Are Osama bin Laden and other "salafi" Muslims being true to Islam's tenets or are they simply "freedom fighters" articulating their grievances against Western imperialism through an Islamic paradigm? The debate in the Islamic world over this question has profound consequences for the war on terror. That same debate is underway in the English speaking world.
In English, best-selling author and ex-CIA analyst, Michael Scheuer compares the words of Osama bin Laden to Thomas Jefferson's Declaration of Independence, as Jefferson spoke about the tyranny of Britain's King George III.
There are indeed a few parallels, but Scheuer uses a false analogy. The fundamental problem with Scheuer's line of reasoning is that the "words" of Osama are backed by Islamic doctrine, and indeed are often verbatim quotations from Islam's most authoritative sources, namely the Koran, hadith (sayings of Muhammad), and the verdicts of Islam's premiere jurists and theologians. On the other hand, the words of Jefferson are the words of temporal man and representative of nothing more than a philosophical, that is, subjective, position.
In many ways, Scheuer is the paradigmatic case of an otherwise knowledgeable and experienced Western adult who simply refuses to take al-Qaeda at its word. According to his book, Imperial Hubris, his credentials and thus authority to speak about al-Qaeda and its goals are impressive: "For the past seventeen years, my career has focused exclusively on terrorism, Islamic insurgencies, militant Islam... I have earned my keep and am able to speak with some authority and confidence about Osama bin Laden, al-Qaeda, [and] the dangers they pose and symbolize for the Unites States..."
The remainder of his book makes several fine points, articulating well -- arguably even better than bin Laden -- the grievances that al-Qaeda and the Muslim world have vis-à-vis specific US policies. However, the book's fundamental thesis is bin Laden's own: al-Qaeda's terrorism is simply a reaction to US foreign policy. Writes Sheuer:
"Bin Laden has been precise in telling America the reasons he is waging war on us. None of the reasons have anything to do with our freedom, liberty, and democracy, but everything to do with US policies and actions in the Muslim world" [emphasis added].
He then proceeds to quote and accept, rather naively, several of bin Laden's messages to the West, such as: "Therefore, I am telling you [Americans], with Allah as my witness, whether America escalates or de-escalates the conflict, we will reply to it in kind..." Bin Laden, of course, often begins every message directed at the West by saying "reciprocal treatment is part of justice"-i.e., "leave us alone, we leave you alone."
Scheuer takes it one step further by concluding that al-Qaeda's war revolves around "love": "Bin Laden and most militant Islamists, therefore, can be said to be motivated by their love for Allah and their hatred for a few, specific, US policies and actions they believe are damaging-and threatening to destroy-the things they love. Theirs is a war against a specific target, and for specific, limited purposes. While they will use whatever weapon comes to hand-including weapons of mass destruction-their goal is not to wipe out our secular democracy, but to deter us by military means from attacking the things they love. Bin Laden et al are not eternal warriors.
Thereafter, bin Laden is likened to heroes like Robin Hood or (of all people) Saint Francis of Assisi-a friar known for his benevolence towards animals. Surprisingly, Scheuer overlooks the theological underpinnings-offensive jihad, enforcement of "dhimmitude," and enmity for non-Muslims-that dominate al-Qaeda's worldview and which are delineated over and over in The Al Qaeda Reader. These innate to al-Qaeda's worldview hostile doctrines clearly demonstrate that, contrary to Scheuer's assessment, al-Qaeda and their kind do-indeed must-hate the US for more than a "few, specific policies," and that their war transcends "specific, limited purposes," and thus that they are "eternal warriors."
Here is bin Laden himself explaining the "true" nature of the relationship between Muslims and non-Muslims, such as Americans, AKA, "infidels":
"As to the relationship between Muslims and infidels, this is summarized by the Most High's Word: ‘We renounce you. Enmity and hate shall forever reign between us - till you believe in Allah alone' [Koran 60:4]. So there is an enmity, evidenced by fierce hostility from the heart. And this fierce hostility - that is, battle - ceases only if the infidel submits to the authority of Islam, or if his blood is forbidden from being shed [i.e., a dhimmi], or if Muslims are at that point in time weak and incapable [in which case, bin Laden later clarifies, they should dissemble (taqiyya) before the infidels by, say, insisting the conflict is about "foreign policy," nothing more]. But if the hate at any time extinguishes from the heart, this is great apostasy! ... Such, then, is the basis and foundation of the relationship between the infidel and the Muslim. Battle, animosity, and hatred - directed from the Muslim to the infidel - is the foundation of our religion."
Note that, contrary to Scheuer's assurances, at no time does bin Laden indicate that US foreign policy is behind such animus; it is entirely a theological argument-transcending time, space, and circumstance. In his attack against "moderate" Muslims, bin Laden rhetorically asks and answers the pivotal question:
"Does Islam, or does it not, force people by the power of the sword to submit to its authority corporeally if not spiritually? Yes. There are only three choices in Islam: either willing submission; or payment of the jizya [tribute], through physical though not spiritual submission to the authority of Islam; or the sword - for it is not right to let him [an infidel] live."
How do these quotes accord with Scheuer's statement that "None of the reasons [for al-Qaeda's antipathy] have anything to do with our freedom, liberty, and democracy"?
Nor is this worldview "peculiar" to bin Laden. Here's his Second, Ayman Zawahiri:
"Jihad in the path of Allah is greater than any individual or organization. It is a struggle between Truth and Falsehood, until Allah Almighty inherits the earth and those who live in it. Mullah Muhammad Omar and Sheikh Osama bin Laden-may Allah protect them from all evil-are merely two soldiers of Islam in the journey of Jihad, while the struggle between Truth and Falsehood transcends time."
That al-Qaeda's messages to the West are being understood uncritically and taken at face value by the public is one thing; that a former CIA veteran whose expertise revolves around Islam buys into this calculated sophistry is quite another. Since, as Muhammad said, "war is deceit," Sheuer and other analysts of like mind would do well to counterbalance the world-view al-Qaeda presents to fellow Muslims with that which they have tailor-made to accord with the West's preconceived notions of "justice," "equality," and "guilt." They should consider that perhaps-just perhaps, now-when al-Qaeda sends a communiqué to the West, it is not necessarily sincere but meant solely to elicit a particular response; such as, that al-Qaeda's war is predicated on a "few, specific, US policies and actions," thereby demoralizing Americans from, for instance, supporting "the war on terror" which directly affects al-Qaeda.
Yet Scheuer's one-dimensional analysis is ultimately representative of the pervasiveness of al-Qaeda's propaganda among Western analysts -- such as in the recent, and comical, "words matter" debate. And if such analyses are prevalent in the CIA and other agencies, one will inevitably look in vain for anything more substantive from academia, where both intellectual restraints in the form of political correctness and an entrenched leftist, materialistic-"poverty causes violence"-worldview dominate.
Here's Osama, one more time, relying on an anecdote from Muslim history indicating what all non-Muslims can expect-even after they make concessions to Islam:
"When the king of the Copts of Egypt tried improving relations with the Prophet by dignifying his messenger and sending him back on a beast of burden laden with clothing, and a slave-girl, did such niceties prevent the Companions from raiding the Coptic realms, forcefully placing them under Islamic rule?"
The answer is no. As both Islamic theology commands and history attests, "concessions" or "niceties" are never enough: submission to Islam is the price for peace. Mr. Sheuer can be certain, then, that no matter how many political concessions the U.S. makes to the Islamic world, so-called "Salafists" like bin Laden -- that is, Muslims who follow the letter of the law (sharia)-will continue the jihad "till all chaos ceases and religion is all for Allah" (Koran 8:38). Instead of thinking of them as Robin Hoods, Francis of Assisis, or Thomas Jeffersons, or simply idealistic, wayward children, it's best to start seeing them as they see themselves: mujahidin -- warriors of Allah out to make Islam supreme, as they have been for some 1400 years.