Fathoming the Atrocities
On that cloudless Tuesday morning in September, downtown Manhattan was engulfed by an eerie fog, a fog of dust and ashes. From the top floors of the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers, plumes of smoke billowed, and inside an inferno raged. The courtyard at the foot of the towers was strewn with aircraft debris, shattered glass, corpses. These were the bodies of “suicides” who had sought escape from the intense flames, fed by hundreds of gallons of airplane fuel, that were ripping through the towers. Hundreds of other desperate souls, hurrying down fire-escapes, were pulverized under tons of buckling girders and cement.
The massacre of September 11, 2001, claimed nearly 3,000 lives.
But it was calculated to kill many more. Of the other hijacked airplanes, one rammed into the Pentagon; the intended target of the fourth plane was the U.S. Capitol. By seeking to destroy the headquarters of the Department of Defense, the nation’s legislature, the global hub of financial markets—by striking at organs crucial to the security and prosperity of America—the attacks were an assault on everything that depended on those organs. The attacks were intended to devastate the entire country.
The hostility unleashed against America on that day has extended also to our allies. On March 11, 2004, bombs on commuter trains in Madrid transformed the vibrant bustle of rush hour into a scene of unspeakable carnage. Human limbs and random chunks of flesh lay on the ground, amid pools of blood. Nearly 200 individuals perished, but, as with the attacks thirty months earlier in New York, the killers had hoped for a higher death toll. Police found and safely detonated three further explosive devices. Then London, in the summer of 2005, was hit by suicide bombings on three Tube trains and a No. 30 bus in the center of town. On one of the trains, the explosion left remains so mutilated and burned that they were scarcely recognizable as ever having been human. Fifty victims died, and 700 were injured; some had massive burns, some had limbs blown off. (Three weeks later another team of bombers attempted to strike the Tube system again, albeit unsuccessfully.)
The hostility of the killers is fierce. They diligently toil for our destruction. To them, human life is cheap—not merely the lives of their victims, but also their own. Unlike soldiers risking death in hopes of living to see their nation’s army triumph, the attackers who strap on dynamite vests, who drive trucks laden with explosives into buildings, who deliberately crash airplanes into skyscrapers, do so certain of their own annihilation. They have no hope of surviving to see the success of whatever goal they are working to achieve. This perverse willingness to kill themselves in order to kill Americans makes the atrocities all the more bewildering.
Who are these killers? What drives their gleeful slaughter of human beings? What motivates their rabid hostility to America?
Explanations that have surfaced since 9/11 can be divided into two basic types. One exculpates the killers and blames America. The other exculpates America and blames the evil kingpins who put them up to it.
The first type, confined mainly to college lecture halls and certain intellectual circles, asks us to believe that the killers were incensed at U.S. policy in the Middle East. On this view, the massacres are supposedly retaliation against what the killers regard as American hostility and “imperialism.” Some of the killers denounce America for propping up dictators and tyrannical regimes in the Middle East. Westerners who disseminate this notion paint the killers as rebels against American hegemony. The idea is that the killers are frustrated and desperate to break the U.S.-endorsed chains that oppress them; terrorism somehow expresses their fury.
The killers do seek to overthrow certain regimes in the Arab-Islamic world, and they do want to transform their culture; but they are avowedly hostile to political freedom. Instead, they want to institute a form of religious servitude. The killers do regard themselves as avenging supposed injustices, but their implied or stated moral criterion derives from Islam. The killers are incensed that infidel American troops are on the holy land of Islam. They oppose America’s support for its ally, the infidel state of Israel, which has usurped lands they believe should belong to Islam.
The killers believe that the West, led by America, is somehow leading a war on their religion. In a videotaped statement, the leader of the London bombings attested that “Our drive and motivation doesn’t come from tangible commodities this world has to offer. Our religion is Islam, obedience to the one true God Allah and following the footsteps of the final prophet messenger. This is how our ethical stances are dictated.” His stated rationale for the attack was “protecting and avenging my Muslim brothers and sisters.”1
Millions of people around the world despise U.S. policies, but they do not become mass murderers of Americans (and Westerners). Nineteen Muslims did on September 11—as did the London and Madrid bombers, and countless others. The hijackers deliberately chose a manner that assured their own “martyrdom.” The ringleader of the attacks wrote a detailed note instructing his warriors on how to prepare themselves: “Remember that this is a battle for the sake of God. As the prophet, peace be upon him, said, ‘An action for the sake of God is better than all of what is in this world’. . . . Either end your life while praying, seconds before the target, or make your last words: ‘There is no God but God, Muhammad is His messenger.’”2
The explanations that blame America ignore what the killers themselves profess as their motive, and leave unexplained why Islam should be ignored as an irrelevant factor in understanding the terrorists’ actions.
The second type of explanation, which regards America as an innocent victim, is accepted far more widely. But this type is as dangerous as it is mystifying. Mystifying, because it tells us what the killers’ real motivation is not. Dangerous, because without understanding the enemy’s motive and character, without positively identifying the enemy, one cannot properly thwart it. The salient feature of such explanations is a massive evasion.
Despite Osama Bin Laden’s praise of 9/11 as a righteous act in the path of God; despite the declaration by Ayman al-Zawahiri that the jihad against the West aims to “restore [the Muslim nation’s] fallen caliphate and regain its lost glory”; despite the declaration by Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman, mastermind of the 1993 bombing of the World Trade center, that Muslims “must terrorize the enemies of Islam and frighten them and disturb them and shake the earth under their feet”; despite the unrepentant bloodlust of Zacarias Moussaoui, charged with complicity in 9/11, who told prosecutors of his desire to “inflict pain on your country,” and of his willingness to kill Americans “any time, anywhere” in the name of Allah—despite all this and more, we are told that their motivation is decidedly not the religion of Islam. The religion of Islam, supposedly, could not sanction such wanton brutality.3
This notion emerged surprisingly fast. Long before the torrent of editorials and scholarly books exculpating Islam, while the ruins of the World Trade Center were still blazing, President Bush invited a Muslim cleric to speak at the National Day of Prayer and Remembrance. A couple of months later, he invited fifty Muslim ambassadors to the White House to break the fast of Ramadan. His purpose, evidently, was to underscore his belief that “the terrorists have no home in any faith.”4 Bush continues to insist ardently that “The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam. That’s not what Islam is all about. Islam is peace. These terrorists don’t represent peace. They represent evil and war.”5
What, then, does motivate the terrorists?
Whatever it’s called [Bush stated], this ideology is very different from the religion of Islam. This form of radicalism exploits Islam to serve a violent political vision: the establishment, by terrorism and subversion and insurgency, of a totalitarian empire that denies all political and religious freedom. These extremists distort the idea of jihad into a call for terrorist murder against Christians and Jews and Hindus and also against Muslims from other traditions that they regard as heretics.6
Many scholars have labored, in print and on television, to distance Islam from terrorism. Bernard Lewis, an eminent historian and an advisor to the Bush administration, has argued that terrorist groups like Al Qaeda “sanctify their action through pious references to Islamic texts, notably the Qur’an and the traditions of the Prophet.” But they are “highly selective in their choice and interpretation of sacred texts,” discarding “the time-honored methods developed by jurists and theologians for testing the accuracy and authenticity of orally transmitted traditions, and instead accept or reject even sacred texts according to whether they support or contradict their own dogmatic and militant positions.”7 On this view, Bin Laden and his ilk defy Islam’s teachings and quote scripture to serve their own nefarious ends.
But within all of the major religions of the world there are disputes about interpretation, and those internal disputes do not alter how one objectively classifies the motives of the disputants. Devout Catholics and equally committed Protestants have disagreed violently on the meaning of Christianity. Catholics have denounced Protestants for deviating from long-honored methods of interpreting the true word of God; Protestants have denounced Catholics for perverting the teachings of Christ. They have reviled each other as heretics, and have fought each other in horrific wars. But to the rational observer, both sides fought for their belief in Christianity, even as they accused one another of heresy or apostasy. There are no rational grounds to anoint either side as truer to the faith. Why, then, should the case be different within Islam?
There are still other attempts to dismiss Islam as an incidental. One commentator claims that 9/11, and the wider quest to restore the caliphate, are expressions of a “fantasy ideology” in which
political and ideological symbols and tropes are used not for political purposes, but entirely for the benefit of furthering a specific personal or collective fantasy. It is, to be frank, something like ‘Dungeons and Dragons’ carried out not with the trappings of medieval romances—old castles and maidens in distress—but entirely in terms of ideological symbols and emblems.
From Islam, such groups take symbols and vocabulary that permit them to “indulge in a kind of fantasy role-playing,” which is “akin to a form of magical thinking.”8
But this account offers no objective reason to discount the stated beliefs of the terrorists. All manner of ideologies demand essentially this kind of outlook: to believe that the dictatorship of the proletariat will be followed by a withering of the state, or to believe in the Holy Trinity, is to engage in “a form of magical thinking.” What differentiates action flowing from belief in a “fantasy ideology” costumed in Islamic symbols, from action flowing from belief in Islam?
The prevalent explanations do not bring us closer to understanding what impels terrorists to engage in colossal acts of destruction. By serpentine paths, these explanations lead to a dead-end. None provides us with the crucial knowledge we need to safeguard ourselves from the unabated threat to our lives.
What can we learn if, instead of ignoring or evading Islam’s role, we explore it?
Faith and Force
The killers proclaim themselves “holy warriors.” The mission of their war is to create a global Islamic regime enveloping the totality of human life and society. These totalitarians see themselves as consistent practitioners of Islam. They believe that their brutal acts are justified by Islam; that mass murders are a necessary means to the end of establishing an Islamic regime. Could the motivation of the terrorists really be Islam?
It certainly is.
There is a logical, intelligible connection between their brutality and their faith in Islam. We can understand how the killers are led naturally to embrace the ideal of a totalitarian regime and the murderous means to that end: The killers accept Islam fully, without compromise, and on principle. By considering central tenets of Islam—taking those tenets at face value and as the vast majority of Muslims understand and practice them—we can see why their commitment to faith in Islam leads them to force.
Let us begin with the religion’s five supreme values, the Five Pillars of Islam, and what is required to demonstrate a full commitment to them. The sum of the pillars is to effect and demonstrate the believer’s complete submission to authority. The first pillar requires a Muslim (“one who surrenders”) to acknowledge and express his belief in Allah, accept Him as the one and only God and Mohammad as his messenger. This profession of absolute commitment is reaffirmed throughout the day, whenever a Muslim is called to prayer, which is the second pillar. Five times a day, every day, believers must drop whatever they are doing, face the direction of the holy city of Mecca in a mosque (“place of prostration”), at home, or elsewhere, and then pray—on their knees, bowing their heads to the floor. This evinces the believer’s obedience and subservience to Allah.
The third pillar imposes on the believer the duty to make payments of zakat, a kind of tithe that goes to support the community, specifically orphans, widows, the poor; it also goes to support the spread of Islam. But this is not charity, because the giving is not optional; the money is regarded as a due owed to the poor and the suffering. The giver is not the rightful owner of the wealth, but merely the trustee of what Allah has deigned to provide from His bounty.
The annual fast of Ramadan is the fourth pillar. For an entire month, from dawn to dusk, believers must deprive themselves of the pleasures of food and drink and sexual intercourse. The final pillar is the duty to make a pilgrimage to Mecca, incumbent on males. At least once in his lifetime, the Muslim must set aside his work and any other responsibilities and invest time and money to make his way to Islam’s holy city.9
The believer is duty bound to bow continually before Allah; he is duty bound to cross oceans and continents in pilgrimage to prove his unwavering submission; he is duty bound to sacrifice fruits of his labor for the sake of Muslims who suffer in his community; he is duty bound to efface his desires—for food, drink, and the pleasure of sex—in a show of devotion; he is duty bound to proclaim, by his words and deeds, that he subordinates himself to his supernatural master.
There are perforce no rational grounds on which anyone would accept such a doctrine. The belief that man must obey Allah rests only on faith—an emotionally induced belief in the absence of and in defiance of facts and evidence. The believer is commanded to will his mind to believe—based not on what he himself can see or hear, not on what he himself can infer logically from the evidence of his perception, but in defiance of his senses and independent judgment. To believe, he must renounce his rational faculty and accept blindly the mystical revelations of Mohammad; he commits, on principle, to put the dictates of an authority—the Koran, the local cleric—above his own grasp of facts.
The believer’s surrender must be complete. The moral principle of Islam (as of Christianity) demands the sacrifice not only of mind, but also of self. A Muslim’s wealth, his own pleasures, his goals—none of these are important. The only will that matters belongs to God. Thus a believer is forbidden from “hoarding” goods or services that are in demand, and from lending money out on interest. Were he to charge interest, he would benefit by increasing his wealth, gaining the means to better serve his health and comfort. And were he to “hoard” water or rice, he would gain the means to survive a famine (“hoarding” carries an additional complication, since it might also betray his doubt in the unfailing providence of Allah to take care of His people). His duty is to plough the money back into the Muslim community without gaining by it; likewise, if he has an abundance of water when it is scarce, he must surrender his claim to it for the sake of others in the community. The beneficiary of his sacrifice is always something or someone other than the believer himself: Allah or His divine law, his neighbors, the community. His own life is of no significance or value, except to the extent that he surrenders his mind and values obediently.
What this moral code offers is not guidance on how an individual should act to prosper, achieve fulfilling personal values, and enjoy a happy life. Morally, the believer must learn that he is not a sovereign individual; his life is not his own to dispose of as he sees fit; he belongs to Allah, who alone is sovereign. And he must serve the interests of his master. What the believer determines to be true or false is inconsequential; he must accept unreservedly the ideas, beliefs, commandments handed to him—never questioning authority.
What this moral code does offer is guidance on how one can achieve the ideal of becoming a slave to Allah.
The obedient Muslim must ensure an unbreached unity between his religion and his life. And integrity to Islam’s moral principles entails a certain kind of social order. Politically, believers must live under Islamic law, or sharia—a body of rules derived from the Koran and the hadith (a body of sayings attributed to Mohammad). Under such laws, Muslims can practice their faith without compromise; the laws that govern them protect and foster piety, while exacting punishments for offenses against Muslims (such as theft or murder) and their creed.
Just as there must be a unity within the believer between his life and belief; so, politically, state and religion must be one, indivisible. The concept of separating state and church is a distinctively Western innovation that was long unknown, and then shunned, in Islam. There is no place for it under a consistently Islamic regime, because the goal of such a separating wall is to limit the scope of religion over life. Such a wall is a value if one regards man as a sovereign being, and wishes to protect individuals from the imposition (or proscription) of ideas by religion. But if one holds that sovereignty belongs only to Allah, the state must be an extension of the authority of Islam.
The dominion of Islam must encompass all of a believer’s existence—but also the existence of all nonbelievers. Since the Koran is the “Truth of Allah,” as communicated by the final and only true messenger, it purports to answer the universal needs of man. Islam’s embrace, therefore, must span all of Allah’s creations. The Koran states: “Fight those who believe not in Allah nor the Last Day, nor hold that forbidden which has been forbidden by Allah and His messenger, nor acknowledge the religion of Truth, [even if they are] of the People of the Book, until they pay the jizya with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued.”10
Those who carry out this command rank highest among believers:
Do ye make the giving of drink to pilgrims, or the maintenance of the Sacred Mosque, equal to [the pious service of] those who believe in Allah and the Last Day, and strive with might and main in the cause of Allah? They are not comparable in the sight of Allah: and Allah guides not those who do wrong. Those who believe, and suffer exile and strive with might and main, in Allah’s cause, with their goods and persons, have the highest rank in the sight of Allah: they are the people who will achieve [salvation].11
A boundless sharia regime is the organization of men and of society that Islam demands—and the one that Islamic totalitarians have made their mission to realize.
What, then, occurs if an individual refuses to submit to the will of Allah?
Facing men who disagree with him, what can the advocate of Islam do to induce in them belief in his creed? Could he persuade them by unfolding perceptual evidence? Could he marshal evidence and construct on that foundation logical arguments that validate the injunctions of sharia—as one could marshal evidence to validate that water, chlorophyll, carbon dioxide, and sunlight are necessary conditions for the survival of a tomato plant? Could he persuade others by appealing to their rational faculty and relying on the power of ineluctable data to convince them that their opposition is groundless, that they ought to embrace his viewpoint?
No rational arguments could persuade a man to abandon reason and accept enslavement to the dictates of authority. None could persuade him to renounce the evidence of his eyes and ears, in favor of accepting someone’s say-so as fact. Nothing can validly justify the conclusion that one should sacrifice wealth or any other value that one has earned. The advocate of Islam can have no recourse to persuasion, because no facts in reality give rise to mystical revelations.
What is left when persuasion is impossible? Only force.
Morally, Islam teaches, and the totalitarians recognize, that men are just slaves to Allah. Some—the believers—already know it and strive to be obedient slaves; others fail to embrace their proper duty of submission. Appealing to their reason would not occur to the advocate of Islam, and if it did, he would dismiss the enterprise as unholy. He came to believe in Islam not through scrupulously logical consideration of facts, but on faith. He was told to obey the teachings of the Koran, so he does. By his own choice, he surrendered his thinking to the dicta of authority. Regarding himself as having no right to expect reasons for what he is to believe, he regards others as also lacking any claim to be dealt with by rational persuasion. Taking his own approach as morally proper, he expects all others to submit unquestioningly.
Since not even believers exist for their own sake, since not even they have a moral right to their own values and to pursue their own happiness, since not even they are masters of their own life—unbelievers are likewise bereft of a moral right to live. Unbelievers may assert their sovereignty over their mind and life, but for Islam no man has that. Who is an unbeliever to assert the conclusions of his own, individual mind? Who is this creature to pretend to possess the cognitive abilities and prerogatives that belong only to God?
Exacting from men submission to Islam by force is an act of justice. The enforcer is subjugating creatures who arrogantly demand that their own individual value override the will of their divine superior. Compelling unbelievers into obedience is to serve their true owner, to serve His, not their own, will. The enforcer’s deeds are, in essence, the same as those of an overseer breaking in disobedient (and by definition rightless) slaves; both the slave-breaker and the zealous Muslim are asserting the master’s moral claim over his belongings.
Killing the recalcitrant unbelievers (or apostates or blaspheming Muslims) is to rid the world of evil. The killer is meting out the due punishment to those who willfully defy the good. Whoever is indomitable, whoever rebels against submission, whoever places his own judgment higher than the dictates of Islam is rejecting the faith that purportedly answers all of men’s needs. From the global herd of Allah’s slaves, the holy slaughterer is, thus, merely culling the subversive ones who have proven themselves enemies of His kingdom on earth.
In striving to subjugate mankind, Islamic totalitarians model themselves on the religion’s founder and the figure who exemplifies its virtues, Mohammad. He waged wars to impose, and expand, the dominion of Islam. The prophet told the faithful that he “was ordered to fight all men until they say ‘There is no god but Allah.’” Assuring Muslims that the “gates of paradise are under the shadow of the swords,” Mohammad urged that “A morning or an evening expedition in God’s path is better than the world and what it contains, and for one of you to remain in the line of battle is better than his prayers for sixty years.”12 In the last nine years of his life, he is “recorded as having participated in at least twenty-seven campaigns and deputized some fifty-nine others—an average of no fewer than nine campaigns annually.”13
The successors of Mohammad embarked on further campaigns (occasionally vying with Christian holy warriors for territory). Their expeditions, reports one scholar, were considerable:
Within twelve years of Muhammad’s death in June 632, Iran’s long-reigning Sasanid Empire had been reduced to a tributary, and Egypt and Syria had been wrested from Byzantine rule. By the early eighth century, the Muslims had extended their dominion over Central Asia and much of the Indian subcontinent all the way to the Chinese frontier, had laid siege to Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantines, and had overrun North Africa and Spain.14
They sought also to penetrate Europe, reaching as far as northwest France (but were repelled).
By means of the sword, an Islamic military empire arose. Some conquered peoples were forced to convert, some left to choose among death, conversion, or a sub-human existence as subject-peoples. Those who chose the latter were required to pay special taxes to their rulers and lived as humiliated inferiors of Muslims, subject to minimal legal protections and at times open persecution. Whether converts or subjugated men, all were made to enslave their mind and life to Allah’s authority.15
Jihad—armed striving in the path of god—became a fixture of Islamic culture. For centuries scholars have written treatises glorifying jihad and defining the proper conduct of such warfare—for example, the propriety of deploying certain weapons and the terms under which Muslims might be exempt from the duty of fighting in a jihad. (There is another conception of jihad—understood as an internal struggle against desires and temptations. Many Western apologists, eager to whitewash Islam, have trumpeted this notion. This essentially metaphorical meaning, advanced by some sects, is not the term’s primary meaning. The dominant meaning of jihad throughout the substantial body of Islamic literature on the subject is that of religiously motivated war.)16
Today’s jihadists embrace their duty. A sharia regime, explains one of the movement’s leaders, “cannot evidently restrict the scope of its activities. Its approach is universal and all-embracing. Its sphere of activity is coexistent with the whole of human life.” Achieving it necessitates a sustained jihad to “destroy those regimes opposed to the precepts of Islam and replace them with a government based on Islamic principles . . . not merely in one specific region . . . but [as part] of a comprehensive Islamic transformation of the entire world.”17
That enforcing religious morality entails massacres and butchery is nothing to shrink from, observes the leader of a jihadist campaign in Algeria: “If a faith, a belief, is not watered and irrigated by blood, it does not grow. It does not live. Principles are reinforced by sacrifices, suicide operations, and martyrdom for Allah. Faith is propagated by counting up deaths every day, by adding up massacres and charnel-houses.”18
Abdallah Azzam, an intellectual mentor to Bin Laden and a driving force behind the totalitarian movement, extolled slaughter in the path of Allah:
History does not write its lines except with blood. Glory does not build its lofty edifices except with skulls. Honor and respect cannot be established except on a foundation of cripples and corpses. Empires, distinguished peoples, states and societies cannot be established except with examples. Indeed, those who think that they can change reality or change societies without blood, sacrifices, and invalids—without pure innocent souls—do not understand the essence of this din [Islam] and they do not know the method of the best of Messengers [Mohammad].19
The 9/11 hijackers were consistently following their moral principles. If Allah is the only God, and if His law is absolute, then unbelievers must be punished. They must learn that their vices are hateful to Him. The razing of the World Trade Center was, thus, a grand-scale meting out of justice to the infidels who refuse to submit to the authority of Allah. Extinguishing the lives of thousands was a necessary expression of implementing Islam: There was no other way to correct the wickedness of those who made their careers reaping profits for themselves in the fields of finance and commerce.
If killing infidels in Allah’s name entails forfeiting one’s own life, to a consistent Muslim that is not a loss. On the contrary, it is a great honor: “. . . in the fight to uphold God’s universal Truth, lives will have to be sacrificed. Those who risk their lives and go out to fight, and who are prepared to lay down their lives for the cause of God are honorable people, pure of heart and blessed of soul,” explains Sayyid Qutb, an intellectual father of the Islamic totalitarian movement and a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood.20 Qutb is here merely echoing Islamic sacred texts. “Allah has bought from the believers their soul and their possessions against the gift of Paradise; they fight in the path of Allah; they kill and are killed . . . and who fulfils his covenant truer than Allah? So rejoice in the bargain you have made with Him; that is the mighty triumph.”21 Martyrs are promised sumptuous rewards in the afterworld.
Cripples and massacres and corpses and charnel-houses—such is the inexorable price of attempting to implement Islam on principle. But the bloodshed does not cease with the establishment of a totalitarian sharia regime. Since the morality underpinning the regime is irrational, since it imposes commandments inimical to human life and happiness, since it demands surrender to authority—coercion is necessary to ensure compliance with Islam’s doctrines. Consider the practice of sharia in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Nigeria.
Upon taking power, Taliban leaders pulled down satellite TV dishes and ordered such “corrupting” devices as televisions, radios, and VCRs “hanged” publicly. The Taliban’s infamous “Department for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prohibition of Vice” patrolled the streets in search of Muslims violating moral law or otherwise engaging in un-Islamic behavior. Movie theaters were closed; the wearing of Western-styled suits and the playing of music were banned. Women were compelled to wear all-encompassing veils as a mark of their modesty and to avoid provoking lust in the men around them. Women caught wearing robes that were deemed immodest were flogged (in one incident, an enforcer summarily ripped the antenna from a nearby car and thrashed a woman for her immodest attire). The draconian penalties prescribed by the sharia code included flogging for the consumption of liquor and stoning to death for adultery.22
Iran has banned music and poetry, and stringently censors films, books, and newspapers. Dissenters or critics of the regime are deemed enemies of Islam and their murder is considered justified. Iran forbids “prohibited acts”—a term so vague it can encompass simple association between two individuals of different sexes, such as walking in the park, sitting next to each other in a car, or anything the ruling mullahs decide is irreligious, blasphemous, or somehow un-Islamic.23
Like Iran and the Taliban regime, Saudi Arabia also has its own government-sanctioned vigilante force to foster virtue. These shock-troops assault people for failing to attend mosques at the five daily prayer times. In one notorious case, the morality-thugs prevented female students from leaving a burning school in Mecca because they were insufficiently covered up when they tried to escape the flames; more than a dozen students burned alive.24 Crimes like apostasy and blasphemy are punished by death, “often by stoning or beheading on a Riyadh plaza . . . popularly known as ‘chop-chop square.’”25
Several years ago, sharia was imposed in certain provinces of Nigeria, in a depressingly predictable way. The spread of sharia in that country began in Zamfara province, which “sexually segregated all buses and taxis. Men are not allowed to use most taxis and instead must get rides on motorcycles. Women are forbidden to ride these motorcycles, and some who have tried have been stoned.” Alcohol was banned, women were forbidden to wear trousers, and vigilantes were licensed to enforce divine law. “Just beyond the boundary sign welcoming travelers to ‘Zamfara, the home of farming and Sharia’ are two burned out trucks whose drivers made the mistake of carrying beer over the border.”26
Why must Afghans, Iranians, Saudis, Nigerians, or anyone else obey these laws? What can the regime tell some unsubjugated soul who dares question religious law? The zealous slaves of Allah have no arguments—Allah commands, all must obey. So they must resort to threats, stones, fists, canes, whips, prisons, the executioner’s chopping block.
Observe that this contempt for human life spills beyond national borders. Iran and Saudi Arabia are notorious for exporting their ideology. Saudi Arabia has spent billions of dollars to build mosques worldwide, to publish tracts, and to dispatch missionaries that disseminate the regime’s Wahhabi strain of Islamic totalitarianism. Saudi wealth helped build up the Taliban regime (which, in turn, hosted Al Qaeda) and has financed terrorist groups in the Balkans and across the Middle East.
“The Iranian revolution,” declared Ayatollah Khomeini, “is not exclusively that of Iran, because Islam does not belong to any particular people. . . . We will export our revolution throughout the world because it is an Islamic revolution. The struggle will continue until the calls ‘there is no god but Allah and Muhammad is the messenger of Allah’ are echoed all over the world.”27 Iran’s constitution commits the regime to expanding “the sovereignty of God’s law throughout the world.”28 And, for three decades, Iran has sustained its jihad on America and other nations by means of a terrorist proxy war, spearheaded by Lebanese Hezbollah.
Underwriting and inspiring terrorism demonstrates the commitment of these regimes to Islam. The application of God’s law in one country is commendable, but bringing it by force to regions where it is not already known—that is a mark of true devotion.
Of all the nations that Islamic totalitarians hate and target in their jihad, one in particular stands out. They curse America; they blame it for all manner of calamities; they lust after its destruction. Why America?
Wrath Against America
The intellectuals and fighters of Islamic totalitarianism believe that the Arab-Islamic world has fallen into sordid impiety. Worse, Muslims are failing to live up to the dictates of Islam, and they are being led further into unbelief and godlessness. Seeing decadence all about them, the totalitarians regard themselves as the saviors of a besieged society. What is the force assailing the Islamic world? The influence of Western secularism.
The contours of this alleged problem were identified long ago. Assorted Muslim traditionalists bewailed the oncoming of modern technology and secular ideas as threats to Islam. When the first telephone was introduced into the kingdom of Ibn Saud, in 1927, observes one historian, “there was a great theological debate before the ulema [religious scholars] were persuaded of the lawfulness of this infidel invention.”29
A gloomy mood beset some Muslim thinkers, for they felt that the foundations of the House of Islam were in peril. In the schools, the advent of a modern curriculum provoked fears about the piety of future generations. The teaching of science—which claims rationally knowable, demonstrable, objective truth—threatened to sideline Islam’s revelations on the nature of man and of the universe. According to some, the teaching of Islam had become perfunctory; others believed that the innovation of teaching it as a distinct subject was anathema, because doing so reinforced the growing dichotomy between life and religion.30
The accelerated pace of life diluted piety because, as one thinker explained, “work hours hamper people from praying during the daytime [for lack of special time slots for it] and entertainment programs divert them from it at night.”31 In the economy, the introduction of both socialistic and vaguely capitalistic policies came as blows to Islam’s traditions: The first asked Muslims to identify themselves with an economic class, rather than their religious community; the second brought with it infidel practices, such as charging interest on loans. The coming of foreign laborers and investment threatened a further loosening of morals, by the influence of infidels on Muslims.32
Sayyid Qutb diagnosed the situation in stark terms. Jahiliyya is the state of supposedly barbaric ignorance that existed in pre-Mohammedan times, and for Qutb: “Everything around us is jahiliyya—people’s beliefs and ideas, habits and traditions, culture, art, and literature, rules and laws, to such an extent that much of what we consider Islamic culture, Islamic sources, Islamic philosophy, and Islamic thought are also constructs of jahiliyya!” But in the modern jahiliyya, mankind is not merely ignorant of the truth; it has rejected universal subjugation to Allah’s will. For Qutb, therefore, the modern world is even lower than the pre-Mohammedan barbarism; unlike that first jahiliyya, men now claim “the right to create values, to pass laws and regulations, and to choose one’s way in life rests with man, in disregard of what Allah has prescribed.”33
There is no middle ground between Islam and secularism; Qutb declared that “In any time and place human beings face that clear-cut choice: either to observe the Law of Allah in its entirety, or to apply laws laid down by man of one sort or another. In the latter case, they are in a state of jahiliyya.”34
According to the totalitarians, if Islam is to be defended, if righteousness is to prevail, the tempter sowing unbelief must be stopped. “The establishment of Allah’s kingdom on earth, the elimination of the reign of man, the wresting of sovereignty from its usurpers and its restoration to Allah, and the abolition of human laws and implementation of the divine law [sharia] cannot be only achieved through sermons and preaching.” It necessitates jihad.35
The initial targets were modernizing states in the Middle East. Because such regimes limited the scope of Islam over life, they were deemed complicit in the decadence of Muslims—and qua apostate regimes, they had to be overthrown. The Muslim Brotherhood sought to topple Egypt’s regime. Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the Brotherhood, reviled the regime because (as one historian explains) it used the newly invented radio “to corrupt the minds and souls of ordinary Egyptians with songs about love and sex rather than to inculcate them with the virtues of death and martyrdom in the quest for Allah’s universal empire.”36
Among Egypt’s other evils, the Brotherhood held, was its espousal of socialist and Arab-nationalist policies. Such doctrines, though laced with Islamic ideas to make them palatable, frayed the bond of faith among Muslims that subsumes all classes, sects, and national borders. By elevating loyalty to Arab nationalism above Islam, the regime compromised the principle of total submission to only one authority: Allah. Although the Brotherhood failed to depose Gamal Abdel Nasser, another Islamic group assassinated his successor, Anwar Sadat.
From the 1950s until the last decades of the century, the obsession of Islamic totalitarian groups was combating apostate Muslim regimes. They focused particularly on those “poisoned” by the influence of former European colonial powers, such as Britain and France. But some Islamists recognized that the wellspring of poison lay elsewhere.
It was America that surpassed all the former colonial powers as an influence on global culture, in general, and on the Middle East, in particular. It had emerged as the only superpower. America, moreover, was the embodiment of what Islamic totalitarians abhor. It is the antithesis of their moral ideal.
Born with an act of audacious revolt against authority, America was the nation that accepted nothing as higher than the inalienable rights of the individual. Neither a monarch nor an established religion governed men. The laws and principles of America’s government were defined not by clerics, but by men who shared the Enlightenment’s reverence for reason. They created a system of government grounded in objective facts accessible to all men who chose to observe, think, and reach their own conclusions.
What these laws protected was each man’s moral entitlement to pursue his own earthly happiness, as he deems proper and as conditioned by the principle of individual rights. The government was the servant of the people, not its master. If the government breached the defined limits of the powers delegated to it, the people recognized their right to dissolve such a government and establish one that better serves their lives. Man was left free to advocate and practice any ideology, including religion, without fear of being forced to submit to the ideas of another. And to this day, Americans are freer than any peoples. They are free to earn fortunes and to spend their wealth on their own chosen values.
The United States is the culmination of the Enlightenment’s anti-authoritarian ethos and its concomitant esteem for the sanctity of man’s rational mind. It was this legacy that enabled America’s standard of living to skyrocket. Because men are free to invest their wealth, energy, and ideas as they see fit, the United States has become a nation unsurpassed at the task of producing values that sustain human life—that make it longer, safer, and more enjoyable. Across the globe, people gaze up, far up, in admiration at the stunning luxuries and life-saving technologies that even the poorest American workers can afford.
Yet these are precisely the reasons that, for Islamic totalitarians, America is the embodiment of evil. With his signature perverseness, Osama Bin Laden declared: “You are the nation who, rather than ruling by the sharia of Allah in its Constitution and laws, choose to invent your own laws as you will and desire. You separate religion from your policies, contradicting the pure nature which affirms Absolute Authority in the lord and your creator. You are the worst civilization witnessed by the history of mankind.”37
Obviously other nations embrace Western values—science, secular government, individual rights, economic freedom—to varying degrees. But what distinguishes America, and what fans the hatred of Islamic totalitarians, is that it has been so spectacularly successful. This makes it all the more objectionable, and singles it out as a focus of their hostility.
Islam teaches its followers that they are a chosen group, that their piety will be rewarded, and that, in this world, they will enjoy superiority over the infidels who reject Allah and his prophet. But the Arab-Islamic world is weak and woefully poor, whereas infidel America is strong and fabulously wealthy. This fact raises awkward questions. Were the twenty-somethings who launched Google and reaped billions in wealth right to have studied computer science rather than memorizing the Koran? Can the middle-class American parents who buy their teenager a car afford to do so because they live under a better political and economic system? Is America’s status as a lone superpower a consequence of its un-Islamic ideas? Whether or not Muslims dare answer these questions honestly, the spectacle of America’s comprehensive preeminence undermines the totalitarian goal of creating an ideal Islamic society.
So long as the splendors of America multiply—from vaccines and ubiquitous personal computers to routine global air travel and moon landings—so long as American advances in science and technology spur its galloping prosperity, honest men will resist the calls to surrender their minds to faith. Amid the omnipresent evidence of what man’s rational mind can produce when left free to function, religionists face a considerable challenge to induce men to follow a creed of blind obedience to mystical authority. America lures the best among men away from religion.
And, implicitly if not explicitly, Islamic totalitarians recognize that. Qutb, like his intellectual heirs, acknowledged the obvious temptation of secular culture—and desperately sought to impugn the West. He contended that in “the most affluent and materially advanced” of Western societies, such as America, people lead “the most miserable lives.”38 We must not be deluded by false appearances when we see that nations which do not believe or implement the Divine method are enjoying abundance and affluence. It is all a temporary prosperity which lasts until the natural laws have produced their effects, allowing the consequences of the miserable split between material excellence and spiritual fulfillment to appear in full.
Because Westerners “have lost touch with their souls,” the West and the Westernizing Middle East were heading for disaster.39 Misery, anxiety, and suffering, Qutb argued, would result from secular society. He prophesied rampant deaths from mental disease, suicide, and heart failure; the secularism is thus made to seem like the road to ruin.
Totalitarians denounce America as barbaric, because it is tremendously civilized. They denounce America as vicious, because it is, in reality, luminously virtuous: It is an exemplar of what men can accomplish when they are free to achieve their own happiness, earn unlimited wealth, and live by their own convictions. It is, to the holy warriors, an abomination that cannot be allowed to endure.
But these despicable killers—we often hear—are just a fringe group. The network of Osama Bin Laden’s minions, the Taliban regime, and the sundry other violent groups waging jihad “number perhaps in the thousands,” according to one estimate.40 What is more significant, they are bereft of ideological support among what they take to be their constituency—the global population of roughly one billion Muslims. They are supposedly rebels even against their own culture, since they espouse ideas that run counter to the beliefs of mainstream Muslims. Drawing on such premises, some people reach the soothing conclusion that the threat from Islamic totalitarians is much less formidable than it might appear to be.
What is the constituency of the Islamic totalitarian movement? Who, if anyone, in the Muslim mainstream supports the movement’s ideal and its actions? What is the opposition to it, and of what consequence are such opponents? Is there indeed a fundamental ideological gulf between the mainstream and the totalitarians?
Consider the beliefs and practice of the Muslim mainstream. How would most Muslims respond to Sayyid Qutb’s statement that Islam is a “declaration that sovereignty belongs to God alone”? The overwhelming majority would resoundingly agree.41
Every day, five times a day—from Morocco to the Sudan, Egypt to Bosnia, Afghanistan to Indonesia—millions of Muslims prostrate themselves in obedient prayer. Every year millions walk, sail, drive, fly to reach Mecca to fulfill their duty of the hajj, or religious pilgrimage. Every day during the month of Ramadan, Muslims deny themselves food, drink, sex. In word and deed, mainstream Muslims attest that Islam is a supreme value in their lives.
Many internecine hostilities—both sectarian and racial—divide Muslims, but one fundamental bond unites them. For Muslims, observes one scholar, “the basic division—the touchstone by which men are separated from one another, by which one distinguishes between brother and stranger—is that of faith, of membership in a religious community. . . . What is meant is . . . religion as a social and communal force, a measure of identity and a focus of group loyalty.”42 Belonging to the community of Allah’s followers, the blessed who obey the true and only God, confers on the believer his self-worth—not his individual accomplishments and character. Their religion is a source of personal identity.
Even under Middle East regimes that are putatively secular, Islam is a sacred value. In Syria, under a Baathist regime (modeled on European fascism), impugning Islam is anathema. In 1967, a Syrian army magazine published an article condemning God and religion as “mummies which should be transferred to the museums of historical remains.” There ensued large demonstrations, reports one commentator, “in all the major Syrian cities . . ., leading to widescale strikes, the arrest of many religious leaders, and considerable violence.”43 The Syrian regime sentenced the writer and two editors to prison, in hopes of mollifying the agitated public. Devotion to Islam runs deep throughout the Middle East. Note that Khomeini’s Islamic revolution in 1979 succeeded in what was, at the time, one of the Middle East’s more Westernized nations.
Because mainstream Muslims take their religion seriously, pious subservience to authority is the norm. Muslims unthinkingly believe and comply with the say-so of authority. They unquestioningly swallow fantastic conspiracy theories, and they willingly do as they are commanded to do. That dutiful obedience was epitomized in the so-called Danish cartoon crisis of 2006.
The crisis began after a Danish newspaper, Jyllends-Posten, published twelve cartoons pertaining to Islam and Mohammad, some of which were satirical. (The purpose was to test whether the fear of offending Muslims had created a climate of self-censorship in Europe.) Violence erupted across the Islamic world. Mobs invaded and torched Danish embassies in Lebanon, Libya, and Syria; elsewhere, mobs attacked other embassies using grenades and guns. Muslims called for the beheading of the cartoonists and offered bounties to whomever could execute the blasphemers. More than 100 people died in riots across the world, with nearly a thousand injured. All of this havoc came to pass, according to the standard account of the crisis, because Muslims had been outraged by the Danish cartoons of Mohammad. These alleged affronts to their prophet impelled Muslims to rush into the streets and demand blood.
But this ignores a crucial aspect of the Muslim reaction. Observe that Jyllends-Posten had published the images in September 2005. Yet those images were far from self-evidently offensive to Muslim sensibilities. Just two months later in Egypt—the most populous Arab country—the newspaper al-Fajr republished six of the cartoons.44 The Egyptian response? There was none. The riots in the Islamic world began only in January 2006 and peaked in February 2006. Why the delay? Being subservient to authority, Muslims reached no conclusions of their own and had no reaction, until told what reaction to have.
Those orders soon came. The leaders of the world’s fifty-seven Muslim nations had gathered for a summit in Mecca in December 2005, and decided to stir up their people into a religious fervor over the cartoons.45 When the masses were made to believe that a slight had been done to Islam, when they were handed Danish flags to burn, when they were ordered into the streets—they duly obeyed. They raged. Many rioters had not even seen the images; few newspapers published them in the Middle East. The mobs who ran amok were mindlessly obeying authority in the name of defending Islam. Were it not for the authorities that instigated the outrage, were it not for the mass of believers taking on faith the dictum of authority, there would have been no riots, no uproar, no death threats.
Such obedience is consonant with the ideal of the totalitarians. They enjoin making Islam the all-embracing value in human life. This principle conditions what is to be regarded as a legitimate source of knowledge: the dicta of authority. It also conditions what kind of knowledge is to be regarded as worth pursuing: that which reinforces piety. On this point, a Taliban publication explained the movement’s credo: “Any study besides that of the Quran is a distraction, except the Hadith [sayings of the Prophet] and jurisprudence in the religion. Knowledge is that He narrated to us, and anything other than that is the whispering of Satan.”46 Conforming with this notion means not asking questions, not challenging the received wisdom, not exploring nature, not investigating the world. Do mainstream Muslims rebel against so preposterous a notion?
No. They evince a wholesale indifference to learning. A listing of twenty-seven countries ranked according to book sales—beginning with the United States and ending with Vietnam—does not include a single Muslim state. A recent U.N. report, prepared by a committee of Arab intellectuals, reveals that “The Arab world translates about 330 books annually, one-fifth of the number that Greece translates. The accumulative total of translated books since the Caliph Maa’moun’s time [ninth century] is about 100,000, almost the average that Spain translates in one year.”47
Practically nonexistent in the Islamic world is the outlook of the scientist. Scientists must be willing to defy authority and tradition for the sake of truth. A culture that prizes passive conformity with dogma militates against the individual who asserts himself cognitively in a systematic quest for knowledge. When, despite his culture, some budding scientist nevertheless emerges, his prospects of engaging in research might appear to be good. There is plenty of oil wealth available to underwrite scientific research. Yet in Saudi Arabia—one of the richest Muslim countries—there were just 1,915 active research scientists in 1987. (By comparison, at that time in the tiny Western nation of Israel, there were 11,617 research scientists.) Scientific and technological advances emanating from the Islamic world are negligible.48
In this culture, one book is ever in demand and universally cherished: the Koran. Clerics are superstars whose sermons are sold on tape and air regularly on television. Piety is a virtue to which the masses aspire. Because the mainstream’s commitment to Islam is so profound, there is considerable popular support for the totalitarians’ ideal.
Jihadists are not vilified as reprobates and loathed for besmirching the peaceful reputation of Islam; they are widely lionized. Posters memorializing “martyred” young men bedeck street corners in Beirut, Gaza, and the West Bank; their horrific deeds are eulogized in fulsome obituaries posted on the Internet. Osama Bin Laden and his deputies are celebrated as heroes. Stroll through downtown Sarajevo, and, in bookstalls, you can find on sale Saudi-sponsored books promoting absolute rule by sharia.49 Hop into a taxi in Beirut, and, instead of music from the radio, you are as likely to hear speeches by Sheik Hasan Nasrallah, the religious leader of Hezbollah. “Lines from his speeches are popular ring tones on cellphones. His face is a common computer screensaver. Wall posters, key rings, and even phone cards bear his image.”50
The holy warriors fight for an Islamic regime, and an overwhelming mass of Muslims support and endorse them, because they regard that ideal as virtuous. This is why jihadists are able to broadcast their message, recruit fighters, run training camps, acquire weapons, and mount hugely expensive attacks that take years to orchestrate. Untold numbers of Muslims do far more than condone the vile deeds of jihadists.
Consider the Muslim reaction to 9/11. While a spasm of mourning shook even stridently anti-American countries in Europe, in the Islamic world there was euphoria. In the southern Philippines, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, Indonesia, and elsewhere thousands of Muslims took to the streets in solidarity with Bin Laden.51 Palestinians distributed candy, set off firecrackers, and fired pistols into the air (as they typically do after suicide-bombings against Israel). That admiration persists. A journalist wandering through a McDonald’s in Egypt, several years after the attacks, reported the reaction of some locals: One “eighteen year old university student volunteers . . . that she called up all her friends to share her joy after learning that thousands of Americans had died in Washington and New York. ‘Everyone celebrated,’ she said, dipping her French fries into ketchup, as her girlfriends giggled. ‘People honked in the streets, cheering that finally America got what it truly deserved.’”52
Dissent from this prevalent sentiment was appallingly scarce. An Islamic scholar at the most prestigious Islamic university in Egypt, Al-Azhar, publicly condemned the attacks; but he acknowledged that he was a lone voice.53 There were no spontaneous mass rallies condemning the atrocities. Although some Muslims told pollsters that they considered the attacks to be acts of “terrorism,” they maintained that these were acts of political defiance. They may not embrace the means, in other words, but they nevertheless admire the cause.54
Critics of the totalitarian movement itself may be few, but they are not unheard of in the Islamic world. Abdul Rauf is the imam of the Herati Mosque, located in one of Kabul’s most modern neighborhoods, and is reputed to be one of the few clerics in Afghanistan who dared oppose the Taliban when it was in power. “It is true,” he told The Washington Post, “I criticized the Taliban because they were so harsh and tortured people.” Considering the punishments inflicted on those who ignited the Taliban’s wrath, such resistance seems impressive (perhaps even a sign of hope for the future of Afghanistan).
But in March 2006, when an “Afghan man was put on trial for converting to Christianity, Rauf led the emotional charge to demand his execution under Islamic law. The public would ‘cut him [the convert] to pieces’ if the authorities failed to act, Rauf said.” This imam hardly fits the profile of a stern Taliban-esque prig; he is described as “a cheerful man who rides his bicycle to mosque each day,” and who proudly showed the reporter an itinerary of a trip he had made to the United States, visiting mosques and churches. It is possible that Rauf rejects the totalitarian quest for a global caliphate, and it is possible that his criticism of the Taliban’s methods was in earnest, but in explaining his campaign, he evinces a fundamental commitment to the ideal animating the totalitarians. He noted that “ours is the complete and final religion. If you leave it, that is like throwing God away. . . . [I]f you leave Islam, our law says you must be killed. If Abdul Rahman [the convert] stood before me right now, I would kill him myself.”55
To the moral ideal of Islam, there is no countervailing ideological opposition. We do not hear advocates for reason and individualism in opposition to faith and submission. Absent is a counterpart to Thomas Jefferson bearding religious and royal authority—an intellectual force urging men to “Fix reason firmly in her seat, and call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear.”56 There is no voice sonorously declaring that sovereignty belongs only to the individual, that each man exists not by permission, but by right, and ought to be free to pursue his own happiness.
Where the mainstream and critics diverge from the totalitarians is only an issue of consistency, not of principle. There are disputes—but over means, not ends.
Nevertheless, some Western observers pin their hopes on “moderate” Muslims. The term does not mean “liberal or democratic but only anti-Islamist” Muslims (i.e., Muslims who are not totalitarians).57 We cannot hear these voices of real opposition, because they lack the wherewithal to disseminate their ideas and are often suppressed. If only we gave them a chance, however, supposedly they could serve as credible proxies for the West in the effort to tamp down the influence of Islamic totalitarians.
But such an enterprise is worse than futile.
The only intelligible meaning of “moderate” advocates of Islam is: those who compromise devotion to the faith with concessions to reason. They obey the dictates of Islam in some areas, and not others; they stop short of applying Islam consistently, fencing off certain issues or areas of life from the purview of religion. Let us grant the premise that the West can find moderate Muslims and support them in a way that does not discredit them in Muslim eyes as saboteurs working to undermine Islam. Could moderates really steer their culture away from the totalitarian movement?
The holy warriors observe that consistency requires having Islam shape every last detail of man’s life. The moderates accept the ideal of Islam but advocate inconsistency, inasmuch as they want to limit its role in life. Moderates might advocate for allowing sharia to govern schools, say, but not commerce; to dictate marriage laws, but not punishments for blasphemy, apostasy, or adultery. As a result, every practical gain for the moderates is ultimately also a gain for the totalitarians, since Islam is endorsed as the proper source of law in some areas.
The totalitarians know the means necessary to achieve their goal, they consistently implement them, and they do so with the sanction of Islamic morality. But the moderates must compromise, water down, and contradict their own belief in Islam by adopting un-Islamic means and practices, such as secular courts or representative government. This discredits them as dishonest and lacking integrity, because they urge “moderation” of the ideal. By comparison, the totalitarians appear honorable, sincere, principled.
The tension between apologetic compromisers and the totalitarians is unsustainable. Of the two, it is ultimately the more consistent side that will win out. Observe that the moderates have no moral grounds on which to oppose the slaughter of infidels who refuse to submit, or of apostates who claim the freedom to choose their own convictions. To whatever extent moderates try to oppose the totalitarians, they convict themselves as hypocrites who refuse to do God’s will. Such weakness stresses just how dedicated the totalitarians are to their principles. The moderates are, in the long run, impotent. “Moderation” is not the rallying cry that is rousing Muslims to action.
The cause galvanizing many Muslims is jihad. And the appeal of Islamic totalitarianism is not confined to nations that have Muslim majorities. Three of the four suicide-bombers in the 2005 attack on London were second-generation British citizens. Several of the terrorist plots foiled in the United States since 2001 involved American-born jihadists.58 The killers are attracted by a moral ideal that they believe is worth dying for: the vision of righteously obliterating enemies of God and, on the ruins of the Western world, establishing a global Islamic regime. This vision appeals to Muslims from every walk of life, because it serves and is justified by their religion.
Because fidelity to Islam is entrenched and fundamentally unopposed in the culture, so too is support for the zealous killers aching to destroy America. That support is deep and wide; the recruitment pool, large and growing. With the passage of time, the enemy has grown fiercer, more confident of its eventual victory.
Defeating the Enemy
The trauma of 9/11 awakened Americans to a frightening truth. Those heinous attacks constituted an act of war—but it was not even the opening salvo. People began connecting the dots: from 9/11 and the attacks following it, to the attack on the USS Cole in Yemen in 2000, to the simultaneous car bombings of U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya in 1998, to the blasts of the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia in 1996, to the 1993 bombing of the Twin Towers, to earlier attacks against American embassies, troops, and citizens in the Middle East. The forces hostile to America had marched into battle long ago.
What will it take—people despondently wonder—to defeat this enemy?
The cardinal requirement for victory flows from the nature of the enemy. The warriors are committed idealists, but not the conventional sort who regard their ideal as good in theory but not in practice. It is precisely because they consistently unite their ideas and actions that they constitute such a deadly threat. They believe that their vision of enshrining Allah’s dominion on earth is both just and achievable. The promise of earthly success gives their mystical ideal (a notion utterly divorced from facts) the semblance of reality—and the potent visceral charge that inspires men to give up their lives for an abstract vision.
The threat cannot be uprooted merely by thwarting a few terrorists, here and there. Those who join the battle are endorsed and supported, cheered on and revered, by vast numbers of mainstream Muslims. What matters most is why the fighters fight—and why their abettors support them. The killers act on their convictions; capturing or killing Osama Bin Laden is pointless. So long as the moral ideal remains viable in the minds of its adherents, some new leader will emerge, hydra-like, to perpetuate the struggle. Shut down a cluster of safe-houses or a major channel of arms-trafficking or a dozen training grounds—and new ones will open thanks to the undeterred abettors of jihad. Rendering Islamic totalitarianism a non-threat, therefore, requires obliterating the movement’s moral ideal.
The enemy must suffer a punishing military onslaught, so that its ideal is demonstrated to be a perverse, unrealizable fantasy. The purpose of crushing the enemy’s spirit is twofold: to end the present threat and to deter future aggression. When men have abandoned all hope of practical success, they lay down their arms and renounce the struggle. When men are convinced that whoever seeks to harm Americans will be ground to dust, they will be paralyzed by fear. To renew the struggle would be to assure their own destruction. Although some may continue to daydream of destroying “the Great Satan” and enforcing universal submission to Allah, few will join (or dare aid) their patently impossible quest. No ideal that is obviously futile attracts men who will fight and die for it.
The necessity of a devastating military strike becomes ineluctable when one considers strategies now unfolding in the Middle East. By bringing democracy to the tyrannized Arab-Islamic world, could America thwart the enemy? Absolutely not. Its effect is to enable the (undefeated) jihadists to ascend to political power, without the cost of bullets and bombs. Realizing their ideal of imposing Islamic rule is made easier. The masses who support them are encouraged in their belief that the pious warriors will doubtless trounce a decadent foe that abets its own destroyers. From those sympathizing masses will emerge evermore recruits to swell the ranks of the warriors.
Or, could a PR campaign by the U.S. government deter the enemy? Could documentaries showing that America welcomes its Muslim citizens defang the enemy and its millions of sympathizers? Could an Arab-language version of Sesame Street do it? Could sending U.S. funds to rebuild dilapidated mosques do it? No, because the hostility they bear toward America (and the West, generally) is irrational. There is no objective wrong committed by America that, if righted, would placate them. The fundamental spring of their bitter rage and animosity is religion.
Victory requires breaking the enemy’s will to fight. Inseparable from the military task of waging war is the moral justification for doing so. The precondition of marching into battle is knowing clearly what one is fighting for and knowing that it is morally good. That knowledge is the fount of moral confidence, the confidence that it is right to kill and to fight to death for one’s cause. Recognizing that our cause is just fortifies us to endure the convulsions of war, on the battlefield and at home; but it is crucial also for destroying the enemy’s spirit. By broadcasting through our actions and in proud declarations that we know destroying the enemy is morally just, that we regard the enemy as thoroughly corrupt, and that we stand committed to our values—we can demoralize the enemy’s forces and supporters.
Proclaiming our own values serves to discredit the goals of the enemy. And it is necessary that we uphold and righteously defend precisely those values for which the totalitarians revile America. These are the source of our nation’s greatness and the reason that America overshadows all other nations.
Proclaiming the superiority of our own values must continue after the enemy is defeated materially. The culture of the Islamic world, mired as it is in abject poverty, tribalism, and faith, must discover values proper to human existence. Chief among these values is the freedom of individuals to reach their own conclusions and to express and act on their convictions. Two crucial political expressions of this value are segregating religion from the state, confining the former to the personal realm, and enshrining the political rights of individuals to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness. The defeated enemy must learn the value of science, of gaining and teaching worldly knowledge, of free enterprise, of an objective system of law. And it must learn much else. But to remain a non-threat to American interests, the enemy must be shown that totalitarian Islam is a losing ideology, that our values are good—and that we will bring devastation to all who threaten our existence.
By fighting a righteous war, America can end the threat posed by Islamic totalitarianism. The campaign must begin by targeting the nucleus of this intellectual movement. The movement’s arch patron, its chief ideological inspiration, the regime without which legions of holy warriors would be impotent to act on their rage is the Islamic Republic of Iran. It must be target one.
Since the revolution of 1979, Iran has been the standard bearer of Islamic totalitarianism. The revolution was the movement’s first triumph. The Western world was left reeling in disbelief at the eruption of religious militancy; the Islamic world marveled at the spectacle and was galvanized. Far less powerful than the army or the police, the revolutionaries nevertheless overcame the shah’s “impious” regime. This was all the more rousing to Muslims because the toppled government had long enjoyed close ties with Washington.
Sparks from the Iranian revolution ignited fires in the souls of Muslims far and wide. Nationalism had dominated politics in the Middle East, but it was losing momentum, and after the revolution it was supplanted by Islam. Around that time, the Palestinian cause was almost routed, its moral ideal of nationalism practically discredited. By the early 1980s, Arafat had been driven out of Jordan, then out of Lebanon, ultimately finding refuge in Tunis. But the revolution helped reinvigorate the Palestinian movement as a religious struggle. For one Palestinian activist who had soured on nationalism, Iran’s revolution “demonstrated that even against an enemy as powerful as the Shah, a jihad of determined militants could overcome all obstacles.” That young activist had written the widely circulated book Khomeini: The Islamic Alternative; he was later a founder of Islamic Jihad, one of the most ferocious Palestinian groups.59
The fervor spread. Islamist activists from Southeast Asia, Western Europe, and some communist countries embarked on pilgrimages to Khomeini’s regime. In Europe, some activists sought to foment Islamic militancy. A group of young Senegalese intellectuals visited post-revolution Iran, and on their return an Islamist passion rippled through Senegal. One of those intellectuals observed, “The face of the world is transformed, and mankind’s very foundations have been shaken since the project of an Islamic society has emerged as a practical and viable alternative to all others.”60
Teheran worked diligently to sustain this notion by sponsoring terrorists. It helped found, organize, train, proselytize, and direct Lebanese Hezbollah. For a time, senior Hezbollah leaders reported directly to Iran’s government, while Iranian officials sat on the organization’s governing council. Iran has often given Hezbollah more than $100 million a year. The group is a proxy force in Teheran’s jihad against America (and Israel). In April 1983, a suicide attack by Hezbollah on the U.S. Embassy in Beirut killed 63, including 17 Americans. Six months later, a massive suicide truck-bombing claimed the lives of 241 U.S. marines. After that massacre, America withdrew from Lebanon.61
That attack—like the terrorism that followed it—proved that Iran’s jihadist militia could repel and coerce the world’s most powerful nation. With Iran’s aid, the Lebanese holy warriors have set up cells in Europe, Africa, South America, North America, and Asia, and trained other Islamist groups such as Hamas. George Tennet, former CIA director, observed in 2003 that Hezbollah was “a notch above” Al-Qaeda, widely reputed as a global force, and Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage described the group as the “A Team” of terrorism.62 One writer contends plausibly that “Even by Hezbollah’s own reckoning, it would have taken an additional 50 years for the movement to score the same achievements in the absence of Iranian backing.”63
Iran has come to symbolize the power that comes from consistently implementing Islam. After Iranian militants stormed the U.S. Embassy in Teheran and took American citizens hostage in 1979; after Khomeini issued a death threat against the novelist Salman Rushdie, effectively demanding that the West renounce the principle of free speech in favor of religious edicts; after military parades in Teheran in which long-range missiles were draped with banners declaring “death to America” and “We will crush America under our feet”; after decades of Iranian hostility, Washington has failed to defend its own interests and values boldly. It has instead appeared meek and impotent. Many in the Islamic world have come to believe that Allah’s faithful were able to rise to power in Iran, just as Iran’s proxies succeeded in punishing the infidel Americans again and again, precisely because of their fidelity to Islam. It confirms a lesson of the Koran: “O Apostle! Rouse the believers to the fight. If there are twenty amongst you, patient and persevering, they will vanquish two hundred; if a hundred, they will vanquish a thousand of the unbelievers; For these are a people without understanding.”64
Iran makes the ideal actuating the jihadists appear righteous, potent, practical. But by forcibly and righteously ending the totalitarian regime in Teheran, America can demonstrate that this cause is doomed—and so are all who march under its banner.
Further military action may be necessary to put an end to regimes complicit in perpetuating the anti-American jihad and that suppose themselves immune from U.S. retaliation. That emphatically includes the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The regime’s clerics regularly praise jihad, extol “martyrdom,” and inveigh against the West. After the attacks of 9/11, one Saudi religious leader called on Allah to “render mujahidin [holy warriors] everywhere victorious, and forsake America and those who help her and are allied with her, and bring further destruction upon her destruction.” These words appeared as part of a preface that the cleric wrote for a Saudi book justifying the attacks.65
Tens of millions of dollars have flowed through Saudi-based charities and non-governmental organizations to Islamist groups from Somalia to the Palestinian territories and beyond. Saudi Arabia backed the Afghan jihad against the Soviet Union, providing “approximately $4 billion in aid to the Afghan guerilla groups from 1980 through 1990—excluding the grants given by Islamic charities and through the private funds of princes.”66 In 2003, according to congressional testimony by David Aufhauser, former general counsel of the U.S. Treasury Department, Saudi Arabia was the “epicenter” for terrorist financing. Jihadists around the world have been infused with Saudi wealth. Some of that money came directly from rich individuals and members of the royal family; some through semi-official charities and non-governmental organizations. The regime’s chief religious figure oversees several of the major Saudi charities, some of which enjoy the financial patronage of the regime and many members of the royal family.67
The United States must confront Saudi Arabia with an ultimatum. Unless the regime ceases all state sponsorship of jihadists, and unless it prohibits its citizens from privately funding them, the Saudi regime will be forcibly removed from power. Such steps are necessary, if America is to defeat the forces waging holy war on us.
Indeed, Washington has invested billions of dollars and thousands of lives in a “war on terror”—but targeting Afghanistan and Iraq. Neither was a significant inspiration to nor patron of jihadists. While Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was known to reward families of Palestinian terrorists, the regime hardly rivaled Saudi munificence. The Taliban regime was dirt poor; Bin Laden helped fund the Taliban’s takeover of Kabul. The regime served mainly as a safe-haven and base for Al Qaeda. Although the U.S. government has designated Iran as the world’s most active state sponsor of terrorism, after five years of a nebulous “war on terror” Iran has not been targeted and remains untouched. (This alone is enough to demoralize the American public.) Meanwhile, cozily nestled against Washington’s bosom is Saudi Arabia, purportedly an ally.
While our military strength is drained away, the enemy grows fiercer. While our soldiers needlessly perish in the wrong battles, it amasses, trains, and arms new killers. Every day spent not fighting the principal enemy is a day lost. It is another day the enemy can exploit to its advantage—another day confirming the efficacy of its ideal.
To those who have died, this war is an affront; to Americans who live with the threat of further atrocities, this war is a vicious fraud. This campaign exacts huge material costs and massive human sacrifices while evading the source of the threat. A war renouncing the proper goal of defeating the enemy truly is “unwinnable.”
But we need not fight an unwinnable war.
At our disposal are the military means of thwarting the myriad blood-lusting zealots threatening our lives. To emasculate the jihad and wipe out the enemy once and for all, we need a clear-eyed understanding of what motivates the enemy. That deadly force, we must realize, is the religion of Islam.
Acknowledgement: The author wishes to thank Yaron Brook, Onkar Ghate, and Peter Schwartz for their assistance with this article.
1 Transcript of videotaped statement by Mohammad Sidique Khan, which was aired on the satellite television channel Aljazeera on September 1, 2005, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/4206800.stm.
2 “Last Words of a Terrorist,” Observer, September 30, 2001. http://observer.guardian.co.uk/international/story/0,6903,560773,00.html. The newspaper’s website states that this translation was provided for The New York Times by Capital Communications Group, a Washington-based international consulting firm, and by Imad Musa, a translator for the firm.
3 Cf. Bin Laden’s statements in http://archives.cnn.com/2001/US/12/13/tape.transcript/. Zawahiri quoted in Efraim Karsh, Islamic Imperialism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006), p. 228. Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman quoted in Jonathan Schanzer, “Breeding Ground: Fundamentalists Pervert Teaching of Islam,” Investor’s Business Daily, September 24, 2001. Moussaoui quoted in Neil A. Lewis, “Moussaoui, Testifying Again, Voices Glee Over Witnesses’ Accounts of Sept. 11 Grief,” New York Times, April 14, 2006, p. A16.
4 George Bush, speech of November 19, 2001, http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2001/11/20011119-14.html.
5 George Bush, speech of September 17, 2001, http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2001/09/20010917-11.html.
6 George Bush, speech of October 6, 2005, http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2005/10/20051006-3.html.
7 Bernard Lewis, The Crisis of Islam (New York: Random House, 2004), p. 138.
8 Lee Harris, “Al Qaeda’s Fantasy Ideology,” Policy Review, no. 114, August-September 2002, http://www.policyreview.org/aug02/harris.html.
9 This survey of Islam’s pillars relies on John L. Esposito, Islam: The Straight Path, 3rd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), p. 88.
10 Koran, Sura 9:29 quoted in Robert Spencer, Onward Muslim Soldiers (Washington: Regnery, 2003), p. 6.
11 Ibid,, 9:19–20, p. 123.
12 Quoted in Karsh, Islamic, p. 19, which draws on Waqidi, Kitab al-Maghazi, vol. 3, p. 1113, and Carole Hillenbrand, The Crusades: Islamic Perspectives (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1999), p. 92, and the Koran, translated and with an introduction by Arthur J. Arberry (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982).
13 David Cook, Understanding Jihad (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), p. 6
14 Karsh, Islamic, p. 21.
15 Ibid., p. 26.
16 In chapter 2 of Understanding Jihad, Cook offers a robust scholarly defense of this point.
17 Abu al-`Ala al-Mawdudi, quoted in Karsh, Islamic, p. 207.
18 Ali Benhadj quoted in Paul Berman, Terror and Liberalism (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2003), pp. 119–120.
19 Quoted in Cook, Understanding, p. 129.
20 Qutb’s In the Shade of the Qur’an quoted in Berman, Terror, p. 102.
21 Quoted in Karsh, Islamic, p 19.
22 John F. Burns, “New Afghan Rulers Impose Harsh Mores of the Islamic Code,” New York Times, October 1, 1996. See also Radical Islam’s Rules, edited by Paul Marshall (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2005), p. 15.
23 Radical Islam’s Rules, p. 48.
24 Ibid., p. 13.
25 Yaroslav Trofimov, Faith at War (New York: Henry Holt & Company, 2005), p. 8.
26 Center for Religious Freedom, a division of Freedom House, The Talibanization of Nigeria: Sharia Law and Religious Freedom, 2002, p. 17, http://freedomhouse.org/religion/pdfdocs/Nigeria%20Report.pdf.
27 Karsh, Islamic, p. 217.
28 Daniel Byman, Deadly Connections (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), p. 92.
29 Bernard Lewis, The Shaping of the Modern Middle East (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), p. 122.
30 Emmanuel Sivan, Radical Islam: Medieval Theology and Modern Politics, enlarged ed. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990), pp. 6–13.
31 Ibid., p. 14.
32 Ibid., p. 10.
33 Quoted in Karsh, Islamic, p. 210, 211.
34 Quoted in Sivan, Radical, p. 24.
35 Qutb quoted in Karsh, Islamic, p. 212.
36 Al-Banna quoted in Karsh, Islamic, p. 209.
37 Lewis, Crisis, p. 159; see also Messages to the World: The Statements of Osama bin Laden, edited by Bruce Lawrence (London: Verso, 2005), p. 167.
38 Sayyid Qutb quoted in Berman, Terror, p. 69.
39 Ibid., p. 69.
40 Daniel Pipes, “Who Is the Enemy?” Commentary, January 2002, http://www.danielpipes..org/article/103.
41 Quoted in Berman, Terror, p. 95.
42 Lewis, Shaping, p. 72.
43 Daniel Pipes, The Rushdie Affair, 2nd ed. (New Brunswick: Transaction, 2004), p. 75.
44 Neil Mackay, “Anataomy of a Global Crisis: How the Fire Spread,” Sunday Herald, Scotland, UK, February 12, 2006, http://www.sundayherald.com/54058. Note that the title of the Egyptian newspaper is sometimes transliterated El Fagr.
45 Hassan M. Fattah, “At Mecca Meeting, Cartoon Outrage Crystallized,” New York Times, February 9, 2006, p. A1.
46 Trofimov, Faith at War, p. 204.
47 Lewis, Crisis, pp. 115–6, citing The Arab Human Development Report 2002: Creating Opportunities for Future Generations, sponsored by the Regional Bureau for Arab States/UNDP, Arab Fund for Economic and Social Development.
48 Ibid., p. 116.
49 Tofimov, Faith, p. 275.
50 Robin Wright, “The mind of Hezbollah,” Seattle Times, July 23, 2006, http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/opinion/2003143646_sundayhezbollah23.html.
51 Daniel Pipes, “A New Round of Anger and Humiliation: Islam after 9/11” in Our Brave New World: Essays on the Impact of September 11 (Stanford: Hoover Institution Press, 2002), pp. 41–61, http://www.danielpipes.org/article/417.
52 Trofimov, Faith, p. vx.
53 Sheik Muhammad Rafaat Othman, a scholar of Islamic law at Al-Azhar University in Cairo; Alan Zarembo, “A Merger of Mosque and State,” Newsweek, U.S. ed., October 15, 2001.
54 See the polls cited in Pipes, “A New Round.”
55 Pamela Constable, “Afghans’ Uneasy Peace with Democracy: In Discord over Convert’s Trial, Muslims Say They Identify with Islamic Law First,” Washington Post, April 22, 2006, p. A15; http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/04/21/AR2006042101747_pf.html.
56 The Life and Selected Writings of Thomas Jefferson, edited by Adrienne Koch and William Peden (New York: Random House, 1998), p. 399.
57 Pipes, “Who Is the Enemy?”
58 See Report of the Official Account of the Bombings in London on 7th July 2005 (London: The Stationery Office, 2006), http://www.official-documents.co.uk/document/hc0506/hc10/1087/1087.asp; Peter Whoriskey and Dan Eggen, “7 Held in Miami in Terror Plot Targeting Sears Tower,” Washington Post, June 23, 2006, p. A26.
59 Gilles Kepel, Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam (Cambridge: Belknap, 2002), p. 123.
60 Ibid., p. 131, 132.
61 Byman, Deadly, p. 85.
62 See “Hezbollah: ‘A-Team Of Terrorists,’” CBS News, April 18, 2003, http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2003/04/18/60minutes/main550000.shtml.
63 Byman quoting Saad-Ghoreyeb, Deadly, p. 97.
64 Koran, Sura 8:65, quoted Sayyid Qutb, Islam and Universal Peace (Burr Ridge: American Trust, 1993), p. 10.
65 Dore Gold, Hatred’s Kingdom (Washington: Regnery, 2003), p. 187.
66 Ibid., p. 127.
67 For more on the Saudi regime’s relation to organizations that channel funds to terrorist groups, see Gold’s Hatred’s Kingdom.