Whenever Osama bin Laden addresses the West he always prefaces his message with the simple statement, "Peace to whoever follows guidance." What exactly is bin Laden's purpose, and what exactly are Americans and Europeans to understand by this simple statement?
Considering that this statement is always anchored in messages rife with grievances and accusations — which culminate into threats of reciprocal treatment — those addressed most likely assume that bin Laden's "guidance" is for the West to terminate hostilities against the Islamic world and thereby have peace for itself.
In fact, "payback" — you attack us, we attack you — is the over-arching theme of bin Laden's propaganda. Says bin Laden: "The time to settle accounts has arrived: just as you kill, so shall you be killed; just as you bomb, so shall you be bombed. Expect more to come." In context, then, the overall impression is that bin Laden is suggesting that whoever follows right guidance — i.e. whoever deals "justly" with Islam — will have peace. Live and let live.
Nonetheless, a long and bellicose history revolves around this seemingly peaceful proverb — one that those addressed are often quite unaware of. In fact, bin Laden is not the originator of this statement; it was first uttered by the prophet of Islam Muhammad, and had nothing to do with "payback" or a desire to live and let live.
After Muhammad had converted most of Arabia to Islam by the power of the sword, he set his sight on his neighbors including the Byzantine Christians to the north and west (known in the Arabic sources simply as "the Romans").
It is in this context of war and rumors of wars that bin Laden's oft-quoted proverb — "Peace to whoever follows guidance" — was first made. Addressing the Christian emperor, Heraclius, Muhammad sent the following terse message in the year 628:
In the name of Allah, the Compassionate, the Merciful. From Muhammad, the Messenger of Allah, to Heraclius, the Roman emperor. Peace to whoever follows guidance. To the point: Embrace Islam and you shall have peace [al-Tabari, Tarikh al-Rusul wa'l-Muluk 8:104-105].
In Arabic, "Embrace Islam and you shall have peace" is simply a two-word pun: Aslam taslam, which most literally means "Submit, have peace." In fact, perpetual warfare — that is, jihad — has been the true legacy of Muhammad's ominous missive to the Christian emperor. After Heraclius refused to submit to Islam, an infinite barrage of jihad campaigns erupted, for centuries, until Constantinople, the seat of Christendom, was finally conquered by and incorporated into the Abode of Islam in 1453.
In classical terminology, the "Abode of Islam" (Dar al-Islam) denotes all the regions that are governed under Islamic law. During the 800 years when Muhammad first made his demand of Heraclius and the subsequent fall of Constantinople, the Abode of Islam, through jihad, had grown into a vast realm from Spain to India. Constantinople, first attacked by Muslim hordes in the 7th century, was often seen as the "ultimate" prize — but by no means was it the final goal.
A fundamental tenet of Islam is that jihad must persevere until the entire globe is either converted to or at least governed by Islam. When the "Abode of War," the non-Islamic world, has been subsumed into the "Abode of Peace," then and only then will there be peace.
Indeed, the above scenario best explains the etymological relationship between the words "Islam" and "peace," a relationship often distorted through conflation. Even though "Islam" and the Arabic word for "peace" are formed from the same three-lettered root "s-l-m" — and thus are in fact related — only the word "Salam" means "peace." "Islam" means "submit" or "surrender." The connection between the two words, then, is clear: In Islam, peace is only achieved through submission — just as Muhammad proclaimed to Heraclius.
Even though bin Laden prudently omits the conclusion of Muhammad's message when addressing the West, he achieves three goals by constantly quoting the opening sentence, "Peace to whoever follows guidance":
1. Powerful allusions and imagery are established, earning bin Laden legitimacy among radical elements of the Islamic world. For now he is seen as walking in the footsteps of Muhammad, using his exact terminology and repeatedly addressing it to the spiritual descendants of Heraclius and Christian Rome in the West, where the age-old struggle between Islam and Infidelity, the Abode of Peace and the Abode of War, rages on. Indeed, by reiterating this symbolic sentence, bin Laden, far from murderous thug is transformed into pious Muslim leader — a modern day caliph of sorts, attacking his infidel neighbors in the name of Islam.
2. As with all of Muhammad's habits, his approach to infidels — first demanding that they submit, then attacking them if they refuse — has become standardized. In other words, before attacking infidels, Muslims, like their prophet, should first call on them to submit to Islam. So by evoking the opening sentence of Muhammad's paradigmatic message, bin Laden gains legitimacy for ensuing acts of terror.
3. Most importantly, he simultaneously fools the people of the West, who, more often than not assume that the "guidance" bin Laden is predicating peace on is simply a poetic way of saying "Don't start the fight." Yet the all-important historical and religious connotations — much acknowledged and appreciated in the Islamic world — are altogether missed in the West.
Thus, bin Laden satisfies both diametrically opposed audiences: the liberal West, which honors peace and cultural sensitivity, and therefore seeks the best interpretation of his apparently prudent "guidance" — live and let live — and the Islamists, for using the same uncompromising approach the Muslim prophet did whenever he called upon infidels to submit or else.