There's a "War on Terror" going on, says President George W. Bush. Sometimes we're even told it's a war against "evil." But regardless of nomenclature, the Bush administration takes great pains to emphasize that this is most certainly not a war on Islam. Is it?
The short answer is "no." We're not battling Islam, because there is no such thing as one Islam. One Islam cannot be extracted from the numerous offshoots, branches, and sects that make the world's 1.3 billion Muslims as ideologically, religiously, and politically fractured as the other two monotheistic faiths, Christianity and Judaism.
Still, all of the 19 hijackers on September 11 were Muslims. Every one of the FBI's 22 most wanted terrorists are Muslims. Nearly all the groups and individuals listed in President Bush's executive order blocking terrorist funds were Muslims, too. So how is this not a war on Islam?
Correction: Militant Islam
The "War on Terror" should really be called the "War on Militant Islam." The terrorists of September 11, Osama bin Laden, al-Qaeda, and the Taliban all adhere to an ideology we have come to know as militant Islam, a minority outgrowth of the faith that exudes a bitter hatred for Western ideas, including capitalism, individualism, and consumerism. It rejects the West and much that it has to offer (with the exception of weapons, medicines, and other useful technologies) seeking instead to implement a strict interpretation of the Koran (Islam's holy book) and shari'a (Islamic law). America, as radical Muslims see it, is the primary impediment to building an Islamic world order.
Accordingly, militant Islam directs its venom towards America and the West. The Taliban's supreme leader, Mullah Muhammad Omar, said after September 11 that "the plan [to destroy America] is going ahead and God willing it is being implemented, but it is a huge task beyond the will and comprehension of human beings. If God's help is with us, this will happen within a short period of time."
Sheikh Ikrama Sabri, a Palestinian Mufti (Islamic religious authority) said in a radio sermon broadcast in 1997, "Oh Allah, destroy America, her agents, and her allies! Cast them into their own traps, and cover the White House with black!"
"The American regime is the enemy of [Iran's] Islamic government and our revolution," said Iran's religious leader, Ali Khameine'i, in 1998. "It is the enemy of your revolution, your Islam, and your resistance to American bullying."
Accordingly, radical Muslims back up their words with deeds. They have a history of violence against American, Western, and even Muslim interests. But the movement did not appear spontaneously. Rather, it has taken 14 centuries to evolve.
From Conquests to Conquered
The history begins with the birth of Islam in the year 610, when the prophet Muhammed received his divine mission and accepted Allah's instructions for a new religion that commanded belief in one God. For the next 22 years, Muhammed served as a transmitter of Allah's message, and his Muslim empire grew to encompass most of the Arabian Peninsula. After the prophet's death, the Muslim empire continued to expand until the 17th century, when Muslims were unquestionably the world's greatest military force, having conquered extensive territory and converted millions throughout the Middle East and Southern Europe. Islam had also achieved unmatched advances in architecture, art, law, mathematics, and science.
With the exception of battling Christian Crusaders, most Muslims had little to do with the West. In fact, Ottoman Turkey, the dominant Islamic power in the 16th century, viewed the West with what Islam expert Bernard Lewis, in his book Islam and the West, calls "amused disdain" for its inferior culture and religion.
By the 17th century, however, as the West achieved military superiority, Lewis writes that the tone shifted to "alarmed dislike." By 1769, the Russians handed the Turks their first sound defeat, pointing to a new and difficult road ahead for Islam. Instead of conquering, the Muslims were conquered.
The empire soon unraveled. In 1798, Napoleon Bonaparte led his expedition into Egypt. In 1830, the French seized Algeria. Nine years later, the British coopted Aden (modern Yemen). In 1881, the French occupied Tunisia, and in 1882 the English tightened their grip on Egypt. In 1911, Russia captured parts of Persia. That same year, Italy announced the annexation of Tripoli, leading to the eventual creation of the modern state of Libya. In 1912, the French extended their influence to Morocco. By the end of World War I, the Ottoman Empire had lost the Middle East, as France and England carved up the Muslim empire as spoils of war. The Muslim world could do little more than look on helplessly.
But the most painful Western penetration into the Islamic world was undoubtedly the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948. To the embarrassment of the Muslim world, a unified front of Arab armies lost a bitter war to the newly formed country of only 600,000 Jews.
While the West may no longer have long-term imperialist designs on the Middle East, its influence is ubiquitous. This includes advancements in practical and physical sciences, modern weaponry and military reform, mass communication, law, and political reform, not to mention its fair share of McDonald's golden arches. These Western concepts and institutions, when transplanted to the Muslim world, are often destabilizing. They threaten the status quo, and are often too radically different to fit comfortably within a deeply rooted, traditional, and generally static Muslim culture. In short, the Islamic world may not have been ready for some of these changes.
The Rise of the Radicals
While many Muslims adapted to the fast-paced changes common to Western industrialization and modernization, some Muslims rejected them. Instead, they created a rigid ideology imbedded in the traditional values and laws of the Koran. This is the phenomenon known today as Islamic fundamentalism, or Islamism.
Islamism came to be seen as a struggle to return to the glorious days when Islam reigned supreme. It represents a yearning for the "pure" Islam as practiced by the prophet. Not unlike the American Amish, the movement rejects much that is innovative. Islamists, however, take the rejection of modernity a step further. They perceive those who have introduced these innovations (the West) as its enemy.
Western influence, however, was unstoppable. Consequently, writes Islamic fundamentalism expert Emmanuel Sivan in his book Radical Islam, a sense of "doom and gloom" developed among religious Muslims. Some perceived this world to be "the prison of the believers and the paradise of the unbelievers," according to Lewis. To them, this explained why Islamic values were losing out to the secularism of the West. Others argued that Allah was angry with Muslims for straying from the righteous path and was therefore punishing them for their disobedience.
In time, the Islamist vision crystallized. They not only rejected the influence of the West, they rejected the legitimacy of their own governments in the Arabic world, which they saw as subservient to the West. Thus, the overthrow of these regimes became an important part of the Islamist agenda.
The Makings of a Movement
The biggest push for this agenda came in 1928, with the founding of the Ikhwan al-Muslimun or Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. This organization became the cornerstone for most of today's Islamist movements, advocating Islamic beliefs and values as expressed by the common Egyptian. The organization, founded by Hassan al-Banna (1906-1949), rejected western rule and England's secular influence over Egypt. Without religious governance, al-Banna believed the Muslim world would be "a society of cultural mongrels and spiritual half-castes."
"Politics is part of religion," he wrote. "Caesar and what belongs to Caesar is for God Almighty alone Islam commanded a unity of life; to impose upon Islam the Christian separation of loyalties [into church and state] is to deny it its essential meaning and very existence."
Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood soon developed armed cells that attacked the government and its supporters. Not surprisingly, the movement was soon outlawed. But this did not stop the group from continuing its activities. In an attempt to quell the movement, al-Banna was executed in Cairo in 1949.
However, al-Banna's death did not hinder the growth of Islamism. The Muslim Brotherhood found further inspiration in the 1950s and 1960s from Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966), a radical exegete who provided Koranic justifications for attacking secular Arab leaders that called themselves believers, but who did not run their governments according to the shari'a or Islamic law. In his most famous book, Milestones, he advocated jihad, or holy war, as a means to shake off the shackles of repressive secular regimes.
"This movement . . . harnesses material power and invokes jihad for eliminating the Jahili [ignorant] order and its supporting authority, for they interfere with and prevent the efforts to reform the beliefs and ideas of humanity at large, and by dint of its resources and aberrant methods forces them to obey it and makes them bow before human lords instead of the Almighty Lord... The very purpose of this movement is to set human beings free from the yoke of human enslavement and make them serve the One and Only God."Qutb was executed by the Egyptian regime in 1966 for propagating Islamic radicalism and political violence. Still, the movement survived. In fact, the Muslim Brotherhood movement has since gone global. The organization today has hundreds of branches in over 70 countries worldwide.
Militant Islam also gained momentum after the devastating Arab loss to Israel in the Six-Day War of June 1967. Yet another defeat for the Muslim world came at the hands of the Jews, a people Muslims regard as religiously inferior. Worse was the fact that Jerusalem, Islam's third holiest site, had been conquered. Looking for answers, increasing numbers of Middle Eastern Muslims returned to their Islamic roots.
In 1969, Colonel Mu'ammar Qaddaffi took power in Libya by military coup. Qaddaffi, notes historian Raphael Israeli, soon began to emphasize "the trend toward the predominance of Islam in the making of the domestic and international policies of Islamic nations." With vast oil wealth behind him, Qaddaffi financed various terror operations against what he perceived to be an imperialist West. Qaddaffi, today, remains one of history's largest financiers of militant Islamic terror.
Finally, a decade later occurred what many historians call "the earthquake." In 1979, Iran became the first modern Islamic republic, as Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini overthrew Iran's secular regime and established a new order in which shari'a became law. Suddenly, Islamism was no longer an ideology of movements. It had inspired a state.
The 23-Year War
America's first violent introduction to militant Islam came shortly after Khomeini's Islamic Republic was established in 1979, when Islamic extremists seized the U.S. embassy in the Iranian capital of Tehran. For 444 days, the militants held 52 Americans hostage. After a botched helicopter rescue attempt, America agreed to release nearly $8 billion in Iranian assets to free the hostages. The hostages were returned and America breathed a sigh of relief. Most people felt the nightmare had ended. In fact, it was only beginning.
Iran, we soon learned, had successfully "exported" radical Islam to other parts of the Islamic world. Perhaps the easiest target of all was Lebanon, a small, war-torn state that had been bloodied by years of internal conflict.
When American soldiers arrived in Lebanon for a peacekeeping mission, militant Islam struck again. There were two deadly attacks against Americans in 1983. The first was the April 18 bombing of the American embassy in Beirut. Six months later came a suicide attack on the U.S. Marine barracks on October 23 that killed 241.
The suicide attack was America's first experience with this kind of terror. In time, it was learned that the attack was sanctioned by an Iranian-backed guerrilla movement called Hizbullah (Party of God). The group's spiritual guide, Muhammed Hussein Fadlallah, contended in a fiery speech that "the oppressed nations do not have the technology and destructive weapons America and Europe have. They must thus fight with special means of their own." These special means were apparently too much for America. U.S. forces left Lebanon several months later.
Encouraged by an ambivalent America, a rash of militant Islamist violence followed. First, the American embassy in Beirut was bombed again on September 20, 1984. Then, in December 1984 on a hijacked plane in Tehran, Islamic extremists tortured and murdered two Americans. This came alongside the abduction of more than a dozen Americans in Beirut between March 1984 and January 1985. Finally, in June 1985, Islamic militants hijacked yet another flight with more than 100 Americans aboard, killing one of them.
Militant Islam resurfaced on December 21, 1988, when Pan Am Flight 103 exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing all 259 people on board, as well as 11 residents hit by the fuselage on the ground. The flight was en route to New York from Frankfurt, Germany, via London.
The movement found further impetus in 1989 from the furor over Salman Rushdie and his controversial book, The Satanic Verses. Taking into account the passage below, it should come as no surprise that the book offended Muslims worldwide.
"Amid the palm-trees of the oasis Gibreel appeared to the Prophet and found himself spouting rules, rules, rules, until the faithful could scarcely bear the prospect of any more revelation, Salman said, rules about every damn thing, if a man farts let him turn his face to the wind, a rule about which hand to use for the purpose of cleaning one's behind. It was as if no aspect of human existence was to be left unregulated, free. The revelation the recitation told the faithful how much to eat, how deeply they should sleep, and which sexual positions had received divine sanction, so that they learned that sodomy and the missionary position were approved of by the arch-angel, whereas the forbidden postures included all those in which the female was on top."Rather than merely stating that the book was offensive, or banning the book from Muslim bookstores, Iran's Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini sentenced Rushdie to death for blasphemy:
"In the name of God the almighty. We belong to God and to Him we shall return. I would like to inform all intrepid Muslims in the world that the author of the book Satanic Verses . . . and those publishers who were aware of its contents, are sentenced to death. I call on all zealous Muslims to execute them quickly, where they find them, so that no one will dare to insult the Islamic sanctities. Whoever is killed on this path will be regarded as a martyr, God willing. In addition, if anyone who has access to the author of the book does not possess the power to execute him, he should point him out to the people so that he may be punished for his actions. May God's blessing be upon you. Ruhollah Musavi al-Khomeini."Khomeini's fatwa, or decree, sparked an unprecedented wave of international Islamist violence. In the year to come, book agents were stabbed, newspapers were firebombed, and demonstrations regularly resulted in bloodshed.
The Battle Comes Home
In time, the Rushdie Affair subsided, but the war continued. On February 23, 1993, a large bomb exploded in New York's World Trade Center, killing six and wounding 1,000. Led by Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, the "Blind Sheikh of New York," the plot was pinned to al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya, a radical Egyptian group previously thought to be contained in that country. The American government did a terrific job of putting the culprits behind bars, but left the real counter-terrorism dirty work to Egyptian President Husni Mubarak, who continues to battle the insurgent group today.
But perhaps more shocking than the first World Trade Center attack itself was the realization that the culprits had been living in America for years. Worse, their intentions had been made clear well before the attacks. Earlier that year in Brooklyn, Rahman fingered America as the foremost enemy of Islam. "We must be terrorists," he said, "and we must terrorize the enemies of Islam and frighten them and disturb them and shake the earth under their feet." When the case was brought to trial, it was learned that the bombers had hoped to bring down the World Trade Center something that would take another eight years to accomplish.
On October 3, 1993, America suffered another defeat against militant Islam, this time in Somalia. As depicted in the recent movie Blackhawk Down, two American Army Blackhawk helicopters were shot down and a third crash-landed on a botched mission designed to capture a radical Muslim warlord. The result was that 18 Americans died and 78 were injured.
In 1995, a suicide car-bomber targeted a military training school in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, killing five American instructors. A year later, a truck bomb exploded, destroying part of a housing complex used by American Air Force personnel in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. In that attack, 19 Americans were killed and 240 were injured. The U.S. responded by imposing sanctions against Sudan's Islamist regime, where a terrorist named Osama bin Laden was staying as a guest.
Meanwhile, in 1995, a previously unknown group called the Taliban made headlines when it captured more than half of Afghanistan after years of bloody internal conflict. While brutal violence became commonplace and human rights were virtually nonexistent, the group only began to receive notoriety when it provided asylum for the fugitive bin Laden in 1997. With safe haven in Afghanistan, bin Laden's al-Qaeda (pronounced al-Ka-ee-da, not al-Kay-da) organization began to operate with increasing potency.
Despite all the media hype, al-Qaeda (literally, "the base") is actually just an umbrella group that facilitates and orchestrates the operations of Islamic militants around the globe. It's a kind of Internet for terrorists, whereby information, resources, and people are connected and funneled through a hub. In other words, Osama bin Laden may or may not be directly responsible for the attacks of September 11, the USS Cole, or the twin embassies in East Africa. However, bin Laden's organization, since its inception in 1988, can be tied to planning these operations, as well as to other plots around the globe.
Al-Qaeda's roots are in the CIA-sponsored Afghan war against the Soviets (1980-1989). During that time, with the help of U.S. weapons and funding, radical Muslims from all over the world came to Afghanistan to fight the Soviet occupation. Bin Laden, the son of a Saudi millionaire, was among them. He reportedly won the hearts of his fellow mujahedin (jihad fighters) by not only fighting valiantly, but by financing a recruiting office for the Afghanistan jihad.
Specifically, bin Laden and a Palestinian militant named Abdallah Azzam opened Maktab al-Khidamat, or the Services Office. Bin Laden reportedly paid to bring the new recruits to Afghanistan and built training camps for them. Further, "the Prince," as he is called, imported experts to train his new mujahedin in guerilla tactics and terror warfare. Over the years, thousands trained at his camps.
In 1988, as the war wound down, bin Laden began to forge an official network out of these Muslim extremists. He called this network al-Qaeda. For 14 years now, although many of these jihad fighters have returned to their home countries around the world, bin Laden has kept that network alive through the Internet, cell phones, faxes, and other high-tech means.
The goals of al-Qaeda are three-pronged. First, the organization seeks to overthrow what it sees as the corrupt and heretical governments of today's Muslim states, specifically bin Laden's home country, Saudi Arabia. Bin Laden sees the Saudi regime American lackeys, especially since the royal family has allowed U.S. servicemen to stay in Saudi Arabia since the 1991 Gulf War. Accordingly, al-Qaeda views the U.S. as the primary enemy of Islam, and seeks to destroy it.
Finally, al-Qaeda seeks to bolster the efforts of jihad groups throughout the world. This includes, but is not limited to, Algeria, Chechnya, Eritrea, and Somalia. Afghanistan and Sudan, two regimes that had adopted strict Islamist laws, were also heavily influenced by al-Qaeda.
Bin Laden Emerges
At first, bin Laden's name was only loosely linked to several acts of terrorism. According to the U.S. State Department, his network was implicated in the December 1992 attacks on a hotel in Yemen that injured several tourists, but was probably intended for American servicemen. His name came up again in connection with the first World Trade Center bombing and the 1993 attacks against American servicemen in Somalia. Bin Laden's network was additionally said to have assisted the terrorists who tried to assassinate Egyptian President Husni Mubarak in 1995, and those who were responsible for the November 1995 attack on American training personnel in Riyadh. He was also tied to the bombing that killed about 30 people in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, in June of 1996.
But it wasn't until February 23, 1998, that we began to see the real face of Osama bin Laden and his terrorist network, with the creation of an organization he called "The Islamic World Front for the Struggle Against the Jews and the Crusaders."
In the Islamic World Front statement, the group called upon "Muslim ulema, leaders, youths, and people" to "kill the Americans and their allies civilian and military This is in accordance with the words of Almighty God."
With the creation of this umbrella group, it was apparent that al-Qaeda had a wider reach than previously imagined. Signatories of the statement included leaders of the radical Egyptian groups al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya and al-Jihad, as well as the Pakistani Jamiat-ul-Ulema-e-Pakistan and the Jihad Movement in Bangladesh.
Still despite these links, and the newly-revealed network of terror, U.S. attorney Mary Jo White could only indirectly link al-Qaeda to the training of the tribesmen who attacked U.S. soldiers in Somalia. This changed in August 1998, when al-Qaeda operative Mohammed Sadiq Odeh was arrested in Pakistan. Under FBI interrogation, Odeh provided details of bin Laden's international network, as well as his role in the embassy bombings. Since then, other suspects have provided equally vital information.
In June 1999, Bin Laden was added to the FBI's most wanted list. One month later, U.S. President Bill Clinton imposed sanctions on the Taliban for harboring him. Despite the pressure, bin Laden continued to run al-Qaeda from caves in Afghanistan with increasing efficiency. In fact, U.S. intelligence obtained a copy of a six-volume terrorism manual used by bin Laden to train his recruits for al-Qaeda.
U.S. intelligence has since foiled many al-Qaeda plots, including one designed to disrupt millennium celebrations in December 1999. Still, while countless attacks have been averted, the USS Cole bombing in 2000 and the September 11 attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center are proof that al-Qaeda plots against American interests can still slip beneath the radar.
With the destruction of the Taliban regime, and Osama bin Laden on the run, al-Qaeda has had to restructure. If bin Laden is caught, al-Qaeda will suffer another serious blow. Still, because it is only a facilitating network for militant Islam, the likelihood of al-Qaeda's longevity is almost certainly assured. Thus, the prospect of a long and protracted war against militant Islam is effectively guaranteed.
A Little Perspective
Given that militant Islam has plagued America for 22 years, and that bin Laden has terrorized America for 14 years, the attacks of September 11 should not have been surprising. A trend had been established. So, perhaps the biggest shock of that tragic day was the nation's utter surprise. Psychologically, America was completely unprepared for the attacks. Why?
Former CIA director James Woolsey has one explanation. In a presentation to the Middle East Forum in New York City on March 7, 2001, he compared the 1980s and 1990s in America to another period in U.S. history the Roaring Twenties. In the 1920s, America was euphoric after its resounding recent victory in the First World War. A feeling of invincibility swept through America that led the nation to completely overlook the rise of Hitler in Germany. As Europe descended into war, America stood idly across the Atlantic in a state of denial. Finally, with a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, America was shocked, angered, and thrust unwillingly into war.
Today's America is not much different. Thanks to exponential economic growth, an unprecedented technology boom, and its status as the world's lone superpower, America grew by leaps and bounds through the 1980s and 1990s, and understandably became somewhat complacent. Our government, all the while, refused to face up to a new enemy. Militant Islam had already conquered three Middle East countries: Iran, Sudan, and Afghanistan. All the while, more than a dozen other regimes around the world were fighting for their very existence against a militant Islamic movement that grew stronger by the day. It took a horrific day like September 11 for Americans to realize the problem could no longer be ignored.
In fact, our consistent disinclination to respond to earlier attacks lies behind the events of September 11. Consider bin Laden's own words. "We have seen in the last decade the decline of the American government and the weakness of the American soldier. He is ready to wage cold wars but unprepared to fight hot wars...We are ready for all occasions, we rely on God."
What bin Laden said back then, in 1998, is that America didn't deter him. Three years later, he felt emboldened enough to attack America because we had balked at almost every prior showdown. America might have the strongest military in the world, but it has a history of ineffectuality against militant Islam. In the absence of U.S. reprisals, without deterrence, militant Islam found the confidence to strike again.
America Fights Back
With the launch of Operation Enduring Freedom, America is now struggling to reassert that deterrence. America handily picked apart the Taliban in Afghanistan, and is carefully weighing its options for a next target. The next target, however, will not be as easy to identify.
For one, the target is not easy to see. From Morocco in Northwest Africa to Malaysia in Southeast Asia, militant Islam continues to grow by stealth. Adherents of militant Islam account for some 15-20 percent of the Muslim world, according to Daniel Pipes, an expert on the subject. This means that more than 150 million people are part of the problem. To make matters worse, they hide among the moderates. They don't wear uniforms and rarely identify themselves.
Fortunately, we can pinpoint a few of their centers of influence. Accordingly, America has turned up the heat in such countries as Saudi Arabia and Yemen, where radical Muslims have operated freely for decades. Working to stay in the good graces of an awakened (and angry) United States, these countries, among others, have worked to coordinate with American intelligence, crack down on their militants, and preempt an American operation. Indeed, one could call this Operation Enduring Freedom's "Phase 1.5." Only time will tell if these countries can battle terror effectively on their own.
After that, America faces hard decisions. In this new and long-overdue war against the forces of terror, the path ahead is daunting. Militant Islam has strongholds in Algeria, Egypt, Somalia, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, the Palestinian territories, Lebanon, Jordan, Yemen, Malaysia, the Philippines, Indonesia, Nigeria, and Pakistan, to name just a few countries. The challenge now will be finding ways to destroy the radical infrastructure and arrest or kill militants while simultaneously bolstering the influence of moderate Muslims. How to accomplish this task is unclear.
To its credit, the Bush administration has made all the right moves so far. For the moment, radical Islam appears to be beating a retreat. But the battle is not yet won. The roots of militant Islam run deep and may take many years to eradicate. Accordingly, this country must prepare itself for future confrontations. More importantly, Americans must understand that this is not a war on terrorism. Indeed, terrorism is only a tactic. This struggle is against a radical, utopian ideology and those who carry out violence in its name.
©1994-2014 The Middle East Forum E-mail: info (at) meforum (dot) org Daniel J. Pipes