By analyzing what al-Qa'ida preaches to Muslims regarding Islam's relationship to the non-Muslim world at large, and what it states to the West are its reasons for battling it, this essay seeks to highlight the many disparities behind al-Qa'ida's words. Juxtaposed in themes, the following excerpts are all derived from Usama bin Ladin's and Ayman al-Zawahiri's writings and speeches as found in The Al Qa'ida Reader.
Is al-Qa'ida waging war on the United States--issuing a fatwa to "kill the Americans and seize their money" (p. 13)in retaliation to U.S. oppression, or is this animosity founded on something else? Is it mere reciprocity or is it a religion-based ideology? Talking to the West, al-Qa'ida insists it is reciprocal treatment; talking to fellow Muslims it insists that Islam demands this animosity. Consider the following discrepancies:
When addressing the United States, bin Ladin writes in response to the rhetorical question "Why we [al-Qa'ida] are fighting you," "[b]ecause you attacked us and continue to attack us." (p. 197) In fact, reciprocal treatment has been al-Qa'ida's sole justification for all the terrorist acts it has perpetrated against the West. The West attacks Muslims----for oil, Israel, land, or "Crusader" hatred----and al-Qa'ida retaliates on behalf of Muslims.
Even the September 11 strikes are rationalized as mere acts of reciprocity. After describing the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, where a massive bombing campaign leveled several high-rise apartment buildings and left thousands of Arabs dead, bin Ladin said, "[A]s I looked upon those crumbling towers in Lebanon, I was struck by the idea of punishing the oppressor in kind by destroying towers in America----giving them a taste of their own medicine and deterring them from murdering our women and children." (p. 215)
After September 11, when several more terrorist acts were committed around the world, targeting mostly Europeans, bin Ladin declared:
After the July 2004 London bombings, Zawahiri addressed the citizens of the United Kingdom thus: "I speak to you today about the blessed raid on London that... made it take a sip from the same glass from which it had long made the Muslims drink.... So taste some of what you have made us taste." (p. 238)
There is no question, then, that al-Qa'ida's defense for committing all these acts of terrorism is that it is merely, as bin Ladin puts it, returning the West's "goods"--that is, "terrorism"--back to itself. Such a defense is plausible--provided, of course, that the West is guilty of initiating the terror. Under this interpretation, al-Qa'ida gouges the West's eye since the West first gouged Islam's eye.
Moreover, this defense is ultimately rooted in the "universal" concept of justice. Most people around the world, irrespective of religion or race, understand the concept of crime and punishment. And the Torah's "eye for an eye" injunction has been the standard for many people--no doubt due to its primordial, and thus universal, sensibilities. Yet even though al-Qa'ida implies that it is acting under some sort of "universal law" that both Muslims and non-Muslims can appreciate, that is not fully true. For Muslims there is only one particular set of laws that are to be adhered to--Shari'a --and even if Shari'a contradicts something that non-Muslims consider a "universal right"--such as equality--still, Shari'a must have the final word.
When a group of Muslim scholars wrote to the Americans saying that there should be equality, justice, and freedom, between the West and Islam, bin Ladin had this to say about it:
Islam, or "submission" to Allah, is the ultimate form of justice, the Islamists argue; everything else, depending on how far it deviates from Shari'a is oppression, injustice, and corruption. To be sure, under Shari'a, Muslims are to defend themselves against infidel aggression--to wage a "Defensive Jihad" as al-Qa'ida claims to be doing. Indeed, most of Shari'a's divine guidelines concerning jihad have to do with the legitimacy and obligation of waging Offensive Jihad, simply to gain territory and lord over infidels; how necessary is Defensive Jihad, then, when there is a need to repulse the infidel from Islamic lands?
However, Shari'a has other notions--equally binding according to Islamists like those who make up its leadership--that do not comport so well with al-Qa'ida's claim that all this terrorism is simply due to Western aggression and Muslim retaliation. In other words, under Shari'a law, even if the West completely ceased all its hostilities, real or imagined, against the Islamic world, total peace would still not commence. Under Shari'a, permanent peace can only commence when the entire world either embraces or at the very least is governed by Islam.
Discussing the need to overthrow those Muslim "apostate" governments that do not rule in accordance to Shari'a, bin Ladin, addressing Americans, says: "The removal of these governments is an obligation upon us, and a necessary step to free the Islamic umma [community], make Shari'a law supreme, and regain Palestine. Our fight against these governments is one with our fight against you." (p. 199)
Ayman al-Zawahiri similarly exhorts Muslims:
That last sentence--"making Islam supreme in its [own] land, and then spreading it around the world"--raises questions regarding al-Qa'ida's statements to the West, the fundamental one being: Even if all of the West's perceived or real hostilities vis-à-vis the Islamic world were to cease, would Islam then be at peace with the outside world?
Concerning this question, bin Ladin has been forthright--though only when speaking to fellow Muslims. "Moderate Islam is a Prostration to the West" (p. 17-61)--the most revealing and straightforward document produced by al-Qa'ida--puts its vision of Islam's relationship with the rest of the world in clear context.
In this essay, Muslims (in the guise of Saudi intellectuals who, in response to a letter of cooperation written by Americans, responded with their own letter) are chastised for even daring to want to coexist with the infidel West. Bin Ladin makes clear that the animosity between the Muslim and the infidel--which should always be "directed from the Muslim to the infidel" (p. 43)--far transcends any talk of grievances.
UNIVERSAL JUSTICE VS. SHARI'A JUSTICE
Here, the concept of "universal justice," which al-Qa'ida constantly makes appeals to in its messages to the West, is ridiculed with contempt. For example, when writing to the Europeans bin Ladin said: "I call upon just men--especially ulama [scholars], media, and businessmen--to form a permanent commission to enlighten the European peoples of the justice of our causes, particularly Palestine." (p. 235)
Yet when the Saudi intellectuals wrote, "the heart of the relationship between Muslims and non-Muslims is justice, kindness, and charity--this is the equity that Allah loves and has commanded us with [p. 42]," bin Ladin was quick to clarify what true justice is:
Yet writing to the Saudis, bin Ladin clarifies al-Qa'ida's true notions of oppression and injustice:
UNIVERSAL COMMONALITIES VS. OFFENSIVE JIHAD
In fact, Offensive Jihad, something about which al-Qa'ida dissembles vis-à-vis the West, figures prominently in bin Ladin's diatribe to the Saudi intellectuals. In 1997, a direct question was asked of bin Ladin by a Westerner: "Mr. bin Ladin, will the end of the United States' presence in Saudi Arabia, their withdrawal, will that end your call for jihad against the United States?" Bin Ladin responded:
However, bin Ladin's ultimate motives became apparent after the Saudi intellectuals wrote: "Thus we say in all earnestness and plainly that we can open a mature dialogue around every issue that the West submits, ever cognizant that we share a number of understandings, moral values, rights, and ideas with the West, which, if fostered, can create a better [world] for all concerned" (p. 37)
To this "blasphemy," bin Ladin wrote extensively:
Moreover, when the Saudi intellectuals dared write: "It's imperative that we bid all to legitimate talks, presented to the world, under the umbrella of justice, morality, and rights, ushering in legislations creating peace and prosperity for the world," [p. 31] bin Ladin lamented:
FREEDOM VS. TERRORISM
Al-Qa'ida has maintained that its hostilities to the West have absolutely nothing to do with the latter's freedoms. Speaking to the Americans, bin Ladin asserted, "From the start, I tell you that security is an indispensable pillar of human life; free men do not underestimate their security--contrary to [President George W.] Bush's claim that we hate freedom.  If so, let him explain to us why we have not attacked Sweden, for instance." [p. 214].
Speaking to the Europeans, bin Ladin tries to define terrorism: "[W]e inform you that your description of us as 'terrorists' and our actions as 'terrorism' necessarily means that you and your actions must be defined likewise. Our actions are merely reactions to yours...." (p. 234)
Finally, bin Ladin makes it quite clear that terrorism is used only in reciprocity since al-Qa'ida has no other choice: "Shall a man be blamed for protecting his own? Self-defense and punishing the wicked in kind--are these shameful [acts of] 'terrorism'? And even if it is, we have no other option." (p. 216)
Taken together, all these messages assert that the terror al-Qa'ida inflicts upon the West has nothing to do with Western freedoms and everything to do with reciprocal treatment. Moreover, by stating "we have no other option" than to engage in acts of terrorism, bin Ladin clearly implies that terrorism is being relied upon as a last resort out of desperation. Thus al-Qa'ida maintains that there is no correlation between Western freedoms and Islamic terrorism--that the latter is never used simply to suppress the former.
This is not the case when addressing the Saudis. After they wrote to the Americans saying that Islam does not allow coercion in matters of religion, bin Ladin, once again, revealed his true beliefs and ultimate goals. The Saudi intellectuals had declared, "It is not permitted to coerce anyone regarding his religion. Allah Most High said: 'There is no compulsion in religion' [Koran 2:256]. Thus Islam itself does not comport with coercion." (p. 40) After explaining that this verse has to do with matters of the heart and not Islam's destiny to rule the whole world, bin Ladin quotes the Hadith:
When the Saudi intellectuals wrote: "Man, from his very make-up, is a sacred creation. Thus it is impermissible to transgress against him, no matter what his color, race, or religion." Bin Ladin, after mocking their language for its "UN" tone, wrote extensively:
As for direct support for terrorism, bin Ladin again refers to the Koran:
The Saudi intellectuals wrote: "Terrorism, according to the universally agreed meaning being used today, is but one of many manifestations of unjust aggression against life and property." Bin Ladin, outraged, responds:
Taken together, the above three sections all demonstrate that for al-Qa'ida, hostility and violence towards the West is not merely "reciprocal treatment"--that is, "an eye for an eye"--but rather religious obligation that far transcends any and all notions of "universal justice" and claims to grievances. However, there are two more notable contradictions between what they say to the West and what they affirm to Muslims. Consider the following disparities:
TRUCE VS. TAQIYYA
On two separate occasions, al-Qa'ida, in the person of bin Ladin, has offered the West a truce. In April of 2002, bin Ladin offered European nations an apparently long-lasting truce: "I therefore offer them this peace treaty [mudabarat sulh], which essentially is a commitment to cease operations against every country that pledges not to attack Muslims or interfere in their business--including the American conspiracy against the greater Islamic world.... Stop shedding our blood and thereby save your own." [p. 235]
In late January 2006, bin Ladin, who had not been heard from for over a year, resurfaced by way of an audio-tape and offered the Americans a truce: "So we have no qualms in offering you a long-term truce on fair conditions that we adhere to. For we are the umma that Allah has forbidden from double-crossing and lying." [p. 224]
However, while Islam does permit the making of truces with infidels, it only allows this under certain conditions--namely, when Muslims are in a weakened position and unable to wage an Offensive Jihad effectively. In "Jihad, Martyrdom, and the Killing of Innocents," Ayman Zawahiri declares:
In this same treatise, Zawahiri stresses the need for deception in warfare. Based on Muhammad's assertion--"War [is] deceit"--Zawahiri goes on to say:
More importantly, however, in Ayman al-Zawahiri's treatise "Loyalty and Enmity," Muslims are flat-out told that lying and dissembling in front of infidels is permitted. This is the doctrine of taqiyya (religiously sanctioned lies for purposes of self-preservation), which has plenty of Koranic but especially Hadith support. The Koran states: "Let Believers not take for friends and allies infidels rather than Believers: and who so does this shall have no relationship left with Allah--unless you but guard yourselves against them, taking precautions." (Koran 3:28) Two of the more famous Hadiths evoked by al-Qa'ida say, "Truly, we grin to the faces of some peoples, while our hearts curse them"; and "Protection is not secured by deeds but with the tongue." (p. 73)
Finally, there are also several Hadiths of Muhammad that justify oath-breaking. For instance, "Allah's Messenger [Muhammad] said, 'He who takes an oath but eventually finds a better way should do that which is better and break his oath.'" (Sahih Muslim 15: 4057)
Considering that al-Qa'ida subscribes to the view that Islam must war with the non-Muslim world till the former subsumes the latter, and that they also subscribe to these doctrines of deceit, what is to be made of al-Qa'ida's truce-offers?
WHY THE WEST IS HOSTILE TO ISLAM
As aforementioned, in their messages to the West, al-Qa'ida maintains that the former is unjust towards Islam for a plethora of reasons--Israeli interests, oil, land, and Crusader hatred being prominent among them. A quick perusal of The Al Qaeda Reader's "Propaganda" section will clearly confirm this. Even in most of their messages to Muslims, al-Qa'ida is quick to stress these reasons in order to incite Muslims, gain their sympathy, and grow in recruits. However, in "Moderate Islam is a Prostration to the West," bin Ladin changes his tune. He repeatedly states that the West is ultimately hostile to Islam because it knows that Islam is hostile to it--that "the West avenges itself against Islam for giving infidels but three options: Islam, jizya, or the sword." (p. 42)
The West is hostile to us on account of Loyalty and Enmity, and [Offensive] Jihad.... What the West desires is that we abandon [the doctrine of] Loyalty and Enmity, and abandon [Offensive] Jihad. This is the very essence of their request and desire of us. Do the intellectuals, then, think it's actually possible for Muslims to abandon these two commandments simply to coexist with the West? [p. 30] In fact, the West did not treat Islam in this atrocious manner until after it [first] understood the truth about Islam--comprehended its essence and soul. And the West is knowledgeable of all religions, but it would never confront any of them, nor persecute their people. But it is bent on pulverizing the Muslims, since first learning of their enterprise [Offensive Jihad and the "three choices"]. [p. 55]
RECIPROCITY OR RELIGION?
All of the above clearly demonstrates that, for al-Qa'ida, the war with the West is not finite but eternal. The current battles may ostensibly revolve around U.S. presence in Islamic lands, or support for Israel, or support for secular though dictatorial regimes, or even oil. Even so, the ultimate war does not end with a cessation of these real or perceived injustices, but rather with the West's--indeed, the rest of the non-Islamic world's--submission to Islam. As the words of Usama bin Ladin and Ayman al-Zawahiri--all grounded in the traditional sources of Islam--make clear, the war with the West revolves around something more transcendent than temporal grievances. It revolves around "eternal truths."
How, then, should al-Qa'ida's messages to the West--wholly crafted to vindicate al-Qa'ida, weaken Western resolve, and incite the umma--be taken? Should one conclude that all those grievances that al-Qa'ida cite are wholly unfounded? Not necessarily. In fact, it is precisely because the vast majority of the world's 1.2 billion Muslims, not to mention a considerable number of non-Muslims, believe these grievances to be true that al-Qa'ida enjoys the apparent widespread--sympathetic if not actual--support that they receive.
All that said, Westerners should also be cognizant of what al-Qa'ida and like-minded Islamists ultimately want as the former consider the long list of alleged wrongs the Islamic world has suffered at the hands of the West. In other words, if al-Qa'ida's arguably "just" demands are met--if the United States evacuates Iraq and Afghanistan, if the West keeps its nose out of the Islamic world's affairs, even if Israel were to disappear--would all that be enough to satisfy al-Qa'ida and their supporters? Certainly, it would be a start. Yet based on their words and convictions that all injunctions of the Koran must be fulfilled, it is clear that, when the time is ripe, the jihad would merely shift from being Defensive to being Offensive--the latter being the true and historic manifestation of jihad.
Nor should Westerners believe that al-Qa'ida is the root of the problem. The "problem" between the West--in fact, the world--and Islam is the "radical" version of the latter articulated by al-Qa'ida but also other Islamists--past, present, and no doubt future. This is even historically demonstrable: When Hasan al-Bana and Sayyid Qutb (respectively, founder and ideologue of Egypt's famous Muslim Brotherhood) were assassinated, that organization did not fall apart but continued thriving underground for decades until to international dismay it won a fair number of seats in Egypt's recent elections; the Iranian Islamic Revolution did not die with its spiritual leader, the Ayatollah Khomeini, but is as strong now as it was then--with the exception that its nuclear aspirations are nearly realized; after the spiritual leader of Hamas, Ahmad Yassin was assassinated, far from losing influence, Hamas won the majority of house seats in Palestine's recent elections. Ayman al-Zawahiri summarizes this phenomenon well:
The bottom line is, perceived Western injustices--as propagated by bin Ladin's mantras--have nothing to do with the ultimate source of hostilities between Islam and the West (Infidelity). The doctrine of Offensive Jihad, spreading the laws of Allah to every corner of the world by the sword and enforcing the practice of dhimmitude (that is, discriminating and humiliating those who, having been conquered and living under Islamic suzerainty, still do not embrace Islam officially), was and remains a basic tenant of Islam--well before it ever encountered the West:
The word "until" (hata) highlights the perpetual nature of this command. Enmity for non-Muslims, irrespective of whether or not they harm the Muslim is also a basic tenant of the faith, established before Islam and the West met:
It is important to keep in mind that these verses have nothing to do with reciprocity; instead they express the standard relationship between Muslims and infidels--even when the latter do not interfere in Muslims' affairs, militarily, economically, politically, or culturally, and completely mind their own business. Moreover, such hostility is perceived as altruistic, as bin Ladin concludes: "As for oppression, the only oppression is to forsake them in their unbelief, and not launch an [Offensive] Jihad against them till they submit to the faith--as the Prophet did with them." (p. 46)
At this point many will proclaim that al-Qa'ida is misusing, misinterpreting, or taking these otherwise straightforward verses out of context. That is hardly the point here: Even if this were true, that does not change the fact that many men before al-Qa'ida, going back to the first jihads of the seventh century, have also "misused" them, or that many today who have nothing to do with al-Qa'ida, "misinterpret them," or ultimately that many after al-Qa'ida will also be taking them "out of context." In other words, even if those verses really do not mean what they seem to be saying, they certainly led themselves to the sort of hostile interpretation that al-Qa'ida and other Islamists, past, present and future, give to them. This is all the more troubling since it took only 19 men who follow such "interpretations" to cause September 11.
Irrespective of real or imagined Western injustices, the real question of permanent peace revolves around the above Islamic doctrines. In this sense, then, real peace ultimately depends on Islam and how it defines itself: Either Islam will dominate the whole world fulfilling its destiny, or else Muslims themselves will reject the doctrines of jihad, dhimmitude, and general enmity for non-Muslims. The problem, however, is that even if all these divisive doctrines are formally repudiated--will that be merely a show of taqiyya, a stratagem of war?
Based purely on al-Qa'ida's, that is, radical Islam's, worldview, it is readily apparent that the West is given no choice but to fight--to gain the upper-hand and strive to keep it, even at the risk of being oppressive. What good are al-Qa'idist appeals to justice in face of its belief that every person has but three choices (convert to Islam, live the life of a dhimmi, or die)? What good is it telling the West that they have "choices" in face of an immutable Shari'a? What good is a truce in face of doctrines of deception?
This is unfortunate for Muslims, and in this sense al-Qa'ida's "version" of Islam brings them more harm then good. If Islam is perceived as being intrinsically hostile to the infidel world at large--as al-Qa'ida and many other Muslim insist--all of the possibly legitimate grievances that many Muslims believe they are suffering become moot, since the West is doing what it must to stay dominant against a potentially hostile force. Thus even if Muslims are being oppressed, as long as these grievances are being articulated through an Islamic paradigm that perceives justice solely through Shari'a and not through anything universal or innate to the human condition, the West--in the interest of self-preservation as well as the preservation of freedoms--has no choice but to reject all accusations, offers, and threats from Islamists, and fight.
Indeed, according to this worldview, upheld by al-Qa'ida, where the Abode of Peace (Islam) and the Abode of War (the rest) are forever in a struggle of life and death, the West can hardly be blamed for behaving oppressively, if in fact it does, towards the Islamic world. In this context, such oppression can be understood as a sort of "preemptive" reciprocal treatment, as the argument can be made that if the West does not keep Islam suppressed, Islam will suppress it. A survival of the fittest mentality--"get them before they get us"--is the only mentality that can withstand radical Islam, as so well represented by al-Qa'ida.
In fact, bin Ladin's many statements of reciprocity work both ways: "Shall a man be blamed for protecting his own?" "The road to safety begins by eliminating the aggression." "Reciprocal treatment is part of justice." "He who initiates aggression is the unjust one." "We believe that this right to defend oneself is the right of all human beings." "We want to defend our people and our land. That is why I say that if we don't get security, the Americans, too would not get security.
This is a simple formula that even an American child can understand. This is the formula of live and let live." Ironically, every single one of these statements actually justifies Western aggression against radical Islam.
Thus, the West is damned if it does, damned if it doesn't. If the West voluntarily concedes to the demands and grievances of al-Qa'ida, it will be perceived as a weakness or an admission of defeat, and will eventually only encourage an Offensive Jihad, when the time is right. If the West actually loses the current war, that too will provoke an offensive response, one seen as the natural next stage in the struggle toward the total victory of Islam. This is an important reminder to those many who, while condemning al-Qa'ida's methods, agree or sympathize with their grievances. The current battle at hand may ostensibly revolve around those grievances; but the forthcoming war will ultimately be about militarily establishing Islamic supremacy over the entire globe.
Some will discount this possibility as implausible since it seems so distant; but the wild vicissitudes of history are constantly proving otherwise.
 Though they are representative of the entire book, many of the more revealing remarks come from "Moderate Islam is a Prostration to the West," where Saudi bin Ladin, writing to fellow Saudis and "pouring out his heart," unrestrainedly discusses many topics related to Islam that are otherwise taboo, especially here in the West.
©1994-2013 The Middle East Forum E-mail: info (at) meforum (dot) org Daniel J. Pipes