Since the attacks of September 11, we have learned important things about al Qaeda and its allies. Their movement is fueled by hatred and deep resentments against the West, America, and the course of history.
In Islam’s first few centuries of existence, it was a dominant and expanding force in the world, sweeping across lands in the modern-day Middle East, North Africa, Spain, and elsewhere. During its Golden Age – which spanned from the eighth to the 13th century – Islam was the philosophical, educational, and scientific center of the world. The Ottoman Empire reached the peak of its power in the 16th century. Islam then began to recede as a political force. In the 17th century, for example, advancing Muslims were defeated at the gates of Vienna, the last time an Islamic army threatened the heart of Europe. And for radicals like bin Laden, a milestone event and historic humiliation came when the Ottoman Empire crumbled at the end of World War I.
This is significant because for many Muslims, the proper order of life in this world is for them to rule and for the “infidels” to be ruled over. The end of the Ottoman Empire was deeply disorienting. Then, in 1923-24 came the establishment of modern, secular Turkey under Kemal Ataturk – and the abolishment of the caliphate.
Osama bin Laden and his militant Sunni followers seek to reverse all that. Bin Laden sees himself as the new caliph; he has referred to himself as the “commander of the faithful.” He is seeking to unify all of Islam–and resume a jihad against the unbelievers.
According to Mary Habeck of the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University: “Jihadis thus neither recognize national boundaries within the Islamic lands nor do they believe that the coming Islamic state, when it is created, should have permanent borders with the unbelievers. The recognition of such boundaries would end the expansion of Islam and stop offensive jihad, both of which are transgressions against the laws of God that command jihad to last until Judgment Day or until the entire earth is under the rule of Islamic law.”
Al Qaeda and its terrorist allies are waging their war on several continents. They have killed innocent people in Europe, Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia, the Far East, and the United States. They will try to overthrow governments and seize power where they can – and where they cannot, they will attempt to inflict fear and destruction by disrupting settled ways of life. They will employ every weapon they can: assassinations, car bombs, airplanes, and, if they can secure them, biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons.
The theocratic and totalitarian ideology that characterizes al Qaeda makes typical negotiations impossible. “Anyone who stands in the way of our struggle is our enemy and target of the swords,” said Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the late leader of al Qaeda in Iraq. Osama bin Laden put it this way: “Death is better than living on this Earth with the unbelievers among us.”
This struggle has an enormous ideological dimension. For example, both Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, the number two leader of al Qaeda and its ideological leader, were deeply influenced by Sayyid Qutb, whose writings (especially his manifesto “Milestones”) gave rise and profoundly shaped the radical Islamist movement. Qutb, an Egyptian who was killed by Egyptian President Gamal Nasser in 1966, had a fierce hatred for America, the West, modernity, and Muslims who did not share his extremist views.
According to the author Lawrence Wright: “Qutb divides the world into two camps, Islam and jahiliyya, the period of ignorance and barbarity that existed before the divine message of the Prophet Mohammed. Qutb uses the term to encompass all of modern life: manners, morals, art, literature, law, even much of what passed as Islamic culture. He was opposed not to modern technology but to the worship of science, which he believed had alienated humanity from natural harmony with creation. Only a complete rejection of rationalism and Western values offered the slim hope of the redemption of Islam. This was the choice: pure, primitive Islam or the doom of mankind.”
Sunni jihadists, then, are committed to establishing a radical Islamic empire that spans from Spain to Indonesia. Ayman al-Zawahiri, for example, has spoken about a “jihad for the liberation of Palestine, all Palestine, as well as every land that was a home for Islam, from Andalusia to Iraq. The whole world is an open field for us.”
Their version of political utopia is Afghanistan under the Taliban, a land of almost unfathomable cruelty. The Taliban sought to control every sphere of human life and crush individuality and human creativity. And Afghanistan became a safe haven and launching pad for terrorists.
The Islamic radicals we are fighting know they are far less wealthy and far less advanced in technology and weaponry than the United States. But they believe they will prevail in this war, as they did against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, by wearing us down and breaking our will. They believe America and the West are “the weak horse”–soft, irresolute, and decadent. “[Americans are] the most cowardly of God’s creatures,” al-Zarqawi once said.