Strange answers lie in al-Qaida’s writings.
Aug. 6, 2007
By Reza Aslan
Why do they hate us?
Americans have been asking this question for nearly six years now, and for six years President Bush and his accomplices have been offering the same tired response: “They hate us for our freedoms.” With every passing year, that answer becomes less convincing.
Part of the problem has to do with the question itself. Who exactly are they? Are we referring to al-Qaida and its cohorts? Are we talking about Iran, Syria, and the other nation-states whose interests in the Middle East do not properly align with America’s? Or perhaps we mean Hamas, Hezbollah, or the myriad religious nationalist organizations across the Muslim world that share neither the ideology nor the aspirations of global, transnational groups like al-Qaida, but that have nevertheless been dumped into the same category: them.
But what is most surprising about this question is how little interest anyone seems to have taken in examining the answers that are already on offer in multiple languages, through various media outlets, and on the Internet, from the very they who allegedly hate us so much. A spate of books has appeared over the last year, gathering the words of America’s enemies. The first and best of these is Messages to the World, a collection of Osama Bin Laden’s declarations translated by Duke University professor Bruce Lawrence, in which Bin Laden himself dismisses Bush’s accusation that he hates America’s freedoms. “Perhaps he can tell us why we did not attack Sweden, for example?”
Now comes a second, more complete collection, The Al Qaeda Reader, edited and translated by Raymond Ibrahim, a research librarian at the Library of Congress. Unlike Lawrence, Ibrahim includes writings from both Bin Laden and his right-hand man, Ayman Al-Zawahiri. And while both volumes provide readers with a startling series of religious and political tracts that, when taken together, chart the evolution of a disturbing (if intellectually murky) justification for religious violence, Ibrahim’s collection is marred by his insistence that his book be viewed as al-Qaida’s Mein Kampf.
The comparison between the scattered declarations of a cult leader literally dwelling in a cave and the political treatise of the commander in chief of one of the 20th century’s most powerful nations may be imprecise, to say the least. But Ibrahim’s point is that we can learn about al-Qaida’s intentions by reading their words, that a book like this can help Americans better understand the nature of the anger directed toward them.
In the most general sense, this is certainly true. But whether a hodgepodge of interviews, declarations, and exegetical arguments can be read as a sort of jihadist manifesto is debatable. While these writings provide readers with page after page of, for example, arcane legal debates over the moral permissibility of suicide bombing, they do not really get to the heart of what it is that al-Qaida wants, if it wants anything at all. Al-Qaida’s nominal aspirations—the creation of a worldwide caliphate, the destruction of Israel, the banishing of foreigners from Islamic lands—are hardly mentioned in the book. It seems the president of the United States talks more about al-Qaida’s goals than al-Qaida itself does. Rarely, if ever, do Bin Laden and Zawahiri discuss any specific social or political policy.
What al-Qaida does lay out, however, are grievances—many, many grievances. There is the usual litany of complaints about the suffering of Palestinians, the tyranny of Arab regimes, and the American occupation of Iraq. But again, legitimate as these complaints may be, there is in these writings an almost total lack of interest in providing any specific solution or policy to address them. Indeed, al-Qaida’s many grievances against the West are so heterogeneous, so mind-bogglingly unfocused, that they must be recognized less as grievances per se, than as popular causes to rally around. There are protests about the United Nations’ rejection of Zimbabwe’s elections, the Bush administration’s unwillingness to sign up to the International Criminal Court, and America’s role in global warming. (To quote Bin Laden: “You have destroyed nature with your industrial waste and gases, more than any other country. Despite this, you refuse to sign the Kyoto agreement so that you can secure the profit of your greedy companies and industries.”) Zawahiri’s many complaints include the mistreatment of prisoners at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, which he calls “a historical embarrassment to America and its values,” as well as the United Kingdom’s anti-terrorism laws, which “contradict the most basic principles of fair trial.” There is even a screed against America’s campaign-finance laws, which, according to Bin Laden, currently favor “the rich and wealthy, who hold sway in their political parties, and fund their election campaigns with their gifts.”
Most Americans would agree with many of these complaints. And that’s precisely the point. These are not real grievances for al-Qaida (it does not bear mentioning that Bin Laden is probably not very concerned with campaign finance reform). They are a means of weaving local and global resentments into a single anti-American narrative, the overarching aim of which is to form a collective identity across borders and nationalities, and to convince the world that it is locked in a cosmic contest between the forces of Truth and Falsehood, Belief and Unbelief, Good and Evil, Us and Them.
In this regard, al-Qaida has been spectacularly successful, thanks in no small part to the assistance of the divisive “Clash of Civilizations” mentality of our own politicians. In fact, far from debunking al-Qaida’s twisted vision of a world divided in two, the Bush administration has legitimized it through its own morally reductive “us vs. them” rhetoric.
In the end, this is the most important lesson to be learned from these writings. Because, if we are truly locked in an ideological war, as the president keeps reminding us, then our greatest weapons are our words. And thus far, instead of fighting this war on our terms, we have been fighting it on al-Qaida’s.
Don’t believe me? Ask Bin Laden:
Bush left no room for doubts or media opinion. He stated clearly that this war is a Crusader war. He said this in front of the whole world so as to emphasize this fact. … When Bush says that, they try to cover up for him, then he said he didn’t mean it. He said, ‘crusade.’ Bush divided the world into two: ‘either with us or with terrorism’ … The odd thing about this is that he has taken the words right out of our mouths.
which is exactly what i’ve been saying, myself, since 2001.