab expansion in the 7th century or the Ottoman Turkish expansion of the 15th and 16th centuries, but the one formed over the past two centuries as Muslims struggled to respond to the expansion of the West. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the aggressor nations would have been the British, the French, the Russians. Since the end of World War II, the United States has increasingly occupied this position, and all the more so after it became the guardian of the Persian Gulf during the late 1980s and '90s.

The fact that American support of Israel comes third on the list should not diminish its importance, as defenders of Israel have assiduously claimed in the past two weeks. The widespread perceptions that the United States provides carte blanche support to Israel even as the Jewish state occupies Jerusalem and large tracts of the West Bank and Gaza, that American-made weapons are used to kill Palestinians opposing the occupation -- all while the sanctions against Iraq remain in place 10 years after the Gulf War -- spark the rawest emotional responses. These complaints require no elaboration in the fatwa; they are immediately understood by the statement's intended Muslim audience.

If we accept the fatwa as articulating the ideas that drive bin Laden and his supporters, then there is nothing at all remarkable about his group. They selectively quote from the Koran to establish the basis for their jihad, but their motivations appear to spring primarily from the same sort of anti-imperialism that motivates religious and non-religious groups in the Middle East and other parts of the world. They may view themselves as the vanguard of an ideological movement that will ultimately overturn the societies of the rich and powerful West, but their words and actions indicate they are astute enough to realize this is a remote possibility.

Although they sometimes appear to be fired by the religious zeal of the puritanical Wahhabi movements that twice swept Arabia, their targets to date have not been offending religious or cultural institutions, but political, military and economic targets: American embassies in Africa, military barracks in Saudi Arabia, the USS Cole, the Pentagon and the World Trade Center. Moreover, the long-term planning and coordination required for the Sept. 11 attacks demonstrate that al Qaeda is a far cry from Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the Palestinian territories. Whereas the Palestinian suicide bombers are recruited from mosques or the street just days or hours before they die, the attacks in the United States required several years of advance planning.

Most people, including many Arabs and Muslims, probably consider bin Laden's avowed goal of driving the United States out of the Middle East to be impractical and even imprudent. Still, many people of good faith, Muslims and non-Muslims, Americans and non-Americans, may share the general concerns with U.S. policies in the region that al Qaeda has outlined as the basis for its jihad.

It is when we cross from motivations to methods that people of good faith -- and especially Muslims -- must unequivocally part company with the extremists. We cannot allow them to say, in pursuing their idea, that everything is permissible. The thrust of the entire jihad tradition to which they appeal makes it clear that everything is not permissible.

No principle is more clearly outlined in the Koran than this, that even in the midst of battle -- a realm of human activity where moral constraints are often loosened -- constraints must be maintained. In one of the first verses outlining a military aspect to jihad, the injunction is clear: "Fight in the cause of God those who fight you, but do not transgress limits, for God loves not the transgressor" (2:190). Commenting on this verse, the prominent Syrian scholar Wahba Zuhayli writes: "Do not fight anyone unless they fight you. Fighting is thus justified if you fight the enemy and the enemy fights you. It is not justified against anyone who does not fight the Muslims, and it is necessary [in this event] to make peace." Zuhayli clearly rules out the possibility of collective responsibility -- that all citizens belonging to a perceived foe are somehow responsible.

The presumption of Islamic teachings on right conduct in war is that individuals are innocent and therefore not subject to harm unless they demonstrate by their actions that they are a threat to the safety of Muslims. On this basis, the overwhelming majority of Muslim scholars have for centuries rejected indiscriminate killing and the terrorizing of civilian populations as a legitimate form of jihad.

Osama bin Laden and his supporters give a brutally simple response to the weight of the jihad tradition: "We do not differentiate between those dressed in military uniforms and civilians," he has said. Because "U.S. aggression is affecting Muslim civilians, not just the military," all Americans "are targets in this fatwa."

In the name of retaliation, they claim, there are no innocents.

This logic must also be rejected. It leads us into the infernal and morally vacuous exercise of assigning blame -- a process of tit-for-tat that leads, ad infinitum, into the past and holds the potential for disastrous consequences in the future if the spiral is unbroken.